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Eight books on the Great Depression that challenge Ken Burns' 'The Roosevelts' documentary


The alternative history of the Great Depression.

If you have been watching Ken Burns' "The Roosevelts" documentary on PBS, you have likely heard only one voice at all critical of the Roosevelts, and in particular Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal policies: that of George Will.

Franklin Roosevelt during his tenure as as New York governor in 1932. (Image Source: PBS/Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library) Franklin Roosevelt during his tenure as as New York governor in 1932. (Image Source: PBS/Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library)

Yet there is a chorus of voices, as expressed through a vast array of literature challenging the historical perspective both theoretically and empirically that it was FDR's New Deal or even World War II that "got us out of the Great Depression," not to mention an out-of-control free market that got us into it in the first place.

Below is a list of eight such books that directly contradict the narrative put forth by Ken Burns relating to the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt and the economic history that preceded it, along with the largely unchallenged notion of the virtue of a powerful and interventionist executive more broadly.

1. America's Great Depression by Murray Rothbard

America's Great Depression

Rothbard lays out the causes of and responses to the Great Depression through the prism of the Austrian theory of the business cycle. While he largely focuses on the pre-FDR interventions of Hoover, these set the precedent for a vastly expanded set of policies as implemented by FDR under the New Deal, with far more damaging effects. In fact, each of the policies Rothbard advocated avoiding during an economic downturn were followed to a tee by FDR.

2. Depression, War, and Cold War: Challenging the Myths of Conflict and Prosperity by Robert Higgs

Depression, War, and Cold War

Robert Higgs has focused intently on the notions of regime uncertainty caused by arbitrary and/or unpredictable government intervention, and the so-called "ratchet effect," whereby each government intervention expands the power of the state, creating problems "solved" by even greater government usurpation of power. Higgs analyzes the Great Depression in this light, arguing that the arbitrary and onerous New Deal regulations that made the Depression "Great," and that it was only after government central planning was rolled back after the war that America's economy recovered.

3. FDR's Folly: How Roosevelt and His New Deal Prolonged the Great Depression by Jim Powell

FDR's Folly

Powell makes a comprehensive, fact-based case that Roosevelt's labyrinth of regulations crushed the economy, while persistent intervention made it worse and worse. His book is perhaps best summarized in the words of FDR's Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, who said:

"We have tried spending money. We are spending more than we have ever spent before and ihat does not work. I want to see this country prosperous. I want to see people get a job. I want to see people get enough to eat. We have never made good on our promises. I say after eight years of this Administration we have just as much unemployment as when we started. … And an enormous debt to boot!"

Read more on "FDR's Folly" here.

4. The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression (graphic edition: The Forgotten Man Graphic Edition: A New History of the Great Depression) by Amity Shlaes

The Forgotten Man

Amity Shlaes' "The Forgotten Man" -- the recently released graphic version of which we reviewed -- is a seminal piece of revisionist New Deal history, looking at the Great Depression through the prism of those Americans who were devastated by FDR's policies ("forgotten men"), such as the Schechter family of Brooklyn. Shlaes' book echoes Henry Hazlitt's "Economics in One Lesson," in showing the unintended economic consequences of central planning, and the "unseen" people most hurt by it. Additional reviews here and here.

Shlaes challenged Burns' documentary recently here.

5. New Deal or Raw Deal?: How FDR's Economic Legacy Has Damaged America by Burton Folsom

New Deal or Raw Deal

Burton Folsom writes an eminently readable critique of FDR's New Deal policies. More here.

6. The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Great Depression and the New Deal by Robert Murphy

The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Great Depression and the New Deal

Austrian economist Robert Murphy's book is not only a highly informative, but anecdote-filled entertaining short read on the causes of and reactions to the Great Depression. It is a substantive and easy to understand economic critique, which leaves the reader with a number of additional sources to explore.

7. The Great Depression by Lionel Robbins

The Great Depression

Writing in 1934, Lionel Robbins' book is an on-the-ground, real-time polemic on FDR's New Deal.

8. Salvos Against the New Deal by Garet Garett

Salvos Against the New Deal

Garet Garett was one of the most ardent critics of FDR throughout the 1930s. This collection includes his most scathing essays on the great damage done to the American people and more broadly the republican, limited government, liberty-based system to which America had to that point subscribed.


Note: The links to the books in this post will give you an option to elect to donate a percentage of the proceeds from the sale to a charity of your choice. Mercury One, the charity founded by TheBlaze’s Glenn Beck, is one of the options. Donations to Mercury One go towards efforts such as disaster relief, support for education, support for Israel and support for veterans and our military. You can read more about Amazon Smile and Mercury One here.

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