Sunday, May 3, 1936

Book-Page Editorial

Liberty League Casts The First Stone


Site ed. note: This editorial demonstrates Cash's continuing balanced social critique: he wished to educate rather than simply embrace in whole the New Deal and sing with unrelenting zest "Happy days are here again..." or to resolve at the other extreme to throw it out in its entirety. It also demonstrates Cash's insistence on intellectual integrity and adherence to the constitutional process even when not politically expedient for causes which he supported. When it came to push or shove, however, Cash believed Roosevelt had the better of the long-term argument and supported it over the alternatives. (See "Memo: WJC to JED--Roosevelt vs. Willkie", October 13, 1940) The article below points out, however, what was true throughout the country at the time and which is often lost in history's quick recounting of it--that there were large canyons between supporters of the New Deal and its partial detractors and those in complete opposition, and that many of the programs were frighteningly flawed in their practice and deficient in their beneficial effects. Cash, however, never forgot that the harsh times left over from the reckless speculation and greed of the Twenties required much experimentation to get the country back on its feet, experimentation which Herbert Hoover had been loathe to risk to the abysmal detriment of the country. He was also quick to remind readers that the worst threat on the horizon was, as he states below, the threat of "economic despotism".

I have this week been reading a pamphlet of the American Liberty League. It is called "Democratic Despotism". Its author is Raoul E. Desvernine, a corporation and banking lawyer of New York, a member of the executive committee of the league, and, according to the statement on the jacket, a Democrat. It runs to 243 pages and was published last Monday by Dodd, Mead and Company of New York at $2.00.

Mr. Desvernine's argument is broadly the standard argument of the Leaguers--that the New Deal Administration at Washington is on a road which is essentially that already taken by the Fascists and the Nazis, the Communists and the Kemalists, of Europe and Asia--that it is engorging and centralizing power at a terrific rate--striking down and destroying the whole American system of constitutional liberty and inalienable civil rights--and carrying us headlong to the Totalitarian State and political despotism.

Mr. Desvernine, like all his fellow alarmists of the League, exaggerates. He reads likeness where, in sober fact, there is no shadow of likeness. And he is not always too scrupulous in his manipulation of fact and quotation. It is not really true that the philosophy of the New Deal is, as a whole, clearly and overtly of a piece with that of Stalin or Mussolini. The gravest charge that can be made against it, indeed, is that it is hopelessly confused, and that nobody on earth can quite make out what it is or where it is heading.

For all that, it may as well be confessed that Mr. Desvernine's argument has a deal of sense in it--that, so far as it goes, it is more than half true. Power is plainly being continually centralized in Washington and often by immensely dubious means. I hold myself that it is just as rational and fair to pay a tariff to a farmer in North Carolina or Nebraska as to a manufacturer in Pennsylvania. And I think the conservation of the soil an even more sensible idea than the conservation of forests. But the Supreme Court of the United States has ruled that the central government cannot constitutionally pay the tariff to the farmer. And the conservation program at present in use, is, as everyone knows, not really a soil conservation program at all but a device for circumventing that ruling, and paying the tariff to the farmer anyhow.

I think the ruling was a Bourbon ruling. I dislike it as much as any of the dissenting justices disliked it. I think it ought to be changed. But within the constitutional frame, there is only one honest and permissible way to change it: by the passage of a constitutional amendment empowering the central government to pay such a tariff. And to change it as it has been changed, to get around it by what is essentially only a piece of sorry trickery, is a gross and perilous usurpation of power.

Add to that--to the precedent thus set--the spectacle of a servile congress surrendering its will wholly to that of the executive; add again the memory of the late NRA; add once more the obvious fact that the thing called the WPA is not only odoriferous--and phoney--but is also potentially a mighty Fascist legion for whoever shall will to use it so--add all this together, and it is manifest that Mr. Desvernine is not arguing utterly through his hat. It is manifest to anyone who knows anything about the past that the drift is ominous--that we actually are in some considerable danger of falling eventually under political despotism.

Nevertheless--. There is something else here which Mr. Desvernine plainly declines to consider, but which must be considered in spite of all. I mean the fact that if we are in danger of falling under political despotism, we are so finally because another danger, certainly equally as great and far more immediately manifest is driving hard upon us: the danger, that is, that we shall fall wholly under a private economic despotism.

Perhaps, that is an exaggeration. Yet, it is undeniable that the concentration of power is tremendous. And no one can well deny that the very existence of that power is dangerous. Moreover, and what is more to our point still, there is abundant evidence that many of the holders of this dangerous power have already long since begun to employ it precisely for the suppression of those constitutional guarantees and rights which Mr. Desvernine fears are doomed to go down under the attack of government. Did Mr Desvernine never hear of the notorious Pennsylvania Coal and Iron Police--a private army maintained in his Keystone State by some of his fellow Liberty Leaguers--did he never look into the record and find out what happens when these gentle coppers turn their attention to anybody rash enough to question the will of the Liberty Leaguers who pay them? Did he never inquire into what happens to a labor organizer so foolish as to attempt the exercise of his "inalienable constitutional rights" in such home towns of Liberty Leaguers as Wilmington, Del., or Gary, Ind., or Detroit, Mich., or Bethlehem, Pa.?

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