By Arnold Kling
Many of us are grasping at historical analogies to the current financial crisis, and the 1930’s keep coming up. One of the lessons of the 1930’s is that in times of crisis people want strong leadership. In the 1930’s, that meant Mussolini (who took power a decade earlier), Tojo, Hitler, Stalin, Roosevelt, and Churchill (who took power in 1940).
I admit that I am a Churchill fan, but even his supporters have to concede that he was highly erratic and often dangerous. Roosevelt strikes me as all action, no thought. A few of his moves were right in my opinion, including the bank holiday and deposit insurance. In the short run, I think that going off the gold standard helped, although the long run consequences are more debatable. Many of his moves were wrong, including the NRA. Overall, he succeeded with the public emotionally, but it’s hard to view the economy’s performance under his leadership as anything but disastrous.
As for Mussolini, Tojo, Hitler, and Stalin, I don’t think there is much room for ambiguity in our evaluation.
My point is that strong leadership is bad, even though it is popular. I recently reminded readers of the bad consequences of the strong leadership of President Nixon’s Treasury Secretary John Connally. I think that the current strong leadership coming from Ben Bernanke and Henry Paulson will prove similarly unfortunate.
In the Presidential campaign, the candidate whose temperament is most conducive to strong leadership is John McCain. So far, Barack Obama comes across to me as cautious and cerebral. If I thought he would stay that way, then I would root for him in the election. However, my guess is that in the coming weeks his political instincts will lead him to remake his image into that of the strong, decisive leader that the public presumably craves.