Recasting Roosevelt’s New Deal

Then he gets up, firmly
shuts the door, and--quietly, 
into the ear:
‘In 1921 or 22, 
 Gorky admitted to me sadly
 what Lenin had told him in strict confidence:
 “The experiment has failed.”’
 Grateful to Shkolvsky
 for placing such trust in me,
 I bowed to him in silence.
 We both remained silent.
 Without a word, he raised 
 one finger to his mouth
 and looked at me sternly. 
                  “Victor Borisovich Shklovsky” by Lev Ozerov, translated by Boris Dralyuk


There is the view that the unknown-unknowns of the 1930’s Depression in the US caused such widespread dread and fear that large-scale social experimentation, like the Social Security program, became possible (the Roosevelt administration’s “New Deal”)

I suggest what looks like large-scale experimentation in the midst of unknown unknowns was, in part, policymakers probing a set of known unknowns (i.e., known uncertainties).


Why does this matter?

Because the primary fears said to have prompted the New Deal would have produced in control room operators of society’s core infrastructures (1) the avoidance of systemwide experimentation in the midst of unknown unknowns by means of choosing (2) to operate the system in the midst of uncertainties about probabilities or consequences they knew something about and about which they could live with.


It’s been argued that one great fear giving rise to the New Deal revolved around deep worries about whether the leading liberal democracies could compete successfully with totalitarian dictatorships. Bluntly: Does resorting to presidential emergency declarations in dire times still leave us a liberal democracy or tip us well into rule by dictatorship?

Yet emergencies were far from unchartered in the US, and not just in terms of Abraham Lincoln’s executive actions during the US Civil War. The earlier Federalists were also worried about emergencies, and the accommodation they made was that, yes, presidential emergency powers may be needed in extraordinary times, but these would not serve as precedent for governance thereafter.

From this vantage point, the New Deal looks like managing against having to experiment in unknown unknowns by choosing among known uncertainties to be put up with though disliked. Choosing among known uncertainties buffered against having to cope with the more radical unknowability experienced in other countries.

Principal sources

C. Fatovic, (2009). Outside the Law: Emergency and Executive Power. Baltimore:
Johns Hopkins University Press.

I. Katznelson (2013). Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time. Liveright Publishing Corporation. W.W. Norton & Company: New York, NY.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s