At the risk of minimizing one of the true disasters of American history, I think many of us have a distorted picture of what life was like during the (government-created) Great Depression. Entitlement statists have used the Depression to illustrate the evils of “unbridled” capitalism, and in the process, they not only evaded statism’s culpability for the crisis, but portrayed the crisis to be far worse than it actually was.
I got to thinking about this after reading an interesting quote from one of Ayn Rand’s earliest interviews. Here’s what she said in 1936:
In these United States of ours, we working women may fear we will lose our jobs. That is one fear we all have, to some degree at any rate. But when the job is gone, we don’t feel at the end of our resources. We still can go out and get another. I know this well, for in my first years in this country I worked as a waitress, as a saleswoman from door to door, as an assistant wardrobe women in Hollywood, as a scenario writer, as a worker at a bewildering number of jobs. And when fired, I always landed somewhere else, eventually.
But in Russia the terrific fear of the young girl worker is the fear of losing her job. Once it is gone, it is almost impossible for her to get another job, since under the collectivist state, the government is the only employer. And if the government has discharged you, it is rather unreasonable to expect the same boss to take you back again. The same boss seldom does.
In a similar vein, historian Clarence Carson points out, “most peoples of the world if placed in the 1930s would have been struck rather by the prosperity than the poverty.” What made the Depression so devastating was the contrast between the riches (and security) industrial capitalism had created, and the prospect of stagnation and mass unemployment. For the non-capitalist world, America remained a land of riches. According to Carson:
When the movie The Grapes of Wrath, which depicted the story of a migrant family from Oklahoma in its move to California, was shown in [Communist] Russia, many were impressed not with the deprivation of the Joad family but by the fact that they own a car.
The point isn’t just that Depression-era America was better than any-era Communist Russia. As Carson points out, most people were working, and went on with life, “though there were some alterations in the rhythms and the pace.” He gives a long list of examples, from a bestseller list which was strikingly apolitical and non-economic in concern, to improved cars, to the rise of Big Band swing, and a golden age of movies, including Gone With the Wind. This was not a decade filled with nothing masses of starving Americans. It was a rocky decade, very painful for some, anxiety-tainted for many, but largely manageable for most.
Incidentally, as far as I can tell, the Depression never warrants so much as a mention in Rand’s (published) letters and journals from the thirties. Make of that what you will.