Public Works- How Well Did Government Intervention Work? Could The Private Sector Have Done It Better?

The economic collapse in 1928 left the United States close to ruin. Jobs didn’t come easily, and when they did, workers often found themselves over worked, under paid, and without viable options for social and economic upward mobility. The same can be said for Nazi Germany. Suffering both from the crushing debt accumulated after the First World War and the global effects of the American economic collapse, the German people found themselves in a similar situation to the Americans. A liberal approach to economic stimulation (fair competition among corporations) where the free market would take control and hopefully ‘right the ship’ of both floundering countries did not suit Hitler or Roosevelt. Instead, both men funneled government money, time, and resources into major infrastructure building programs. Schivelbusch highlights two of these programs: the Tennessee Valley Authority in the United States, and The Autobhan in Germany. Both of these programs brought significant economic stimulation in terms of job creation, infrastructure development, and efficient land usage. They also instilled national pride.

President Roosevelt created the Tennessee Valley Authority in 1933 with the aim to redevelop 39,000 square miles of land that boasted an average median per capita income 50% lower than the national average. ((Schivelbusch, Wolfgang. “Public Works” in Three New Deals, 153-154 New York: Picador, 2006.)) The government, in effect, took control of the rivers, dams, and other infrastructure created in the area, which it in turn re-developed into lakes, rivers, and usable waterways for “commerce that now nourish their business enterprises.” ((Schivelbusch, “Public Works”, 159.)).  Doesn’t sound like a terrible deal. A poor, decrepit area gets a government funded revitalization which puts millions to work building dams and creating man-made lakes. The bigger point, however, which Schivelbusch points out, is that it showed Democracy’s ability to “surpass totalitarianism’s achievements in the realm of planning.” ((Schivelbusch, “Public Works”, 162)). This flex of “democratic muscle” created a greater sense of national pride, which contributed to the rising morale of the American people as a whole in the post depression era.

The German Autobahn provided a “symbolic salvation” ((Schivelbusch, “Public Works”, 169)) for the National Socialist party. As Schivelbusch points out, much like Roosevelt, Hitler put the reputation and legitimacy of his regime in a grandiose project meant to revitalize both the economy and national pride of his people. What some might call a major flaw in Hitler’s plan, however, arguably made his achievement greater. Hitler ordered the construction of the Autobahn in 1933, a year in which the automobile existed as more of a novelty to the German people rather than an every day convenience (or perhaps a hassle) as it did to the Americans. Despite this, the creation of the Autobahn, much like the revitalization of the Tennessee Valley, prompted an economic boom- in 1938, the Volkswagen came into being. Hitler’s Autobahn, which could be seen as a highway to nowhere, ended up stimulating the German automotive industry; to paraphrase a voice heard in a cornfield in Iowa, “since he built it, they came.”

The Autobahn and the Tennessee Valley redevelopment both provided massive economic stimulation, national pride, and long term industry revitalization. Which of these endeavors did more for their respective country? Did Hitler’s highway building (and eventual creation of a booming automotive industry) do more to revitalize Germany than Roosevelt’s redevelopment of the Tennessee Valley? Or, had Hitler and Roosevelt relied on a liberal, capitalist approach to the crisis, would either leader have seen similar success? Could the private sector of either the United States or Germany breathe life back into the economy of each state as the government did?


Indefinite Perfection

Condorcet, in his Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind, argued that mankind progressed at a continuous rate toward perfection. His philosophy for perfection was guided by his own reason and science. Condorcet was adverse toward religion and believed that reason was the sole basis for man’s ability to progress, become virtuous, and better society. He saw man’s ability to be limitless and unconstrained by nature, and concluded, “that this perfectibility of man is truly indefinite.” He observed that society had gone through many stages and periods of error and false theories regarding the rights of man. This resulted from the constraints of tyranny from monarchs and hypocrisy from priests and the church. However, Condorcet revealed the single truth, “that man is a sentient being, capable of reasoning of acquiring moral ideas.” In other words, man has the ability to reason, think on his own, and become enlightened. From the single truth, Condorcet advocated liberalism where man possessed inalienable rights of liberty. He believed the future condition would be determined by, “the abolition of inequality between nations, the progress of equality within each nation, and the true perfection of mankind.” Condorcet had a very practical and scientific view of the future of the human condition, a society shaped by history that would reflect the progress of the human mind.

Condorcet’s views on human progress and liberalism reflect many of the past readings we studied this year, such as Locke, Kant, and Smith, who agree that man is inherently good. Condorcet’s philosophy is still held in society today. It is amazing that Condorcet published his thoughts as a liberal activist during the French Revolution, and today, our society still strives for the same basic tenets of equality of nations, equality of class, and perfection of mankind. It is clear to me that Condorcet was correct when he said that continual progress toward perfection is indefinite.

Early Nazi Platform: Liberalism and Socialism?

In 1920 the newly created Nazi party had to create a platform to stand for. To do so they wrote a 25 point program conveying their goals and demands that they saw as necessary to the future of Germany. The program expressed many changes for the German people, forefront among them ideas of socialism, expansionism, statism, and racism. In our discussion of the modern state I see another great step forward from fascism with the German extreme nationalism in this document.

The in all regards the platform attempts to build a stronger nation by homogenizing the population and enforcing strict centralized power both economically and politically. The Nazis want to create a single race of Germans (point 4) without the Jewish and “non German” people (points 4, 7, 8), and enforced by politically only appointing citizens (point 6). With a plan to have a new racial pure Germany they next sought to expand militarily shedding of the shackles of the 1919 treaty, and create a strong central government (points 1, 2, 3). All these show a direct attempt to instill a modern state in Germany with state control and a homogeneous society retaining a national identity.

These ideas are similar to many other documents of the time in regards to the modern state. The futurists and Mussolini’s definition of fascism obviously set much of the foundations for the political enlargements and conservative aggressiveness seen in the program. Works on eugenics influenced Hitler’s ideas about the Nazi’s goals. Even the hated Marxist Leninist communist doctrine is seen in the economic points about ensuring employment and working for the state.

Personally what I found most interesting was point 9 “All citizens must have equal rights and obligations”. This has the classic liberalist idea of rights, common in modern democracies and the trappings of socialist doctrine with obligations. This sounded very contradictory; can liberalism and socialism work together with their desired effect? By definition can one have rights and obligations? I think that the Nazis were able to make their system effective but to say that citizens had equal rights when many in the country lived in fear, had to share wealth, and the state tried to control everything that a true attempt at liberalism is possible.