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Canada, Roosevelt and the New Deal : Canadian attitudes to reform in relation to the American reform experiments of the 1930's McAndrew, William James

Abstract

The decade of the 1930's was one of dislocation, uncertainty and change. Examples of revolution and reaction were much in evidence. The disruption of the international economic system engendered by the Great Depression brought into question the validity of the premises and assumptions on which liberal capitalism was based. Throughout the world societies attempted to devise appropriate policies to cope with the social, economic and political crisis of the depression. The core of the problem lay in the need to locate a new balance between traditional liberal individualist values and the collective needs of societies. Establishing a more efficient and equitable balance between individualist and collectivist social norms entailed defining new roles for government. The exercise of positive government, however, posed problems. They were especially acute when the authority of the state was employed to restrict economic behaviour in the familiar open market-place. Taken to logical extremes, government direction, regulation and control of economic affairs led to fascism or communism. However between the extremes of laissez-faire individualism and full state control lay a number of more moderate alternatives which called for fundamental institutional reforms of the capitalist economic system. One of the most notable attempts to devise a middle, 'third way’ between the extremes was that of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal. The American New Deal experiments were of particular interest to Canada. Because of the increasing closeness and complexity of Canada's American relationship by the 1930's, decisions taken in Washington, particularly in the economic sphere, affected Canada in a variety of ways. Moreover, the reform aspects of the New Deal provided a model of change which conceivably could prove relevant to Canada. Consequently Canadians were close observers of the New Deal as it evolved after Roosevelt's election in 1932. However much Canadians were interested in Roosevelt's New Deal, his reform model was not generally accepted in Canada. Although some provinces did introduce legislation similar to some New Deal measures, there was no national response comparable to the American reform program. In Canada the dominant reaction to the problems presented by the depression was to reject reform and avoid change. The need for positive government action at the national level was not accepted. Rather, the primary Canadian reaction was to emphasize the need to promote economic recovery through traditional means, reject concepts of economic planning, and avoid the exercise of positive government intervention in the economy. Canadians, at least those in leadership roles, looked to past experience, to customary laissez-faire methods, rather than towards reform and change. Two principal reasons were advanced to justify the exclusion of the need for change. The first was that the vulnerability of the Canadian economy, stemming from its dependence on foreign markets and capital, effectively precluded the possibility of promoting major reforms. Buttressing this tangible reason was a structure of traditional social attitudes which rejected reform because its collectivist implications violated familiar standards of liberal, individualistic, laissez-faire capitalism.

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