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The Great Depression

Events of the 1920s
The Roaring Twenties were an era dominated by Republican presidents: Warren Harding (1920-1923), Calvin Coolidge (1923-1929) and Herbert Hoover (1929-1933). Under their conservative economic philosophy of laissez-faire ("leave it alone"), markets were allowed to operate without government interference. Taxes and regulation were slashed dramatically, monopolies were allowed to form, and inequality of wealth and income reached record levels. The country was on the conservative's preferred gold standard, and the Federal Reserve was not allowed to significantly change the money supply.

The fact that the Great Depression began in 1929, then, on the Republicans' watch, is a great embarrassment to conservative economists. Many try to blame the worsening of the Depression on Hoover, for supposedly betraying the laissez-faire ideology. As the time line in the next section will show, however, almost all of Hoover's government action occurred during his last year in office, long after the worst of the Depression had hit. In fact, he was voted out of office for doing "too little too late." The only notable exception to his earlier idleness was the Smoot-Hawley tariff of 1930, whose minor impact we shall explore in more detail later on.

But much more importantly, the economy was clearly turning downward even before Hoover took office in 1929. Entire sectors of the economy were depressed throughout the decade, like agriculture, energy and mining. Even the two industries with the most spectacular growth -- construction and automobile manufacturing -- were contracting in the year before the stock market crash of 1929. About 600 banks a year were failing. Half the American people lived at or below the minimum subsistence level. By the time the stock market crashed, there was a major glut of goods on the market, with inventories three times their normal size.

The fact that all this occurred even before the first act of government intervention is a major refutation of laissez-faire ideology.

Pictures of the Great Depression

Causes of the Great Depression

The Great Depression
Black Thursday
Welfare State in Great Depression
Hunger in the Great Depression
Alternate Site
Education During the Great Depression

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since March 1998