Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Federal Bureaucracy

When Roosevelt took over as president of the United States in 1933, he initially did not look favorably upon large federal bureaucracies and expansive government programs and spending (Leuchtenberg 52). In that regard, he shared the values of his predecessor Herbert Hoover, who maintained his stance that government assistance would not serve the goals of the American people right up until he was voted out of office.

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Hoover believed in the resourcefulness of the free market; he believed the initiative of the private industry would pull the country out of the Great Depression, and viewed government bureaucracy as intrusive and politically suspect.

When Roosevelt took over, it was only through the combined efforts and urging of his trusted advisors – Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, advisor Harry Hopkins, and the Senators Robert Wagner, Robert La Follette, Jr., and Edward Costigan – that he began to push for a large federal bureaucracy (Leuchtenberg 52). Roosevelt and his team began to implement large changes as soon as they were in office; one of the first welcome changes that the administration put into effect was the repeal of the prohibition laws.

The bureaucracy was comprised of a number of programs designed to stimulate cash flow, generate consumer confidence and get people back to work. These programs included the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, the Civilian Conservation Corps Act, the Agricultural Adjustment Act, and the National Industrial Recovery Act. The administration necessary to oversee and manage these programs created one of the largest federal bureaucracies on record.

In his seminal study Roosevelt and the New Deal, scholar William E. Leuchtenberg places more focus on the limitations of the New Deal’s legislative changes, namely its failure to provide a viable solution to the Great Depression, its failure to solve the problem of widespread unemployment that persisted until the outbreak of World War II, its inability to adequately reform the economy, and its lack of success in achieving equality between the races in the United States (Leuchtenberg 53).

The major controversy with many of these acts and their attendant administrative arms was the direct involvement they allowed the government in the running of businesses. According to Weatherford, “legitimate claims to bureaucratic authority developed as government grew, highlighting the tension between college-based expertise…with its strong class bias in the 1930s…and the promise of upward mobility for long-time civil servants who had worked hard for promotion” (468).

The National Industrial Recovery Act, for example, permitted industries and businesses to take on monopolistic price-fixing activities – which had previously been punishable by law – to dissuade manufacturers from lowering their prices in order to force their competitors into bankruptcy. The National Industrial Recovery Act legislation also supported the right of workers to create a union and to engage in collective bargaining to acquire higher wages and improved conditions at their workplaces.

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One of the most well-known and beneficial programs implemented by the New Deal was the WPA or Works Progress Administration. This program created over a quarter of a million projects, and during the first year and a half of the New Deal’s implementation, five million formerly unemployed individuals had found work and were earning money. The WPA projects were tailored to support public works such as the construction of government buildings such as administrative offices, as well as the construction of bridges and roads.

The WPA also created jobs for artists: writers were hired to interview local town elders and create rural histories, while actors and musicians found work creating live theater and musical performances for the townspeople in far-flung rural locations, for whom live performances of any kind were a rare treat.

Criticism of the large bureaucracies created by the New Dealers emanated from liberal corners as well as conservative ones. As Leuchtenberg explains, “there is no basic distinction between the New Left and the Old Left in interpreting the New Deal. All of us who were raised in the Roosevelt era and lived through the intellectual arguments of the 1940s grappled with the Marxist critique of the New Deal…No New Left critic has damned the New Deal with more abandon than the Old Marxists” (232).

While the Public Works Administration and the Works Progress Administration did not succeed in providing unemployment relief for everyone, Leuchtenberg admits that “Roosevelt’s works program marked a bold departure…by any standard, it was an impressive achievement” (129). The Public Works Administration in particular successfully created schools, hospitals in remote areas of the country, and new airports and shipping ports in various states (Leuchtenberg 133)

Roosevelt and his team justified the growth in government by contextualizing it as a means to boost business profits; the increase in profit would lead to more work for the over 13 million Americans unemployed at the time, which, in turn, would encourage more consumers to spend their money, foster trust in the banking system, and bring the economy back to life. During his Fireside Chat in May 1933, wherein Roosevelt addressed the American people via a radio message, Roosevelt excused the large government on the basis that these were emergency measure designed to get people working:

First, we are giving the opportunity of employment to one-quarter of a million of the unemployed, especially the young men who have dependents, to go into the forestry and flood prevention work. This is a big task because it means feeding, clothing, and caring for nearly twice as many men as we have in the regular army itself. In creating this civilian conservation corps, we are killing two birds with one stone. We are clearly enhancing the value of our natural resources, and second, we are relieving an appreciable amount of actual distress (Roosevelt 1).

The centralized economic planning that shaped the foundation of Roosevelt’s New Deal eventually came under pressure when Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek published The Road to Serfdom and made the claim that the form of economic planning conducted by a centralized bureaucracy was socialism (Hayek 76). Socialism, Hayek argued, invariably led to totalitarianism, the form of government demonstrated by the Soviet Union, wherein all facets of an individual’s life become secondary to the will and authority of an all-powerful government, and the form of government espoused by the New Dealers – specifically those that expanded bureaucratic control of the economy – was essentially irreconcilable with the values of a democracy (Hayek 78).

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Hayek audaciously inferred that the United States could itself become a totalitarian regime unless the country restricted government control of the economies, minimized its bureaucracy, and endorsed the unregulated, free-market economy that had created it (Hayek 78).

Works Cited

Hayek, Friedrich A. The Road to Serfdom: A Classic Warning Against the Dangers to Freedom Inherent in Social Planning. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976. Print.

Leuchtenberg , William E. Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal. New York: Harper Collins, 2009. Print.

Roosevelt, Franklin D. “Fireside Chat Outlining the New Deal.” National Archives, n.d. Web.

Weatherford, M. Stephen. “FDR and the Modern Presidency: Leadership and Legacy.” American Political Science Review 92.2 (1998): 467-471. Web.

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