This is just the germ of a thought I’m developing; please bear with me while I’ll work on fleshing it out over time.
A number of books I’ve been reading (or am currently reading), including Chris Anderson’s “The Long Tail”, Kevin Kelly’s “Out of Control” and James Surowiecki’s “The Wisdom of Crowds”, all eminently readable, have contributed to the perhaps not entirely new thought that the long-term trend of humanity is away from top-down control and stewardship and towards individual freedom and self-determination. In this view, so-called progressives and socialists, who preach the power of the state (more precisely, of individuals in whom the powers of the state are vested) to direct the fortunes of nations and peoples, are at best blocking progress and at worst trying to turn back the clock. Conversely, much maligned proponents of laissez-faire are at the vanguard of progress, as they trust in the ability of complex systems to grow, prosper, and right themselves after imbalances.
Arguably, the greatest burst of productivity occurred in the U.S. over the time from the end of the so-called Civil War until the onset of the so-called Great Depression, coinciding with presidential leadership that was largely content with its constitutional role and did not greatly interfere with the economy. And while occasional busts interrupted the boom, the overall expansion was unprecedented. Never was neglect more benign than in the case of presidents from Grant to Coolidge (with the exception of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson).
As Robert Higgs has pointed out, the last severe recession to be met with presidential laissez-faire occurred in 1920/21, and without governmental interference to speak of, the expansion had resumed and accelerated by 1923.
With the onset of the Great Depression, a sea change occurred in what I am now convinced is a backward direction. Suspicious of markets (and, ultimately, of the self-governing ability of the people), and ready to pounce at the slightest indication of their “failure”, statist planners took over, appropriating the term “progressive” while actually blocking and repealing progress. Calvin Coolidge knew and is said to have expressed that the tide was turning against everything he stood for.
(to be updated and linked to relevant articles)