This essay from Michael Knox Beran is among the more incisive reflections I have recently read on politics, especially within the constraints of the American regime. Beran argues that both right and left get Franklin Roosevelt wrong: FDR was less radical and more cautious than is generally believed.
Beran captures the essential challenge of the statesman: In a moment of crisis, he or she must act without definitive sense of what the correct action is or what all its consequences may be. Beran suggests that Roosevelt read the “temper of the country” better than some later scholars have claimed: The people wanted bold action to address the Depression, and there were ample reasons to believe radicalism would accelerate without it. At the same time, Roosevelt had a deep appreciation for self-government at at time when it was being called into question.
One small point on which I would press Beran. He writes:
What should a leader do when neither he nor any of his contemporaries knows the right answer to the question? For the conservative, prudence will often dictate doing nothing at all, or very little; reckless policy gambles might well make the problem worse or create different, unforeseen problems.
But prudence is not reducible to caution. It includes an appropriate degree of circumspection and, consequently, humility. But the virtue entails choosing the best means to achieve right ends. The best means will sometimes be bold. In that sense, inaction in the face of crisis is imprudent: Lincoln, in whose tradition Beran places FDR, was a prudent statesman.