Regular visitors to this forum have read on many occasions why government stimulus programs can’t work.

In the latest Commentary, Reuters economics columnist James Pethokoukis attempts to answer the question: Did Obama make it worse? Pethokoukis examines various scenarios, including a policy based on leaving the economy alone.

Of course, it would have been politically difficult for Obama and Bush to sit on their hands, even though the data certainly suggests the economy might be not a whit worse off if they had. But what if a libertarian politician like Ron Paul had been sworn in as 44th president? Imagine his first State of the Union address, the one in which he tells the American public that Washington won’t be coming to their rescue and that the moribund economy will, in time, bloom again and grow strong all on its own:

“My fellow Americans, I know times are tough and almost certainly about to get tougher. Yet isn’t it odd how we all welcome the inevitable changing seasons of nature, but we’re upset by the seasons of our economy? You see, in the garden of our economy, growth has its seasons. First comes spring and summer, but then we have fall and winter. And then we get spring and summer again. As long as the roots are not severed, all is well. And all will be well in the garden. So be patient. God bless America.”

Those were the words, more or less, of Chance, the simpleton gardener who becomes a presidential adviser in the 1979 political satire, Being There. But in fact, President Warren Harding pretty much adopted that organic approach during the mini-depression of 1920–21. That nasty little downturn has been blamed on a variety of culprits, including rapid demobilization after World War I and overly tight monetary policy by the nascent Federal Reserve. Unemployment surged to nearly 12 percent as the economy shrank by about 3 percent.

Rather than enact a major spending program, Harding responded by slashing government outlays by a fifth during 1921 and 1922, which is just what he had told voters he would do during the 1920 campaign. At the Republican convention that year, he promised to “strike at government borrowing…[and] attack the high cost of government with every energy and facility which attend Republican capacity.”

Mission accomplished. About that period, economist Benjamin Anderson wrote, “We took our losses, we readjusted our financial structure, we endured our depression, and in August 1921, we started up again.” And then we raced right into the Roaring Twenties.