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Back to the Land: Arthurdale, FDR's New Deal, and the Costs of Economic Planning Hardcover – April 5, 2011

4.3 out of 5 stars 9 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


“A compelling history of one of the government’s most radical, if largely forgotten, domestic programs. . . . Maloney has managed to finely balance the duties of the historian with the role of storyteller. Instead of being bogged down by the (impeccable) research that provides the book with so much valuable detail, he uses this plethora of information to strong effect, highlighting the human stories and the bigger picture impact that Arthurdale had on both the area and the country, so that the reader feels less like he is reading an economic history than a fascinating story with a profound historical lesson. The writing has a smoothness and ease that evades most books of similar historical depth. . . Perhaps even more importantly, the book reveals a great sympathy and understanding for the impoverished people who signed up to live in a government-funded town. . . By sticking to the astonishing historical record, Back To The Land avoids the pitfalls that plague the ideologues who too often direct the national debate. Ultimately, what makes the book so successful is that the story is able to speak for itself.”
— The Brooklyn Rail

“Capably reveals the certain costs of central planning, thus making Back to the Land an essential story for the political class to understand better. As for the many who view government spending as an economic good in its own right, Maloney's tale of the costly creation of Arthurdale, West Virginia (a town built by the federal government as a model for the nation) will surely give them pause. . . Back to the Land is an interesting book, and even better it's an important one for showing up close the bungling ways of government officials. . . skillfully reminds us why we shouldn't entrust our lives or treasure to those who work in government.”
— Real Clear Politics

“Enlightening, well-written, and very timely book. . . . In the year 2006, the mayor of the town of Tal Afar, Iraq, chastised the government that invaded his country — the government of FDR's heirs — by stating, "What you are doing is an experiment, and it isn't right to experiment on people." No it is not, which makes books like this one so important. Those who do not know and understand history are condemned to repeat it. . . Books like Maloney's that are factually accurate, economically consistent, and engagingly written can help to reverse this disturbing trend.
—Ludwig von Mises Institute

From the Inside Flap

While much of what has been written about the New Deal takes a bird's-eye view of the major trends and ideas that animated it, surprisingly little has been devoted to how those ideas played out in the lives of the people most immediately affected. Weaving firsthand accounts of those who lived through it with expert historical analysis, Back to the Land offers a uniquely intimate portrait of Arthurdale, West Virginia, one of the most ambitious of the many New Deal projects and, arguably, the most dramatic social engineering experiment ever undertaken in the United States.

Nestled among the Appalachian foothills of northern West Virginia's coal country, Arthurdale was the pet project of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt who, along with a group of idealists, was inspired by a mish-mash of foreign and homegrown collectivist ideals, all wrapped together under a "back-to-the-land" mania. The culmination of a long-cherished dream for population resettlement held by FDR and the circle of like-minded men he had gathered about him, the town was more a laboratory for testing progressive theories of government than an attempt to ameliorate the plight of those caught in the maelstrom of the Great Depression. Beset by abysmally poor planning, gargantuan cost overruns, and ideological infighting among its patrons, the Arthurdale experiment was doomed to failure from its inception.

While it was once the object of intense popular fascination, Arthurdale, designed to be the incubator of a "New Man," is now remembered only by a few historians and theorists, among whom opinions vary as to what it represented. For some it was, at best, a well-intentioned but terribly ill-conceived attempt to improve the lives of the destitute while to others, it was the embodiment of a political power grab that irrevocably changed America's social and political landscape.

No matter which side of the debate one falls on, it is fair to say that Back to the Land tells a fascinating story of the profound effect that the New Deal's economic policies had on the lives of people—both then and now.


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 300 pages
  • Publisher: Wiley; 1 edition (April 5, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0470610638
  • ISBN-13: 978-0470610633
  • Product Dimensions: 6.2 x 1 x 9.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,680,768 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is a well written account of how government 'help' leads to poor results for individuals. The town of Arthurdale was a (costly) social experiment run by Eleanor Roosevelt for poor (white only) miners in West Virginia during the Depression.

As the author states: 'because those who commanded the town to be built had "good intentions" ignores the fact that, with very few exceptions, people always have good intentions. It is results that matter.'. The financial costs of the Arthurdale experiment were large, but the costs to personal freedom were even larger. Grown men and women are told what to do like little children throughout this story. The author was balanced in the handling of the families and why they chose to participate. The choice was clear: stay where you are and go hungry or go to Arthurdale and have housing, food, and other items given to you. Easy choice, given the circumstances.

In short: this is an interesting topic that is relevant today, because human nature never changes. The writing style humanizes those involved in this project and their descendants. Watch out for people who want to tell you how to live your life and 'know what's good for you'.
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The worst thing about this book is that it's too much of a once-over-lightly - the reader is given some anecdotal evidence of why the results were as they were, and some specific results, but largely, it's an overview, telling us the results of what happened, and why those results could, in retrospect, have been predicted, but there's not nearly enough reporting on the actual events in Arthurdale. It's as if the author, having been charmed by the residents past and present, was reluctant to go into detail about the actual events of history, unless he was reporting about the administrators' actions.

As an example, the residents had to petition for space to hold a beer-and-oysters party, and that permission was denied. The reader is left to imagine the residents' reaction to that denial, or the reason the permission was denied. I expect that there were a plentitude of other incidents that were never mentioned that specifically, leading to the results and reactions that are reported in detail.

That said, it's a clear, engagingly-written overview, shining a light onto events that won't show up in any American History textbook, and is well worth the read. The author is very clear about this being a first book; the promise he shows here makes me interested in his second book, regardless of the topic.
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Maloney writes an in-depth, insightful book that really puts together the pieces of this part of history. The story demonstrates that government intervention, however well intentioned, invariably has unintended consequences for society. I await Maloney's next works with enthusiasm
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Everyone who wants to know how this country started down the wrong track needs to read this book. Maloney's description of the coal-mining towns of West Virginia in the early 20th century and how the American government took away freedoms under the guise of "helping" sounds chillingly familiar with what is happening in our own times. Everyone who cares about the USA, its future, or the future of its children and grandchildren should read this book. Maloney's research is in-depth, accurate, and, in many cases, first hand from those who survived FDR's New Deal and lived to tell about it. This book, although starkly true and sobering, is nonetheless a well-written, interesting, and informative read.
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A superb read about the new deal, but unlike other books that give us the broad picture, the writer Maloney walks us through the social experiment of the "New Deal." More important, he showed how big government touched the lives of those immediately affected.
Arthurdale, a town located in the Appalachian foothills of Northern West Virginia, was the pet project of the first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt. It was her attempt to create a utopian existence, all under the control and supervision of the Federal Government. Without demonizing the first lady's efforts at a well intentioned, but ill conceived attempt to improve the life of the destitute, the author recounts Arthurdale from 1933 to the present. Mrs. Roosevelt never abandoned her role as Arthurdale's guardian angel making her final pilgrimage in September 1960, vowing never to forget her extended family. It was a promise she kept.
While reading CJ Maloney's account of how poorly the Federal Government spent its money during the 1930s, one wonders how much things have improved.
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