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Trifle with the government? Just ask Jacob Maged

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By George F. Will
Thursday, September 16, 2010

JERSEY CITY

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The crime scene at 138 Griffith St. has changed in 76 years. Today it is a barber shop. In 1934, it was a tailoring and cleaning establishment owned and run by Jacob Maged, 49.

With his responsibilities as a father of four, Maged should have shunned a life of crime. Instead, he advertised his criminal activity with a placard in his shop window, promising to press men's suits for 35 cents. This he did, even though President Franklin Roosevelt's New Dealers, who knew an amazing number of things -- his economic aides were not called a "Brains Trust" for nothing -- knew that the proper price for pressing a man's suit was 40 cents.

The National Recovery Administration was an administrative mechanism for the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933, which envisioned regulating the economy back to health by using, among other things, codes of fair competition. The theory was that by promoting the cartelization of labor by encouraging unions, and the cartelization of industries by codes that would inhibit competition, prices would be propped up and prosperity would return.

Soon there were more than 500 NRA codes covering the manufacture of products from lightning rods to dog leashes to women's corsets. Amity Shlaes, in "The Forgotten Man," her history of the New Deal, reports that the NRA "generated more paper than the entire legislative output of the federal government since 1789." Businesses were asked to display the Blue Eagle, an emblem signifying participation in the NRA. Gen. Hugh "Iron Pants" Johnson, an admirer of Mussolini who headed the NRA, declared, "May God have mercy on the man or group of men who attempt to trifle with this bird."

Maged trifled by his 5-cent violation of New Jersey's "tailors' code," written in conjunction with the NRA. On April 20, 1934, he was fined $100 -- serious money when the average family income was about $1,500 -- and sentenced to 30 days in jail. The New York Times reported that Maged "was only vaguely aware of the existence of a code." Not that such ignorance was forgivable. It is every citizen's duty to stay up late at night, if necessary, reading the fine print about the government's multiplying mandates.

"In court yesterday," the Times reported, "he stood as if in a trance when sentence was pronounced. He hoped that it was a joke." Maged was an immigrant from Poland, which in the Cold War would become familiar with the concept of "economic crimes" and the use of criminal law for the "re-education" of deviationists.

Actually, his sentence was a judicial jest. After Maged spent three days in jail, the judge canceled the rest of his sentence, remitted the fine and, according to the Times, "gave him a little lecture on the importance of cooperation as opposed to individualism." The judge emphasized that people "should uphold the president . . . and General Johnson" in their struggle against -- among other miscreants -- "price cutters." Then, like a feudal lord granting a dispensation to a serf, the judge promised to have Maged "measure me for a new suit."

Maged, suitably broken to the saddle of government, removed from his shop window the placard advertising 35-cent pressings and replaced it with a Blue Eagle. "Maged," reported the Times, "if not quite so ruggedly individualistic as formerly, was a free man once more." So that is freedom -- embracing, under coercion, a government propaganda symbol.

Today, as 76 years ago, economic recovery is much on the mind of the government, which is busy as a beaver -- sending another $26 billion to public employees, proposing an additional $50 billion for "infrastructure" -- as it orchestrates Recovery Summer to an appropriate climax. But at least today's government is agnostic about the proper price for cleaning a suit.

In 1937, FDR asked in his second inaugural address for "unimagined power" to enforce "proper subordination" of private interests to public authority. The biggest industrial collapse in American history occurred eight years after the stock market crash of 1929, and nearly five years into the New Deal, in . . . 1937.

Maged died here of cancer on March 31, 1939. He was 54. He remains a cautionary example of the wages of sin, understood by the progressives of his day as insubordination toward government that knows everything. The NRA lives on, sort of, in this Milton Friedman observation: Pick at random any three letters from the alphabet, put them in any order, and you will have an acronym designating a federal agency we can do without.

georgewill@washpost.com


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