During the period 1929 - 1933, the United States economy — probably the closest economy to pure laissez-faire capitalism possible in ordinary reality — collapsed in the Great Depression, dragging down the economy of the rest of the world. The Great Depression was caused by overproduction, the existence of "too much" wealth and "too much" productive capability. How the economy and government should have responded is a matter of no small controversy, but the root cause of overproduction is not at issue.
Depressions were common in the 19th century: There were major depressions in 1893 and 1873 (sometimes combined into the Long Depression).
It's debatable whether the New Deal, the economic and social reforms implemented by Franklin D. Roosevelt, would have by themselves stabilized the economy. The production of war materials for World War II certainly alleviated overproduction, and the necessity of rebuilding half the Western World (China and the Soviet Union were left to their own devices) made overproduction irrelevant.
Still, the social and economic reforms implemented by Roosevelt were modest and reasonable. Social Security is the keystone of the New Deal, is simply the idea that no one at all, regardless of their wisdom or intelligence, should go hungry in their old age after a lifetime of work.
Other notable achievements of the New Deal that were preserved or extended (notably by Lyndon Johnson's Great Society) in the postwar economy were laws and regulations regarding workplace safety (OSHA), product safety, fairness in employment (EEOC), and environmental protection (EPA).
No person with an ordinary moral sense should oppose these measures in principle. There is room for great disagreement in how these principles should be implemented, but no one should oppose in principle the idea that no one deserves to starve in his old age. No one should oppose in principle the idea that every child should receive sufficient education to participate fully in a democratic society. No one should oppose in principle the idea that everyone should expect a safe workplace as a matter of course. No one should oppose in principle that everyone should expect that the products they buy, the air they breathe and the water they drink have been made safe to the best of our ability.
Likewise, because it is simply true — a fact about the world — Thucydides observation that "right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power," no one should oppose in principle that those who labor in any enterprise should have sufficient power to negotiate at the very least as equals the terms and conditions of their employment with the owners of that enterprise.
That these ideas are "socialist" is contentious. Socialist Norman Thomas wryly noted that, "Roosevelt did not carry out the Socialist platform, unless he carried it out on a stretcher." But it is worth observing that, after more than a century, laissez-faire capitalism did not appear even close to implementing any of Roosevelt's reforms.
I have seen in my lifetime a visceral hostility to even these modest and patently moral reforms, and a concerted effort to destroy them, using the worst kind of lying propaganda attributed to (projected on?) the worst demonization of communism. The goal of removing "government interference" in business has been directly about destroying these reforms. If the most fundamental security of simply not starving in old age does not come about because of laissez-faire capitalism, then it is not worth having and must be destroyed.
We must lay the credit or blame for this multi-generational effort at the feet of Ayn Rand and the 1957 publication of Atlas Shrugged. (I'll write more on Atlas Shrugged later.) Although her direct disciples are few, the themes of this book — absent, of course, the iron moral discipline of Rand's ideal capitalists — run through the conservative movement even to this day. More importantly, the popularity of her work in the general public have laid the groundwork for the conservatives' continued success.
Thomas Frank documents this generational effort in his recent book The Wrecking Crew. It is very important to understand that the Bush administration is not a fluke, it is not an aberration, it is the culmination of a decades-long conservative agenda.
It is also important to understand that the Democratic party is part of this agenda, whether by design or simple stupidity and cowardice. They are the Colmes to the Republican's Hannity: A dummy propped-up to preserve the illusion of an adversarial process; a foil to be "convinced" by the conservatives' "superior" arguments.
Conservatives have been bent for five decades on destroying the most modest reforms of Roosevelt and Johnson. They are winning, and they will continue to win until these reforms have been utterly destroyed. If they are correct, we will see an age of unequaled prosperity; but if they are incorrect, we will see an age of suffering that will rival the Dark Ages in its tyranny and oppression.
And they are indeed incorrect. Were they correct, the conservatives would not take as their source narrative Rand's ludicrously implausible and internally contradictory dystopia. Were they correct, they would not take as the center of their narrative the impossible concept of the truly free market, nor would they redefine "freedom" as "freedom for themselves" and no others. Were they correct, they would not have made a devil's bargain with religious authoritarians. Were they correct, they would not scapegoat the powerless — racial minorities, undocumented immigrants, homosexuals and atheists — and blatantly and explicitly support the enslavement and oppression of women, half the human race. Were they correct, they would permit, nay demand, that their supposedly "free" market had every possible resource available to it, and not exclude 90% of the human race from full participation.
They are not correct. They are opposed not only to the moderate and morally obvious reforms of Roosevelt and Johnson, but also to the notion of the consumer economy itself: Not just Wal-Mart but even high-end retailers are feeling the effects of the decreasing wealth of not just ordinary working Americans but also the managerial-professional class.
And the consumer economy is the last, best effort of capitalism to save itself from "collectivism". Buy off the middle and lower classes with not just trinkets but full grocery stores, and they will not object to the obscene consumption of the ultra-rich. The problem is that a full belly and a big screen TV convinces the working person that he has a right to those things. (Everyone constructs a moral narrative that justifies as his deserts what he has, and, for the ambitious, what he wants.)
The welfare class supports the working class. The working class supports the managerial-professional class, who supports the "petite bourgeoisie", the small-business owners. Destroy the bottom and you destroy the foundation of economic society, and everything collapses to the bottom, leaving only the ultra-wealthy (and only a fraction of them) as the sole arbiters of value. We will, inevitably, be reduced to a third-world economy: A handful of ultra-wealthy, those who serve them directly, and slaves worked to death to feed this handful and their minions.
This outcome is (barring only some worse disaster) inevitable. Five decades of concerted effort, with only token opposition, have gained an inexorable momentum. Worse yet, technology has given us (unlike Hitler) the means to implement a final solution. When all save a few hundred million have no value whatsoever to the handful of ultra-wealthy — who will become the sole arbiters of value — it will be only a failure of will that will prevent the extermination of the billions of the superfluous.
Barack Obama — even if he were elected — will not save us. Obama will simply clean up the most egregious inefficiencies of the Bush Administration, putting the wars in the Middle East on a more efficient footing. Obama will not implement any of the progressive reforms he mentions in his acceptance speech; he will make at best some token effort which will be quickly sacrificed to Republican opposition, in the interests again of cleaning up the more egregious problems he's inherited from Bush. And just as only Nixon could go to China and only Clinton could abolish welfare, only Obama can abolish legal abortion (he will do so, so he will say, in order to "save" contraception).
Mostly, though, Obama will act as the usual Democratic foil to the conservative agenda, to be "convinced" of the necessity for demolishing what is left of the New Deal and Great Society reforms. "If a liberal, progressive guy like Obama is convinced," so the narrative will go, "these reforms really must be fundamentally unsound."
What happens after our economy collapses, our environment is destroyed, and billions of people have died is anybody's guess. But that such a global catastrophe is inevitable seems almost certain.