Herbert Hoover and America’s Liberal Legacy

“We’d like to thank you, Herbert Hoover…You made us what we are today.” – from the Broadway musical Annie (1977)

For at least the past century, a broadly accepted ideal for American society has been equality of opportunity combined with the rewarding of individual initiative and talent. From small-government conservative to radical leftist, few people anywhere on the political spectrum would deny subscribing to some version of this platitude. This may suggest that there still exists an enduring American ideal. On the other hand, it may mean that the belief itself has come to lack substantial content, even if it does represent a distinctly American way of saying things.

President Herbert Hoover (1874-1964) was a tireless advocate of and firm believer in this ideal, and for him it had a concrete and substantive meaning. This is made very clear in Albert Romasco’s The Poverty of Abundance: Hoover, the Nation, the Depression, an older history that I have been reading. Well before Hoover’s assumption of the presidency, and for the remaining decades of his long life following his political fall, he defended his vision of the “American Way.” His world travels as a mining engineer had convinced him that America’s dramatic economic and cultural progress were the consequence of her unique social system. In one 1928 campaign speech, he described the virtues of this system as follows:

In the American system, through free and universal education, we train the runners, we strive to give to them an equal start, our government is the umpire of its fairness. The winner is he who shows the most conscientious training, the greatest ability, the strongest character. Socialism, or its violent brother, Bolshevism, would compel all the runners to end the race equally; it would hold the swiftest to the speed of the most backward. Anarchy would provide neither training nor umpire. Despotism or class government picks those who run and also those who win.

Nowadays a conservative might question the massive governmental apparatus that has been erected to secure that “free and universal” education, while a liberal might feel that Hoover was too rash in his blanket condemnation of leftwing movements; but both would broadly agree with Hoover in their desire for some form of the American system he describes. What was different in Hoover’s time is that opposition to governmental management of or interference with business was not a matter of lip service, but a manifestation of beliefs held strongly by a majority of leaders in government and business alike.

With the onset of the Great Depression, a severe economic crisis that built up during the 1920s, exploded with the stock market crash of 1929, and persisted until World War II, Hoover’s beliefs were put to the sternest test, and America was changed forever by the creation of a governmental regime that carried out public spending and manipulation of the economy on a massive scale. Not an economist, I am unable to give a verdict on Hoover’s policies, though most economists seem to think that a much more expansionary monetary policy should have been adopted. But despite Hoover’s association with laissez-faire economics, he did believe that the federal government had an essential role to play in directing the response to the depression; and by 1932 he was approving large-scale relief measures like the establishment of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, with a budget of $1.5 billion for public works. Interestingly, he is treated more kindly in the liberal college-level survey of American history, The Unfinished Nation, by Alan Brinkley, who notes deep structural factors leading to the depression and shows Hoover in a neutral light, then by the authors of the (conventionally) conservative A Patriot’s History of the United States, Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen, who excoriate him for his “activist policies” that they believe “deepened and prolonged the business downturn.”

That historians on the American right should so denounce a man who in a sense was the last of our presidents to make a genuine stand against government expansion does suggest that there was something fundamentally liberal about his approach. And in fact a broader view of his presidency in conjunction with that of his successor, Franklin Roosevelt, suggests a real, if unintended, continuity between the two.

Hoover passionately wished to check the growth of the federal government:

The true growth of the Nation is the growth of character in its citizens. The spread of government destroys initiative and thus destroys character. Character is made in the community as well as in the individual by assuming responsibilities, not by escape from them. (2)

Yet far from being passive about the economic disaster, Hoover tackled it with vigor, not through direct wielding of governmental power, but indirectly, applying the authority and prestige of the federal government to encourage and coordinate “voluntaryism.” This meant the mobilization of existing, voluntary organizations of businesses, farmers, banks, and other economic actors to act in concert to keep up production levels, stabilize employment, and expand credit, so as to restore public confidence in the economy. Hoover also approved a number of governmental programs, forerunners of the New Deal, but generally balked at funding them on a large scale, believing in the need for a balanced budget. As these measures failed to produce the hoped-for results, Hoover’s popularity plummeted, making his electoral loss to Roosevelt a foregone conclusion. This is the outline of Romasco’s narrative.

Other things equal, I would certainly like to live in an America with a vastly downsized government, and from that perspective, Hoover’s America, whatever its problems, seems like paradise of liberty, and Hoover himself a wonder and a miracle. What would it be like to actually have politicians who fought – and sacrificed their careers – to limit their own bailiwick? However, a survey of the Depression years also leaves a strong impression of inevitability – like it or not, strong, unified action was believed to be necessary, and there was no entity besides the federal government capable of directing such action. Theoretical objections to an expanded government role can seem beside the point, and certainly did to many Americans in the 1930s.

But also, we should note that even if Hoover might today be considered well to the right of Ronald Reagan – or at least a more principled opponent of Big Government – there was an underlying logic to his political approach that was fundamentally not conservative, but liberal. This can be seen in Hoover’s use of such slogans as “equal opportunity for all,” which a true, Burkean conservative would regard with suspicion. Romasco’s description of Hoover’s political philosophy shows it to be the standard early 20th century American Progressivism that seems to have gripped most of the society during its heyday. The spokesmen for Progressivism, like Hoover or Theodore Roosevelt, were conservative in their instincts, but their political ideals strike me – aided by the hindsight of our post-1965 disaster – as showing a kind of hubris and overconfidence that I believe has been our national weakness, encouraged by the very splendor of our successes.

An important part of Hoover’s assessment of the American character was based on the fact of her phenomenal leap ahead of the European nations as the world economic superpower. This may have been reasonable as far as it went, but it seems to have led to mistaken ways of thinking, one of which was an exaggeration of the differences between European and American civilizations, and the presumption that American success had been due to American virtue and superior ways of thinking, rather than to a more complicated mixture of historical factors.

In contemporary Europe, Hoover claimed, the dominant ideas were the ideas of old: the class struggle between capital and labor, the practice of viewing and treating labor as a commodity, and the notion that the mass of laborers was ever destined to wallow helplessly near a level of bare subsistence. There the conception of “inevitable poverty” still commanded a general adherence. Europe provided a model of pitfalls to be avoided. (Romasco, p. 12)

Another error was to focus on the economic at the expense of the spiritual and cultural. By doing this, Hoover and the many men who thought like him may have been setting the stage for large-scale governmental control over the economy: if the essence of our way of life was rapid economic progress, than the need to keep that progress in motion would eventually override fears of the corrupting influence of government power.

And this tendency was reinforced by the American “ideal and practice of equal opportunity” – a slogan that later was used to justify limitless governmental coercion and transfer of wealth. Hoover himself started his presidency declaring that America was on the verge of wiping out poverty forever: the idea was not originated by Lyndon Johnson!

None of this is to deny the soundness of much of Hoover’s approach (I speak of his understanding of American culture; not of his abilities as an economist or politician): he did not see the American Way as an “ism” unconnected to the actual people who practiced it, but as “an expression of the spirit and environment of our people.” Traditionalists and conservatives can admire him as a man who fought to preserve what he saw to be the essential qualities of his nation, but they should be unsparing questioners of the Progressive views which did so much to shape the American 20th century and which still dominate our thought about so many matters.

Notes

1. Albert U. Romasco, The Poverty of Abundance: Hoover, the Nation, the Depression, New York: Oxford University Press, 1965, p. 11.

2. Romasco, p. 17.

3. Romasco, p. 13.

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