The Plank

Herbert Hoover, Still Not A Liberal


In budget hearings today, Kent Conrad decried "Hoover economics." This prompted National Review's David Freddoso to trot out the conservative vogue belief that Hoover was actually a big government liberal. I adressed this in my review of Amity Shlaes' influential New Deal revisionist tome "The Forgotten Man":

 Shlaes's answer is to implicate Hoover as a New Deal man himself:

    Hoover had called for a bank holiday to end the     banking crisis; Roosevelt's first act was to declare a bank     holiday to sort out the banks and build confidence. ...     Hoover had spent on public hospitals and bridges;     Roosevelt created the post of relief administrator for the     old Republican progressive Harry Hopkins. Hoover had     loved public works; Roosevelt created a Public Works     Administration. ... Hoover had known that debt was a     problem and created the Reconstruction Finance     Corporation; Roosevelt put Jones at the head of the RFC     so he might address the debt. ...

    Hoover had deplored the shorting of Wall Street's rogues;     Roosevelt set his brain trusters to writing a law that     would create a regulator for Wall Street.


There is indeed a revisionist scholarship that
recasts Hoover as an energetic quasi-progressive rather than a stubborn
reactionary. William Leuchtenburg, in his short new biography Herbert Hoover,
makes some allowance for the revisionist case, but finally he settles
on a more traditional conclusion. Leuchtenburg shows that Hoover's
history of activism consistently left him with the belief in the
primacy of voluntarism and the private sector, a faith that left him
unsuited to handle a catastrophe like the Depression.

also provides a handy rebuttal to Shlaes's preposterous conflation of
the two presidents. Hoover's National Credit Corporation, he explains,
"did next to nothing." Hoover and Roosevelt would be amused to hear
that his bank holiday aped Hoover's, given that Hoover denounced the
Emergency Banking Act as a "move to gigantic socialism." (Does this
ring a bell?) Shlaes's attempt to equate Hoover's disdain for
short-sellers and Roosevelt's regulation of the market presumes that
there is no important difference between expressing disapproval for
something and taking public action against it.

Hoover created the Reconstruction Finance Corporation. But (I am
quoting Leuchtenburg) "at Hoover's behest, RFC officials administered
the law so stingily that the tens of thousands of jobs the country had
been promised were never created. By mid-October, the RFC had approved
only three of the 243 applications it had received for public works
projects." Hoover's head of unemployment relief said that "federal aid
would be a disservice to the unemployed." Hoover was a staunch
ideological conservative who remarked, in 1928, that "even if
governmental conduct of business could give us more efficiency instead
of less efficiency, the fundamental objection to it would remain
unaltered and unabated." This was not, to put it mildly, Roosevelt's

Hoover himself would have found
the notion that Roosevelt mostly carried on his work offensive. During
the campaign of 1932 he warned that, if the New Deal came to fruition,
"the grass will grow in the streets of a hundred cities, a thousand
towns." This was not mere campaign rhetoric. After Roosevelt won,
Hoover desperately sought to persuade him to abandon his platform. He
spent the rest of his years denouncing Roosevelt's reforms as dangerous
Bolshevism. Leuchtenburg records that Hoover wrote a book about the New
Deal so acerbic that his own estate suppressed its publication to avoid
further tainting his reputation.

Of course,
the transition from one presidency to another always involves some
level of continuity. The world never begins completely anew with a
presidential inauguration. But the break between Roosevelt and Hoover
was certainly sharper than that between any president and his
predecessor in American history.

--Jonathan Chait

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