20 May 2009

The Party of Herbert Hoover

I'm finishing off William E. Leuchtenburg's biography of Herbert Hoover from the American Presidents series. In part I was interested in Hoover because of the controversy over whether both his and FDR's policies exacerbated the Great Depression, but Leuchtenburg's book is as much a character study as a summary of Hoover's policies. The character revealed is very reminiscent of modern-day Republicans.

The thing that jumps out at you about Hoover is the contradiction between his attitude about the state and his belief in personal power. The Depression seemed only to harden his hostility to the idea of a regulatory welfare state. To the extent that a man of his time could have an ideology, he was an anti-statist, but while many people fear the state because they fear its power, Hoover never seemed to have a problem with power itself. He made his name in public life for genuinely heroic action in organizing food relief for the people of occupied Belgium during World War I. He imposed his will on two warring nations to get his way, browbeating Britain into lifting a blockade of Europe and getting Germany to let him go pretty much as he pleased in occupied territory. When America joined the war, Hoover may have become the first American to be called a policy "czar" when President Wilson made him "food czar." He acquired unprecedented power over food production, distribution and consumption in order to feed the country's allies. Leuchtenburg quotes him saying that a democracy at war "requires a dictatorship of some kind or another," and that "a democracy must submerge itself temporarily in the hands of an able man or an able group of men."

But if he could not persuade businessmen and bankers to do what he thought appropriate to reverse the Depression, Hoover preferred to deny that times were bad enough to require radical action. He created a lot of special commissions to investigate conditions, but balked at systematic reform. He stated his own position most clearly in 1936: "Either we shall have a society based upon ordered liberty and the initiative of the individual, or we shall have a planned society and that means dictation." In the 21st century, many people think that "ordered liberty" means a regulatory state, but to Hoover the regulatory state meant a "planned society." In his mind, apparently, ordered liberty depended on the initiative of the individual. Based on his past, you can infer that ordered liberty left room for individual initiative in an emergency in the form of policy "czars" or the virtual dictatorship of "an able man or an able group of men." Hoover's idea of freedom accommodated the occasional need for extraordinary leadership that should seem inconsistent with any idea of ordered liberty. If any of this reminds you of George W. Bush and his acolytes, it's probably no accident.

I'm reminded of the concept of the "state of exception" concept of sovereignty in a modern tradition that dates back to the quasi-Nazi Carl Schmitt. According to this concept, the sovereign is the power capable of declaring a state of exception to the rule of law that depends upon it. In other word, the power to make the law is the power to break the law, but, perhaps paradoxically, the sovereign's power to break the law is also the power that sustains the law. I wonder whether Republicans approach the problem of freedom in the same way. They pay lip service to the rule of law, but when "freedom" as they understand it seems imperiled, they seem to prefer strong leadership bordering on dictatorship to a defense of freedom according to a rule of law. It's as if the right to become a dictator as a matter of self-defense is implicit in their understanding of individual liberty. If so, then limiting the implicit power of leadership through a strong rule of law or a regulatory state would be seen as an attack on individual liberty itself. At least that's my attempt at figuring Hoover out, and you may find it useful in understanding the way certain Republicans talk and act.

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