26 March 2013

Herbert Hoover's three alternatives

As the last post hints, I've been looking into Herbert Hoover again. The local library has a new biographical study focusing on Hoover's post-presidential years. It's no shock to learn that he was no fan of the New Deal; we expect that of Republicans. But we make a mistake if we assume that, as a Republican, Hoover was the same as the Republicans of the 21st century. He was not. He was too influenced by Teddy Roosevelt to be that, but too hostile to Franklin Roosevelt to be more progressive. Teddy was too progressive for today's Republicans, however, and while Hoover consistently criticized the New Deal in fiscal-conservative and free-enterprise terms, he was careful -- at least in the early chapters of this book -- to steer a middle course between Democratic excesses and an extreme Republican attitude he had already perceived and mistrusted. His biographer, the late Gary Dean Best, paraphrases a speech Hoover gave in 1936.

There was, he told his young audience, three alternatives before Americans: unregulated business, government-regulated business, and government dictated business. Government-regulated business was the "American System," whereas government-dictated business was the New Deal method, with its ideas "dipped from the cauldrons of European Fascism or Socialism."

Hoover was nearly as willing to dub the New Deal "fascist" as he was to see it as the slippery slope to communism. He wasn't alone in that. FDR came to power at a point when people openly questioned whether constitutional democracy was adequate to solving the country's economic crisis. Some looked to Mussolini as a model, others to Stalin. For Hoover any hint of dictatorship meant nothing but tyranny. Nevertheless, he drew a distinction between "government regulation" and "government dictation" that seems lost on his Republican descendants, who have mostly chosen the other alternative of "unregulated business." What difference did Hoover see between "regulation" and "dictation?" The distinction may seem a fine one because what he called "dictation" probably was what we call "regulation." My guess is that, to him, "government-regulated business" meant holding business accountable when it broke the law. Hoover's own scare term for "government-dictated business" was "regimentation." For him, there clearly was a big difference between making sure that businesses didn't break the law and trying to tell them how to run their affairs at every level, as he believed the New Deal sought to do.

Hoover appeared to agree with Teddy Roosevelt that changing times required government to change its role in American life, but he saw a line that government should never need to cross. "We realize that life is different in 1935 from 1776," he said, "The functions of government must always be expanded [emphasis added] to restrain the strong and protect the weak. That is the preservation of liberty itself....But there are things that must be permanent if we would attain these purposes. The first of these is liberty." Liberty was synonymous with individual initiative for Hoover, and thus antithetical to a system that appeared to dictate in advance how one made a living for oneself and contributed to national prosperity. A small d or large D democrat might argue that popular sovereignty includes the making of rules, not merely laws, for doing business, but Hoover assumed that political will defied the laws of economics at its peril, and at risk to a common good that could not be defined (or calculated politically) solely in terms of gratifying short-term needs. Like many fiscal conservatives, Hoover can be accused of a certain insensitivity to short-term needs, an attitude that seems common among contemporary and historical critics of the New Deal, many of whom appeared to believe that the poor should have waited patiently for the market to right itself. Many believe that to be the correct approach to our current economic troubles, and they may take comfort from Hoover's statements. They may take less comfort the more they know about the man, as has been the case with various radio talkers and pop political authors. The more I know about him the more interesting Hoover seems, not as someone we should heed today but as the sort of person, capable of comparatively undogmatic debate on the issues, conspicuous by their absence.

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