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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.

Leuchtenburg 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.

Yes, 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 philosophy.

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