The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

January 21, 2019

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Hoover, Herbert
George H. Nash - 02/02/11
Lifespan: (1874–1964)

Engineer, humanitarian, and statesman, Herbert Hoover is a problematic figure in the history of American conservatism. A hero of libertarians in the 1950s, he is today castigated by libertarians as the true father of the New Deal interventionist state. Acclaimed in his day on the Right as “the greatest Republican of his generation,” he has been stigmatized in conservative circles since the 1970s as a cheerless apostle of balanced budgets and high taxes. An examination of his life and political philosophy may help to explain the historical haze that envelops him.

Born in a little farming community in Iowa, Hoover was orphaned before he was ten. By the time he was twenty-one he had worked his way through Stanford University and had entered his chosen profession of mining engineering. By 1914, at the age of 40, he was an extraordinarily successful engineer and financier with a fortune exceeding a million dollars and business interests on every continent except Antarctica.

With the outbreak of World War I, Hoover rose to international prominence as founder-director of the Commission for Relief in Belgium, a humanitarian agency that ultimately brought food to 9,000,000 French and Belgian civilians a day—an unprecedented undertaking in world history. After serving as head of President Woodrow Wilson’s wartime Food Administration, Hoover returned to Europe following the armistice as Director-General of the American Relief Administration. Thanks in considerable measure to the Herculean efforts of Hoover and his staff, perhaps one-third of the population of postwar Europe was saved from privation and death. Between 1921 and 1923, he orchestrated American assistance to multitudes of Russians suffering from famine; at its height the project fed at least 10 million people a day. Similar, if smaller, ventures further enhanced his stature in later years.

Returning to America late in 1919, the humanitarian hero soon entered politics. A Bull Moose supporter of Theodore Roosevelt in 1912, and more recently one of President Wilson’s ablest advisers, Hoover at first labeled himself an “independent Progressive.” But before long he formally identified himself with the Republican Party and unsuccessfully sought its presidential nomination in 1920.

From 1921 to 1928 Hoover served as secretary of commerce in the cabinets of Presidents Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge. In short order he became one of the three or four most important men in American public life. In 1922 he articulated his political philosophy in a book called American Individualism. According to him the revolutionary upheavals of World War I and its aftermath had produced a world in ferment. In this cauldron, collectivist ideologies alien to America were competing for the minds of men and women. To Hoover the need for a definition of the American alternative was urgent. He called it “American Individualism.”

By this term he did not mean unfettered, old-fashioned laissez-faire. As a self-made man himself, Hoover admired individual initiative. Progress, he said, depended on “creative minds,” which must be free to “rise from the mass.” But “the values of individualism,” he argued, must be “tempered” by “that firm and fixed ideal of American individualism—an equality of opportunity.” Equality of opportunity, “the demand for a fair chance as the basis of American life”—this, in Hoover’s words, was “our most precious social ideal.”

In the context of 1921–33 Hoover was a governmental activist. As secretary of commerce he took the initiative in national waterway development, radio regulation, the elimination of industrial waste, and many other projects of postwar reconstruction. He was one of the foremost exponents of governmental public works expenditures as a form of countercyclical economic policy. Nominated for president in 1928 over the opposition of many Republican conservatives, he conceived his term of office as a reform presidency. And when the Great Depression began in 1929, the federal government under his leadership responded with unprecedented intervention in a peacetime economy. This, he said later (and approvingly), “is hardly laissez-faire.”

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