The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

November 20, 2018

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Hoover, Herbert
George H. Nash - 02/02/11

But if Hoover was no free-market purist, neither was he a proto–New Dealer. Time and again he insisted that the form and extent of governmental involvement in the economy must be carefully defined and kept consistent with the broad American tradition of voluntary cooperation, local self-government, and individual initiative. For all his reforming impulses, he had a conserving purpose: the preservation, in an urban, industrial society, of the American tradition of equal opportunity. He sought to use governmental power to facilitate the growth of nongovernmental mediating institutions, and he resisted proposals he deemed socialist or fascist.

Defeated for reelection by Franklin Roosevelt, Hoover soon became a trenchant critic of the New Deal. The election of 1932, he had warned beforehand, was an ideological contest that would determine the nation’s course for “over a century to come.” Now he saw his dire prophecy fulfilled. “The impending battle in this country,” he declared in 1933, would be between “a properly regulated individualism” and “sheer socialism.” Discarding the term “American Individualism,” Hoover increasingly identified his own philosophy as that of “historical liberalism” and excoriated the collectivist, “false liberalism” of the New Deal. “The New Deal,” he said, “having corrupted the label of liberalism for collectivism, coercion, concentration of political power, it seems ‘historic liberalism’ must be conservatism in contrast.” In The Challenge to Liberty (1934) and other writings, he tirelessly expounded his message. Thus, in the last third of his life, Hoover, the erstwhile progressive Republican, became a counterrevolutionary: a defender of what he called “true liberalism.”

During his lengthy ex-presidency Hoover enthusiastically supported many conservative organizations and causes, including Human Events and the Young Americans for Freedom. He was the “principal founder” (in John Chamberlain’s words) of the Freeman in 1950 and an ally of William F. Buckley Jr. in the founding of National Review in 1955. Congressional anticommunists and right-wing newspaper columnists were among those who revered him as “the Chief.” As chairman of the two so-called Hoover Commissions (1947–49 and 1953–55) he attempted to streamline and even roll back the sprawling, post–New Deal federal bureaucracy. He assisted his protégé Robert Taft’s campaign for the 1952 presidential nomination. And he nurtured his Hoover Institution in California as an unequaled center of research and documentation on international communism.

There are elements of Hoover’s record in office that do not appeal to contemporary conservatives: his energetic expansion of the federal government’s role in economic life in the 1920s, for instance, and his assent to the Smoot-Hawley tariff (1930). Yet it is also evident that he was not a modern liberal. As a tireless exponent of voluntarism, he emphatically rejected the statist philosophies of communism, socialism, fascism, and the New Deal, and never abandoned his aversion to the overweening regulatory state. Moreover, unlike many latter-day liberals, he did not believe that government exists for the primary purpose of redistributing wealth. Equality of opportunity, not equality of result, was his governing principle. “The human particles,” he wrote, “should move freely in the social solution.”

Finally, more than any other man who has held the American presidency, Hoover was profoundly acquainted with the social systems of the Old World. He had seen, as he put it, “the squalor of Asia, the frozen class barriers of Europe.” He had seen the terrible consequences of imperialism, war, and revolution as few Americans ever had. And he had seen America in contrast.

This perception of contrast between Old World and New was the experiential core of Hoover’s social philosophy, and it had a profoundly conservative effect upon him. It gave him a lifelong understanding of America as a uniquely free, humane, classless society that had come closer to implementing its ideals than any other nation on earth.

In 1964, by then an admired pillar of the American Right, Hoover died at the age of ninety, following an astounding fifty years in public life. In sheer scope and duration it was a record without parallel in American history.

Further Reading
  • Best, Gary Dean. Herbert Hoover: The Postpresidential Years, 1933–1964. 2 vols. Stan-ford, Calif.: Hoover Institution Press, 1983.
  • Nash, George H. Herbert Hoover and Stanford University. Stanford, Calif.: Hoover Institution Press, 1988.
  • ———. The Life of Herbert Hoover: The Engineer, 1874–1914. New York: Norton, 1983.
  • ———. The Life of Herbert Hoover: The Humanitarian, 1914–1917. New York: Norton, 1988.
  • ———. The Life of Herbert Hoover: Master of Emergencies, 1917–1918. New York: Norton, 1996.
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