This next Liberty Law Talk is with Gordon Lloyd of the School of Public Policy at Pepperdine on his new book, co-authored with David Davenport, The New Deal & Modern American Conservatism (Hoover Press, 2013). Much has been made, and rightly so, of the example set by Calvin Coolidge in his confrontation with the forces of taxing and spending and nascent regulatory attempts to cartelize certain markets, among other challenges he faced. However, might it be that Herbert Hoover and his "American System" articulated in the 1932 campaign, along with his subsequent attempts to repeal the New Deal, offers the…
As the Democratic convention rhetoric solidifies into cigarette ash and economic performance figures assail us, one line from President Obama’s speech should continue to intrigue and horrify us. Dealing with what he describes as decades-old challenges “will require common effort, shared responsibility, and the kind of bold, persistent experimentation that Franklin Roosevelt pursued during the only crisis worse than this one.”
Experimentation? Did Obamacare grant him a medical license? Did he at least obtain a human subject release form? All he knows is that he must be the total (“bold, persistent”) master of the situation. Whether we are the subjects of behavioral economics or of happiness commissions or rats in a maze is of no matter.
But there is far more here than Obama’s apparent admission of ignorance—it is his vision of a scientific controlled experiment that most alarms. Such “bold, persistent experimentation” requires a tyranny. The subjects of experiments, no more than inmates in a prison, may not control their treatment. Scientific utopias demand elimination of freedom, as we know from dystopian speculations from Plato through Bacon to Skinner.
The idea of American exceptionalism is a strong cord within our history. This is true especially within the philosophy of conservatism. Conservatives from the Puritans to Alexander Hamilton and President Ronald Reagan have championed the philosophy that the United States was divinely created and was a literal “shining city upon a hill,” and a beacon of liberty. As Herbert Hoover wrote “the Founding Fathers consecrated a new republic ‘under the protection of Divine Providence.’” Hoover’s philosophy was deeply shaped by American exceptionalism and the civic religion of the nation, which was defined by the principles of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. He also believed that America’s uniqueness was shaped by its religious heritage and its economic system which encouraged “equality of opportunity.”
Hoover’s belief in American exceptionalism was shaped by his life experience of not only growing up in the small Iowa village of West Branch, but also his successful mining engineer career that took him to several continents. George H. Nash, a Hoover historian and biographer, wrote that “more than any other man who held the American presidency, Hoover was profoundly acquainted with the social systems of the Old World.”
Editor’s note: Stephen Schuker, a first-time contributor to Law and Liberty, assesses in this post the lengthy volume Freedom Betrayed: Herbert Hoover’s Secret History of the Second World War. Published in 2011, the book contains Herbert Hoover’s arguments that America’s commitments to individual and economic liberty and restrained foreign policy were betrayed by the Roosevelt administration and in subsequent postwar domestic and foreign policies. For a conversation with George Nash, editor of Freedom Betrayed and author of the book’s excellent introduction, about Hoover’s political and humanitarian career and his motivations in writing this grand book see this Liberty Law Talk podcast.
On 4 March 1933 Herbert Hoover accompanied his successor to the Capitol for the swearing-in ceremony. The two men maintained a frosty silence. As the economy spiraled down during the presidential interregnum, Franklin Roosevelt had refused to cooperate with the outgoing chief executive in any way. Hoover then left for Union Station, rejected by the American people, seemingly a broken man. Worse was to come. When Hoover boarded the train, his secret service detail melted away. A mob assailed him when he reached New York. Taking up residence at the Waldorf-Astoria, he found his phones tapped, his mail opened. Several members of his administration would shortly receive unwelcome scrutiny from the IRS. Even more galling, Roosevelt adopted some of Hoover’s policies, but accorded him no credit. The Republican Treasury secretary stayed on sub rosa and reopened the banks, but no one appeared to notice who had expertise and who did not. A lesser man than Hoover would have collapsed. Instead, Hoover rallied, sustained by his indomitable spirit and iron self-discipline. Over the next thirty-one years, he published more than thirty books. When Roosevelt’s biographer inquired about the secret of his productivity, Hoover replied simply: “I outlived the bastards.”
Except when giving speeches or supervising the growing collections of the Hoover Institution at Stanford, the ex-president sat tethered to his desk twelve or thirteen hours a day. After his wife died, he often rose in the middle of the night to labor two more hours. He kept six secretaries and a Ph.D. research assistant fully employed. Having caught the spirit of the age in his 1922 volume, American Individualism, a paean to the country’s exceptionalism and voluntarist tradition, Hoover followed in 1934 and 1936 with trenchant analyses of what he called New Deal collectivism. As Hoover saw it, the intrusion of the Leviathan state into every corner of American life would lead sooner rather than later to a curtailment of personal liberties and economic freedom. He thus anticipated the critique of central planning that Friedrich Hayek in The Road to Serfdom would later embed in a formal methodology. Hoover also churned out three thick volumes of memoirs, a four-volume chronicle of his efforts to provide food relief during and following the world wars, two studies of Woodrow Wilson, innumerable collections of speeches, and even a book on fishing.