Friday, May 2, 2008

Herbert Hoover as the Pardigmatic Progressive-liberal

Most people who have not read a biography of Herbert Hoover do not know that he was among the most assertive of the Progressives, and in many ways his ideas set the tone for much of progressive-liberalism in the eight decades that have ensued since his election to president. When he ran for president in 1928 almost all progressives supported him, including social worker Jane Addams, Ida Tarbell, Herbert Croly, Walter Lippmann, Franklin Roosevelt (before Hoover declared himself a Republican), and many progressive magazine and newspaper editors of the time. Hoover's ideas were quintessentially progressive: an elitist, he proclaimed his belief in democracy. He believed that firms should be motivated by social responsibility and individual interest. He argued for voluntary national planning and that progress depends on the establishment of trade associations that establish voluntary ethical codes. He believed strongly in efficiency and the importance of cooperation and associations. He advocated expansion of public works. He believed in tariffs and protectionism. Hoover's biographer Joan Hoff Wilson notes (p. 69)*:

"Where the classical economists like Adam Smith had argued for uncontrolled competition between independent economic units guided only by the invisible hand of supply and demand, he talked about voluntary national economic planning arising from cooperation between business interests and government. The aim was to eliminate waste through greater production efficiency, lowering prices, raising wages and controlling business cycles. Instead of negative government action in time of depression, he advocated the expansion of public works, avoidance of wage cuts, increased rather than decreased production--measures which would expand rather than contract purchasing power....'We are passing' he told the United States Chamber of Commerce in 1924, 'from a period of extreme individualistic action into a period of associational activities.'"

What made Hoover the prototypical Progressive-liberal was his belief (1) that rational planning guided by the state rather than markets can best solve problems and (2) that the state's role includes the positive inculcation of moral belief. In particular, Hoover pioneered the use of mass propaganda, not only as Warren G. Harding used it in campaigns, but as part of his political strategy. In 1920, Hoover became a moderate advocate of collective bargaining. Hoover believed that workplace conflict was an engineering problem. He was a supporter of scientific management, which was linked to the Progressive movement. Quoting Wilson (p. 56):

"The socioeconomic system [Hoover's ideas] represented could not accurately be described by such words as progressivism, laissez faire capitalism, communism, statism, socialism, corporatism, guildism or syndicalism. The absolute laws of progress that he believed in required a new and superior synthesis that he simply called the American system. What he had in mind was a pragmatic utopianism that defied standard economic and political classifications and was, in truth, progressive in the broadest sense--it was forward looking. Perhaps it could best be characterized as an informal brand of liberal corporatism.

"...idealism could be balanced with self-interest and technological innovation to counter the equally enervating system of state socialism or monopoly capitalism..."

(p. 59)"...Hoover hoped to change values at the grass-roots level by propagating an ideology of cooperative individualism and playing down materialism. Massive education and propaganda campaigns could transform traditional attitudes about private property and profit into a new sense of social responsibility..."

Hoover's elitism came from his background as an engineer who had achieved dramatic success in international mining. He seems to have believed that engineering principles could be applied to reforming society.

Now, what was the outcome of Hoover's presidential administration? What was the result of his elitist belief of his ability to outhink markets and to be able to reform society according to his values (which were very nice, by the way).

The result was the Great Depression. The result of the Depression was the New Deal (which Hoover opposed because he found it too statist). Thus we see the end result of Progressivism. Increasing coercion, government programs that stall progress, and inflation that supports wealthy speculators at the expense of productive workers.

Progressivism begins as an assertion of value superiority by an elite. The value superiority is moral or expresses a belief in democracy, as does Peter Levine. Government action (e.g., Wilson's establishment of the Fed in 1913) is taken to encourage the belief. Smart people (Hoover was very bright) are selected to implement the vision. But they blunder. The blunders are blamed on the people, on freedom and on markets. In turn, coercive statist violence attacks democracy and freedom further, institutionalizing Progressive-liberal neuroticism.

*Joan Hoff Wilson, Herbert Hoover, Forgotten Progressive. Prospect Heights, Ill.: Waveland Press, 1992 (Original Publication: 1975).

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