Bryan Caplan  

Hoover Blasts His Opponents

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You've heard what Hoover said in his own defense on November 5, 1932.  What did he say about his opponents?  His lead-in:

I would again call your attention to the fact that with the Democratic victory in congressional elections of 1930, their leaders promised to produce a program which would redeem this country from the depression. No such program was produced until we were well into the winter of 1932.
Then he enumerates the Democrats' top 19 policy blunders - counting both the past actions of the Democratic House, and the promised blunders of FDR:

1. Undermining protectionism by trying to turn the Tariff Commission into a "mere statistical body":

They passed the Collier bill, providing for destruction of the Tariff Commission by reducing it again to a mere statistical body controlled by the Congress. Had they succeeded, the relief which you so sorely require from competition with countries of depreciated currencies would today be impossible.

2. Undermining protectionism by pushing for a free-trade conference:

They attempted to instruct me by legislation to call an international conference through which the aid of foreign nations would be requested to lower American tariffs, by which the independence of the United States in control of its domestic policies was to placed in the hands of an international body.

3. Undermining protectionism by pushing for reciprocal tariff cuts.

They passed an act instructing me to negotiate reciprocal the result of which could only be to deprive some locality of its protection for the benefit of another...

4. Spending too little on pensions:

They passed an omnibus pension bill with unworthy payments as an indication of their economical temper.
5. Passing an "inadequate patchwork revenue bill":

They passed an inadequate patchwork revenue bill, the injustices of which to different industries and groups must yet be remedied.

6. Reopening some Indian claims:

They passed Indian claims bills to reopen settlements 75 years old in order to favor certain localities at the expense of the Public Treasury-

7. Passing a price stability/reflation bill:

They passed a bill instructing the Federal Reserve System and the Treasury to fix prices at averages prevailing during the years 1921 to 1929 by constantly shifting the volume of currency and credit and thus creation of every uncertainty to business and industry by a rubber dollar...

8. Fighting federal spending cuts:

They defeated a large part of the national economy measure proposed by the administration by their refusal to accept our recommendation, by reduction of ordinary expenditures from $250 million to less than $50 million, a part of which we subsequently rescued in the Senate.

9. Passing a wasteful public works bill.

They passed the Garner-Rainey pork-barrel bill increasing expenditures by $1,200 million for unnecessary nonproductive public works, purely for the benefit of favored localities...

10. Passing the cash prepayment of the bonus:

They passed the cash prepayment of the bonus calling for immediate expenditure of $2,300 million and for actual increase in liabilities of the Federal Government over the original act by $1,300 million. We stopped this bill, but it is still on their political calendar.

11. Trying to inflate the currency.

They passed the provision for the issuance of over $2,200 million of greenback currency, a reversion to vicious practices already demonstrated in the last hundred years as the most destructive to labor, agriculture, and business...

12. Passing the Rainey bill...

providing for direct personal banking for every conceivable purpose on every conceivable security to everyone who wants money, and thus the most destructive entry of the Government into private business in a fashion that violates every principle of our Nation...

13. More support for wasteful government spending:

They injected an expenditure of $322 million for entirely unnecessary purposes in time of great emergency. The Democratic candidate complains daily that we do not spend this money fast enough. It is part of his economic program.

14. Giving Hoover authority to cut government waste, then ignoring his recommendations:

The Congress passed proper authority to the Executive for reorganization and elimination of useless Government commissions and bureaus, but by refusing my recommendations for immediate action they destroyed its usefulness for a long time to come and probably destroyed its consummation.

15. Preaching a balanced budget, but practicing deficit finance:

The Democratic candidate eloquently urges the balancing of the budget, but nowhere disavows these gigantic raids on the Treasury, under which no budget can ever be balanced.

16. Advocating an impractical tree-planting program. (?!)

The Democratic candidate adds to this program the proposal to plant a billion trees and thereby immediately employ a million men, but the Secretary of Agriculture has shown that the trees available to plant will give them a total of less than 3 days' work.

17. Failure to give a transparent plan for farmer relief.

The Democratic candidate promises to relieve agriculture with a 6-point program which amounts to envisaging to distressed farmers a great structure of agricultural relief, but he has refused to submit it to debate. He has disclosed no details of the plan except six methods by which he can escape from the promise.

18. Favoring wasteful public works spending.

The candidate has promised the immediate inauguration of a program of self-liquidating public works, such as utilization of our water resources, flood control, and land reclamation, to provide "employment for all surplus labor at all times." That is contained in a letter addressed to all the unemployed in the United States which has had enormous circulation. To employ the whole of the unemployed in the United States would exceed in cost $9 billion a year. These works are unavailable. If the works were there, the cost would destroy the credit of the Government...

19. Support for tariff reduction.

The Democratic Party makes its contribution to the emergency by proposing to reduce the tariff to a "competitive tariff for revenue." Their candidate states that he supports this promise 100 percent. A competitive tariff today would be ruinous to American agriculture and industry.

Out of these 19 complaints, five contradict the "laissez-faire" Hoover stereotype.  Four of these (#1, #2, #3, and #19) involve the Democrats' free-trade tendencies; the other (#4) is the Democrats' opposition to larger pensions. 

Two of the complaints are hard to classify. Hoover opposes the Democrats' revenue bill (#5) because of its "injustice," but it's hard to tell what he means by that.  Hoover's objects to FDR's farm program (#17) because of its vagueness, not its size.

Still, I have to admit that Hoover's other 12 complaints basically fit the historians' stereotype.  The upshot is that if you judge Hoover for what he was against, instead of what he was for, you could easily reach the standard view about him.  In fact, if you can roughly boil Hoover's case against the Democrats down to "They favor Big Government and free trade."

In context, though, Hoover doesn't oppose the Democrats for being interventionists.  He opposes them for being the wrong kind of interventionist.  When Hoover spends piles of federal money, he sings its praises; but when the opposition advocates more of the same, he decries them as irresponsible.  Hoover claims that his public works will pay for themselves; but when FDR says the same, he scoffs.  Milton Friedman would not have been impressed.

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COMMENTS (1 to date)
Kinney writes:

I would like to see you or somebody else do this analysis with George W. Bush's policies and speeches. I think that you could make the same argument that he was not laissez-faire. Though that will most likely be his legacy as the Dems narrative is becoming the more pervasive.

Obviously Bush believed in a free market, but intervened time and time again when he thought it necessary. As you put it "When Hoover spends piles of federal money, he sings its praises; but when the opposition advocates more of the same, he decries them as irresponsible." You can replace Hoover with Bush (or any politician), but judging him by his actions 70 years from now and dismissing his complaints against the Dems as politics and not policy will not show exactly how much pro free market rhetoric the Bush believed.

I don't know if this validates or invalidates your argument. But I think you have to ask yourself if you think Bush was laissez-faire. Your answer to that might also be your answer to the Hoover question.

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