Bryan Caplan  

What Did Hoover Say, and When Did He Say It? Unraveling Rothbard's Mysterious Footnote

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I recently relayed one of Murray Rothbard's great Herbert Hoover quotes.  When I was tracking the quote down, though, I noticed something weird in Rothbard's work.  The online 5th edition of Rothbard's America's Great Depression (p.187) states: "To portray the interventionist efforts of the Hoover administration to cure the depression we may quote Hoover's own summary of his program, during his Presidential campaign in the fall of 1932," then provides the following two-paragraph block quote:

we might have done nothing. That would have been utter ruin. Instead we met the situation with proposals to private business and to Congress of the most gigantic program of economic defense and counterattack ever evolved in the history of the Republic. We put it into action. . . . No government in Washington has hitherto considered that it held so broad a responsibility for leadership in such times. . . . For the first time in the history of depression, dividends, profits, and the cost of living, have been reduced before wages have suffered. . . . They were maintained until the cost of living had decreased and the profits had practically vanished. They are now the highest real wages in the world.

Creating new jobs and giving to the whole system a new breath of life; nothing has ever been devised in our history which has done more for . . . "the common run of men and women." Some of the reactionary economists urged that we should allow the liquidation to take its course until we had found bottom. . . . We determined that we would not follow the advice of the bitter-end liquidationists and see the whole body of debtors of the United States brought to bankruptcy and the savings of our people brought to destruction.

This whole quote gets just one footnote:

From his acceptance speech on August 11, and his campaign speech at Des Moines on October 4. For full account of the Hoover speeches and anti-depression program, see William Starr Myers and Walter H. Newton, The Hoover Administration (New York: Scholarly Press, 1936), part 1; William Starr Myers, ed., The State Papers of Herbert Hoover, (New York. 1934), vols. 1 and 2. Also see Herbert Hoover, Memoirs of Herbert Hoover (New York: Macmillan, 1937), vol. 3.
In other words, while we seem to be reading a quote from a single speech, the footnote tells us that the quote is a composite of two speeches.  That's already a little weird.  But it wouldn't be deeply weird as long as the first paragraph came from the first speech, and the second from the second speech.  My curiosity got the better of me, so I decided to track down Hoover's original speeches. 

To my surprise, I discovered that Rothbard's quote is actually a composite of four speeches from four different dates!

Parts from the August 11, 1932 acceptance address in Washington:

We might have done nothing. That would have been utter ruin. Instead we met the situation with proposals to private business and to Congress of the most gigantic program of economic defense and counterattack ever evolved in the history of the Republic. We put it into action...

[about a full page later]

No government in Washington has hitherto considered that it held so broad a responsibility for leadership in such times. . . . For the first time in the history of depression, dividends, profits, and the cost of living, have been reduced before wages have suffered.
Parts from the October 4, 1932 speech in Des Moines:

Some of the reactionary economists urged that we should allow the liquidation to take its course until we had found bottom...

We determined that we would not follow the advice of the bitter-end liquidationists and see the whole body of debtors of the United States brought to bankruptcy and the savings of our people brought to destruction.
And the missing parts?  Hoover said "They were maintained until the cost of living had decreased and the profits had practically vanished. They are now the highest real wages in the world," on November 5, 1932 in St. Paul.  And he talked about "Creating new jobs and giving to the whole system a new breath of life; nothing has ever been devised in our history which has done more for . . . 'the common run of men and women,'" in Detroit in October 22, 1932.*

To be fair, a small part of the problem is that one of Rothbard's ellipses from the third edition was dropped in the fifth edition.  But even if we take that into account, America's Great Depression takes quotes from four different speeches, makes them look like a single speech in the main text, then cites two different speeches in the endnote.**

What's going on?  Rothbard's critics will accuse him of misrepresenting the facts about Hoover.  If that's what you think, check out the links; you will be shocked by the statism of Hoover's rhetoric compared to his laissez-faire reputation.  Rothbard's got truthiness on his side.  And in any case, if Rothbard wanted to twist Hoover's words, why would his endnote admit that the Hoover quote was a composite?  Without that anomalous footnote, I never would have thought to double-check his sources.

In the end, my best guess is that Rothbard just got sloppy - he assembled some Hoover howlers during the research stage, remembered that they came from more than one source, but then failed to double-check his notes once he actually got down to writing.

P.S. Has anyone else checked Rothbard's references?  If so, what's your verdict?

* Rothbard's quote obscures the fact that Hoover is talking about the Reconstruction Finance Corporation.  Note further that there is a slight discrepancy between the text of the American Presidency Project and Rothbard's source (Myers and Newton's The Hoover Administration).  The former reads:

Beyond these items which I have given you, it [the RFC] is today creating new jobs and giving the whole system a new breadth of life. And nothing has ever been devised in our history which has done more for those whom Mr. Coolidge aptly called the common run of men and women than the program which the Republican Party has produced and put into action.
While the latter says:

But beyond this it [the RFC] is today creating new jobs and giving to the whole system a new breath of life.  Nothing has ever been devised in our history which has done more for those whom Mr. Coolidge aptly called the common run of men and women.

** Rothbard's endnotes in the third edition became footnotes in the fifth edition.


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COMMENTS (7 to date)
Alex J. writes:

David D. Friedman on Rothbard on Smith.

Also, I have seen claims that Rothbard invented a Russian ethnic minority in Finland that was supposed to have been the USSR's motivation for starting the Winter War. I gather his motivation was to downplay Soviet aggression in order to undermine support for an interventionist foreign policy. Unfortunately, this is the best source I can find. Use Ctrl-f to search for the comment posted at "6:26".

Daniel Klein writes:

Bravo Bryan.

And Alex J. -- I'm with David Friedman.

Bob Murphy writes:

Crud. Does this mean I have to change my citation in my book? (I quote Hoover, from Rothbard.)

Gavin Kennedy writes:

'P.S. Has anyone else checked Rothbard's references? If so, what's your verdict?"

I haven't checked Rothbard's references in this example, but I did when he wrote 'authoritatively' and most critically of Adam Smith on the division of labour (surely a most well known text in Wealth Of Nations).

I found Rothbard quite unreliable and wrote so at the time, in my Adam Smith's Lost Legacy Blog: in 2006-7. From this clear example of muddling his quotations and his wrong assertions I have since disregarded much lauded claims by some readers to his sound scholarship.

Gavin wrote:

... Adam Smith on the division of labour (surely a most well known text in Wealth Of Nations).

For anyone who has not read Smith's well-written division of labor chapters in the original, let me point out shamelessly that they are free on Econlib. Here are a few links:

Gavin's website lists quite a few useful bibliographical resources by topic.

Mr. Econotarian writes:

These speeches are great!

The most telling quote I found is this from October 4, 1932, Des Moines:

"Going off the gold standard is no academic matter. By going off that standard, gold goes to a premium, and the currency dollar becomes depreciated. In our country, largely as a result of fears generated by the experience after the Civil War and by the Democratic free-silver campaign in 1896, our people have long insisted upon writing a large part of their long-term debtor documents as payable in gold.

A considerable part of farm mortgages, most of our industrial and all of our Government, most of our State and municipal bonds, and most other long-term obligations are written as payable in gold."

I had never heard this before. A lot of people blame Hoover for not going off the gold standard (as other countries that left it recovered faster), but now I think I understand why.

Perhaps the Federal government could have found some way to "bail out" people with paid-in-gold mortgages to paid-in-legal-tender mortgages, but obviously the power of the Federal government was not very great at that point.

John Singleton writes:

Its possible, given that last discrepancy, that Hoover game that speech multiple times in multiple places resulting in multiple sources with slightly different variations.

Forensic economics.

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