A (Very) Brief History of Herbert Hoover


Though our primary audience is often libertarians, one of Thoughts on Liberty‘s missions is to educate non-libertarians about the ideas of freedom and communicate to them tenets of libertarianism. In that spirit of education, I wanted to address directly the topic under discussion in the article that I chose to retract from Thoughts on Liberty, particularly for some of our non-libertarian or libertarian-lite readers who might not have understood. So, I got the help of history major and former Thoughts on Liberty contributor Kelly Barber and aspired to create a brief summary of the commonly taught myths about Hebert Hoover and cover some of the realities of what he actually stood for.

Here’s what you probably learned in school:

Herbert Hoover was the 31st President of the United States, preceding the ever more famous Franklin D. Roosevelt. Hoover took office in 1929, just eight months shy of the stock market crash that started the Great Depression. Hoover, so the narrative goes, was so committed to his small-government, “free market,” principles, that he stood by and watched the stock market crash and refused to intervene. It wasn’t until FDR came into office and implemented the policies we now know of as the New Deal that the economy started to recover. When World War II broke out, the production of war materials bolstered the economy so that the economy finally healed nearly 10 years later.

Here’s what actually happened:

There is a lot wrong with the narrative I presented above, but the short of it is that not only did Hoover help create policies before he was president that caused the depression, he actively attempted to halt the economic downturn, and his policies caused the depression to last for as long as it did. In fact, many of the New Deal’s policies were extensions of Hoover’s attempts to get the economy back on track.

Even for someone with the most basic understanding of what it means to favor a free market, I hope it’s clear just from this short sampling that Hoover definitely did not favor laissez-faire policies. In fact, Hoover even self-identified as a progressive and denounced laissez-faire himself:

Individualism cannot be maintained as the foundation of a society if it looks to only legalistic justice based upon contracts, property, and political equality. Such legalistic safeguards are themselves not enough. In our individualism we have long since abandoned the laissez faire of the 18th Century-the notion that it is “everyman for himself and the devil take the hindmost.”

Hoover, we now know and understand, was about as anti-libertarian as you could get.

So, why did my history teacher lie to me?

Why, with all the clear evidence of Hoover’s interventionist policies, is it a part of our public education, and, thus, a part of our national narrative of the Great Depression, to see him this way? I asked Kelly that question when I talked to her about this piece. She said,

The popular perception is that Hoover just stood by, did nothing, and didn’t care about how people were hurting during the Depression. Most people attribute such qualities (lacking empathy and refusing to act) to people who advocate for laissez faire policies. So I think that perception came about from an initial emotional response. He likely would have been vilified to a certain extent no matter what because the economy didn’t revive during his term.

As for historians, I think they have a chronic tendency to overlook and misunderstand cronyist policies in favor of citing selectively chosen political rhetoric. The oversaturation of political historians and dearth of economic historians is largely to blame.

I think there’s a lot to Kelly’s sentiments. I also think that a cursory glance at a Wikipedia page and a shallow knowledge of free market philosophy also can contribute to this misconception—and that’s just for those who care to question what their teachers told them. For others not so precocious, it’s easy to let what a teacher tells them in history to never make it past that week’s test, never realizing how that misconception shapes your way of thinking.

The idea that Herbert Hoover favored a free market is pernicious. It creates a narrative that says that markets are doomed to fail and interventionism destined for success. Many who advocate for liberty know that both are untrue.

Want to know more?

I have only represented a small fraction of what has been written on this subject. If you want to know more about some myths of the Great Depression, Herbert Hoover, or the New Deal, check out these great pieces:

Students For Liberty Executive Board Member Kelly Barber contributed to this post.