Hoover’s Attack on Laissez-Faire
If government wishes to alleviate, rather than aggravate, a depression, its only valid course is laissez-faire—to leave the economy alone. Only if there is no interference, direct or threatened, with prices, wage rates, and business liquidation will the necessary adjustment proceed with smooth dispatch.
Any propping up of shaky positions postpones liquidation and aggravates unsound conditions. Propping up wage rates creates mass unemployment, and bolstering prices perpetuates and creates unsold surpluses.
Moreover, a drastic cut in the government budget—both in taxes and expenditures—will of itself speed adjustment by changing social choice toward more saving and investment relative to consumption. For government spending, whatever the label attached to it, is solely consumption; any cut in the budget therefore raises the investment-consumption ratio in the economy and allows more rapid validation of originally wasteful and loss-yielding projects.
Hence, the proper injunction to government in a depression is cut the budget and leave the economy strictly alone. Currently fashionable economic thought considers such a dictum hopelessly outdated; instead, it has more substantial backing now in economic law than it did during the 19th century.
Laissez-faire was, roughly, the traditional policy in American depressions before 1929. The laissez-faire precedent was set in America’s first great depression, 1819, when the federal government’s only act was to ease terms of payment for its own land debtors. President Van Buren also set a staunch laissez-faire course, in the Panic of 1837. Subsequent federal governments followed a similar path, the chief sinners being state governments, which periodically permitted insolvent banks to continue in operation without paying their obligations.1 In the 1920–1921 depression, government intervened to a greater extent, but wage rates were permitted to fall, and government expenditures and taxes were reduced. And this depression was over in one year—in what Dr. Benjamin M. Anderson has called “our last natural recovery to full employment.”
Laissez-faire, then, was the policy dictated both by sound theory and by historical precedent. But in 1929, the sound course was rudely brushed aside. Led by President Hoover, the government embarked on what Anderson has accurately called the “Hoover New Deal.” For if we define “New Deal” as an antidepression program marked by extensive governmental economic planning and intervention—including bolstering of wage rates and prices, expansion of credit, propping up of weak firms, and increased government spending (e.g., subsidies to unemployment and public works)—Herbert Clark Hoover must be considered the founder of the New Deal in America. Hoover, from the very start of the depression, set his course unerringly toward the violation of all the laissez-faire canons. As a consequence, he left office with the economy at the depths of an unprecedented depression, with no recovery in sight after three and a half years, and with unemployment at the terrible and unprecedented rate of 25 percent of the labor force.
Hoover’s role as founder of a revolutionary program of government planning to combat depression has been unjustly neglected by historians. Franklin D. Roosevelt, in large part, merely elaborated the policies laid down by his predecessor. To scoff at Hoover’s tragic failure to cure the depression as a typical example of laissez-faire is drastically to misread the historical record. The Hoover rout must be set down as a failure of government planning and not of the free market. 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:
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.2
The Development of Hoover’s Interventionism: Unemployment
Hoover, of course, did not come upon his interventionist ideas suddenly. It is instructive to trace their development and the similar development in the country as a whole, if we are to understand clearly how Hoover could so easily, and with such nationwide support, reverse the policies that had ruled in all previous depressions.
Herbert Clark Hoover was very much the “forward-looking” politician. We have seen that Hoover pioneered in attempts to intimidate investment bankers in placing foreign loans. Characteristic of all Hoover’s interventions was the velvet glove on the mailed fist: i.e., the businessmen would be exhorted to adopt “voluntary” measures that the government desired, but implicit was the threat that if business did not “volunteer” properly, compulsory controls would soon follow.
When Hoover returned to the United States after the war and a long stay abroad, he came armed with a suggested “Reconstruction Program.” Such programs are familiar to the present generation, but they were new to the United States in that more innocent age. Like all such programs, it was heavy on government planning, which was envisaged as “voluntary” cooperative action under “central direction.”3 The government was supposed to correct “our marginal faults”—including undeveloped health and education, industrial “waste,” the failure to conserve resources, the nasty habit of resisting unionization, and seasonal unemployment.
Featured in Hoover’s plan were increased inheritance taxes, public dams, and, significantly, government regulation of the stock market to eliminate “vicious speculation.” Here was an early display of Hoover’s hostility toward the stock market, a hostility that was to form one of the leitmotifs of his administration.4 Hoover, who to his credit has never pretended to be the stalwart of laissez-faire that most people now consider him, notes that some denounced his program as “radical”—as well they might have.
So “forward-looking” was Hoover and his program that Louis Brandeis, Herbert Croly of the New Republic, Colonel Edward M. House, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and other prominent Democrats for a while boomed Hoover for the presidency.5
Hoover continued to expound interventionism in many areas during 1920. Most relevant to our concerns was the conference on labor-management relations that Hoover directed from 1919 to 1920, on appointment by President Wilson and in association with Secretary of Labor William B. Wilson, a former official of the United Mine Workers of America. The conference—which included “forward-looking” industrialists like Julius Rosenwald, Oscar Straus, and Owen D. Young, labor leaders, and economists like Frank W. Taussig—recommended wider collective bargaining, criticized “company unions,” urged the abolition of child labor, and called for national old-age insurance, fewer working hours, “better housing,” health insurance, and government arbitration boards for labor disputes. These recommendations reflected Hoover’s views.6
Hoover was appointed Secretary of Commerce by President Harding in March 1921, under pressure from the left wing of the Republican Party, led by William Allen White and Judge Nathan Miller of New York. (Hoover was one of the first of the modern breed of politician, who can find a home in either party.) We have seen that the government pursued a largely laissez-faire policy in the depression of 1920–1921, but this was not the doing of Herbert Hoover. On the contrary, he “set out to reconstruct America.”7 He only accepted the appointment on the condition that he would be consulted on all economic policies of the federal government. He was determined to transform the Department of Commerce into “the economic interpreter to the American people (and they badly need one).”8
Hardly had Hoover assumed office when he began to organize an economic conference and a committee on unemployment. The committee established a branch in every state having substantial unemployment, along with subbranches in local communities and mayors’ emergency committees in 31 cities.9 The committee contributed relief to the unemployed, and also organized collaboration between the local and federal governments.
As Hoover recalls:
We developed cooperation between the federal, state, and municipal governments to increase public works. We persuaded employers to “divide” time among their employees so that as many as possible would have some incomes. We organized the industries to undertake renovation, repair, and, where possible, expand construction.10
Standard Oil of New Jersey announced a policy of laying off its older employees last, and it increased its repairs and production for inventory; US Steel also invested $10 million in repairs immediately upon conclusion of the conference.11 In short, the biggest businesses were the first to agree.
Happily, the depression was about over by the time these measures could take effect, but an ominous shadow had been cast over any future depression, a shadow that would grimly materialize when the 1929 crash arrived. Once again, these measures bore the characteristic Hoover stamp; the government compulsion and planning were larded with the rhetoric of “voluntary cooperation.” He spoke of these and other suggested measures as “mobilization of cooperative action of our manufacturers and employers, of our public bodies and local authorities.” And there came into use the now all too familiar war analogy: “An infinite amount of misery could be saved if we have the same spirit of spontaneous cooperation in every community for reconstruction that we had in war.”
While the government did not greatly intervene in the 1920–1921 recession, there were enough ominous seeds of the later New Deal. In December 1920, the War Finance Corporation was revived as an aid to farm exports, and a $100 million Foreign Trade Financial Corporation was established. Farm agitation against short-selling led to the Capper Grain Futures Act, in August 1921, regulating trading on the grain exchanges. Furthermore, on the state level, New York passed rent laws, restricting the eviction rights of landlords; Kansas created an Industrial Court regulating all key industries as “public utilities”; and the Non-Partisan League conducted socialistic experiments in North Dakota.12
Perhaps the most important development of all, however, was the President’s Conference on Unemployment, called by Harding at the instigation of the indefatigable Herbert Hoover. This was probably the most fateful omen of antidepression policies to come. About 300 eminent men in industry, banking, and labor were called together in September 1921 to discuss the problem of unemployment. President Harding’s address to the conference was filled with great good sense and was almost the swan song of the Old Order’s way of dealing with depressions. Harding declared that liquidation was inevitable and attacked governmental planning and any suggestion of Treasury relief. He said, “The excess stimulation from that source is to be reckoned a cause of trouble rather than a source of cure.”13
To the conference members, it was clear that Harding’s words were mere stumbling blocks to the wheels of progress, and they were quickly disregarded. The conferees obviously preferred Hoover’s opening speech, to the effect that the era of passivity was now over; in contrast to previous depressions, Hoover was convinced, the government must “do something.”14 The conference’s aim was to promulgate the idea that government should be responsible for curing depressions, even if the sponsors had no clear idea of the specific things that government should do. The important steps, in the view of the dominant leaders, were to urge the necessity of government planning to combat depressions and to bolster the idea of public works as a depression remedy.15 The conference very strongly and repeatedly praised the expansion of public works in a depression and urged coordinated plans by all levels of government.16 Not to be outdone by the new administration, former President Wilson, in December, added his call for a federal public-works-stabilization program.
The extreme public-works agitators were disappointed that the conference did not go far enough. For example, the economist William Leiserson had thought that a Federal Labor Reserve Board “would do for the labor market what the Federal Reserve Board did for the banking interests.” But the wiser heads saw that they had made a great gain. As a direct result of Hoover’s conference, twice as many municipal bonds for public works were floated in 1921 and 1922 as in any previous year; federal highway grants-in-aid to the states totaled $75 million in the autumn of 1921, and American opinion was aroused on the entire subject.
It was no accident that the conference had arrived at its interventionist conclusions. As usually happens in conferences of this type, a small group of staff men, along with Herbert Hoover, actually prepared the recommendations that the illustrious front men duly ratified.17 Secretary of the crucial Public Works Committee of the conference was Otto Tod Mallery, for a long time the nation’s leading advocate of public-works programs in depressions. Mallery was a member and guiding spirit of the Pennsylvania State Industrial Board and Secretary of the Pennsylvania Emergency Public Works Commission, which had pioneered in public-works planning, and Mallery’s resolutions thoughtfully pointed to the examples of Pennsylvania and California as beacon lights for the federal government to follow.18
Mallery was one of the leading spirits in the American Association for Labor Legislation (AALL) an organization of eminent citizens and economists devoted to the promotion of government intervention in the fields of labor, unemployment, and welfare. The Association had held the first national unemployment conference in early 1914. Now, its executive director, John B. Andrews, boasted that the presidential conference’s recommendations followed the standard recommendations formulated by the AALL in 1915. These standard recommendations featured public works and emergency public relief, at the usual hours and wage rates—the wage rates of the boom period were supposed to be maintained.19 Neither was the conference’s following of the AALL line a coincidence. Aside from Mallery’s critical role, the conference also employed the expert knowledge of the following economists, all of whom were officials of the AALL: John B. Andrews, Henry S. Dennison, Edwin F. Gay, Samuel A. Lewisohn, Samuel McCune Lindsay, Wesley C. Mitchell, Ida M. Tarbell, Mary Van Kleeck, and Leo Wolman.20
It seems clear that the businessmen at the conference were not supposed to mold policy; their function was to be indoctrinated with the Hoover-AALL line and then to spread the interventionist gospel to other business leaders. Andrews singled out for particular praise in this regard Joseph H. Defrees, of the United States Chamber of Commerce, who appealed to many business organizations to cooperate with the mayors’ emergency committees, and generally to accept “business responsibility” to solve the unemployment problem. President Samuel Gompers of the American Federation of Labor (AF of L) also hailed the widespread acceptance by industry of its “responsibility” for unemployment, as an outcome of this conference.
Hoover did his best to intervene in the recession, attempting also to stimulate home construction and urging banks to finance more exports. Fortunately, however, Harding and the rest of the cabinet were not convinced of the virtues of governmental depression “remedies.” But eight years later, Hoover was finally to have his chance. As Lyons concludes, “A precedent for federal intervention in economic depression was set, rather to the horror of conservatives.”21
It is, of course, a sociological law that a government bureau, once launched, never dies, and the conference was true to this law. The conference resolved itself into three research committees, run by a staff of experts, with Hoo
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