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Book Review: Hoover

You probably remember Herbert Hoover as the guy who bungled the Great Depression. Maybe you shouldn’t. Maybe you should remember him as a bold explorer looking for silver in the jungles of Burma. Or as the heroic defender of Tientsin during the Boxer Rebellion. Or as a dashing pirate-philanthropist, gallivanting around the world, saving millions of lives wherever he went. Or as the temporary dictator of Europe. Or as a geologist, or a bank tycoon, or author of the premier 1900s textbook on metallurgy.

How did a backwards orphan son of a blacksmith, dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Midwest, grow up to be a captain of industry and a US President? How did he become such a towering figure in the history of philanthropy that biographer Kenneth Whyte claims “the number of lives Hoover saved through his various humanitarian campaigns might exceed 100 million, a record of benevolence unlike anything in human history”? To find out, I picked up Whyte’s Hoover: An Extraordinary Life In Extraordinary Times.

Herbert Hoover was born in 1874 to poor parents in the tiny Quaker farming community of West Branch, Iowa. His father was a blacksmith, his mother a schoolteacher. His childhood was strict. Magazines and novels were banned; acceptable reading material included the Bible and Prohibitionist pamphlets. His hobby was collecting oddly shaped sticks.

His father dies when he is 6, his mother when he is 10. The orphaned Hoover and his two siblings are shuttled from relative to relative. He spends one summer on the Osage Indian Reservation in Oklahoma, living with an uncle who worked for the Department of Indian Affairs. Another year passes on a pig farm with his Uncle Allen. In 1885, he is more permanently adopted by his Uncle John, a doctor and businessman helping found a Quaker colony in Oregon. Hoover’s various guardians are dutiful but distant; they never abuse or neglect him, but treat him more as an extra pair of hands around the house than as someone to be loved and cherished. Hoover reciprocates in kind, doing what is expected of him but excelling neither in school nor anywhere else.

In his early teens, Hoover gets his first job, as an office boy at a local real estate company. He loves it! He has spent his whole life doing chores for no pay, and working for pay is so much better! He has spent his whole life sullenly following orders, and now he’s expected to be proactive and figure things out for himself! Hoover the mediocre student and all-around unexceptional kid does a complete 180 and accepts Capitalism as the father he never had.

His first task is to write some newspaper ads for Oregon real estate. He writes brilliant ads, ads that draw people to Oregon from every corner of the country. But he learns some out-of-towners read his ads, come to town, stay at hotels, and are intercepted by competitors before they negotiate with his company. Of his own initiative, he rents several houses around town and turns them into boarding houses for out-of-towners coming to buy real estate, then doesn’t tell his competitors where they are. Then he marks up rent on the boarding houses and makes a tidy profit on the side. Everything he does is like this. When an especially acrimonious board meeting threatens to split the company, a quick-thinking Hoover sneaks out and turns off the gas to the building, plunging the meeting into darkness. Everyone else has to adjourn, the extra time gives cooler heads a change to prevail, and the company is saved. Everything he does is like this.

(on the other hand, he has zero friends and only one acquaintance his own age, who later describes him to biographers as “about as much excitement as a china egg”.)

Hoover meets all sorts of people passing through the Oregon frontier. One is a mining engineer. He regales young Herbert with his stories of traveling through the mountains, opening up new sources of minerals to feed the voracious appetite of Progress. This is the age of steamships, skyscrapers, and railroads, and to the young idealistic Hoover, engineering has an irresistible romance. He wants to leave home and go to college. But he worries a poor frontier boy like him would never fit in at Harvard or Yale. He gets a tip – a new, tuition-free university might be opening in Palo Alto, California. If he heads down right away, he might make it in time for the entrance exam. Hoover fails the entrance exam, but the new university is short on students and decides to take him anyway.

Herbert Hoover is the first student at Stanford. Not just a member of the first graduating class. Literally the first student. He arrives at the dorms two months early to get a head start on various money-making schemes, including distributing newspapers, delivering laundry, tending livestock, and helping other students register. He would later sell some of these businesses to other students and start more, operating a constant churn of enterprises throughout his college career. His academics remain mediocre, and he continues to have few friends – until he tries out for the football team in sophomore year. He has zero athletic talent and fails miserably, but the coach (whose eye for talent apparently transcends athletics) spots potential in Hoover and asks him to come on as team manager. In this role, Hoover is an unqualified success. He turns the team’s debt into a surplus, and starts the Big Game – a UC Berkeley vs. Stanford football match played on Thanksgiving which remains a beloved Stanford football tradition.

Other Stanford students notice his competence, and by his senior year he is running not just the football team but the baseball team, a lecture series, a set of concerts and plays, and much of the student government. For the first time, he makes many social contacts, which is sort of like having friends, although real emotional connection remains beyond him. Whyte describes an occasion when Will Irwin, the football team’s star player, suffers a career-ending injury:

[Irwin] was outfitted with a plaster cast and deposited in his dorm room. Hoover visited him to approve spending on the athlete’s medical supplies…Hoover carried his head to one side as he took in Irwin’s cast and obvious discomfort…To make conversation and keep up his courage, Irwin tried to make light of his situation and watched as Hoover tried to laugh. A ‘deep, rich, chuckle’ originated far down in his chest, Irwin recalled, yet it was strangled ‘before it came to the surface’. Hoover did not offer the patient a single word of consolation or reassurance during his time in the room. Irwin assumed hat Hoover’s sympathies, for he did appear to be affected, were garroted and buried in the same internal graveyard as the chuckle. After a few minutes, Hoover headed for the door and, at the last instant, turned and blurted ‘I’m sorry’. Irwin recognized that this minimal expression of emotion was as traumatic for Hoover as a broken ankle.

Hoover graduates Stanford in 1895 with a Geology degree. He plans to work for the US Geological Survey, but the Panic of 1895 devastates government finances and his job is cancelled. Hoover hikes up and down the Sierra Nevadas looking for work as a mining engineer. When none materializes, he takes a job an ordinary miner, hoping to work his way up from the bottom:

He signed on as a mucker at the Reward Mine, shoveling wet dirt and rock into an ore car on ten-hour shifts for two dollars a day, seven days a week. The Cornishmen mocked him for his schooling and taught him the basics of their mole-like existence: how to breathe while the dust cleared from a blast; how to nap in a steel wheelbarrow heated from underneath by candles. The ceaseless grind of filling his car and pushing it up the slick rails of the Reward’s dripping tunnels taxed Hoover’s stamina. He was tortured in his sleep by muscle pain and neuralgia.

After a few months, he finds a position as a clerk at a top Bay Area mining firm. One year later, he is a senior mining engineer. He is moving up rapidly – but not rapidly enough for his purposes. An opportunity arises: London company Berwick Moreing is looking for someone to supervise their mines in the Australian Outback. Their only requirement is that he be at least 35 years old, experienced, and an engineer. Hoover (22 years old, <1 year experience, geology degree only) travels to Britain, strides into their office, and declares himself their man. The executives “professed astonishment at Americans’ ability to maintain their youthful appearance” (Hoover had told them he was 36), but hire him and send him on an ocean liner to Australia.


22 year old Hoover trying his best to look like a respectable 36 year old capitalist
What does he think of his new home?

In numerous letters over the next two years, Hoover would refer to Western Australia as hell, and he meant it. The landscape was hell, a flat, monotonous, dust-choked desert, barren but for low tangles of mulga and wattle bush as far as the eye could see.

The climate was hell, a dry broil for the most part, one hundred degrees at midnight for days on end…

The insects were hell, scorpions, tarantulas, snakelike centipedes, and disease carrying airborne pests with an unerring aim for one’s eyes and dinner plate…

The settlements were hell, overnight ramshackled boomtowns with names like Kalgoorie and Coolgardie, box-shaped lodgings with walls of corrugated iron that roared in the wind, beds with unwashed sheets, meals of beans, biscuits, canned potatoes, and “tinned dog” (probably mutton or ham), entertainment consisting of out-of-date copies of American magazines, the odd horse race, and drunks dodging camels on Main Street.

“You cannot appreciate the real damnation of this country,” wrote Hoover.

Hoover soon manages to personally offend every single person in Australia:

The harshness of the environment and Hoover’s desire to prove himself drew an element of savagery from him. He fired rafts of employees for laziness and incompetence and dumped two of his own assistants for being “damn noodle heads”…uncompromising in pursuit of better margins, Hoover haggled with camel dealers to save a few dollars on freight costs He moved swiftly to shut losing properties…He lengthened shifts in the Coolgardie mines from 44 to 48 hours (his efforts to introduce labor-saving technology at another mine would result in a job action, which Hoover answered by firing the strikers and hiring more pliable Italian labor)…

Hoover drove himself relentlessly as well, sleeping as little as four hours a night. His eyes and stomach gave him trouble. Months of roasting on the Western Australia grill left him with a chronic inflammation of the bladder. Sometimes he was so ill he could not sit up, but he refused to slow down, traveling on his back on a mattress on the bottom of a horse-drawn cart.

After a year, Hoover is the most hated person in Australia, and also doing amazing. His mines are producing more ore at lower prices than ever before. He receives promotion after promotion.

Success goes to his head and makes him paranoid. He starts plotting against his immediate boss, Berwick Moreing’s Australia chief Ernest Williams. Thought Williams didn’t originally bear him any ill will, all the plotting eventually gets to him, and he arranges for Hoover to be transferred to China. Hoover is on board with this, since China is a lucrative market and the transfer feels like a promotion. He travels first back to Stanford – where he marries his college sweetheart Lou Henry – and then the two of them head to China.


Herbert Hoover’s college sweetheart
China is Australia 2.0. Hoover hates everyone in the country and they hate him back:

Hoover shared the prevailing European conviction of Chinese racial inferiority. He would write of the ‘simply appalling and universal dishonesty of the working classes, the racial slowness, and the low average of intelligence’…Hoover was baffled at their lack of enthusiasm for mechanization and orderly administration. Lou reported that ‘the utter apathy of the Chinese to everything, their unconquerable dilatoriness’ was almost heartbreaking to her energetic husband.

The same conflicts are playing themselves out on the world stage, as Chinese resentment at their would-be-colonizers boils over into the Boxer Rebellion. A cult with a great name – “Society Of Righteous And Harmonious Fists” – takes over the government and encourages angry mobs to go around killing Westerners. Thousands of Europeans, including Herbert and Lou, barricade themselves in the partly-Europeanized city of Tientsin to make a final last stand. Hoover

“…fought fires in the settlement and delivered food and medical supplies on his bicycle, hugging the brick walls along the street to avoid gunfire. Reporters on the scene observed that he seemed to be moving on the double quick, furiously jingling the change in his pockets and chewing nuts without shucking them. Lou, unwilling to join other women in the safety of the basement at city hall, ran bicycle errands of her own, a .38 Mauser strapped to her hip…

In between dodging artillery shells, Hoover furiously negotiates property deals with his fellow besiegees. He argues that if any of them survive, it will probably because Western powers invade China to save them. That means they will soon be operating under Western law, and people who had already sold their mines to Western companies would be ahead of the game and avoid involuntary confiscation. Somehow, everything comes up exactly how Hoover predicts. US Marines arrive in Tientsin to liberate the city (Hoover marches with them as their local guide) and he is ready to collect his winnings.

Problem: it turns out that “Whatever, sure, you can have my gold mine, we’re all going to die anyway” is not legally binding. Hoover, enraged as he watches apparently done deals slip through his fingers, reaches new levels of moral turpitude. He offers the Chinese great verbal deals, then gives them contracts with terrible deals, saying that this is some kind of quaint foreign custom and if they just sign the contract then the verbal deal will be the legally binding one (this is totally false). At one point, he literally holds up a property office with a gun to get the deed to a mine he wants. Somehow, after consecutively scamming half the population of Asia, he ends up with the rights to China’s most lucrative minefields. Berwick Moreing congratulates him and promotes him to managing director. He and Lou sail for London to live the lives of British corporate bigshots.

Predictably, Hoover makes an amazing corporate bigshot:

Hoover had a ‘gift of juggling corporate assets in such a manner that insiders almost always benefitted’, whatever happened to the capital of the original shareholders. He was masterful at wielding write-offs and preference shares with multiple voting power on the grounds that new capital was required to avert bankruptcy. His favorite deals were those so complicated no one else could figure out they worked.

On top of this, Hoover could keep mental maps of dozens of mines in his mind and, by one account, follow the progress of each shaft like a blindfolded chess master. He liked to receive telegrams from these properties and, without opening them, noting only the date and address, predict the level of the mine and the cost per ton of ore. He was usually correct.

His intellectual capacities and powerful will made Hoover a fearsome negotiator. Arriving at the table with shirtsleeves rolled up, abrupt and aggressive, he had a singular talent for stripping away nonessential information and getting directly to the root of things, and he knew how to close. He possessed what one businessman said was a curious dynamic force that could compel the most reluctant person to put signatures to paper.

Also predictably, Hoover manages to offend everyone in Britain. Soon he is signing off on a ‘mutually agreeable’, ‘amicable’ dismissal from Berwick Moreing. They agree to let him go on the condition that he does not compete with them – a promise he breaks basically instantly. He goes into banking, and his “bank” funds mining operations in a way indistinguishable from being a mining conglomerate. Eventually he abandons even this fig leaf, and just mines directly.

But in other ways, his tens of millions of dollars are mellowing him out. Over his years in London, he develops hobbies besides making money and crushing people. He starts a family; he and Lou have two sons, Herbert Jr and Allen. He even hosts dinner parties, very gradually working on the skill of getting through an entire meal without mortally offending any guests:

His fund of small talk was perpetually overdrawn, and if he interacted with the guests at his elbows, it was typically in a series of grunts or nods. If he wanted to make a point, he made it in a flat voice and then stopped abruptly, as one friend noted, someone had pulled his plug. If aroused, he would speak with force, sometimes veering into tactlessness, pursuing minor differences of opinion so harshly and indignantly that his victims nursed grudges for the rest of their natural lives. One acquaintance considered him the bluntest man in Europe, another ‘the rudest man in London’. He seldom took the time to enjoy his food, and was once clocked swallowing five courses in eleven minutes flat.

And he writes a book on metallurgy, which becomes the canonical text for a generation of engineering students. He can’t resist adding some of his own commentary. For example:

Among the book’s idiosyncratic touches is Hoover’s attempt to end discussion of the capacity of different races of workers, a common debating point in early 20th century mining, by quantifying a racial productivity gap. He deemed one white worker equal to two or three of the colored races in simple tasks like shoveling, and as high as one to eleven in the most complicated mechanical work.

But also:

To the engineer falls the work of creating from the dry bones of scientific fact the living body of industry. It is he whose intellect and direction bring to the world the comforts and necessities of daily need. Unlike the doctor, his is not the constant struggle to save the weak. Unlike the soldier, destruction is not his prime function. Unlike the lawyer, quarrels are not his daily bread. Engineering is the profession of creation and of construction, of stimulation of human effort and accomplishment.

Finally, having won respect in the financial, social, and intellectual worlds, he decides the natural next step is to become a public servant. Insofar as he has any political philosophy, he thinks of engineers as a sort of benevolent master race, destined to lead the world into an efficient technocracy. And he can think of no better standard-bearer than himself. He writes some Stanford friends, asking if they would support him for Governor of California. They suggest he start lower on the ladder, and offer him a position on the Stanford Board of Trustees, which he accepts (trustees are supposed to live in Palo Alto, but he lies and tells them he is moving back right away). He begins his public career by attacking tenure, “which he considered a protection racket for the weak and lazy and an outrage on the sanctity of higher education.”

Okay, fine. He hadn’t mellowed out that much. He manages to offend everyone in Stanford basically immediately, and that probably would have been the end of his career in politics. Luckily for him, World War I chooses that moment to break out, and little things like tenure are suddenly forgotten in the shadow of the greatest conflict the world has ever known.

II.

Count up the victims of World War I, and American tourists will be pretty far down the list. But victims they were. When the conflict broke out, thousands of Americans were overseas visiting the cathedrals of Florence or the museums of London. They woke up one morning to find the ships that were supposed to take them back had been conscripted into the war effort, or refused to sail for fear of enemy fire. The banks that were supposed to cash their travelers’ checks were panicking, or devoting all their funds to the war effort, or dealing with a million other things. The hotels that were supposed to house them were closed indefinitely, their employees rushing to enlist out of patriotic fervor. And so thousands of frantic Americans, stuck in a foreign continent with no money and nowhere to stay, showed up at the door of the US Embassy in London and said – help!

The US Consulate in London didn’t know how to solve these problems either. But Herbert Hoover, still high on his decision to pivot to philanthropy and public service, calls them up and asks if he can assist. They say yes, definitely. Hoover gets in touch with his rich friends, passes around the collection plate, and organizes a Committee For The Assistance Of American Travelers. Then he gets to work, the way only he can:

Within 24 hours, Hoover’s committee had its own stationery, and within forty-eight it was operating a booth in the ballroom of the Savoy Hotel as well as three other London locations. Through his business connections, Hoover managed to bypass restrictions on telegraph service and open a transatlantic line to allow Americans to wire money to stranded friends and relatives. In a city suddenly flooded with refugees, he reserved for American travelers some two thousand rooms in hotels or boardinghouses. He issued a press release proclaiming that his Residents’ Committee was assuming charge of all American relief work in the city, and that in doing so it had the blessings of its honorary chairman, Walter Hines Page, the US ambassador to London.

…which is totally false. Hoover is starting to display a pattern that will stick with him his whole life – that of crushing competing charities. He begins a lobbying effort to get the US Embassy to ban all non-Hoover relief work, focusing on the inefficiency of having multiple groups working on the same problem. When the US Assistant Secretary Of War arrives in London to coordinate a response, he is met on the dock by Hoover employees, who demand he consult with Hoover before interfering in the US tourist issue. Eventually the Embassy, equally exasperated by Hoover’s pestering and impressed with his results, agrees to give him official control of the relief effort.

After two months of work, Hoover and his Committee have repatriated all 120,000 US tourists, supporting them in style until it could find them boat tickets. All of its loans and operating costs have been repaid by grateful tourists, and its budget is in the black. The rescued travelers are universal in their praise for Hoover, albeit partly because Hoover has threatened to ruin any of them who get too critical:

Other complainants were received with less patience, including a hotheaded professor of history from the University of Michigan, who wrote to accuse the Residents’ Committee of mistreatment. Hoover refuted his charges indignantly and comprehensively, copying his response to the president of the university and its board of regents. After a meeting with his employer, the professor returned Hoover an abject retraction and apology.

Just as Hoover is preparing to rest on his laurels, he receives a cry for help. Germany has occupied and blockaded Belgium. The blockade prevents this tiny, heavily urban country from importing food, and the Belgians are starving. Germany needs its own food for its own armies, and is refusing to help. The Belgians order a thousand tons of grain from Britain, but when their representative comes to pick it up, Britain refuses to let them transport it, nervous at sending food into enemy-occupied territory. During tense negotiations, someone suggests using neutral power America as a go-between. But America is 5,000 miles away and busy with its own problems. So the US Ambassador to Britain asks his new best friend Herbert Hoover if he has any ideas.

Hoover invites Emile Francqui, a Belgian mining engineer he knows, to Britain. Together, they plan a Committee For The Relief of Belgium, intended not just to help transport the thousand tons of grain at issue, but to develop a long-term solution to the impending Belgian famine. Nothing like this has ever been tried before. Belgium has seven million people and almost no food. No government is offering to help, and they don’t have enough money to feed seven million people even for one day, let alone indefinitely. Hoover springs into action…

…by crushing all competing attempts to provide food for Belgium. He attacks the Rockefeller Foundation, which is trying to help, with a blitz of press coverage accusing it of various forms of insensitivity and interference, until it finally backs off. Then he gets to work on the government:

The letter bore several Hoover watermarks, beginning with its heavy load of facts and figures organized in point form. It noted that myriad relief committees were springing up both inside and outside of Belgium, and urged consolidation. “It is impossible to handle the situation except with the strongest centralization and effective monopoly, and therefore the two organizations [Hoover outside Belgium and Francqui inside it] will refuse to recognize any element except themselves alone.” The letter also contained Hoover’s usual autocratic and slightly paranoid demands for “absolute command” of his part of the enterprise.

Control attained, Hoover springs into action actually feeding Belgium. He launches one of the largest public relations campaigns the world has ever seen, sending letters to newspapers around the world asking for donations. He “urged reporters to investigate the famine conditions in Belgium and play up the ‘detailed personal horror stuff’. He personally arranged for a motion picture crew to capture footage of food lines in Brussels, and he hired famous authors, including Thomas Hardy and George Bernard Shaw, to plead for public support of the rescue effort.” He constantly telegrams his exasperated wife and children, now safely back in Palo Alto, demanding they raise more and more money from the West Coast elite.

He browbeats shipping conglomerates until they agree to ship his food for free, then browbeats railroads until they agree to carry it. By telegraph and letter he coordinates banks, docks, trains, ships, and relief workers on both sides of the Atlantic. But that’s just the prelude. His real problem is the governments. Britain doesn’t want food shipped to Belgium, because right now the starving Belgians are Germany’s problem, and they don’t want to solve an enemy’s problem for them. But Germany also doesn’t want food shipped to Belgium, because the Belgians are resisting the occupation, and they figure starvation will make them more compliant. Shuttling back and forth across the North Sea, Hoover tries to get them to switch theories: Germany needs to think starving Belgians are their problem which it would be helpful to solve, and Britain needs to think starvation would make Belgians more compliant with the German occupation. In the end, both countries allow the shipments.

He goes on a fact-finding mission to Belgium, and manages to somehow offend everyone in the country that he is, at that very moment, saving from mass starvation:

A third of Brussels’ population was receiving free food at more than a hundred canteens set up by the Comite Central and supplied by the CRB. Ration cards entitled the bearer to coffee, soup, and bread. On the cold, wet morning of December 1, Whitlock took Hoover to the street outside a theater that had been converted to a canteen in the Quarter des Marolles. They saw hundreds of Belgians shivering silently in the breadline…Whitlock kept his eyes on Hoover throughout the visit and saw him turn away and stare off down the street rather than share his feelings. Whitlock understood Hoover’s reaction as simple reticence. Others witnessing the same sort of behavior found it disturbing. They noticed how Hoover obsessed over the logistics of food distribution while avoiding interaction with recipients of relief and thought him a bloodless man. “He told of the work in Belgium as coldly as if he were giving statistics of production,” said US official. “From his words and his manner he seemed to regard human beings as so many numbers. Not once did he show the slightest feeling.”

Hoover’s reticence was chronic. He was the sort of man who could sit for three hours on a train with his closest colleagues and not utter a single word, or bid farewell to his wife, not expecting to see her again for several months, in a curt telegraph: “Goodbye, Love, Bert”. It was often difficult to know if his behavior was due to bad manners, callousness, anxiety, or an effort to manage powerful emotions, because he was capable of all these things. Indeed, a few days after he averted his eyes from the breadline, he wrote, “It is difficult to state the position of the civil population of Belgium without becoming hysterical.” The sight of ragged and hungry children especially bothered him, and he soon inaugurated a program of daily hot meals of bread and cocoa at Belgian schools.

By 1915, Hoover is, indeed, feeding millions of Belgians, indefinitely, using only private funding. He is also almost broke. Millions of Brits and Americans have given him contributions, from tycoons donating fortunes to ordinary people donating their wages, but it’s not enough. His expenses pass $5 million a month, which would be about $100 million today; all these bills are starting to catch up to him. In an act of supreme sacrifice, Hoover pledges his entire personal fortune as collateral for the Committee’s loans, then takes out more money. The grain shipments continue to flow, but his credit is at its end.

He continues beating on the doors of every government official he can find – British, German, American – demanding help. They all say their budgets are already occupied with the war effort. He begs them, lectures them, tells them that millions of people are doing to die. He goes all the way to the top, finagling an opportunity to meet with British Prime Minister David Lloyd George. Lloyd George later calls Hoover’s presentation “the clearest he had [ever] heard on any subject”, but he can offer only moral support.

What finally works is going to Germany and meeting with their top military brass. The brass are unimpressed; they still think that Belgium starving is as likely to help them as hinder. But the contact spooks top British officials, who agree to meet with Hoover again. Hoover feeds them carefully crafted lies, saying that the German brass have told him that British aid to Belgium would be a disaster to the Central Powers and so they, the Germans, are going to fund everything Hoover wants and more. “Oh no they don’t!” say the British, who promise to give Hoover even more funding than his imaginary German partners. The Committee for the Relief Of Belgium is finally back in the black. And what a black it is:

The scope and powers of the Committee For Relief of Belgium were mindboggling. Its shipping fleet flew its own flag. Its members carried special documents that served as CRB passports. Hoover himself was granted a form of diplomatic immunity by all belligerents, with the British permitting him to cross the Channel at will and the Germans providing him a document saying ‘this man is not to be stopped anywhere under any circumstances’. Hoover had privileged access to generals, diplomats, and ministers. He enjoyed personal contacts with the heads of warring governments. He negotiated treaties with the belligerents, advised them on policy, and delivered private messages among them. Great Britain, France, and Belgium would soon be turning over to him $150 million a year, enough to run a small country, and taking nothing for it beyond his receipt. As one British official observed, Hoover was running ‘a piratical state organized for benevolence.’

In 1917, America enters World War I. Hoover is no longer neutral and so has to resign from the CRB. He returns to the US a war hero. The New York Times proclaims Hoover’s CRB work “the greatest American achievement of the last two years.” There is talk that he should run for President. Instead, he goes to Washington and tells President Woodrow Wilson he is at his service.

Wilson is working on the greatest mobilization in American history. He realizes one of the US’ most important roles will be breadbasket for the Allied Powers, and names Hoover “food commissioner”, in charge of ensuring that there is enough food to support the troops, the home front, and the other Allies. His powers are absurdly vast – he can do anything at all related to the nation’s food supply, from fixing prices to confiscating shipments to telling families what to eat. The press affectionately dubs him “Food Dictator” (I assume today they would use “Food Czar”, but this is 1917 and it is Too Soon).

Hoover displays the same manic energy he showed in Belgium. His public relations blitz telling families to save food is so successful that the word “Hooverize” enters the language, meaning to ration or consume efficiently. But it turns out none of this is necessary. Hoover improves food production and distribution efficiency so much that no rationing is needed, America has lots of food to export to Europe, and his rationing agency makes an eight-digit profit selling all the extra food it has.

By 1918, Europe is in ruins. The warring powers have declared an Armistice, but their people are starving, and winter is coming on fast. Also, Herbert Hoover has so much food that he has to swim through amber waves of grain to get to work every morning. Mountains of uneaten pork bellies are starting to blot out the sky. Maybe one of these problems can solve the other? President Wilson dispatches Hoover to Europe as “special representative for relief and economic rehabilitation”. Hoover rises to the challenge:

Hoover accepted the assignment with the usual claim that he had no interest in the job, simultaneously seeking for himself the broadest possible mandate and absolute control. The broad mandate, he said, was essential, because he could not hope to deliver food without refurnishing Europe’s broken finance, trade, communications, and transportation systems…

Hoover had a hundred ships filled with food bound for neutral and newly liberated parts of the Continent before the peace conferences were even underway. He formalized his power in January 1919 by drafting for Wilson a post facto executive order authorizing the creation of the American Relief Administration (ARA), with Hoover as its executive director, authorized to feed Europe by practically any means he deemed necessary. He addressed the order to himself and passed it to the president for his signature…

The actual delivery of relief was ingeniously improvised. Only Hoover, with his keep grasp of the mechanics of civilization, could have made the logistics of rehabilitating a war-ravaged continent look easy. He arranged to extend the tours of thousands of US army officers already on the scene and deployed them as ARA agents in 32 different countries. Finding Europe’s telegraph and telephone services a shambles, he used US Navy vessels and Army Signal Corps employees to devise the best-functioning and most secure wireless system on the continent. Needing transportation, Hoover took charge of ports and canals and rebuilt railroads in Central and Eastern Europe. The ARA was for a time the only agency that could reliably arrange shipping between nations…

The New York Times said it was only apparent in retrospect how much power Hoover wielded during the peace talks. “He has been the nearest approach Europe has had to a dictator since Napoleon.”

Once again, Hoover faces not only the inherent challenge of feeding millions, but opposition from the national governments he is trying to serve. Britain and France plan to let Germany starve, hoping this will decrease its bargaining power at Versailles. They ban Hoover from transporting any food to the defeated Central Powers. Hoover, “in a series of transactions so byzantine it was impossible for outsiders to see exactly what he was up to”, causes some kind of absurd logistics chain that results in 42% of the food getting to Germany in untraceable ways.

He is less able to stop the European powers’ controlled implosion at Versailles. He believes 100% in Woodrow Wilson’s vision of a fair peace treaty with no reparations for Germany and a League Of Nations powerful enough to prevent any future wars. But Wilson and Hoover famously fail. Hoover predicts a second World War in five years (later he lowers his estimate to “thirty days”), but takes comfort in what he has been able to accomplish thus far.

He returns to the US as some sort of super-double-war-hero. He is credited with saving tens of millions of lives, keeping Europe from fraying apart, and preventing the spread of Communism. He is not just a saint but a magician, accomplishing feats of logistics that everyone believed impossible. John Maynard Keynes:

Never was a nobler work of disinterested goodwill carried through with more tenacy and sincerity and skill, and with less thanks either asked or given. The ungrateful Governments of Europe owe much more to the statesmanship and insight of Mr. Hoover and his band of American workers than they have yet appreciated or will ever acknowledge. It was their efforts…often acting in the teeth of European obstruction, which not only saved an immense amount of human suffering, but averted a widespread breakdown of the European system.

III.

Hoover wants to be president. It fits his self-image as a benevolent engineer-king destined to save the populace from the vagaries of politics. The people want Hoover to be president; he’s a super-double-war-hero during a time when most other leaders have embarrassed themselves. Even politicians are up for Hoover being president; Woodrow Wilson is incapacitated by stroke, leaving both Democrats and Republicans leaderless. The situation seems perfect.

Hoover bungles it. He plays hard-to-get by pretending he doesn’t want the Presidency, but potential supporters interpret this as him just literally not wanting the Presidency. He refuses to identify as either a Democrat or Republican, intending to make a gesture of above-the-fray non-partisanship, but this prevents either party from rallying around him. Also, he might be the worst public speaker in the history of politics.

Warren G. Harding, a nondescript Senator from Ohio, wins the Republican nomination and the Presidency. Hoover follows his usual strategy of playing hard-to-get by proclaiming he doesn’t want any Cabinet positions. This time it works, but not well: Harding offers him Secretary of Commerce, widely considered a powerless “dud” position. Hoover accepts.

Harding is famous for promising “return to normalcy”, in particular a winding down of the massive expansion of government that marked WWI and the Wilson Administration. Hoover had a better idea – use the newly-muscular government to centralize and rationalize America. In his first few years in Commerce – hitherto a meaningless portfolio for people who wanted to say vaguely pro-prosperity things and then go off and play golf – Hoover instituted/invented housing standards, traffic safety standards, industrial standards, zoning standards, standardized electrical sockets, standardized screws, standardized bricks, standardized boards, and standardized hundreds of other things. He founded the FAA to standardize air traffic, and the FCC to standardize communications. In order to learn how his standards were affecting the economy, he founded the NBER to standardize government statistics.

But that isn’t enough! He mediates an inter-state conflict over water rights to the Colorado River, even though that would normally be a Department of the Interior job. He solves railroad strikes, over the protests of the Department of Labor. “Much to the annoyance of the State Department, Hoover fielded his own foreign service”. He proposes to transfer 16 agencies from other Cabinet departments to the Department of Commerce, and when other Secretaries shoot him down, he does all their jobs anyway. The press dub him “Secretary of Commerce and Undersecretary Of Everything Else”.

Hoover’s greatest political test comes when the market crashes in the Panic of 1921. The federal government has previously ignored these financial panics. Pre-Wilson, it was small and limited to its constitutional duties – plus nobody knew how to solve a financial panic anyway. Hoover jumps into action, calling a conference of top economists and moving forward large spending projects. More important, he is one of the first government officials to realize that financial panics have a psychological aspect, so he immediately puts out lots of press releases saying that economists agree everything is fine and the panic is definitely over. He takes the opportunity to write letters saying that Herbert Hoover has solved the financial panic and is a great guy, then sign President Harding’s name to them. Whether or not Hoover deserves credit, the panic is short and mild, and his reputation grows.

While everyone else obsesses over his recession-busting, Hoover’s own pet project is saving the Soviet Union. Several years of civil war, communism, and crop failure have produced mass famine. Most of the world refuses to help, angry that the USSR is refusing to pay Czarist Russia’s debts and also pretty peeved over the whole Communism thing. Hoover finds $20 million to spend on food aid for Russia, over everyone else’s objection:

Russian relief would prove less popular than the Belgian variety, with the left accusing Hoover of seeking to undermine communism with capitalist aid…and the right charging him with rescuing and legitimating the shaky Soviet regime. Hoover gave the same answer to all critics: ‘Twenty million people are starving. Whatever their politics, they shall be fed.’

Maxim Gorky, in Italy nursing his tuberculosis, wrote Hoover personally: ‘In the past year you have saved from death three and one-half million children, five and one-half million adults. In the history of practical humanitarianism I know of no accomplishment which in…magnitude and generosity can be compared to the relief you have actually accomplished.

So passed the early 1920s. Warren Harding died of a stroke, and was succeeded by Vice-President “Silent Cal” Coolidge. Coolidge won re-election easily in 1924. Hoover continued shepherding the economy (average incomes will rise 30% over his eight years in Commerce), but also works on promoting Hooverism, his political philosophy. It has grown from just “benevolent engineers oversee everything” to something kind of like a precursor of modern neoliberalism:

Hoover’s plan amounted to a complete refit of America’s single gigantic plant, and a radical shift in Washington’s economic priorities. Newsmen were fascinated by is talk of a ‘third alternative’ between ‘the unrestrained capitalism of Adam Smith’ and the new strain of socialism rooting in Europe. Laissez-faire was finished, Hoover declared, pointing to antitrust laws and the growth of public utilities as evidence. Socialism, on the other hand, was a dead end, providing no stimulus to individual initiative, the engine of progress. The new Commerce Department was seeking what one reporter summarized as a balance between fairly intelligent business and intelligently fair government. If that were achieved, said Hoover, ‘we should have given a priceless gift to the twentieth century.’

Finally, it is 1928. Hoover feels like he has accomplished his goal of becoming the sort of knowledgeable political insider who can run for President successfully. Silent Cal decides not to run for a second term (in typical Coolidge style, he hands a piece of paper to a reporter saying “I do not choose to run for President in 1928” and then disappears and refuses to answer further questions). The Democrats nominate Al Smith, an Irish-Italian Catholic with a funny accent; it’s too early for the country to really be ready for this. Historians still debate whether Hoover and/or his campaign deserves blame for being racist or credit for being surprisingly non-racist-under-the-circumstances.

The main issue is Prohibition. Smith, true to his roots, is against. Hoover, true to his own roots (his mother was a temperance activist) is in favor. The country is starting to realize Prohibition isn’t going too well, but they’re not ready to abandon it entirely, and Hoover promises to close loopholes and fix it up. Advantage: Hoover.

The second issue is tariffs. Everyone wants some. Hoover promises that if he wins, he will call a special session of Congress to debate the tariff question. Advantage: Hoover.

The last issue is personality. Republican strategists decide the best way for their candidate to handle his respective strengths and weaknesses is not to campaign at all, or be anywhere near the public, or expose himself to the electorate in any way. Instead, they are “selling a conception. Hoover was the omnicompetent engineer, humanitarian, and public servant, the ‘most useful American citizen now alive.’ He was an almost supernatural figure, whose wisdom encompasses all branches, whose judgment was never at fault, who knew the answers to all questions.” Al Smith is supremely charismatic, but “boasted of never having read a book”. Advantage: unclear, but Hoover’s strategy does seem to work pretty well for him. He racks up most of the media endorsements. TIME Magazine offers a rare dissent, saying that “In a society of temperate, industrious, unspectacular beavers, such a beaver-man would make an ideal King-beaver. But humans are different.”

Apparently not that different. Hoover wins 444 votes to 87, one of the greatest electoral landslides in American history.


You may not like it, but this is what peak presidentialness looks like
Anne McCormick of the New York Times describes the inauguration:

We were in a mood for magic…and the whole country was a vast, expectant gallery, its eyes focused on Washington. We had summoned a great engineer to solve our problems for us; now we sat back comfortable and confidently to watch our problems being solved. The modern technical mind was for the first time at the head of a government. Relieved and gratified, we turned over to that mind all of the complications and difficulties no other had been able to settle. Almost with the air of giving genius its chance, we waited for the performance to begin.

IV.

Herbert Hoover spent his entire presidency miserable.

First, he has no doubt that the economy is going to crash. It’s been too good for too long. He frantically tries to cool down the market, begs moneylenders to stop lending and bankers to stop banking. It doesn’t work, and the Federal Reserve is less concerned than he is. So he sits back and waits glumly for the other shoe to drop.

Second, he hates politics. Somehow he had thought that if he was the President, he would be above politics and everyone would have to listen to him. The exact opposite proves true. His special session of Congress comes up with the worst, most politically venal tariff bill imaginable. Each representative declares there should be low tariffs on everything except the products produced in his own district, then compromises by agreeing to high tariffs on everything with good lobbyists. The Senate declares that the House of Representatives is corrupt nincompoops and sends the bill back in disgust. Hoover has no idea how to solve this problem except to ask the House to do some kind of rational economically-correct calculation about optimal tariffs, which the House finds hilarious. “Opposed to the House bill and divided against itself, the Senate ran out the remaining seven weeks [of the special session] in a debauch of taunts, accusations, recriminations, and procedural argument.” The public blames Hoover, pretty fairly – a more experienced president would have known how to shepherd his party to a palatable compromise.

Also, there are crime waves, prison riots, bootlegging, and a heat wave during which Washington DC is basically uninhabitable. Also, at one point the White House is literally on fire.

…and then the market finally crashes. Hoover is among the first to call it a Depression instead of a Panic – he thinks the new term might make people panic less. But in fact, people aren’t panicking. They assume Hoover has everything in hand.

At first he does. He gathers the heads of Ford, Du Pont, Standard Oil, General Electric, General Motors, and Sears Roebuck and pressures them to say publicly they won’t fire people. He gathers the AFL and all the union heads and pressures them to say publicly they won’t strike. He enacts sweeping tax cuts, and the Fed enacts sweeping rate cuts. Everyone is bedazzled:

The sweep and speed of Washington’s response to the crash, which gave the impression that Hoover had ‘thoroughly anticipated the debacle and mapped out the shortest road to recovery’, was hailed in the press as an entirely new approach to management of the nation’s economic affairs.” Herald-Tribune: “President Hoover’s prompt action to prevent the depression extending to business and industry saved the situation. The panic was checked in a few days. Wages were left unaffected, stabilization was insured; production was encouraged to continue as usual. This leadership was all the more notable, since it was practically the first of the sort ever to originate in the White House.

And:

Economic joined journalists in congratulating Hoover on what was easily the most sophisticated response to a major economic event by any administration. ‘For the first time in our history,’ wrote Keynesian forerunners William Foster and Waddill Catchings, ‘a president is taking aggressive leadership in guiding private business through a crisis.

Six months later, employment is back to its usual levels, the stock market is approaching its 1929 level, and Democrats are fuming because they expect Hoover’s popularity to make him unbeatable in the midterms. I got confused at this point in the book – did I accidentally get a biography from an alternate timeline with a shorter, milder Great Depression? No. I do think I accidentally got a biography by someone obsessed with defending Hoover at any cost and willing to stray into revisionist history to do it. As per Whyte, Hoover would take some brilliant and decisive action. Economists would praise him. The economy would start to look better. Everyone would declare the problem solved – especially Hoover, sensitive both to his own reputation and to the importance of keeping economic optimism high. Then for reasons totally outside the President’s control, the recovery would stall, or reverse, or something else would go wrong.

People are still debating what made the Great Depression so long and hard. Whyte’s theory, insofar as he has one at all, is “one thing after another”. Every time the economy started to go up (thanks to Hoover), there was another shock. Most of them involved Europe – Germany threatening to default on its debts, Britain going off the gold standard. A few involved the US – the Federal Reserve made some really bad calls. The one thing Whyte is really sure about is that his idol Herbert Hoover was totally blameless.

He argues that Hoover’s bank relief plan could have stopped the Depression in its tracks – but that Congressional Democrats intent on sabotaging Hoover forced the plan to publicize the names of the banks applying. The Democrats hoped to catch Hoover propping up his plutocrat friends – but the change actually had the effect of making banks scared to apply for funding and panicking the customers of banks that were known to have applied. He argues that the “Hoover Holiday” – a plan to grant debt relief to Germany, taking some pressure off the clusterf**k that was Europe – was a masterstroke, but that France sabotaged it in the interests of bleeding a few more pennies from its arch-rival. International trade might have sparked a recovery – except that Congress finally passed the Hawley-Smoot Tariff, the end result of the corruption-plagued tariff negotiations, just in time to choke it off.

Whyte saves his barbs for the real villain: FDR. If the book is to be believed, Hoover actually had things pretty much under control by 1932. Employment was rising, the stock market was heading back up. FDR and his fellow Democrats worked to tear everything back down so he could win the election and take complete credit for the recovery. The wrecking campaign entered high gear after FDR won in 1932; he was terrified that the economy might get better before he took office, and used his President-Elect status to hint that he was going to do all sorts of awful things. The economy got skittish again and obediently declined, allowing him to get inaugurated at the precise lowest point and gain the credit for recovery he so ardently desired.

For example: November 1932. Hoover has just lost the election, but is a lame duck until March. The European debt crisis flashes up again. Hoover knows how to solve it. But:

He had already met with congressional leaders and learned, as he had suspected, that they would not change their stance without Roosevelt’s support. Seized with the urgency of the moment, he continued to bombard his opponents with proposals for cooperation toward solutions, going so far as to suggest that Democratic nominees, not Republicans, be sent to Europe to engage in negotiations, all to no avail. Notwithstanding what editorialists called his “personal and moral responsibility” to engage with the outgoing administration, Roosevelt had instructed Democratic leaders in Congress not to let Hoover “tinker” with the debts. He had also let it be known that any solution to the problem would occur on his watch – “Roosevelt holds he and not Hoover will fix debt policy”, read the headlines. Thus ended what the New York Times called Hoover’s magnanimous proposal for “unity and constructive action”, not to mention his 12-year effort to convince America of its obligation and self-interest in fostering European political and financial stability…

During the debt discussions and to some extent as a result of them, the economy turned south again. Several other factors contributed. Investors were exchanging US dollars for gold as doubt spread about Roosevelt’s intentions to remain on the gold standard. Gold stocks in the Federal Reserve thus declined, threatening the stability of the financial sector…what’s more, the effectiveness of [Hoover’s bank support plan], which had succeeded in stabilizing the banking system, was severely compromised by [Democrats’] insistence on publicizing its loans, as the administration had warned. For these reasons, Hoover would forever blame Roosevelt and the Democratic Congress for spoiling his hard-earned recovery, an argument that has only recently gained currency among economists.

And:

Alarmed at these threats to recovery, Hoover pushed Democratic congressional leaders and the incoming administration for action. He wanted to cut federal spending, reorganize the executive branch to save money, reestablish the confidentiality of RFC loans, introduce bankruptcy legislation to protect foreclosures, grant new powers to the Federal Reserve, and pass new banking regulation, including measures to protect depositors…He was frustrated at every turn by Democratic leadership taking cues from the President-Elect…On February 5, Congress took the obstructionism a degree further by closing shop with 23 days left in its session.

In mid-February, there is another run on the banks, worse than all the other runs on the banks thus far. Hoover asks Congress to do something – Congress says they will only listen to President-Elect Roosevelt. Hoover writes a letter to Roosevelt begging him to give Congress permission to act, saying it is a national emergency and he has to act right now. Roosevelt refuses to respond to the letter for eleven days, by which time the banks have all failed.

Then, a month later, he stands up before the American people and says they have nothing to fear but fear itself – a line he stole from Hoover – and accepts their adulation as Destined Savior. He keeps this Destined Savior status throughout his administration. In 1939, Roosevelt still had everyone convinced that Hoover was totally discredited by his failure to solve the Great Depression in three years – whereas Roosevelt had failed to solve it for six but that was totally okay and he deserved credit for being a bold leader who tried really hard.

So how come Hoover bears so much of the blame in public consciousness? Whyte points to three factors.

First, Hoover just the bad luck of being in office when an international depression struck. Its beginning wasn’t his fault, its persistence wasn’t his fault, but it happened on his watch and he got blamed.

Second, in 1928 the Democratic National Committee took the unprecedented step of continuing to exist even after a presidential election. It dedicated itself to the sort of PR we now take for granted: critical responses to major speeches, coordinated messaging among Democratic politicians, working alongside friendly media to create a narrative. The Republicans had nothing like it; the RNC forgot to exist for the 1930 midterms, and Hoover was forced to personally coordinate Republican campaigns from his White House office. Although Hoover was good (some would say obsessed) at reacting to specific threats on his personal reputation, the idea of coordinating a media narrative felt too much like the kind of politics he felt was beneath him. So he didn’t try. When the Democrats launched a massive public blitz to get everyone to call homeless encampments “Hoovervilles”, he privately fumed but publicly held his tongue. FDR and the Democrats stayed relentlessly on message and the accusation stuck.

And third, Hoover was dead-set against welfare. However admirable his attempts to reverse the Depression, stabilize banking, etc, he drew the line at a national dole for the Depression’s victims. This was one of FDR’s chief accusations against him, and it was entirely correct. Hoover suspected that going down that route would lead pretty much where it led Roosevelt – to a dectupling of the size of government and the abandonment of the Constitutional vision of a small federal government presiding over substantially autonomous states. He decided it wasn’t worth it. So Herbert Hoover, history’s greatest philanthropist and ender-of-famines, would go down in history as the guy who refused to feed starving people. And they hated him for it.

V.

Some people might call Herbert Hoover a sore loser. But he argues that no, it’s totally reasonable for him to spend the rest of his life attacking FDR and trying to destroy his legacy.

His theory, explained in the countless books, pamphlets, and speeches that he spends his post-presidential life writing, is that FDR came from the same cloth as Hitler and Stalin. The miseries of the Great Depression, the centralizing tendencies of the age, the rise of mass media, and the collapse of republican virtue were combining all around the world in a monstrous reaction against the cause of liberty. “Daily,” wrote Hoover, “the world goes back to the regimentation of the Middle Ages, whether it be Bolshevism, Hitlerism, Fascism, or the New Deal.”

He has more! “[The New Deal] has no philosophy. It is sheer opportunism, a muddle of a spoils system, of reckless adventure, of unctuous claims to a monopoly of human sympathy, of greed for power, of a desire for popular acclaim and an aspiration to make the front pages of the newspapers.” He has more! “The New Deal has contributed to sapping our stamina and making us soft…the road to regeneration is burdensome and hard. It is straight and simple. It is a road paved with work and with sacrifice and consecration to the indefinable spirit that is America.”

He has more! He just keeps going like this, again and again. FDR, for his part, seems slightly befuddled. He tried offering Hoover a position coordinating the US effort to help war refugees – which Hoover turned down, assuming anything from FDR was a trick. Hoover just keeps shouting and fulminating and writing more and more books and pamphlets until FDR dies – which enrages Hoover, who wanted him to “live long enough to reap what he had sown”.

Whyte’s theory is that this period of Hoover’s life sowed the seeds for the modern conservative movement: “Modern American conservatism, conceived as an antidote to the New Deal, was born on December 16, 1937, with Hoover as its prophet and philosopher.” He doesn’t do much to back this theory up, and Hoover gets all of a paragraph in Wikipedia’s long History of conservativism in the United States. We are left to piece it together from a few mentions here and there – Hoover befriending and helping a young William F. Buckley, Hoover giving a key endorsement to Barry Goldwater, and of course the namesake Hoover Institution that he founded, funded, and guided until his death.

I have to admit this is a hole in my understanding. Smart people definitely say that modern American conservativism began with Buckley and Goldwater and their friends, but what does this mean? Hasn’t about half of America been conservative since the 1700s? Hasn’t a philosophy of small government, individual freedom, and capitalist economics been pretty fundamental to America since its beginning? I’m not sure, and without this knowledge I don’t feel qualified to judge Hoover’s role.

Hoover passes in 1964, ninety years old. He lived long enough to become a hero to a new brand of conservative who considered him an intellectual forebear, and through various acts of public service to win back the love of his country. He had not quite finished his magnum opus, Freedom Betrayed. In 2012, historians finally dug it up, revised it, and released it to the world. It turned out to be 957 pages of him attacking Franklin Roosevelt. Give Herbert Hoover credit: he died as he lived.

VI.

I’m sorry this review was so long. I couldn’t bear to make it any shorter. I find the whole story so fascinating, and I just regret I couldn’t include more. I didn’t even get a chance to mention the time Hoover rescued the US South from the Great Mississippi Flood, or the time he discovered ancient ruins in the jungles of Burma, the time a 71-year-old Hoover was called back into service by President Truman to solve another post-World-War famine, or the time he invented the new sport of Hooverball (now part of the popular CrossFit exercise program).


Herbert Hoover on a famine relief tour of Poland, along with some of the children he is helping.
Hoover was a man who did everything wrong. He was the quintessential High Modernist. He was arrogant, he was authoritarian, he didn’t listen to anyone, he put no effort into pleasing people or making his ideas more palatable. He never solicited stakeholders’ opinions. He lied like a rug, constantly and egregiously. He lived his life like a caricature of exactly the sort of person who should fail at philanthropy and become a horror story to warn future generations.

But he won anyway. He started from a measly few million dollars and beat out Rockefellers and Carnegies to become the most successful philanthropist in early 20th century history. Whyte’s estimate of 100 million lives saved seems much too high; there were only 100 million people in Europe total during the relevant period. But even during his own time, people universally credited him with saving millions. And he did it again and again and again. I didn’t even have space to talk about the time he saved the Southern United States from a giant flood, or half a dozen other impressive accomplishments. Maybe the rules are wrong. Maybe all of this stuff about how authoritarian approaches never work, and you need to let the people you are helping lead the way, is all just modern prejudices, and putting a brilliant and very rich engineer in charge of a hypercentralized organization is just as good as any other way of doing things.

But even this I find less interesting than his psychology. He combined a personal callousness with a love for all humanity. When he was inspecting mines in Australia, he fired the worst-performing X% of workers. One worker begged him to reconsider – he had a family to support. Hoover raised $300 for the man’s family – a lot of money at the time! Probably more than Hoover made in a month! – but fired him anyway. In 1932, when the Bonus Army marched on Washington, Hoover was adamant that he would not give these men – poor, starving veterans – a single cent more than they were entitled to by their existing benefits. But he also instructed his staff to go around to their encampments and give them food and supplies in secret.

Sometimes his stubbornness calls to mind the fictional Inspector Javert, who refuses to bend the law for any reason. In this model, Hoover sympathizes with everybody, but his honor forbids him to bend the rules in favor of underperforming employees or protesters who want more than their contracts entitle them to. But this picture of a hyper-honorable Hoover crashes into his constant willingness to lie, cheat, and bend the rules in his own favor. Sometimes his lies are for the greater good, like when he tells Britain that Germany is preparing to feed Belgium. Other times they seem entirely selfish, like his various Chinese mining scams. The best that can be said about Hoover is that if he decides a principle is involved, he sticks to it.

And this is actually really good! Again and again through the book, Hoover feels like the only person with a moral compass. When it is in everyone’s strategic interest to let Belgium starve, Hoover is the only one who is able to keep fixated on the potential human toll. When it is in everyone’s interest to let the USSR starve, only Hoover – despite his fanatical anti-communism – is able to stick to the frame where the Russians are human beings and politics is beside the point. When Americans are starving during the Great Depression…

…okay, Hoover totally dropped the ball on that one. In fact, one of his Democratic opponents wrote something about how maybe if unemployed American workers pretended to be Belgians, they could get Hoover’s sympathy. I don’t have a great explanation for this. But Hoover’s weak and inconsistent sympathies are often enough to let him outdo everyone else. Or at least, he is uncorrelated with everyone else and succeeds when they fail. Again and again Hoover is accused of treating people like numbers on a piece of paper. But if this is true, it seems to be linked to the reverse talent – the ability to remember that numbers on a piece of paper represent people, even when other people would rather forget.

I’m equally confused about Hoover’s politics, although it’s not really his fault. The whole era confuses me. The Progressives, Hoover’s own faction, seem clearly related to modern progressives. But they also give me more of a technophile, rationalist feel than their modern counterparts. Am I imagining things? If not, where did this go?

And how did Hoover so deftly merge his centralizing technocratic engineer side with his small-government individual-freedom pro-capitalism side? Maybe it wasn’t that deft? Maybe he started his life as a centralizing technocrat, then made a 180 after becoming a small-government individualist helped him dunk on FDR more effectively? But it didn’t feel that way. It felt like all of it was coming from some central set of core beliefs throughout his life.

My confusion here feels similar to my confusion about Tyler Cowen’s “state capacity libertarianism”. Creating a strong and effective state is certainly…a goal you can have. But I don’t understand the argument for calling this a libertarian project. At best, it’s a project not entirely opposed to libertarianism. Still, perhaps this is my ignorance. Cowen thinks that strengthening the state and instituting effective technocratic government can be allied to a small-government individualistic market-based philosophy. Whatever he’s smoking, maybe Herbert Hoover was smoking the same thing.

I get the impression that Kenneth Whyte is a bit of a revisionist historian, too sympathetic to his subject to tell his story the way everyone else does. But at least in Whyte’s telling, the Hoover presidency was a great missed opportunity, or at least a fulcrum of history. If a few key economic events had been a few months off in one direction or the other, FDR might have been a footnote to history, and a four-term President Hoover might have left an indelible mark on America. Instead of a New Deal, we might have gotten a optimistic small-government technocratic meritocracy that was able to merge the best aspects of a dying frontier America with the best aspects of the industrial age.

In one of the most poignant passages in the book, Commerce Secretary Hoover fires back at his socialist critics. He points out that of the top dozen US officials – the President, VP, and ten Cabinet Secretaries – eight, including himself, had begun as manual laborers and worked their way up. That was the America Hoover was working to defend. He lost, and now we have this shitshow. But it’s hard to begrudge him the attempt.

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289 Responses to Book Review: Hoover

  1. johan_larson says:

    This book review weighs in at some 11,000 words. While I really do enjoy Scott’s writing, in this particular case I would have enjoyed less of it, more.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Haha, you’re all trapped inside by shelter-in-place orders, you’re a captive audience now!

    • spaceman says:

      FWIW, I thought it was awesome. 🙂

      I like words.

    • Le Maistre Chat says:

      On that note, I’m going to comment in chunks, not waiting to finish (hey, I still have the only non-pastiche Conan novel to review!).

      In his early teens, Hoover gets his first job, as an office boy at a local real estate company. He loves it! He has spent his whole life doing chores for no pay, and working for pay is so much better! He has spent his whole life sullenly following orders, and now he’s expected to be proactive and figure things out for himself! Hoover the mediocre student and all-around unexceptional kid does a complete 180 and accepts Capitalism as the father he never had.

      This is really neat and probably speaks to how beneficial capitalism is to a certain personality type.

      His first task is to write some newspaper ads for Oregon real estate. He writes brilliant ads, ads that draw people to Oregon from every corner of the country.

      … and the native Oregonians were all thrilled because none of the buyers were Californians.

      When an especially acrimonious board meeting threatens to split the company, a quick-thinking Hoover sneaks out and turns off the gas to the building, plunging the meeting into darknes. Everyone else has to adjourn, the extra time gives cooler heads a change to prevail, and the company is saved. Everything he does is like this.

      Ha ha, brilliant.

      He gets a tip – a new, tuition-free university might be opening in Palo Alto, California. If he heads down right away, he might make it in time for the entrance exam. Hoover fails the entrance exam, but the new university is short on students and decides to take him anyway.

      My mind boggles at how history would have been different if Stanford was more selective that first year.

      He arrives at the dorms two months early to get a head start on various money-making schemes, including distributing newspapers, delivering laundry, tending livestock, and helping other students register.

      Tending livestock for college students. Huh.

      An opportunity arises: London company Berwick Moreing is looking for someone to supervise their mines in the Australian Outback. Their only requirement is that he be at least 35 years old, experienced, and an engineer. Hoover (22 years old, <1 year experience, geology degree only) travels to Britain, strides into their office, and declares himself their man. The executives “professed astonishment at Americans’ ability to maintain their youthful appearance” (Hoover had told them he was 36), but hire him and send him on an ocean liner to Australia.

      Diplomancer build but no real friends? I knew D&D 3.5 was unrealistic!

      He lengthened shifts in the Coolgardie mines from 44 to 48 hours (his efforts to introduce labor-saving technology at another mine would result in a job action, which Hoover answered by firing the strikers and hiring more pliable Italian labor)…

      Hoover drove himself relentlessly as well, sleeping as little as four hours a night. His eyes and stomach gave him trouble. Months of roasting on the Western Australia grill left him with a chronic inflammation of the bladder. Sometimes he was so ill he could not sit up, but he refused to slow down, traveling on his back on a mattress on the bottom of a horse-drawn cart.

      This is something many people don’t understand about first-generation capitalists: they may mistreat workers, but they’re working themselves sick too. The top hat and gold pocket watch are just affectations to convince others that they’re not 22.

      Herbert Hoover’s college sweetheart

      She had a nice ass.

      • kalimac says:

        “Tending livestock for college students” – yes. Stanford is still called The Farm, and in the early days it was one. Leland Stanford undertook to build a university on his farmstead out in the middle of nowhere, and it was an absolutely wacko idea. It worked because he had enough money – Stanford was one of the great robber barons of the 19C – to build everything he wanted and hire high-quality academics to staff it.

        So it was on a farm. With livestock.

      • broblawsky says:

        Diplomancer build but no real friends? I knew D&D 3.5 was unrealistic!

        Hoover’s specialty isn’t in Diplomacy, it’s in Bluff.

      • CatCube says:

        Diplomancer build but no real friends? I knew D&D 3.5 was unrealistic!

        I mean, diplomacy doesn’t require people to like you–if it did, we wouldn’t need the Foreign Service, we could hire hookers to give people blowjobs for a lot less money than we’re paying for the State Department–it requires getting people to do what you want without killing them or breaking things. A diplomat’s job isn’t to never give offense, it’s to never give offense unintentionally. Saddam Hussein was probably pretty offended by the diplomat who told him he couldn’t have Kuwait.

        • Aapje says:

          That’s a rather poor example, since Glaspie didn’t tell Saddam that he couldn’t have Kuwait, but she implied that the US would not interfere with whatever he did. Combined with earlier diplomatic statements, this probably led Saddam to conclude that he could take Kuwait:

          In a now famous interview with the Iraqi leader, U.S. Ambassador April Glaspie told Saddam, ‘[W]e have no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait.’ The U.S. State Department had earlier told Saddam that Washington had ‘no special defense or security commitments to Kuwait.’

      • Paul Brinkley says:

        She had a nice ass.

        I miss the old debates of rural America…

    • Charlie__ says:

      Ah well, dif’rent strokes. I consider it 25 minutes well spent. Maybe this is a nefarious plot to thin out those readers weakened and slowed by presymptomatic coronavirus.

    • SylvanScrying says:

      I would have preferred more.

    • Le Maistre Chat says:

      (con’t)

      A cult with a great name – “Society Of Righteous And Harmonious Fists” – takes over the [Chinese] government and encourages angry mobs to go around killing Westerners.

      Racial prejudice always boils down to punching while having greater or lamer names, huh?

      …fought fires in the settlement and delivered food and medical supplies on his bicycle

      An Oregonian in Victorian clothing riding a bicycle? Has anyone told hipsters that they’re cosplaying a Republican President?

      Problem: it turns out that “Whatever, sure, you can have my gold mine, we’re all going to die anyway” is not legally ironclad. Hoover, enraged as he watches apparently done deals slip through his fingers, reaches new levels of moral turpitude. He offers the Chinese great verbal deals, then gives them contracts with terrible deals, saying that this is some kind of quaint foreign custom and if they just sign the contract then the verbal deal will be the legally binding one (this is totally false). At one point, he literally holds up a property office with a gun to get the deed to a mine he wants.

      Wow, he turned into a villain protagonist fast.

      And he writes a book on metallurgy, which becomes the canonical text for a generation of engineering students. He can’t resist adding some of his own commentary. For example:

      Among the book’s idiosyncratic touches is Hoover’s attempt to end discussion of the capacity of different races of workers, a common debating point in early 20th century mining, by quantifying a racial productivity gap. He deemed one white worker equal to two or three of the colored races in simple tasks like shoveling,

      … well that textbook didn’t hold up well.

      Insofar as he has any political philosophy, he thinks of engineers as a sort of benevolent master race, destined to lead the world into an efficient technocracy.

      Compare H.G. Wells, who was a respected public intellectual between (because? despite?) writing science fiction novels.

      • J Mann says:

        A cult with a great name – “Society Of Righteous And Harmonious Fists” – takes over the [Chinese] government and encourages angry mobs to go around killing Westerners.

        Racial prejudice always boils down to punching while having greater or lamer names, huh?

        It’s OK because they were punching up.

        • Schmendrick says:

          It’s OK because they were punching up

          That’s probably why they lost, then. Mono-directional punching leaves huge blind-spots in your defense!

      • Roger Sweeny says:

        Insofar as he has any political philosophy, he thinks of engineers as a sort of benevolent master race, destined to lead the world into an efficient technocracy.

        He was hardly alone in that. Thorstein Veblen, still famous for The Theory of the Leisure Class, believed it. He even had a book called The Engineers and the Price System, which argued that markets sucked and engineers should rule (okay, that’s a bit of an overstatement).

        The idea that benevolent experts should rule was a large part of the Progressivism of the early 20th century. It has never died, certainly not among academics. It could be said to be the base of Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign.

        • Tarpitz says:

          I suspect that it’s pretty much Cummings’ world view too: he goes around trying to blow up what he sees as incompetent technocracies not because they’re technocracies but because they’re incompetent and he thinks he can build better ones.

          • Matthias says:

            From what I can tell from his blog, I don’t think he considers the existing SW1 circle a technocracy.

            (Perhaps that reflects an antipathy of yours to technocracies?)

    • Le Maistre Chat says:

      …which is totally false. Hoover is starting to display a pattern that will stick with him his whole life – that of crushing competing charities. He begins a lobbying effort to get the US Embassy to ban all non-Hoover relief work, focusing on the inefficiency of having multiple groups working on the same problem.

      Such a good capitalist.

      The rescued travelers are universal in their praise for Hoover, partly because Hoover has threatened to ruin any of them who get too critical:

      He was the sort of person who’d sue you for a bad Yelp review.

      His real problem is the governments. Britain doesn’t want food shipped to Belgium, because right now the starving Belgians are Germany’s problem, and they don’t want to solve an enemy’s problem for them. But Germany also doesn’t want food shipped to Belgium, because the Belgians are resisting the occupation, and they figure starvation will make them more compliant. Shuttling back and forth across the North Sea, Hoover tries to get them to switch theories: Germany needs to think starving Belgians are their problem which it would be helpful to solve, and Britain needs to think starvation would make Belgians more compliant with the German occupation.

      Again, amazing diplomacy. But I presume everyone in Germany hated him, like in Britain?

      It was often difficult to know if his behavior was due to bad manners, callousness, anxiety, or an effort to manage powerful emotions, because he was capable of all these things.

      Anxiety and poor emotional self-regulation are often associated with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Being a callous dick sounds like 100% upbringing.

      Hoover feeds them carefully crafted lies, saying that the German brass have told him that British aid to Belgium would be a disaster to the Central Powers and so they, the Germans, are going to fund everything Hoover wants and more. “Oh no they don’t!” say the British, who promise to give Hoover even more funding than his imaginary German partners.

      If only they’d realized that 1 pound would be even more funding than imaginary Germans.

      The press affectionately dubs him “Food Dictator” (I assume today they would use “Food Czar”, but this is 1917 and it is Too Soon).

      Well played.

      By 1918, Europe is in ruins. The warring powers have declared an Armistice, but their people are starving, and winter is coming on fast. Also, Herbert Hoover has so much food that he has to swim through amber waves of grain to get to work every morning. Mountains of uneaten pork bellies are starting to blot out the sky.

      I never realized that he was the Scrooge McDuck of pork sandwiches.

      • Lancelot Gobbo says:

        I’d say he’s a classic Attachment Disorder – the specific deficits of autistic spectrum disorder are absent yet he has an eerily similar inability to get close to other people and manages to regard them all as resources. Not in the exploitative and uncaring manner of the psychopath – witness his personal charity – but more in a hyper-rational way.
        Whatever his personal quirks, I have always felt that FDR played Henry Tudor to Hoover’s Richard III. One day we’ll realise that Hoover wasn’t a hunchback who murdered his nephews.

    • EchoChaos says:

      While I really do enjoy Scott’s writing, in this particular case I would have enjoyed less of it, more.

      Hard disagree. This was well written and engaging. MORE!

    • Atlas says:

      This book review weighs in at some 11,000 words. While I really do enjoy Scott’s writing, in this particular case I would have enjoyed less of it, more.

      FWIW, I enjoyed and appreciated the length of the review. Great post.

      Now, if only Scott could add another 5,000 words on Hoover and Albion’s Seed Quakerism, the lessons of his career for private philanthropy vs. government action today and whether the New Deal was a net positive or not…

    • tayfie says:

      Given this was hardly as dense as many of his posts, the extra length was hardly a barrier to enjoyment. I love hearing fangirling of less appreciated characters, and this qualifies.

    • TheAncientGeeksTAG says:

      Took me half an IPA, so sperfect.

    • Lillian says:

      I was so engrossed by the review that when I got to the part where Scott apologised for how long the review was, my reaction was, “This review was long?” I was furthermore, rather disappointed that Scott didn’t talk about more cool stuff Hoover did. In other words, not only did the review not feel long, I wish it was longer.

  2. kalimac says:

    A lot of this was actually confusing. How does Hoover offending everybody and being generally hated coordinate with his being brilliant at his job and being generally admired? How does spending all his time attacking competing philanthropic organizations coordinate with his spending all his time running his own brilliantly organized efforts? It’s not impossible for both things to be true, but the puzzle pieces don’t fit. I have also noticed, in everything I’ve read about Hoover – not just here, which is only a review – a curious vacancy on explaining just how he accomplished these brilliant feats that nobody else could do.

    William Leuchtenberg’s book on Hoover’s presidency, which I read recently, is equally baffling in many respects – he has one chapter on what a great president Hoover was, and another chapter on what a bad president Hoover was, and he never coordinates the two – but Leuchtenberg does, almost inadvertently, make a couple things clear.

    1) Hoover was a great administrator, but he was a lousy leader. His previous jobs were more administration than leadership. But the presidency is more leadership than administration, and that’s why Hoover failed where he had previously always succeeded.

    2) Hoover claimed that his earlier successes, especially in dealing with the stranded tourists and the starving Belgians in WW1, showed the virtues of private enterprise. But in fact they were accomplished with government finance and government authority. When the Depression proved beyond the ability of private charities to ameliorate, Hoover was advised to turn to government aid, but though he made some proposals in that direction, they were too small, and mostly he ignored the advice, because it opposed the narrative he’d constructed about his earlier successes.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I’m equally confused by the contradictions. What do you think of as the main difference between a leader and an administrator?

      I’m not sure the government thing was it, IIRC Hoover was happy to ask Congress for government funds to help solve the famines in the USSR. If I had to guess, I’d say he thought it was reasonable for the government to help fix one-time crises but problematic for them to get involved in normal situations (even for as stretched a definition of normal as “the Great Depression”). But this is just my guess – the book doesn’t say.

      • broblawsky says:

        A leader needs people to agree with them to exercise power; they don’t have the ability to just fire people. Administrators exercise power through purely bureaucratic means: they don’t need to build consensus when they can just liquidate people.

        • Scott Alexander says:

          Thanks, that’s a good distinction.

        • Doug S. says:

          This is exactly why CEOs make crappy politicians. A CEO is an absolute dictator of his corporation, answerable only to the board of directors, who generally do not interfere with his decisions. If someone won’t do what he says, they get fired. A President can’t simply fire Congress the way a CEO can fire a subordinate; a politician has to succeed by compromise and persuasion. It’s a very different skillset.

          • cassander says:

            I think you are underestimating the amount of politicking that goes on in a large corporation.

          • broblawsky says:

            That’s only the case if the CEO owns the company, or if the Board of Directors is completely supine. Admittedly, boards are becoming more and more spineless nowadays.

          • LesHapablap says:

            That isn’t true at all in general. Maybe there are a few exceptions like Steve Jobs, but generally if you act like an absolute dictator then people with either quit to work for someone more reasonable or they’ll undermine you.

      • I’m drawing parallels here to the portrayal of Robert Moses in Robert Caro’s book. Passionate, technocratic administrator who message-controlled narrowly to suit his particular objectives, but couldn’t control the overall takeaway as a villain.

        • Nick says:

          Helen Andrews had a review-cum-defense of Moses in the Weekly Standard in 2010.

        • detroitdan says:

          Yes, I was also thinking of Robert Moses as I read this.

        • Eric Rall says:

          I had the same reaction. I’m just finishing reading Caro’s book about Moses, and several common threads popped out at me:
          – Hyper-competent administrator and problem-solver
          – Very results-oriented: will gladly lie, cheat, steal, and run rough-shod over anyone in the way in order to get the job done
          – High-modernist technocratic vision for how things should be done
          – Very popular for much of his career on the basis of his results, combined with stage-managed publicity
          – Comes off as arrogant, distant, and callous
          – High-profile feud with FDR
          – Demands (and often gets) extraordinary unchecked power over everything surrounding his areas of responsibility
          – When formal authority falls short of what he wants, often goes forward anyway and presents a fait accompli.

          Caro’s book about Moses does make a persuasive case that there’s tons to criticize about Moses. One of my big takeaways from the book is that most of the difficulties in building anything big in the US these days can be traced back to reactions against Moses, specifically the addition of many veto points to stop or delay a project with negative impacts and the creation of NIMBY/BANANA groups to fight large building projects. But Caro’s criticisms do strike me as unfair and contradictory in many details: in particular, at various points he criticized Moses for:
          – Building a road through an existing park
          – Building a road through a neighborhood instead of diverting the route through a nearby park to spare the neighborhood
          – Building too many roads and bridges
          – Not building enough infrastructure to keep up with increasing demand
          – Changing a road’s route to mitigate the impact of the required private property seizures
          – Running a road along the technically optimal route despite its impact of owners and tenants in its path

          • detroitdan says:

            I just read the long article linked by philosophistry entitled “Blaming Robert Caro”. (I read the “Power Broker” around 15 years ago.) Perhaps we have gone too far in allowing various concerned parties to block infrastructure projects.

            But Moses and Hoover both screwed up, in my view, in the engineering aspects of their careers. Moses messed up by doubling down on cars and highways in a congested urban environment where trains and subways are much more efficient. He just didn’t accept the basic constraints on auto traffic in NYC, and ended up screwing things up. So it’s understandable that checks on power were put in place following his performance.

            Caro gave Moses credit for his successes earlier in his career, and Scott give Hoover credit for his early (pre-presidential) successes.

            Where Hoover screwed up is in not understanding money, banking, and the economy.

            While other countries left the gold standard, Hoover refused to abandon it;[158] he derided any other monetary system as “collectivism.” [Wikipedia]

            Of course, the gold standard has long since been abandoned as impractical, but Hoover didn’t understand how money works. Keynes and FDR got it right, in my humble opinion.

          • teageegeepea says:

            One thing to note about the gold standard back then, which I didn’t understand prior to reading Scott Sumner on the Great Depression, is that if people started believing the government was going to go off it, they would try to exchange their dollars for gold. This drives up the price of gold relative to dollars, so in order to maintain the same rate the central bank has to shrink the supply of dollars. Fears of inflation are stimulative in a fiat money system, but contractionary while trying to maintain a gold standard. The optimal thing for an authority to do is convince everyone you would ABSOLUTELY NEVER abandon the gold standard, and catch everyone by surprise before they can replace their dollars. Then once you’ve done that you’ve destroyed the credibility the gold standard depends on and won’t be able to bring it back.

          • keaswaran says:

            On the “not building enough infrastructure to keep up with increasing demand” point:

            The explanation is very clear if you look at the diagram of the East River bridges from when they opened, from the year they had peak capacity, and 1989. The number of people allowed to cross the bridges per day in 1989 is about half of what it was at peak for each bridge, because streetcars and pedestrians were replaced by automobiles.

            https://nyc.streetsblog.org/2011/04/11/the-efficient-past-and-wasteful-present-of-the-brooklyn-bridge/

      • Templar15 says:

        My vague feeling is that he thought food/life was a right, but money was more a marker of success. Starving because there isn’t enough food to go around? Sure, I’ll make sure you all live through this. Getting a check in the mail? Now *that’s* getting something for nothing. It’s also entirely possible foreign aid (where he can do it all himself, and get something out of it besides) is more his style compared to local welfare, which requires politicking with all of the states and Congress.

      • kalimac says:

        Administrators just have to run things. Leaders have to inspire the people under their jurisdiction.

        Presidents don’t really run things; they inspire other people to do it. (Difference between good and bad presidents unnecessary to specify.) When Harry Truman left office, he said, “Poor Ike. It won’t be a bit like the Army. He’ll say ‘Do this’ and ‘Do that’ and nothing will happen.”

    • A lot of this was actually confusing. How does Hoover offending everybody and being generally hated coordinate with his being brilliant at his job and being generally admired?

      Maybe people who know him personally tend to hate him for his odd manners, people he screws over in business hate him, but the net result helps so many people that he receives a lot of positive media coverage leading the general public to be fond of him (at least before the Presidency). Even the people who hated his guts may have begrudgingly accepted his god-like competence (at least before the Presidency).

    • moridinamael says:

      I think Trump and Elon Musk both qualify as people who are both widely hated and widely loved. Depends on who you’re talking to.

      There were definite vibes of both Trump and Musk in Scott’s post.

      • detroitdan says:

        Yup. They both (Trump and Musk) lie routinely. Trump doesn’t claim to be an engineer. Musk does and has a mixed record. He’s hilariously horrible in such engineering projects as hyperloops and self-driving cars.

        Hoover had a lot of early success, though perhaps more in administration than in engineering. Both Hoover and Musk were/are more engineering / technology promoters than engineers themselves, in my view.

      • thisheavenlyconjugation says:

        There are certainly people who love Trump, but are there people who regard him as hypercompetent in the same way as (some people view) Musk and Hoover?

        • detroitdan says:

          Trump is a loose cannon — something the opposite of an engineer. Narcissists can be hypercompetent in a given field at a given time, and idiotic in another field at another time.

        • tayfie says:

          Does a billionaire, real estate mogul, reality TV celebrity, president of the United States sound hypercompetent to you? It’s factually apt whatever advantages he started with.

          Trump’s skill set is different, but what is in common is absurd audacity. Everyone else cries “You can’t do that!” and they do it anyway.

          • phoniel says:

            No, Trump does not strike me as hypercompetent. He strikes me as being a very talented PR man with somewhat above-average levels of business acumen.

        • zardoz says:

          Heh. I interpreted moridinamael’s comment as saying that Hoover had some aspects of Trump, and some aspects of Musk, not that Musk and Hoover were hypercompetent in the same way.

          (Now I will quietly slink away from this thread before the interminable “Trump: clown or 4d chessmaster?” debate breaks out again)

  3. broblawsky says:

    He’s basically Scrooge McDuck, in other words.

  4. Markus Ramikin says:

    For what it’s worth, I would have kept reading had this been twice the length.

    Well, there goes the chapter of Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha I was going to read this evening before I saw the RSS notification, but whatever. There’s (almost surely) still tomorrow.

    BTW, wikipedia says “Hoover became known as the country’s “food czar””. Maybe it wasn’t Too Soon.

  5. bullseye says:

    “about as much excitement as a china egg”

    What the heck is a china egg? Google tells me I really meant a hundred-year egg, but how could a strongly-flavored foreign food be considered dull?

  6. ajfirecracker says:

    The one piece of this I know anything about is the economic history

    I think the government was pretty hands-off in 1920-21, and Hoover should get very little or zero credit for the mildness of that depression. I like this book on the topic: https://www.amazon.com/Forgotten-Depression-Crash-Cured-Itself-ebook/dp/B00IWTWSS8

    I think the Great Depression makes perfect sense from an Austrian business cycle perspective (i.e. the Federal Reserve created a bubble and when it popped the resulting depression was a period of necessary realignment which the USFG did everything possible to curtail), and recommend this book : https://mises.org/library/americas-great-depression (note this is a free digital copy)

    • Cliff says:

      Counterpoint: Scott Sumner. Great Depression caused primarily by the Fed choking off the money supply.

      • sourcreamus says:

        What Sumner actually says is not that the Fed choked off the money supply. He has two culprits, first a rational level of fear of thee situation with Germany, the negotiations with Germany over paying the war debt led to constant fears of war which understandably led to economic uncertainty. This uncertainty led to France hoarding gold, which meant that every country on the gold standard suffered significant deflation.
        In that circumstance Hoover did the exact wrong thing by meeting with business to keep wages high. The only way out of the depression at that point was either to inflate the money supply by going off the gold standard or to let wages fall to the new equilibrium level. Unfortunately the economics profession failed Hoover and those policies were never seriously considered. What Hoover did was a classic case of fighting the last war. He was worried low wages would cause labor strife more than he was worried about deflation.

      • ajfirecracker says:

        A reduction in the money supply as the trigger for the bust is 100% consistent with Austrian business cycle theory

  7. Xammer says:

    This feels more like a review of Hoover than of Hoover.

    • Anthony says:

      Someone commented in an open thread that (s)he felt much less interested in reading some books which Scott had reviewed. At 768 pages, I’m probably not going to get around to reading the book anyway, but now I feel like I won’t be missing the big picture after reading Scott’s review.

      It doesn’t help that I’ve just finished Amity Shlaes’ Coolidge, the subject of whom disliked and distrusted Hoover (and had an ideology).

  8. broblawsky says:

    Having more fully digested the review, I have some notes:

    1) Whyte seems to think that Hoover’s methods had some impact in dealing with the Depression. I don’t think the available data backs this up: unemployment levels increased more or less linearly from the beginning of the depression up until the end, when FDR begins implementing the New Deal. I don’t see how Whyte can blame FDR for stuff that happened in 1930. I’d need to see a much more convincing argument to persuade me that Hoover’s methods could’ve been adequate, considering how quickly the depression abated once the New Deal was implemented.

    2) You wanted to know what happened to the Progressives, Hoover’s faction in the government? They were kind of blown up by infighting within the Republican party. The 1936 Republican primary turned into a fight between Hoover’s faction (represented by William Borah) and that of Alfred Landon, a more conventionally libertarian Republican. The Republican party came down on the side of Landon, and wrecked Borah’s candidacy by getting local politicians to run “favored son” campaigns in certain states Borah could’ve otherwise won. Landon lost (badly) to Roosevelt, and the Republican party was essentially gutted except for the Progressives. Until Eisenhower, the Republicans were essentially incapable of winning the Presidency; until Nixon, they were pretty noncompetitive at the Federal level. The Progressives were essentially starved out. You can still see traces of their legacy in modern politicians, but largely the party was overwhelmed by the Buckley/Goldwater disciples.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Yeah, but what happened to them? They seem kind of like the (mostly Democratic) neoliberals of today – is that a direct chain, or convergent evolution?

    • Carl Pham says:

      I don’t get the impression many modern economic historians think the New Deal ended the Depression quickly. Indeed, I would say most of the traditional ones think it either did no harm or not much harm, and the Depression was ultimately ended by the end of tight money with the advent of profligate wartime spending in 1939. My impression is that the Austrian school types think the New Deal is exactly what turned what might’ve been a short “panic” into an unprecedented ten-year agony.

      • ajfirecracker says:

        Yes, but the Austrian types don’t trace the end of the Depression to the advent of WWII, because USFG employed rationing and price controls during that period. If you look at consumer standard of living instead of a price-based measure like GDP or GNP, the Depression doesn’t end until after WWII when price controls are lifted and the US economy becomes dramatically more laissez faire

      • broblawsky says:

        That thesis seems indefensible based on the unemployment numbers I posted previously. The drop in unemployment seems directly traceable to FDR’s first 100 days in office, in which many of the most successful New Deal programs (such as the CCC and the TVA) were implemented.

        • Erusian says:

          Equating employment with recovery is… at best, simplistic.

        • Cliff says:

          The numbers you posted have a giant gap between Jan 1933 and Aug 1933 in which unemployment plummeted from 46.2 to 26.3 percent. What does that gap represent? It also ends in 1934.

          Alternate data series. Very elevated unemployment levels persist for 8 years until WWII.

          ETA: I was referring to your second link which I now see references Trade union members for some reason. Your first link is for some reason not consistent with my link either, but closer.

          • broblawsky says:

            Elevated unemployment levels, yes, but the point is that the rate of change switches directions at about the same time FDR takes office. Hoover-era policies clearly did nothing to stem the bleeding or reverse labor flows; FDR-era policies clearly did. Every unemployment graph of the period points to roughly the same thing.

          • Cliff says:

            Hoover-era policies clearly did nothing to stem the bleeding or reverse labor flows; FDR-era policies clearly did.

            I disagree. If you do nothing, unemployment tends to recover rapidly. So, something caused unemployment to get much worse over Hoover’s term- unclear from what I know whether this was Hoover’s policies (it seems largely not since it was a monetary issue). Something over FDR’s terms resulted in abnormally slow recover of unemployment rate. It could have been FDR’s policies, although the ’37-’38 recession was also due to monetary tightening by the Fed, as I understand it.

          • broblawsky says:

            Smoot-Hawley and the 1932 Revenue Act both exacerbated the Depression, according to conventional economic history.

            Edit: Also, no offense intended, but that seems like kind of a double standard – “rising unemployment during the Depression had nothing to do with Hoover’s policy, but unemployment not falling fast enough was the result of FDR’s policies”.

          • Aapje says:

            @broblawsky

            There is no double standard, in both cases Cliff argued that it could be the President’s policies and/or something else.

          • broblawsky says:

            If I misunderstood, I apologize. But that clearly indicates that Hoover’s policies were ineffective and FDR’s policies were effective; you can argue that FDR could’ve done better, but it’s hard to argue that the New Deal wasn’t better than Hoover. It’s too much of a coincidence that recovery begins just as the New Deal begins implementation.

          • Aapje says:

            The argument by the Austrians is that the monetary policy of the Federal Reserve was too tight until 1933/1934 and that the New Deal didn’t cause the recovery, but the increase in the money supply.

          • broblawsky says:

            Interestingly, Hayek disagreed with the idea that monetary policy was too tight during the Depression. He and his disciples on the board of the Fed wanted to keep monetary policy tight.

          • Roger Sweeny says:

            If I order the tide to go out, my policies will work or not work depending on what part of the tide cycle I make my orders in.

            Similarly, Coronavirus cases will continue to increase for at least another week. That does NOT mean that “social distancing” causes more cases.

            Leads and lags are the bane of social analysis.

          • markz says:

            @broblawsky

            Hayek (and Lionel Robbins) I believe later admitted that they were wrong – both in the particular question of monetary during the depression, but about their own interpretation of their general theory during the great depression. Larry White more thoroughly makes the case (see “Did Hayek and Robbins Deepen the Great Depression?”) that their Austrian model should have prescribed looser monetary policy (specifically, stabilization of nominal income) during the depression, but that they themselves failed to promote this policy. You also refer to Hayek’s disciples on the Fed (perhaps referencing DeLong?), but I don’t think Hayek excercised any influence during Hoover’s era, he wasn’t even well known in the US until 1931; the prevailing school of thought at the time was the Real Bills doctrine, which I think did indeed prescribe tight monetary policy.

            I don’t know what ‘pure’ Austrians believe, but some Austrians (most notably George Selgin) seem to be pretty close to the monetarist view (which I agree with) that it wasn’t the New Deal, but rather the FDR’s devaluation of the dollar that mitigated the depression; and that tightening of monetary policy caused the backsliding.

          • Cliff says:

            If I misunderstood, I apologize. But that clearly indicates that Hoover’s policies were ineffective and FDR’s policies were effective; you can argue that FDR could’ve done better, but it’s hard to argue that the New Deal wasn’t better than Hoover. It’s too much of a coincidence that recovery begins just as the New Deal begins implementation.

            Hoover presided over a deep economic contraction, while FDR presided over a long, very unusually slow recovery. You say it’s too coincidental that recovery began as FDR took office, but note that there were signs of recovery prior to that which dissipated with his election, after which it seems likely he deliberately drove the economy into the ground.

            Very early on he went off the gold standard, which is just what was called for. So indeed he deserves credit for that. I don’t know what would have happened if he had not done that. But it seems unjustified to argue that the New Deal was successful in making the economy recover faster. Personally I think that going off the gold standard and doing nothing else would probably have performed better.

            You seem to be looking for a reason why the economy recovered, but of course the economy recovered from all previous contractions without the New Deal. The question to be asked seems rather to be why this recovery was so slow.

        • Trevor Adcock says:

          That was all just due to the US breaking from the Gold Standard and the subsequent increase in the price level. Many of the policies like the NIRA were explicitly designed to decrease output.

      • Edward Scizorhands says:

        The New Deal was full of “throw all the spaghetti at the wall, see what sticks” plans. Many of them crazy in retrospect.

        We remember “stimulus spending got us out” because it’s one of the things Roosevelt did. But it was also one of the things Hoover did. Hoover just didn’t do it enough (he would probably say that the opposition party prevented him from doing it enough).

      • Quixote says:

        I think the econ consensus is that the new deal helped by providing fiscal expansion, but that it was pulled back too soon before the expansion had fully taken root and so there was a relapse (mixed metaphor acknowledged) which extended the depression. So the new deal had a second wave, which also helped. Eventually you had world war II which called for a level of fiscal spending far and above what the government was otherwise willing to spend and which the government couldn’t screw up by ending early whenever things started to look the tiniest bit better.

    • ajfirecracker says:

      How quickly the Depression abated? It carried on for a full decade at least

      From Wiki: “In the U.S., recovery began in early 1933, but the U.S. did not return to 1929 GNP for over a decade and still had an unemployment rate of about 15% in 1940, albeit down from the high of 25% in 1933.”

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Depression#Turning_point_and_recovery

      • broblawsky says:

        If GDP is going up and unemployment is going down, you’re in a recovery period, not a contraction. Recovery might not be as fast as you want, but it’s still happening.

        • ajfirecracker says:

          My understanding that growth was far from constant in the 30s, for example with standard sources showing a 3.3% GDP decline in 1938 (one example here: https://www.statista.com/statistics/996758/rea-gdp-growth-united-states-1930-2019/ )

          Moreover, I generally mistrust GDP as a measure of economic well-being, since it is really measuring transaction volume and not production or consumption per se. Poignant lampoon here: https://schiffgold.com/lampoon-the-system/us-markets-feel-sick-after-bernankekrugman-bet-on-bull/

          So if you’re not going to use GDP / GDP per capita, what would be preferable? I think trying to assess consumer standard of living is where it’s at.

          Red meat consumption generally declined during the 30s: https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/c961/b17cee68e79bccb7a3e69b660486941ccec0.pdf (page 578)

          Infant mortality increased repeatedly during the 30s: https://www.nber.org/papers/w11246.pdf (page 56)

          • broblawsky says:

            GDP isn’t a great measure of human thriving, but it’s better than nothing. I think you’re going to be hard pressed to find any really useful measure of human thriving that doesn’t show an improvement from 1933 onward.

            From your second cited paper: “The significant rise in relief spending during the New Deal contributed to reductions in infant mortality, suicide rates, and some other causes of death, while contributing to increases in the general fertility rate.”

            There’s not much increase in overall life expectancy from the New Deal, but that’s because the Great Depression dramatically reduced deaths from auto accidents (while significantly increasing suicide rates and heart disease) and the repeal of Prohibition increased alcohol-related deaths.

          • Roger Sweeny says:

            Any measure will show an improvement from 1933-37. Many will also show a decline in 1937 and 1938. That is one reason the Democrats lost 72 seats in the House of Representatives and 7 Senate seats in the election of November, 1938. People were depressed by the economic downturn, “Weren’t we supposed to be out of the Depression by now, not sliding back again?”

            Fortunately (politically) for Roosevelt, World War II soon started and the United States became the Arsenal of Democracy, putting a lot of people to work.

          • broblawsky says:

            I still haven’t heard a convincing argument that the New Deal wasn’t directly responsible for the recovery beginning in early 1933.

          • markz says:

            “I still haven’t heard a convincing argument that the New Deal wasn’t directly responsible for the recovery beginning in early 1933.”

            The value of the dollar depreciated in early 1933, also coincident with the recovery, and that’s more likely to have instantaneous effects than fiscal programs that will take considerable time to result in actual spending, certainly not something that happened as soon as FDR took office. Scott Sumner has also argued that expectations that FDR would devalue the dollar (evidenced by bond prices, and lots of contemporary accounts of investors concerned about possible devaluation) were a factor. There was also a brief recovery in late 1932, it’s worth noting, that can’t be well explained by fiscal factors.

        • Cliff says:

          Wikipedia:

          The Great Depression was a severe worldwide economic depression that took place mostly during the 1930s, beginning in the United States. The timing of the Great Depression varied across nations; in most countries, it started in 1929 and lasted until the late 1930s.

          • broblawsky says:

            Not according to the NBER; they claim that the Depression ended in 1933. There’s a shorter, separate recession in 1937.

          • Cliff says:

            For what it’s worth I was also taught in school that the Depression extended from 1929 to 1939 at least.

          • Roger Sweeny says:

            Actually, the NBER doesn’t talk about depressions. They date “Contractions (recessions)”. In their words, “a recession is a significant decline in economic activity spread across the economy, lasting more than a few months, normally visible in real GDP, real income, employment, industrial production, and wholesale-retail sales.”

            In other words, a recession isn’t when times are bad. It’s when things are getting worse. It’s a delta. Using that definition, they say that things were getting worse from August, 1929-March, 1933, then got better from April, 1933-April, 1937 (but were still pretty bad), then got worse again from May, 1937-June, 1938.

          • MVDZ says:

            Most has been said in response to this thread and the ‘The New Deal secretly worsened the depression or at least delayed the recovery’ line of thought.
            You can see in the Brad DeLong link further down this page that holding on to the Gold Standard was indeed one of the most disastrous things you can do, and France was punished for holding on to it almost indefinitely (it was still at just over 50% economic output in 1939). Furthermore, I think experience in the Greek Euro-crisis points to the importance of devaluation of a tool. Being part of the Euro means you cannot freely devalue, so it has a similar effect to being on the Gold Standard.

            But government programs definitely helped. One of the reasons Hoover made things worse is by his Federal spending cuts. This was in line with the idea that the number one priority for the Federal government should be a budget surplus, so it could back up the Federal Reserve, which was only credible as a lender of last resort because it was backed up by the taxation power of government. Should the government fail, then the Fed would also fail and take down the entire financial system with it.
            Of course we now know that budget cuts in times of recession are actually contractionary, because they contribute to a vicious cycle of lowered demand and spending in the economy, lower GDP and therefore lower tax returns which necessitates more spending cuts to balance the budget.

            Moreover, the 1938 recession is generally credited either by monetarists to tighter money supply, and by Keynianists as a premature halting in the stimulus necessary to combat one of the biggest economic crises of all time. Both can be traced back to a coalition of Republicans and fiscally conservative Democrats pressuring Roosevelts administration to return to business as normal, i.e. have a smaller government once more, now that the economy is recovering. That didn’t quite work out and it took the massive government spending of World War 2 to finally put a halt to the depression. By the end of WW2, the fundamentals of the economy were finally strong enough to carry on growth by its own, underpinned of course by strong unions who could demand high wages so that a true consumer economy could develop. Profit in the hands of rich investors is (or Silicon Men, nowadays), after all, useless, if ordinary people can’t afford to buy their inventions.
            Anyway, the lesson here is quite clear: Gold Standard bad, anti-cyclical government intervention good. This also means that once the economy is well and truly doing well, government should cut back on temporary stimulus. It would be great to see libertarians hold governments’ feet to the fire on that count.

    • notpeerreviewed says:

      1) Whyte seems to think that Hoover’s methods had some impact in dealing with the Depression. I don’t think the available data backs this up: unemployment levels increased more or less linearly from the beginning of the depression up until the end, when FDR begins implementing the New Deal. I don’t see how Whyte can blame FDR for stuff that happened in 1930. I’d need to see a much more convincing argument to persuade me that Hoover’s methods could’ve been adequate, considering how quickly the depression abated once the New Deal was implemented.

      Specifically, the economic decline reversed right around the time the United States abandoned the gold standard, which was early in FDR’s presidency. Did Whyte have much to say about Hoover’s views on the gold standard? Historical synopses often make it sound like FDR himself personally ended the gold standard, but I imagine there were a lot of different players involved in the decision.

    • cassander says:

      considering how quickly the depression abated once the New Deal was implemented.

      What? the depression didn’t abate until the war. and the early new deal (The NRA and AAA) almost certainly made it worse, undoing the effect of the best thing FDR did, go off gold and re-inflate the currency.

      • broblawsky says:

        NIRA was definitely a bomb, but the AAA definitely helped a lot of people.

        • sourcreamus says:

          It helped alot of farmers but it hurt alot more consumers. During a time of widespread poverty and hunger it meant destroying food which could have fed hundreds of thousands of people.

          • broblawsky says:

            Then why did body weights in schoolchildren bounce back so fast?

            So far as comparable data are available, namely for the 12, 13, and 14 years old children, the mean weights for 1933 and 1934 are distinctly below and those for 1935 and 1936 are somewhat above the average for the previous decade.

            The AAA was in effect for all of 1935. It definitely doesn’t sound like it had a net negative impact on nutrition. Even if it did, the other New Deal programs clearly counterbalanced it.

          • sourcreamus says:

            Calories per capita were at the lowest level of the century in 1935 at 3,170.

    • m.alex.matt says:

      1. Unemployment increased more or less continuously from 1929 to 1933 because the Great Depression wasn’t really just one thing, it was a series of financial panics and banking crises that came fast, one after another, right up until FDR entering office and his bank holiday. The Bank Holiday and the gold devaluation (from ~$20 to $35) were the two great things FDR did that, on their own, would have probably driven full recovery by 1935. Then he also did the rest of the New Deal and stretched the Depression out through the end of the decade.

      Hoover’s methods wouldn’t have been adequate because he mis-diagnosed the problem (not his fault, understanding of monetary policy was in its infancy at the time). Unfortunately, FDR took up and extended his methods, so what good FDR did with devaluation was washed out by his hyper-Hooverism.

  9. eremetic says:

    I think of Hoover as the guy who, with his wife, translated the premier early modern book on mining and metallurgy, Georgius Agricola’s De re metallica. They did an amazing job.

  10. Barry says:

    Great review! Scott you should check out “Witness” by Whittaker Chambers. Whittaker was a Soviet spy in the 30s and claims FDR was at least a fellow traveler. William F Buckley credit “Witness” for triggering 20th century conservatism.

  11. craftman says:

    I’m sorry I don’t have anything productive to add, but…

    Only TIME Magazine dissents, saying that “In a society of temperate, industrious, unspectacular beavers, such a beaver-man would make an ideal King-beaver. But humans are different.”

    …this is the greatest thing I have read all year. I love reminders that people 100 years ago could still muster a good burn.

  12. mobile says:

    The tallest building on the Stanford Campus is Hoover Tower, which houses the Hoover Institution, an island of laissez-faire capitalism in a sea of a woke modern institute of higher learning, and the scholars there continue to offend everyone around them.

  13. Carl Pham says:

    Well, from your review Hoover sounds like a highly intelligent and energetic mildly Asperger’s patient. If he’d been born today he’d have become a brilliant programmer with a passion for Objectivism or self-driving cars.

  14. Synonym Seven says:

    You keep spelling hagiographer as “biographer”, it makes for a very confusing read.

  15. broblawsky says:

    Also, if Whyte doesn’t address the idea that Hoover’s decision to sign into law the Smoot-Hawley act exacerbated tariffs, he’s failing his readers.

    • Quixote says:

      Yes. Strongly seconded.

    • broblawsky says:

      Sorry, I meant exacerbated the Depression.

      Hoover apparently hated Smoot-Hawley, but he still signed it, so it’s his responsibility.

    • markz says:

      True (thirded?). I looked this up on wikipedia, and apparently his cabinet threatened to resign in protest if he vetoed it, so, against the advice of the business community, he signed it. This may be one of those times where leadership would’ve been a more useful attribute than administrative talent. I’m guessing his cabinet was bluffing.

  16. peacetreefrog says:

    I read this book a while ago and generally agree with the review. I remember the overall impression of Hoover as very competent, and definitely an engineer. The Loyd George quote (Hoover’s presentation was “the clearest he had [ever] heard on any subject”) stands out in my mind and I think is at least a partial insight into his success and comparative advantage. I also think on some level if he weren’t so pushy about his mandate all the time (steamrolling the Rockefeller’s on feeding Belgian) he probably would have been less effective on some of his projects.

    Apart from the China mine stuff, which was admittedly pretty bad, I don’t remember leaving with the impression Hoover was as bad (in the immoral sense, willing to lie, cheat etc) as Scott portrays here, but it’s been a while.

    • gattsuru says:

      I also think on some level if he weren’t so pushy about his mandate all the time (steamrolling the Rockefeller’s on feeding Belgian) he probably would have been less effective on some of his projects.

      Seconding this, both in the obvious sense that he probably would have had people calling his bluffs earlier or wouldn’t have gotten the necessary critical mass, but also in that it seemed like he wouldn’t have been able to maintain the interest. Sorta like the Vorkorsigan ‘any job worth doing is worth doing well’, Hoover needed to be the best at a task because literally millions of lives rested on the line, and if there was anyone else he’d trust more than his own work, he’d need to let them do all of it.

      I’m kinda surprised Scott didn’t bring up Heroic Responsibility.

  17. Nick says:

    My confusion here feels similar to my confusion about Tyler Cowen’s “state capacity libertarianism”. Creating a strong and effective state is certainly…a goal you can have. But I don’t understand the argument for calling this a libertarian project. At best, it’s a project not entirely opposed to libertarianism. Still, perhaps this is my ignorance. Cowen thinks that strengthening the state and instituting effective technocratic government can be allied to a small-government individualistic market-based philosophy. Whatever he’s smoking, maybe Herbert Hoover was smoking the same thing.

    Sorry, Scott. I blame myself; my post was heavy on synthesis and light on analysis. I’ll try to do better next time.

    But on the question of what Hoover was smoking. The question that occurs to me is, were people starving during the Great Depression? I am not up on my history the way other folks here are. Of course I remember from school the Dust Bowl and the collapse of American farming and the mass migrations it provoked and the soup lines and all of that. But I’m asking, were people starving? Or was charity keeping everyone going while Hoover did his damnedest to get things running again? If it’s the latter, it’s not hard to see what’s going on. It’s not like Hoover put Belgium or Russia on a permanent government dole; he stepped in with a private charity during the war and kept everyone going until the war ended and he could put everything back together properly. I’d appreciate the historically informed weighing in.

    • broblawsky says:

      Malnutrition was common, but actual fatal starvation was rare.

      Between 1923 and 1927, the percentage of children 14 percent or more below the average weight was consistently around 7 percent; by 1932, it had risen incrementally to 12.6 percent.

      • Nick says:

        Yikes, okay. Thanks. I’ll read the paper.

        • DarkTigger says:

          Also on an more anecdotal level:
          You know the storry of Captain America, the small guy who get’s a experimental “super soldier” serum.
          Well it turns out, that when the US Army ramped up the recrutment for WW2 they had to turn away a lot of draftees and volunteers, because of issues that stem from malnourishment during childhood.

          • Garrett says:

            IIRC, this is also where the school lunch program came from as well. To ensure that students weren’t *underweight*.

          • gwern says:

            It’s worth remembering that, Great Depression or no, America was what we would now consider a Third World country.

            For example, why was salt iodized in the 1920s? Because in the WWI drafts, there were so many young men who had goiters so severe they couldn’t close their military uniform’s collars. (The IQ/cretinism effects were merely a bonus.) I think it’s safe to say that very few SSCers have seen a goiter in their life, and hardly any SSC readers would be discharged by a draft board due to a goiter.

            Or for another example, Hoover’s ex-boss, Coolidge: one theory for why he did so little and didn’t run for a second term was that he was devastated and thrown into depression when his young son died in 1924, toward the start of his term; the son had been engaged in the notoriously reckless and dangerous behavior of… playing tennis at the White House, got a blister, and died of blood poisoning.

  18. pacificverse says:

    State Capacity Libertarianism won’t work, because people aren’t beavers. Heck, as much as I love libertarianism, it probably doesn’t work, period, because people are nosy, and because people aren’t beavers.

    Just look at Hong Kong. 18% income tax cap, second-freest economy on the planet, free healthcare and heavily subsidized college. With a massive budget surplus.

    Screwed over because of a bunch of ideologues, environmentalists, and defect-defect social behavior making problems with obvious technocratic solutions politically impossible.

    The same goes for neoreaction: people will always find a way to hate the monarch and screw things up so it looks like the monarch sucks, regardless of how competent or benevolent the monarch was in the first place, because people – again – aren’t beavers.

  19. Peter Shenkin says:

    I think somewhere in 35 years of newspaper work, Mencken calls Hoover one of the most evil men he’s ever encountered. I can’t find my copy, but googling brought out this quote (origin unspecified, alas):

    He is the perfect self-seeker. His principles are so vague that even his intimates seem unable to put them into words. He knows who his masters are, and he will serve them.

    • liskantope says:

      Mencken was given to being very flamboyantly opinionated in general; this is not a particularly strong condemnation by his standards of tone.

    • liskantope says:

      I found the source of this quite: Mencken’s article “Al in the Free State” published October 29th, 1928 (shortly before Hoover’s election). Here is the full paragraph (the second paragraph of the article):

      The contrast [Al Smith] makes with his opponent is really appalling. Hoover stands at the opposite pole. He is a man of sharp intelligence, well-schooled and familiar with the ways of the world, and more than once, in difficult situations, he has shown a shrewd competence, but where his character ought to be there is almost a blank. He is the perfect self-seeker, pushing and unconscionable; it is hard to imagine him balking at anything to get on. His principles are so vague that even his intimates seem unable to put them into words. He is an American who came within an inch of being an Englishman, a Republican who came within an inch of being a Democrat, a dry who came within an inch of being a wet. He is what he is today because it has paid him well so far, and promises to pay him still better hereafter.

      I suppose that can be summed up as a very eloquent way of calling him “most evil man I ever encountered”.

  20. Mark V Anderson says:

    Based on this review, it appears to me that Hoover was very good on solving acute crisis, but was pretty terrible at understanding and fixing the roots of problems. It looks like he would solve one crises after another, even in his presidency, but never even occurred to him that some problems have a deeper root.

    Although I guess that is pretty much all Presidents. It’s not like FDR had a clue how to fix things either. It seems unlikely to me that any other presidential administration than FDR’s, including Hoover’s, could have stretched out the Great Depression all the way to WWII. So Hoover getting re-elected probably would have been an improvement over what happened.

    • Aapje says:

      I don’t think it is fair to criticize Hoover for not getting the cause of (and solution(s) for) the Great Depression, when people are still debating it today, with way more information.

      Some things are not understandable by mortal man, but can at best either be ‘trial and errored’ or solved with good intuition.

      • teageegeepea says:

        One of FDR’s New Dealers, Rexford Tugwell, gave Hoover a lot of credit, saying the New Deal was largely extrapolated from stuff he’d already been doing.

  21. PhilippeO says:

    Reading this making me think about Andrew Yang and UBI Libertarian. isn’t their principle rather similar : unscrupulous capitalism, helping ALL people, unhindered technological progress.

    • Darwin says:

      ‘Unscrupulous capitalism with a generous UBI’ seems qualitatively different from ‘Unscrupulous capitalism and no social welfare programs,’ which the review seems to say was Hoover’s position.

      I agree that some forms of heartless capitalism have the potential to create massive productivity (I think heartless is a better term than unscrupulous, because unscrupulous could include things like trusts and protectionism that undermine productivity). But if there’s no explicit mechanism for the benefits of that productivity to be funneled to the average citizen, then we’re just sort of hoping that’s what naturally happens, which is a very fragile state of affairs.

  22. Edward Scizorhands says:

    Warren D. Harding

    Who is Warren D. Harding?

    I know who Warren G. Harding is.

  23. Hoover’s lack of campaigning and “selling a conception” reminds me of Paul Graham’s depiction of the Nixon campaign in his essay It’s Charisma, Stupid. Graham’s theory that the more charismatic candidate always wins (except before television) is holding up remarkably well, correctly predicting all elections after the essay was published.

    • Darwin says:

      Would you argue that Biden is more charismatic than Sanders? I definitely wouldn’t, although maybe there’s a type of charisma more focused on geniality rather than populism.

      Or maybe this claim only holds for general elections, and primaries are too different because of party politicking?

      • Anthony says:

        Neither are terribly charismatic in the traditional sense, but Biden, before he became senile, was the more approachable and friendly of the two.

      • jasmith79 says:

        The claim IIRC was about general elections.

        But part of “charisma” in the modern political sense is palatability: Biden for all of the open-foot-insert-mouth moments is more politically viable than Sanders. The Left is not going to fracture over him, not with the salient alternative. Biden may even be centrist enough to snag some #nevertrumpers.

        Or to put it slightly differently, the more controversial your positions the smoother you have to be to compensate, and the less controversial your platform the more unlikeable you can get away with being. But by the time you get to the general election the unviable candidates have been weeded out, and the ability to make people like you wins out.

        • Aanon Smith-Teller says:

          It seems rather circular to redefine charisma to mean “electability” and then claim the most electable candidate is elected.

        • During the 2016 election, I thought that Trump was beyond-the-pale unpalatable and so did most news organizations. Yet he was more charismatic than Clinton, so Graham’s model predicted he will win, and he did. That really impressed me.

      • Plumber says:

        @Darwin says:

        “Would you argue that Biden is more charismatic than Sanders?…”

        In a “Who would you rather kick back and have a beer with?” sense?

        Biden by a landslide, he seems much approachable and “down to earth”.

        Sanders, in contrast, seems “Storm the barricades!”, and has less appeal when you’re past fighting age.

        • EchoChaos says:

          Yeah, I’m definitely not voting Biden, but he’s a charismatic guy, no question.

          He’s well past his prime, but he’s there.

          Sanders on the other hand isn’t charismatic, just saying something that nobody else is, which gives him a following amongst people who care about what he’s selling.

          • Plumber says:

            @EchoChaos,
            Speaking of “Won’t vote for but can see the appeal”, I heard an NPR reporter interview Vice-president Mike Pence this morning and he really sounded good!

            Won’t happen ’cause of “culture war” but I could definitely see him as “consoler-in-chief”/”inspire-trust” guy for the nation.

            Maybe it’s past time to elect governors or generals again.

          • EchoChaos says:

            @Plumber

            I think Pence leading the Chinese coronavirus response will tremendously raise his national stock and profile.

            I would not be surprised to see him become President one day on his own merit. He’s probably the top Republican for 2024 right now.

          • Randy M says:

            I think Pence leading the Chinese coronavirus response will tremendously raise his national stock and profile.

            Maybe. Depends, as the old saw notes, on the events.

  24. liskantope says:

    Minor nitpick on a confusing juxtaposition:

    Woodrow Wilson has just died, leaving both Democrats and Republicans leaderless… [two paragraphs later] Warren D. Harding, a nondescript Senator from Ohio, wins the Republican nomination and the Presidency.

    Warren G. Harding won the Republican nomination and the presidency in 1920. Woodrow Wilson didn’t die until 1924 (he was actually gunning for a third term in 1920, despite his obviously failing health).

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Thanks, fixed.

    • sourcreamus says:

      Interesting fact is that Wilson was not nominated for a third term because he was in such horrible health, but managed to outlive his successor.

      • Eric Rall says:

        but managed to outlive his successor.

        True, but only by a matter of months. And in the meantime, his 1919 stroke had left him partially paralyzed and with cognitive damage that a modern doctor who analyzed Wilson’s medical records summarized as “disorders of emotion, impaired impulse control, and defective judgment.”

        Although neither of those seem to be disqualifying factors: we’ve definitely elected (and re-elected) a paralyzed President, and a great many people will argue that we’ve elected at least one or two Presidents with defective judgement and impaired impulse control. But in Wilson’s case, I get the impression that he was far more incapacitated than any other President has been for a protracted period of time.

        • liskantope says:

          He was probably the only president who was more or less completely incapacitated for a substantial amount of time to the point that behind closed doors others were running the country in his place (most likely this was largely done by his wife, who disliked VP Thomas Marshall and kept him as much out of the loop as she could). The only possible exceptions here are Garfield and McKinley who both lingered for months after the gunshot wounds which eventually killed them.

          By the way, the Democratic Party’s refusal to choose him as their 1920 nominee probably also had a lot to do with his severe unpopularity throughout the country by the end of his second term; in the end this helped Harding win even though he wasn’t running against Wilson.

        • sourcreamus says:

          It is interesting how many 20th century president had health problems that should have been disqualifying. Wilson, Harding, FDR, JFK, and LBJ all had health problems before election and Eisenhower before his second term.

  25. SEE says:

    But they also give me more of a technophile, rationalist feel than their modern counterparts. Am I imagining things? If not, where did this go?

    It went into the 1960s, and then died at the hands of Baby Boomers. The Great Society was its last great gasp; in the late 1960s the New Left rose, and became the new paradigm.

    To quote Peter Beagle’s 1973 introduction to the Ballantine paperback of The Lord of the Rings,

    I’ve never thought it an accident that Tolkien’s works waited more than ten years to explode into popularity almost overnight. The Sixties were no fouler a decade than the Fifttes–they merely reaped the Fiftes’ foul harvest–but they were the years when millions of people grew aware that the industrial society had become paradoxically unlivable, incalculably immoral, and ultimately deadly. In terms of passwords, the Sixties were the time when the word progress lost its ancient holiness[.]

    • notpeerreviewed says:

      It went into the 1960s, and then died at the hands of Baby Boomers. The Great Society was its last great gasp; in the late 1960s the New Left rose, and became the new paradigm.

      There’s a huge gap, though, between the vibe of leftist activism and the types of candidates Democrats run for office, especially the presidency. Barack Obama fit the technocratic, “old progressive” mold perfectly.

      • SEE says:

        Well, yes. There pretty much has to be a huge gap between a remotely-viable Democratic candidate for President and the people who identify as part of the left. In a country that routinely self-identifies as 37% conservative, 35% moderate, and 24% liberal or thereabouts, Democratic presidential candidates have to win* a super-majority of self-described moderates to be elected.

        And, of course, it’s hard to appeal to self-described moderates except on grounds of superior practical competence and/or moral character. After all, if they were the sort of person who would be swayed by sweeping ideological agendas, they wouldn’t self-identify as moderate.

        *Yes, sure, some people believe a progressive turn-out-the-base strategy can work. Maybe it could if tried. But the available data-set is that in the 1992, 1996, 2008, and 2012 exit polls, the Democratic candidate for President had a margin of at least fifteen points among self-described moderates over the Republican, and became President. In the 1988, 2000, 2004, and 2016 exit polls, the Democratic candidate had a majority among self-described moderates, but by less than fifteen points, and did not become President. Both times Obama was elected, he got more total votes from self-described moderates than from liberals; Hillary Clinton got more total votes from self-described liberals than moderates.

  26. gattsuru says:

    In fact, one of his Democratic opponents wrote something about how maybe if unemployed American workers pretended to be Belgians, they could get Hoover’s sympathy. I don’t have a great explanation for this.

    This probably reflects Hoover’s technocratic analysis. He seemed to have genuinely thought that large-scale inflation would seriously discourage investment, where Belgium wasn’t going to have investment in any case. I’m not sure if he would have acted differently had he been trained under more aggregate-demand focused analysis — the extent he seemed traumatized by past difficulties keeping things ‘in the black’ seem pretty significant.

    And how did Hoover so deftly merge his centralizing technocratic engineer side with his small-government individual-freedom pro-capitalism side? Maybe it wasn’t that deft? Maybe he started his life as a centralizing technocrat, then made a 180 after becoming a small-government individualist helped him dunk on FDR more effectively?

    Much of this reflects (often drastically) different roles for a lot of Hooverian institutions. The mework for standards is drastically different from modern rule-making, for example.

    A lot just reflects lower-hanging fruit. The original Air Commerce Act required pilot licensing and tail numbers, which are not entirely compatible with libertarian formalism… for something that was repeatedly coming through people’s roofs. Hoover’s role in the Federal Radio Commission ran at the same time that radio towers were starting to fight battles of EM wave power, sometimes over international lines (mostly with Canada). Volunteerism didn’t run on the same concept as the non-aggression principle, but it’s not hard to draw these as exceptions.

    • Aapje says:

      Any politician that would demand that these institutions return to their 30’s level of rule-making would be considered a far-out-of-the-Overton-window libertarian.

  27. Snickering Citadel says:

    From another long review of books about Hoover:

    “A senator expressed disbelief that Hoover would happily feed “hungry Russians, hungry Bolsheviks, hungry men with long whiskers and wild ideas”, but not starving Americans.  But Herbert Hoover believed in American exceptionalism.  It made sense to him that people in places like Belgium and Russia might find themselves starving and in desperate need of help, for they did not hold to the tenets of American individualism, and so it was only to be expected that their inferior philosophies would lead them into dire straits.  But that couldn’t happen in America.  It just couldn’t.”

  28. walkere says:

    Consider this a petition for Scott to read Edmund Morris’ ‘The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt’. Would recommend for anyone looking to understand the psychology of an absolute maverick of a human being. One example: Roosevelt read all of ‘Anna Karenina’ whilst lying in a boat floating down miles and miles of dangerous rapids in pursuit of two outlaws whom he would later ambush and arrest. The entire book is like this. I think Roosevelts presidential years were the most sedate and regular of his life.

  29. ec429 says:

    You probably remember Herbert Hoover as the guy who bungled the Great Depression.

    Fwiw, the “Hoover basically did stuff right, FDR was the one who Made Depression Great Again” account is the one I’m familiar with. Idk if it comes from Whyte but it seems to be the ‘standard history’ in small-government-right-wing circles. With, of course, built-in smug contrarian superiority over the statist sheep who think the New Deal “ended” the Depression.

    • blacktrance says:

      The position I’ve heard is that Hoover was a proto-FDR and rightly maligned for the wrong reasons – that the popular historical ascription of laissez-faire to him is incorrect.

    • notpeerreviewed says:

      Fwiw, the “Hoover basically did stuff right, FDR was the one who Made Depression Great Again” account is the one I’m familiar with. Idk if it comes from Whyte but it seems to be the ‘standard history’ in small-government-right-wing circles. With, of course, built-in smug contrarian superiority over the statist sheep who think the New Deal “ended” the Depression.

      The Amity Shlaes version seems to regard Hoover as a blundering sell-out who gave up on his free market principles and made the Depression a little worse, before FDR took over and made the Depression a lot worse.

      Mainstream economic historians sort of sit out the debate; they believe monetary policy was the main thing that mattered, as opposed to the more ideologically controversial New Deal spending programs.

    • markz says:

      Perhaps it depends on where you live, but the consensus I grew up with is that FDR is up there with Washington, Lincoln, and JFK as one of our greatest presidents. This was the grade school textbook assessment of him. I first encountered the anti-FDR narrative in college (in the library, that is, not in classes). I think the consensus among economists is marginally more nuanced now ever since the ‘conservatives’ became monetarists and the ‘liberals’ became New Keynesians.

  30. Bugmaster says:

    Hoover sounds like a true engineer. When he saw a machine that was broken, or just running inefficiently, he could not rest until he fixed it, regardless of whether the machine was a mining rig, or Belgium. He didn’t care about or even comprehend people on a personal level, because people are too unlike machines. Lies, strong-arm tactics, more lies, and financial shenanigans were just tools to him: levers that he could push to get the machine back on track.

    At least, that’s the impression I get from reading this review.

    • Aapje says:

      I think that you are confusing having ‘normal’ emotional responses with comprehending people on a personal level.

      You can have the former with very little comprehension.

  31. Thomas Jorgensen says:

    Tyler Cowens point is that modern american conservatisms goal of drowning government in a bathtub is goddamn idiotic.
    1:You cant have a well functioning private economy without a well functioning state, because a poorly functioning state allows private enterprise to become pervasively corrupt.

    2:The size and capability of government are orthogonal to each other, and trying to make the government smaller by making it less capable (which, yes, US conservatives routinely damn well do. Do not appoint people to head departments that hate those departments!) is pulling on a lever that not only does not connect to the variable you want to change, it connects to a claymore mine pointed at your face.

  32. mdv1959 says:

    I loved this book review. Thanks for writing it.

    As I was reading this I reminded me of the line from the ‘All in the Family’ theme song;
    “Mister we could use a man like Herbert Hoover again” although I imagine Norman Lear meant it ironically.
    link text

    I think it’s interesting that a lot of the most consequential people of the past century, whether it’s Hoover, Jobs, Musk, Bezos or Gates have a relentless self confidence that makes them both divisive and incredibly effective. I can’t imagine having that kind of psyche.

  33. clipmaker says:

    Reminds me of this tale of another war hero:

    http://www.gutenberg.org/files/24091/24091-h/24091-h.htm

    I won’t spoil the ending here but if you want the spoiler and background, it is in the Wikipedia article:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Despoilers_of_the_Golden_Empire

    I’d just read the story first.

  34. Eponymous says:

    A Quaker, huh? Is this secretly an Albion’s Seed post?

    I do note a similarity to your biography of William Penn.

  35. Randy M says:

    Fascinating review, thanks.

    It sounds like Hoover was, like the immediate successor he despised, and also like his two most recent successors, a man foremost of titanic ego and ambition. Though in at least his case, proved with some rather impressive ventures before his election.

    What’s astonishing to me is that he seems to have accomplished so much that essentially relies on persuasion despite having abysmal social skills and non-existent charisma. Did he improve on that, or compensate for it through deal brokering or such, or have partners who supplied the needed charm? Or in this realm, are audacity and persistence really the key factors?

    • Erusian says:

      I’ve found that charisma and persuasion are less correlated than people think. Charisma is about getting people to like you. Persuasion is about getting people to do what you want. For persuasion, the main thing you need is trust. The person needs to believe that you know what you’re talking about and that what you say is true. Hoover seems to have had that: even in China, his predictions were coming true. Meanwhile, being too charismatic (too likable, too slick, too witty) actually makes people trust you less, in my experience.

      • Randy M says:

        Perhaps, but being at least minimally comfortable around people is important for projecting confidence. Of course, Hoover was supremely confident it seems, just also completely unaware of how to employ small talk or discuss emotions and the like.

        Also, he wasn’t against abusing people’s trust. Maybe he had a keen eye for when he was in an iterated PD situation and when a one-off?
        And then he moved theaters and build good-will off his expertise and money?

        • Aapje says:

          It seems to me that he was fairly comfortable as long as the interaction was non-intimate, since his early life was devoid of intimacy (so he didn’t learn normal human intimacy), but it was not abusive, so he was not really fearful of people.

          The anecdote about his table manners suggests to me that he was bored out of his skull by other people most of the time and often (minimally) humored them with some grunts, while actually thinking about more interesting things, unless he found something about the discussion interesting, whereupon he condescendingly explained to the other person what was going on, not paying attention to their worthless comments.

          Also, did he actually build good-will in person or was he a combination of too capable and too heroic in public image to (dare) oppose?

          Compare it to mother Theresa, who seems to have been a prick to those near her, but who was going to say no to her?

      • Alkatyn says:

        Perversely seeming less socially adept can make people more likely to trust you, because they are less likely to suspect you of being able to do a complicated deception than someone with more skills. This is where is old “I’m just a simple country lawyer but…” thing comes from, or to give a modern political example, George W Bush played up his rural texan image, because people associated that with being straightforward and trustworthy, vs a slick polished politician.

    • Darwin says:

      When thinking about how much persuasion must have been needed to accomplish all this, I kind of suspect that we’re underestimating how much could be accomplished with bald-faced lying in an era with limited communications infrastructure.

      • Randy M says:

        Was this happening a lot, and Hoover just one of the more successful examples? Or was he a somewhat unique defector?

      • Aapje says:

        @Darwin

        Lying doesn’t require less skill of persuasion than telling the truth. In fact, lying is a skill of persuasion.

        • Darwin says:

          Mmm, I think that definition of ‘persuasion’ is less semantically useful than one which excludes lying. It groups together empirical situations which people would think about and react to very differently, leaving the word ‘persuasion’ very underdetermined without further description of what was actually happening.

          IE, if you said ‘he’s a very persuasive person,’ I wouldn’t know if that meant I should be wary of him trying to sway me with rhetoric and emotional appeals, or be checking to make sure his statements of fact are actually true. Whereas saying ‘he’s very persuasive’ in the first case and ‘he’s a liar’ in the second case prepares me much better for the interaction.

          But that’s just semantics.

          • Aapje says:

            More subtle deceivers leave out some facts, exaggerate others, etc; but they require you to be vigilant just like outright liars require you to be.

            I think that at a certain level of professional persuaders, outright lying is accepted as a tactic, if used sparingly and/or for the ‘greater good’.

  36. Quixote says:

    In some ways we can maybe think of Hoover as a definitive test case that the qualities that make one an effective corporate boss / executive director of a non profit might not be the qualities that make an effective president.

    • Doug S. says:

      Agreed. CEOs don’t need to play politics to set corporate policy. They can just fire everyone who disagrees and never need to compromise with an opposition party (except maybe a labor union). A politician can’t just fire the opposition. The skills needed to be a good CEO are nothing like the skills needed to be a good mayor, governor, or president.

  37. simbalimsi says:

    in the first half of the biography (roughly until WWI) he’s a net negative to the community and everybody in the world would’ve been better off if a cow kicked his head when he was a child.

    until he becomes the president, he’s like the best. all that standardization, etc it’s good to the level of unreal.

    after becoming president he’s mediocre at best, and after losing to FDR he’s just a shell of bitterness and nothing else.

    I think even though being an American those years he auto-hates communism; the position he’d do the best would’ve probably been the general secretary of the communist party of the USSR. if not that, a benevolent dictator a la Ataturk.

    does saving millions of lives a few decades later make it ok to screw thousands selfishly? that’s a tough question. i still hate the early hoover but to be honest he seems like a real enigma.

    • Aapje says:

      Those workers could later fight/unionize for better work conditions (which they already tried to do under Hoover), but the starved people would have had no opportunity to unstarve themselves.

      Also, millions > thousands & starving is worse than bad work conditions.

      • simbalimsi says:

        For sure it’s a net positive, it’s just that it feels weird because when you roll back the time there’s no way of knowing he’ll save millions in the future and he looks like somebody who needs to be kept away from society.

        This leads to another question: Which of the “bad guys” of history would’ve been a net positive after a few decades had they not been stopped for being evil? Is it a moral obligation to find a better way of evaluating people who are net negatives to society? Where should we draw the line?

        • Aapje says:

          In a different timeline, Nelson Mandela would merely be known as the founder of a terrorist organisation…

          Of course, Mandela was kept away from society for a while, which may actually have disrupted his increasing radicalism.

          So the question is not just whether ‘bad’ people have the potential for good, but also what (non-)intervention will actually bring this out in them.

  38. Darwin says:

    >Maybe all of this stuff about how authoritarian approaches never work, and you need to let the people you are helping lead the way, is all just modern prejudices, and putting a brilliant and very rich engineer in charge of a hypercentralized organization is just as good as any other way of doing things.

    One model might be that, the longer it’s been since we’ve had a brilliant technocrat with massive centralized power, the more we’ve learned as a society about how to do things better, and the more low-handing fruit there is for the next technocrat to scoop up by implementing that knowledge.

    EG, the government institutions Hoover founded to implement technocratic policy still exists, and are still implementing technocratic policy; the communications infrastructure he built in Europe did not collapse as soon as he turned his attention elsewhere, and global communication infrastructure is more or less a solved problem now; the idea of ‘track your employee’s productivity and fire the low performers’ may have been impressively modern at the time, but it’s common sense for any business now.

    Maybe Hoover implemented all the good ideas that a brilliant, well-read technocrat of his generation could have, saw massive improvements because of them, and then had little else to offer afterwards. Maybe another massively powerful centralized technocrat today could implement everything we’ve learned since Hoover, to massive societal gains, and then also become useless in day-to-day politicking and management.

    Maybe we just need periodic injections of technocrats to ‘upgrade the system’, once a generation or so, while trusting the normal type of good-with-people politician to competently manage the system they’ve been handed in between.

  39. mendax says:

    Today I learned that Herbert Hoover and J. Edgar Hoover were different people.
    Excellent read. One more vote for “not too long at all”.

  40. Freddie deBoer says:

    Orientation towards capitalism aside, I don’t think you can be a capital-G Great Man if the way you achieve that is being an incorrigible asshole who leaves human wreckage in your wake.

  41. Freddie deBoer says:

    “Several years of civil war, communism, and crop failure have produced mass famine.”

    Don’t forget “trying to emerge from centuries of feudalism directly into a developed economy,” which is just what Marx warned would not work.

    • m.alex.matt says:

      This was years before the Soviets tried any kind of crash industrialization. The famines started in Soviet Russia very quickly after it became Soviet Russia. Lenin wasn’t the kind of guy to care if a few million people starved to death as long as he got his Revolution.

      • Freddie deBoer says:

        Are you really unaware of the conditions in the Czar’s Russia, or are you another one of this blog’s witless capitalist stooges?

        • m.alex.matt says:

          What conditions, in particular, do you think that this witless capitalist stooge may be unaware of that has direct bearing on the conversation in question?

        • EchoChaos says:

          @Freddie deBoer

          I usually enjoy your comments, but less of this please. If he has some historical fact wrong, just educate him without personal insults.

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      It is terrible how the the prophet’s true teaching is denied by his disciples.

      • Viliam says:

        I have read Lenin’s biography, and (at least according to the author of the biography) he was quite aware of this paradox, and quite worried about it.

        During the revolution he still believed that the prophecy could somehow become true at the last moment… like: any day now a revolution in Germany will happen, and it will proceed faster than the revolution in Russia, so technically Germany will still be the first socialist country…

        When that didn’t happen, the true believers were first like “well, if Germany doesn’t join us soon, we are probably screwed”… so they felt like they are only doing some kind of temporary socialism until the true socialism comes…

        ..and gradually, they got used to it. And it some moment it became “eh, forget Germany, we will build our capitalism and socialism and everything at the same time”. And by the time Stalin took over, no one cared about socialism in Germany anymore.

        • Le Maistre Chat says:

          ..and gradually, they got used to it. And it some moment it became “eh, forget Germany, we will build our capitalism and socialism and everything at the same time”.

          This was the basis for Lenin’s New Economic Policy.
          “Oh crap, Marxism predicts we need capitalism before socialism! The Communist Party authorizes the people to do a quick capitalism!”

  42. Alleged Wisdom says:

    State Capacity Libertarianism is the belief that the government should be very good at its job, while accepting strict constitutional limits on what that job is. It is an extension of some basic beliefs that most Americans share. For example, we all want a military that has the capacity to defend our borders, but that does not interfere in domestic politics or law enforcement. We all want police with the capacity to win a shootout with a drug cartel, but that accepts strict limits on search, seizure, detention etc. and follows due process. It says that our regulatory agencies should also have the capacity to do their jobs, but not to be able to constantly extend their mandate and tell us what their job is.

    It can seem foreign because it is very deontological. It says that you should do your job, and do your job very well, but not do anything that is not your job. If you see a giant pile of utility, you cannot pick it up unless that is your job. If you see desperate people, you cannot help them unless it is your job. Hoover had a belief in a certain constitutional order that said it was not the job of the Federal government to feed people. There were some good reasons for believing this. FDR chose to abandon this constitutional order, potentially screwing over future generations and dooming the USA to failure in a couple hundred years, in exchange for a giant pile of utility right now. This was probably the right decision, given any positive discount rate.

  43. Alex Zavoluk says:

    “Hoover’s reticence was chronic. He was the sort of man who could sit for three hours on a train with his closest colleagues and not utter a single word, or bid farewell to his wife, not expecting to see her again for several months, in a curt telegraph: “Goodbye, Love, Bert””

    “Warren G. Harding, a nondescript Senator from Ohio”

    “Vice-President “Silent Cal” Coolidge, a man famous for having no opinions and never talking. Coolidge won re-election easily in 1924..”

    Was being boring and emotionless an advantage in politics, at some point in time? My closest guess is that people were inherently skeptical of anyone that seemed like they might be capable of taking too much power for themselves, and deliberately gave power to people who couldn’t use it as effectively. But that seems like too much of a just-so story.

    The other thing I want to comment on is the bit about FDR. While I certainly doubt Hoover was perfect and Whyte may very well be presenting a biased picture, none of this depiction of FDR seems surprising to me (disclaimer: I’m heavily biased against FDR here). FDR used a threat of court-packing to force through a bunch of programs that, up to that point in history, would have all been considered clearly unconstitutional. Wickard v Filburn is probably one of the stupidest SCOTUS opinions ever, and opened the floodgates for a federal government that represents 40% of GDP. This same Supreme Court declared it constitutional for the government to indefinitely imprison a quarter of a million citizens for their ethnicity (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_United_States_Supreme_Court_cases_by_the_Stone_Court).

    • Randy M says:

      Was being boring and emotionless an advantage in politics, at some point in time?

      Maybe, but you sure couldn’t say that applies to Hoover’s near contemporary, Teddy Rooseveldt.

    • sourcreamus says:

      It used to be that parties had factions and that the natural leaders would be the leaders of the faction and then when it came time to nominate someone they were looking for someone who would be acceptable to all factions. That is how Harding was nominated, he was very affable and everyone liked him and nobody hated him. Thus the progressives and the conservatives did not want him but found him acceptable.

      Coolidge was one of the most popular politicians in the country because of his competence and eloquence responding to the Boston Police strike. He was nominated for vice president by acclimation even though the party leaders were not planning on having him run.

      Hoover was very popular in 1920 he received votes in both party’s primaries and was so popular that the nomination was easily his in 1928.

    • bullseye says:

      My closest guess is that people were inherently skeptical of anyone that seemed like they might be capable of taking too much power for themselves, and deliberately gave power to people who couldn’t use it as effectively. But that seems like too much of a just-so story.

      “Bad at taking power” doesn’t sound like Hoover’s brand.

      My own unfounded speculation was that it was considered improper for a man to show much emotion, which gave an advantage to men for whom that was natural.

    • mobile says:

      It was less of a liability in an age before radio.

  44. I have to say, all the terrible stuff about FDR lines up with what I read in *Freedom From Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929–1945*, the book in the Oxford History of the United States on the period. The main difference in the planks of the two parties on how to respond to the Great Depression was that the Democrats were resolutely against running budget deficits the way the Republicans had but it mentions all the obstructionism this book did.

    And in office, while Hoover had had private meetings with various industry bigwigs telling them they absolutely had to raise prices and wages Roosevelt launched the NRA which had big parades and public campaigns telling businesses to raise prices and wages. Sadly the very last thing you want to do during a deflationary depression is to raise prices higher than they are.

  45. ovid75 says:

    It’s funny how certain personality types with certain skill sets are lucky to be born when they are, because otherwise they would have remained in obscurity. Think how many people of Hoover’s type (if not his extraordinary level) flourished in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, before credentialing and academic meritocracy set in. Someone like him, with extraordinary but fuzzy talents for people management, negotiating, entrepreneurship might do OK today (running a chain of car dealerships?), but the ceiling would be low and rigid. Nowadays everything is geared toward passing gate keeping academic tests, favoring those with high symbolic manipulation skills and personality-wise a certain amount of subservience to authority. A Hoover wouldn’t even make it to the board of trustees of a minor college, let alone running Belgium or the White House.

    Similarly think of the ‘gap’ that opened up in late 16th century England for those with imaginative gifts.

    “The times maketh the man” means that whole categories of people are unlucky to be born when they are.

    (or am I exaggerating the modularity of personal skill sets?)

    • Procrastinating Prepper says:

      I think you are exaggerating a little. For Hoover to have accomplished so much in Europe during and after WWI, he would have needed to have extremely good logistics, persuasive and numerical skills, of exactly the kind that makes people successful in business today.

      Subservience to authority is also region- and sector-specific. I don’t think anyone would accuse the Silicon Valley tech sector of being too attentive to local laws and academic credentials. Maverickery has always been more accepted in ‘frontier’ sectors, though some eras have more frontier space than others.

      What really stood out to me as a complete absence of barrier for Hoover was that Stanford took him as a student after he’d failed their entrance exam. Then again, no one could have known that Stanford would gain the prestige that it has. It could well have ended up as the Phoenix U. of its time.

    • The Nybbler says:

      Nowadays everything is geared toward passing gate keeping academic tests, favoring those with high symbolic manipulation skills and personality-wise a certain amount of subservience to authority.

      Subservience to authority is never a characteristic of the master classes. Subservience to authority may help you rise on the Gentry ladder, but it means you’ll never be an elite. (though faking it for a while may help)

  46. Walter says:

    I feel like “Twenty million people are starving. Whatever their politics, they shall be fed” is a freaking movie line. It’s a novel line. You drop that to win a rap battle. I hope whoever he was arguing with went home and reexamined his life.

    What a fascinating dude! I love reading biographies like this, where the editor wouldn’t let you put that much in a novel, because people wouldn’t believe it.

    • Le Maistre Chat says:

      I feel like “Twenty million people are starving. Whatever their politics, they shall be fed” is a freaking movie line.

      Herbert Hoover movie when?

  47. mstead88 says:

    Fantastic read! For the opposite perspective on this era, I highly recommened Goliath: The 100-Year War Between Monopoly Power and Democracy. It is much more pro-FDR. I would love to hear your review of this book and your comparison of the two!

  48. Atlas says:

    In his early teens, Hoover gets his first job, as an office boy at a local real estate company. He loves it! He has spent his whole life doing chores for no pay, and working for pay is so much better! He has spent his whole life sullenly following orders, and now he’s expected to be proactive and figure things out for himself! Hoover the mediocre student and all-around unexceptional kid does a complete 180 and accepts Capitalism as the father he never had…

    Hoover meets all sorts of people passing through the Oregon frontier. One is a mining engineer. He regales young Herbert with his stories of traveling through the mountains, opening up new sources of minerals to feed the voracious appetite of Progress. This is the age of steamships, skyscrapers, and railroads, and to the young idealistic Hoover, engineering has an irresistible romance. He wants to leave home and go to college. But he worries a poor frontier boy like him would never fit in at Harvard or Yale. He gets a tip – a new, tuition-free university might be opening in Palo Alto, California. If he heads down right away, he might make it in time for the entrance exam. Hoover fails the entrance exam, but the new university is short on students and decides to take him anyway…

    After a few months, he finds a position as a clerk at a top Bay Area mining firm. One year later, he is a senior mining engineer. He is moving up rapidly – but not rapidly enough for his purposes. An opportunity arises: London company Berwick Moreing is looking for someone to supervise their mines in the Australian Outback. Their only requirement is that he be at least 35 years old, experienced, and an engineer. Hoover (22 years old, <1 year experience, geology degree only) travels to Britain, strides into their office, and declares himself their man. The executives “professed astonishment at Americans’ ability to maintain their youthful appearance” (Hoover had told them he was 36), but hire him and send him on an ocean liner to Australia.

    I have a general impression that ~1865-1929 was a really exciting and adventurous era of American capitalism that this review enhanced. It seems like, between a general lack of government regulations, basically open borders, and lots of technological advances, there was a lot of freedom for people to try new jobs and enterprises, move new places and invent new things. I think the case for libertarianism as a philosophy hinges to a certain degree on your interpretation of this era.

    (For readers interested in rigorous analysis by learned scholars rather than my bloviating, check out the relevant books by Robert Gordon and Tyler Cowen. Also, I cannot recommend highly enough American Colossus by HW Brands on this era. And in fiction, Thomas Pynchon’s highbrow steampunk novel Against the Day.)

    Another example of this is An Empire of Their Own, a great book about the origins of Hollywood. Reading it, I was really struck by how immigrants from very modest means circa 1900 could rise to the heights of powerful industries through experimenting and risk-taking in lots of different industries in different regions. The early-to-mid lives of the founders of the big Hollywood studios remind me a lot of Hoover’s as depicted here.

    It seems to me that Hoover saw himself as a defender of the spirit of that era, and there’s a lot I respect about that.

  49. Atlas says:

    I get the impression that Kenneth Whyte is a bit of a revisionist historian, too sympathetic to his subject to tell his story the way everyone else does. But at least in Whyte’s telling, the Hoover presidency was a great missed opportunity, or at least a fulcrum of history. If a few key economic events had been a few months off in one direction or the other, FDR might have been a footnote to history, and a four-term President Hoover might have left an indelible mark on America. Instead of a New Deal, we might have gotten a optimistic small-government technocratic meritocracy that was able to merge the best aspects of a dying frontier America with the best aspects of the industrial age.

    On this point, I enjoy making a lazy narrative fallacy pundit’s analogy between Hoover/FDR/Eisenhower and Carter/Reagan/Clinton. (Actually, now that I think about it, I could even add a surprisingly tight Truman/HW Bush analogy, but I’ll quit while I’m ahead.) Hoover/Carter were representatives of the right-wing/left-wing old order that was beset by a series of crises. FDR/Reagan were the rhetorically gifted leaders of the left-wing/right-wing revolution that set up a new order. Eisenhower/Clinton managed to lead the right-wing/left-wing back into power, but only by moderating their party’s stances and making some concessions to the new order.

    On Hoover/Carter specifically, both were engineers. Both are more fondly remembered for their humanitarian/philanthropic work outside of the presidency than their time in office. Both were closer to their successors than many remember in retrospect (Carter appointed Volcker to the Fed, began aid to Afghan insurgents and deregulated airlines and trucking). Both have their alt-history partisans who insist that they had good policies but just got unlucky. Carter’s anti-war/anti-imperialist left-neoliberalism really appeals to me, and I like to imagine a world where Ford wins re-election against a non-Carter candidate in 1976, gets unfairly blamed for stagflation/the oil crisis/Iran etc., Carter wins in 1980 and is fondly remembered for revitalizing the economy and ending the Cold War in his two-term presidency.

  50. Atlas says:

    Whyte’s theory is that this period of Hoover’s life sowed the seeds for the modern conservative movement: “Modern American conservatism, conceived as an antidote to the New Deal, was born on December 16, 1937, with Hoover as its prophet and philosopher.” He doesn’t do much to back this theory up, and Hoover gets all of a paragraph in Wikipedia’s long History of conservativism in the United States. We are left to piece it together from a few mentions here and there – Hoover befriending and helping a young William F. Buckley, Hoover giving a key endorsement to Barry Goldwater, and of course the namesake Hoover Institution that he founded, funded, and guided until his death.

    I have to admit this is a hole in my understanding. Smart people definitely say that modern American conservativism began with Buckley and Goldwater and their friends, but what does this mean? Hasn’t about half of America been conservative since the 1700s? Hasn’t a philosophy of small government, individual freedom, and capitalist economics been pretty fundamental to America since its beginning? I’m not sure, and without this knowledge I don’t feel qualified to judge Hoover’s role.

    I haven’t read it myself, but the standard story about Buckley/Goldwater/Nixon/Reagan etc. is apparently well-told in Rick Perlstein’s trilogy starting with Before the Storm. I highly recommend John Judis’ recent books as well.

    Post-1960s conservatism wasn’t (just) economic libertarianism, it was a “three-legged stool” that also included Cold War hawkishness and social conservatism. The realignment around civil rights was also a huge part of the story.

    Hasn’t about half of America been conservative since the 1700s? Hasn’t a philosophy of small government, individual freedom, and capitalist economics been pretty fundamental to America since its beginning? I’m not sure, and without this knowledge I don’t feel qualified to judge Hoover’s role

    I think the ideological alignments circa 1789-1865 don’t really fit neatly onto that model. The Federalists/Whigs/Republicans, who supported capitalism/industrialization, wanted a bigger government to impose tariffs, invest in infrastructure and run a national bank. The Democrats favored agriculture, egalitarian democracy and were suspicious of both industrial capitalism and big government. See the relevant volumes of the Oxford History of America, and particularly the fantastic What Hath God Wrought? for more.

    (From an Albion’s Seed perspective, the Federalists/Whigs/Republicans were the part of Puritans and Quakers in the north and east and the Democrats were the party of Cavaliers and Scots-Irish in the south and west.)

    Also, I feel compelled to emphatically object to the idea that conservatism or “true conservatism” is about limited government, individual rights and free markets. (Not that Scott was himself saying this, just that one might interpret it as implicit in the way the questions were framed.) I think that both liberal political scientists and alt-right/paleoconservative writers are correct in arguing that those, for most voters, are the surface coverings of a deeper desire for ethnic nationalism and social conservatism. (See Identity Crisis, Our Political Nature , The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism, Right-Wing Critics of American Conservatism and George Hawley’s various other books, Pat Buchanan’s books, Steve Sailer’s writings, Tucker Carlson and Nick Fuentes’ broadcasts, etc.)

    As I’ve written about before, consider the Groyper Wars. Charlie Kirk stands for the Constitution, economic liberty and limited government. Nick Fuentes stands for ethnic nationalism, social conservatism and isolationism. Who do you think is going to win—is currently winning— the battle to determine what form the future of conservatism will take?

    • teageegeepea says:

      Neither Kirk nor Fuentes will win, but they might provide some entertainment as they slap at each other.

    • m.alex.matt says:

      See the relevant volumes of the Oxford History of America, and particularly the fantastic What Hath God Wrought? for more.

      I cannot emphasis enough that, if you want to understand the differences between Whigs and Democrats, you do not read this book. It is a great book. If you want to learn about transcendentalism, if you want to know about the first industrial revolution in America, the second Great Awakening, any of it, read this book. If you just want to spend your quarantine time reading a nice long history book, read this book.

      But Daniel Walker Howe is a Whig historian. I don’t mean in that he is a historian of the Whig party, I mean he identifies on some deep level with the Whigs. He feels of himself as a Whig. Whenever it comes to anything to do with a Whig politician-hero like Clay, he can’t help but drool a little. Whenever it comes to Andrew Jackson, his higher functions shut down and he drops into a sort of scholarly animal rage that can’t believe that God would let such a man exist.

      I can’t name a specific book to take its place on the subject (I’ve read many different books that are good on one particular aspect, but not really any one other great one), just don’t take the man at his word when it comes to Jacksonian era politics. He’s an excellent historian and he never lies, deceives, or intentionally misleads, but he has got a chip on his shoulder the size of Kentucky.

  51. Atlas says:

    Hoover was a man who did everything wrong. He was the quintessential High Modernist. He was arrogant, he was authoritarian, he didn’t listen to anyone, he put no effort into pleasing people or making his ideas more palatable. He never solicited stakeholders’ opinions. He lied like a rug, constantly and egregiously. He lived his life like a caricature of exactly the sort of person who should fail at philanthropy and become a horror story to warn future generations.

    But he won anyway. [My emphasis] He started from a measly few million dollars and beat out Rockefellers and Carnegies to become the most successful philanthropist in early 20th century history. Whyte’s estimate of 100 million lives saved seems much too high; there were only 100 million people in Europe total during the relevant period. But even during his own time, people universally credited him with saving millions. And he did it again and again and again. I didn’t even have space to talk about the time he saved the Southern United States from a giant flood, or half a dozen other impressive accomplishments. Maybe the rules are wrong. Maybe all of this stuff about how authoritarian approaches never work, and you need to let the people you are helping lead the way, is all just modern prejudices, and putting a brilliant and very rich engineer in charge of a hypercentralized organization is just as good as any other way of doing things.

    It’s interesting to me that Scott sees Hoover as ultimately being a “winner,” because I’m inclined to see him as ultimately a loser, for better or for worse. I’m less focused on government as the be-all-and-end-all of human history and social life than I was a few years ago, and I have more emphatic respect for Hoover’s achievements in business and private humanitarian relief than I would have previously, but still.

    It seems to me that Hoover handled the small stuff of business/charity pretty well but fumbled on the biggest challenge of politics/government. And I know, it makes no logical sense to describe “saving 5 million people from starvation [to use a conservative estimate]” as small stuff, but I find it hard to shake the feeling. He lost the election and he may have also therefore played a part in losing a deeper battle about American politics and capitalism. FDR is remembered as the great statesman and American hero, while Hoover is remembered as a prologue to his rise. And I suspect that, despite this wonderful review, he’ll stay that way. To me, that’s kind of losing, and maybe has some implications in the opposite direction as the quoted paragraph. (Though parts of both can be true.)

  52. morris39 says:

    Interesting that Hoover’s profession is so much mentioned and emphasized. That SA dislikes him, not so much.

  53. Doug S. says:

    Is it just me, or is this portrayal of Herbert Hoover disturbingly like that of Lex Luthor in The Metropolitan Man by Alexander Wales?

  54. Phil H says:

    Here is an attempt to defend state capacity libertarianism, with the caveat that I’m not a libertarian:

    Even libertarians agree that the state needs to exist in order to provide some basic state functions. If a thing exists, it might as well be the best possible version of itself. I.e. all else being equal, a small effective state is better than a small ineffective state.

    Now an extension that is my own, not necessarily Cowen’s:

    An effective state enables people to do more things. When people do more things, those additional things need to be underpinned by the state in the same way as the things people have always done. So in the past we needed a state to coordinate defence from invaders by land; then by sea; then by air; now, from cyberattack. We needed rule of law in land contracts; then in commercial contracts; then in employment contracts; now in areas like pollution of the environment. All of these demand a gradual expansion of the capacities of the state.

    • markz says:

      Every time I read a defense of state capacity libertarianism I find myself pulled back to the drawing board and wanting to ask, what exactly does ‘state capacity’ mean anyway? Enforcing contracts/rule of law, correcting externalities (pollution), and providing public services are qualitatively different functions of a state, and increasing the capacity to do one doesn’t seem related to the others. For example, the argument for wanting the state to enforce a new kind of contract previously not allowed is pretty conventionally libertarian, and unrelated to the case for the state taking over the provision of a good previously left to the private sector. Cowen, I thought at least, wasn’t arguing that the state should just ‘do more stuff (i.e., take over things that the private sector). If that’s it though, the admonition of state capacity libertarianism is: be less libertarian.

      For a given level of size, I’d like government to be more functional, and for a given level of functionality, I’d like the government to be smaller. Does that make me a ‘state capacity libertarian?’ I don’t think anyone really wants a smaller + more dysfunctional government, so I’m not sure what the innovation is. I’m inclined to just ignore the ‘state capacity libertarian’ debate until someone comes out with a clearer definition for it.

  55. Brett says:

    I wonder about this as well, given Whyte is pretty obviously a huge fan. How is it that he was apparently a supreme opportunist who was good at wheedling support out of reluctant politicians and mastering intricate bureaucratic and business dealings, but sucked at it once he became President and had to deal with a corrupt Congress? Were they just better at it than he was? Was the upper echelon of politics in the 1910s and 1920s much more amenable to someone with his wealth and connections getting what they needed to? Was he just that doggedly persistent?

    If the account is true, Hoover sounds like he would have made a hell of a Roman Emperor in the Latter Roman Empire, when they were mostly soldiers who rose up through the ranks through competence and cunning. Or perhaps he might have made an excellent Chancellor to a medieval British King, if not a good King himself (see John I for what happens when you get a King who is a talented administrator but nobody likes him).

  56. Reasoner says:

    Regarding state capacity libertarianism, to me the common thread seems to be something about how things should be done competently. The free market is a mechanism for finding competent people to do all the things that are a good fit for private industry, but my desire to see things done competently doesn’t go away when it comes to things like national defense and public health that aren’t a good fit for private industry.

    To me, it’s not about big vs small government. It’s about smart vs dumb, or effective vs ineffective organizations.

    I feel like this comment from Peter Thiel captures state capacity libertarianism pretty well:

    “I live in the Marina area in San Francisco. They built the Golden Gate Bridge in three and a half years in the 1930s, ‘33 to ‘36. They’re now building an access road to the bridge that’s taken eight years and possibly will end up costing more in inflation adjusted dollars than the whole bridge cost in the ‘30s. So it’s one of the reasons I personally don’t want to pay more taxes, because I feel the government spends the money so extraordinarily badly. I’d be fine with paying more if I felt the government was run as well as it was run in the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘30s.”

    This is another link I’m fond of sharing. Note that “being data-driven” has been a buzzword in the corporate word for a while. “Evidence-based medicine” has been a buzzword in the medical world for a while. “Evidence-based policy” isn’t a buzzword and shows no sign of becoming a buzzword any time soon. That’s because of our lousy state capacity.

    • Bugmaster says:

      To me, it’s not about big vs small government. It’s about smart vs dumb, or effective vs ineffective organizations.

      I completely agree, and unfortunately, this is IMO one of the main problems with libertarianism. Capitalism, if left unchecked, ultimately devolves to socialism, as smaller competing companies aggregate into massive monopolistic conglomerates who have no surviving competitors. Without competition, they quickly become centrally-planned economies, like e.g. Ma Bell or its modern hideous offspring.

      • John Schilling says:

        Without competition, they quickly become centrally-planned economies, like e.g. Ma Bell or its modern hideous offspring.

        Hideously inefficient, and then people compete with them anyway. If the regulators will allow them.

        Uber and Lyft compete with monopolistic taxi cartels and inefficient public transit systems, and win, and don’t then merge with the taxi cartels etc to become just a bigger conglomerate. But to do that, they had to find a niche where the regulators weren’t looking. Southwest competed with the legacy carriers, and won, and didn’t merge with Pan United Delta American to become just a bigger conglomerate. But to do that, they had to start with a purely intrastate airliner because the Feds wouldn’t let them cross state lines.

        Libertarians might find a niche for anti-trust legislation to break up the biggest and most intractable monopolies. And they’ve definitely got room for courts to bring down those who would perpetrate fraud in the name of monopoly (or anything else). But we have long since crossed over into the range where the bulk of government activity serves to coddle monopolies and stifle competition, which would seem to be what you don’t want.

        Expanding the capacity of the state, increasing its power to do the sort of thing states do, is harmful to liberty. Competent, efficient regulators would have strangled Uber in the crib.

        • blumenko says:

          Except for in China, where the leading car-hailing companies merged to take over 3/4 of the market. In most places in the US (outside NYC), the relevant competition is not between the ride-hailing market and the devastated taxis, it is between Uber and Lyft. And Uber has show itself quite willing to merge in various markets (it bought Careem and sold its Chinese operations). In the US an Uber/Lyft merger is inconceivable because of competition regulations.

  57. Often Abbreviated says:

    I feel like you can square away a lot of the contradictions by looking at the sources. Everyone independent who meets him thinks he’s a conniving, lying, amoral, con-man. His verifiable personal history appears to be that of a conniving, lying, amoral, con-man. There are a lot of stories about how brave and dashing he is and all the great things he does but liars and con-men tend to spread those stories themselves, it’s part of the game. He SAYS he was the ultimate hero of the Boxer rebellion and saved x thousands of lives but we KNOW he made out with a stolen fortune. Is it that crazy to suggest he just robbed the place and made up the hero stories afterwards? That story about raising $300 for the miner’s family after firing him, that’s the EXACT sort of theatre President Trump would deploy, and six months later there’d be some story buried in a local newspaper somewhere reporting that the money was never delivered and the guy’s family starved.

    How do you tell the difference between someone who actually was a technocratic hero who saved millions of lives through his charitable actions and someone who just had a large, terrifying bureaucracy and millions of dollars dedicated to telling that story? “He raised lots of money for Belgium!” I bet he did, you can see people running variations of that scam today. Mega-churches and religious cults raising enormous sums that somehow never reach their destinations. Ask anyone in the cult and they’ll tell you about all the good work they did, the cult will produce endless reams of literature and stories about all the great work they’re doing, to history it might well look like they actually did it! But all it bought was a bigger mega-church. Did he actually help Belgium or did he just hijack the effort to enrich and empower himself and then have a Presidential Library to whitewash his history?

    His personality and abilities become verifiable once he’s under actual ongoing public scrutiny, i.e. the Presidency during an ongoing crisis. And at that point, however many stories he spreads, his actions more betray someone who was awfully good at grasping money and power, but not much good at using it to anyone’s benefit.

    • MVDZ says:

      This is one of the first level-headed and observant comments I’ve read on this thread.

      I think as ever there is a veneer of rationality, objectivity and charitableness on display in the comments. Possibly also in Scotts review. I feel that if this would be a decent review, Scott would’ve read at least some chapters and conclusions of less than admiring historians and perhaps understood better why Hoover seems such a walking contradiction.

      SSC’s comment section, and Scott himself, probably just really really like the idea of a technocratic super-president with loads of personal achievements in philanthropy. It rhymes very well with the idea that there are capitalist supermen walking the globe who, if only the rest of the world would recognize their genius, and given free reign, would solve all the worlds problems with profits, technology and rationality. It also rhymes with the conceit of libertarianism, which supposes that rational actors would only need a fair referee of a government, and everything else would magically follow.

      I never comment here because like Freddie DeBoer, I don’t much feel like battling a tide of libertarians who think everyone else is a kind of Randian Moocher, bent on just grabbing a slice of the pie created by capitalist supermen like Bezos and Gates. My world-view as a left-wing European from the Netherlands, living in Norway, seems to be confirmed as leading to the best possible outcomes for the greatest number everyday. It would be tiring to explain why here, which should be so obvious if anyone here were willing to consider government intervention as a possible source of good.
      I’ve always read Slate Star Codex as one of the best sources on the internet for thoughts and ideas which are very different from my own, but at least well-argued. Recently the quality seems to have dropped, though, and so has the diversity in opinion in the comment section. I blame the move the Bay Area, where Scott is once more a part of a rationalist, libertarian echo chamber. But what do I know, I don’t know Scott at all.

      As a practical counterweight to this review, maybe Scott can find a positive biography of Mao. He can sum up Mao’s great achievements in poetry, the incredible story of the Long March and his great plans for this or that. Then he can conclude that while it might be revisionist, at least now Mao’s leadership feels like a missed opportunity.
      Then, and only then I’ll know once more, that Scott passes his own test for objectivity, and doesn’t just write positive reviews of books because some president happens to resemble the modern ideal Silicon Man.

      • morris39 says:

        Quote: “This is one of the first level-headed and observant comments I’ve read on this thread.”
        Your objectivity shines brilliantly.

        • Often Abbreviated says:

          Is this sort of comment okay here? This sort of petty sniping just seems designed to avoid hearing what anyone else is saying. I don’t know, I haven’t posted here before, just seems surprising given the tone the rest of the site is going for.

          • The Nybbler says:

            The morris39 comment isn’t great, but the MVDZ comment stinks of sneering and I believe misunderstands or misrepresents the review.

            Apropos of nothing, creating sock puppets to bolster one’s position and attack ones opponents is not formally against the rules either, but is unlikely to be taken well.

          • Often Abbreviated says:

            I’m guessing myself and MVDZ are meant to be the same person sock puppeting?

          • Guy in TN says:

            Someone also once suggested that the user Plumber (around the time he first showed up) was a sock-puppet.

            The assumption that there couldn’t be more than one or two leftists who are self-loathing enough to want to participate on a website that is increasingly openly hostile to them is not unreasonable.

          • Often Abbreviated says:

            I’m not even a leftist! I just don’t buy the canonization of Herbert Hoover when his own hagiography admits he spent most of his life lying to and conning people.

            I try to keep out of this kind of meta-discussion, but when you can’t even have a discussion on the stated subject because everyone on the other side has instantly degenerated to sneering, insults, and accusations of sock puppetry, there might be a problem with your board for rational, intelligent, reasoned discussion.

      • Guy in TN says:

        @MVDZ

        I feel that if this would be a decent review, Scott would’ve read at least some chapters and conclusions of less than admiring historians and perhaps understood better why Hoover seems such a walking contradiction.

        This seems correct to me. It’s hard to do a book review of Hoover (the book) and not slip into doing a review a Hoover (the man). But in order to do an accurate review of Hoover the man, you need to consult a wide variety of sources, particularity sources of a more critical viewpoint. To his credit, Scott admits the possibility that Hoover (the book) might be misleading him somewhat.

      • Paul Brinkley says:

        My world-view as a left-wing European from the Netherlands, living in Norway, seems to be confirmed as leading to the best possible outcomes for the greatest number everyday.

        If you honestly applied the reasoning of the comment you praise as level-headed and observant to your own account, you would find that your perception of your own system could just as easily be a product of the source(s) describing those systems to you.

        Or, you might notice that our conflicting perceptions of your system are likewise a product of the sources describing that system.

        • MVDZ says:

          Possibly. We’re all shaped by the dominant discourse of our time and I am probably no exception to that. I do try to read a wide variety of media to ascertain the state of society, both left and right, populist and technocratic. I’m not claiming perfect observation, I was just reminded while writing of a test Scott once posted to test how objective you are in judging the validity of political issues and such, or something.

          What I meant by the phrase you quote is based entirely on daily observations and following the news. We have no uninsured or underinsured people in any significant numbers. Our infrastructure isn’t crumbling. Everyone can easily afford to attend good schools and top-100 universities. We don’t have tent-cities and streets where human shit outnumbers that of dogs. I could go on if you want.
          Now I can see two points coming. First of all, that all of this is a consequence not of libertarianism but state-intervention and bad government etc. etc. Sure, but many of the terrible decisions put in place in the US (and less so, but equally disastrous) have been done in the name of liberalism, markets and a smaller government. Socio-cultural Cthulu might swim left, but socio-economic Cthulu definitely swims right.
          The second is that libertarianism has never been tried. That’s probably true, but the closest system in a devloped country I can see is that of Hong Kong (all truly undeveloped countries are anarcho-libertarian, of course). Almost everything is market-based. Hong Kong is by no means an awful place (if living in an overcrowded city is your idea of fun), but the lack of social compensation systems (ie systems that compensate for tough luck) does lead to plenty of striking poverty. And even that is with strong government regulation, redistribution and subsidization of housing, healthcare and schools.

          @morris34 I’m not pretending to be objective, I literally give you my political position and why it influences why I never comment here.
          @morris34 and @theNybbler, if you think this is sneering, try being a left-leaning commentator here. You’ll find that everyone else just *knows* you’re wrong because you don’t understand how humans and markets work like they do. Plus, secretly you dream of Stalin.
          You don’t have to agree with my assessment but that’s the feeling I get here. Like Guy in TN says, maybe there’s a reason why a community that purports to strive for an open space for political and other discussion consists almost entirely of people somewhere on the libertarian spectrum. It’s nothing against Scott, he’s free to opine however he wants. But what bothers me a bit is the pretence of openness and kindness, which is observed by many but perhaps not by enough people to drive away people with dissenting viewpoints. Which is also why my first comment (ever? in a long time?) is a bit more acidic than I’d usually go for.

      • zardoz says:

        I think as ever there is a veneer of rationality, objectivity and charitableness on display in the comments. Possibly also in Scotts review. I feel that if this would be a decent review, Scott would’ve read at least some chapters and conclusions of less than admiring historians and perhaps understood better why Hoover seems such a walking contradiction.

        Did you read any books about Hoover from these hypothetical historians? If you didn’t, how do you know what they would have said? This kind of comment just shows your own biases, not Scott’s.

        SSC’s comment section, and Scott himself, probably just really really like the idea of a technocratic super-president with loads of personal achievements in philanthropy. It rhymes very well with the idea that there are capitalist supermen walking the globe who…

        I think Scott likes the idea of philanthropy saving millions of lives. I don’t think he likes the idea of libertarianism. He even wrote an anti-libertarian FAQ. Take your crusade against Libertarians somewhere else.

        As a practical counterweight to this review, maybe Scott can find a positive biography of Mao. He can sum up Mao’s great achievements in poetry, the incredible story of the Long March and his great plans for this or that. Then he can conclude that while it might be revisionist, at least now Mao’s leadership feels like a missed opportunity.
        Then, and only then I’ll know once more, that Scott passes his own test for objectivity, and doesn’t just write positive reviews of books because some president happens to resemble the modern ideal Silicon Man.

        Mao killed millions of people both directly and indirectly. He’s a contender for the greatest mass murder of all time.\ How would writing a positive biography of him prove “objectivity”?

        Mao is almost the anti-Hoover because whereas Hoover delivered food that saved millions of lives, Mao caused a famine that killed millions. Hoover was a weird and quirky guy who was quickly forgotten by country that didn’t quite understand what he had done. Mao is still worshiped as a quasi-deity by a fascist government that whitewashes his history.

        And we could also talk about the death camps, and the totalitarianism… but I think I’ve made my point. A positive biography of Mao (or Hitler, or Stalin, or any other big bad) doesn’t “prove objectivity.”

        • MVDZ says:

          “Hoover was a weird and quirky guy who was quickly forgotten by country that didn’t quite understand what he had done. Mao is still worshiped as a quasi-deity by a fascist government that whitewashes his history.”

          I never meant to imply that Hoover is as terrible as Mao. I took Mao as an example because he doesn’t up with Scotts own biases like Hoover would. (As an aside, Mao is definitely NOT worshipped in China. The official party line is that he did two-thirds right and one third wrong – not an assessment I or anyone has to agree with, but a far cry from whitewashing worship).

          Anyway, I think the above quote of yours is especially interesting because you seem to fail to understand why Hoover is disliked by most people: because he didn’t do anything to directly intervene and relieve the suffering of dozens of millions. Sure, he tried some interventions like bank-bailouts, but when that didn’t work people suffered from grinding poverty until the New Deal. Had Hoover said ‘oh my preferred brand of government doesn’t work, let’s try something new like… a New Deal’, people would’ve rightly remembered him as a heroic president who could overcome his own views on how an economy should work, and instead intervene effectively to relieve suffering.
          This highlights exactly the misunderstanding between the average SSC commenter, and left-wing people and ordinary people. Not intervening with social security programs because of ‘markets’ or ‘efficiency’ is seen by many as, well, bad. It’s cruel, because you could be doing something. That’s why people dislike Hoover, not because they misunderstood him.

    • Skivverus says:

      On the other hand, how successfully would a lying amoral con man’s lies spread if they didn’t have any truth behind them? Think there’s a saying about fooling some of the people all of the time and all of the people some of the time that applies here.

      • Often Abbreviated says:

        The first answer that comes to mind is that he didn’t fool everyone all of the time – as the review states almost everyone he met in his early life hated him. Some people read that biography – roaming around, having a lot of different positions and interests, never staying anywhere long, getting quickly promoted up chains then having to quickly leave and parse it as “Wow, this guy must have been really smart and energetic!”, from my own life experience I parse it as, “Wow, this guy sounds like a con-man”.

        Con-men and narcissists have the gift of knowing exactly who they have to kiss up to, and will commit to remorselessly buttering that person up to the exact precise moment they are no longer useful. Then the target is backstabbed and discarded. This creates an image of a personality that is beautiful and efficient and brilliant as long as you’re looking down on it, but utterly monstrous once you’re looking up to it. Kind of sounds like what a lot of people in Hoover’s early life story report.

        From the second half of his life (once he’s running charities and such), he’s in command of an organisation dedicated to his own personal grandeur, in an age when control over news media could be total – if you’re wealthy and committed enough you could tell the newspapers what to write and there would be no counter-narrative at all. Again not fooling all the people, but certainly everyone far enough away that they only hear about him via the media. From then on he’s the golden boy, never puts a foot wrong, everything he touches is a magical success! Until he becomes President and all of that magic and brilliance seems to disappear.

        Because as President there’s a couple of new things: 1. There is always a counter-narrative. You’re important enough that someone is always trying to tell a different story. 2. The people you’re trying to sell your story to are the same people you’re screwing over. This is a lot harder than stealing from a charity – the people you’re meant to be helping are already helpless and not in contact with the people donating, you’re hard to catch. Once you’re running a country it becomes a lot more obvious to the average person that nothing is actually coming from your golden boy touch and technocratic genius. The story is harder to sell once they can see it’s not real, and you’re not helping.

        That’s how it reads to me, anyway. And I feel it ties up the contradictions a lot neater and in far fewer moves than the idea he was the smartest man alive but darn it he just couldn’t catch a break.

        • MVDZ says:

          Exactly this. I was mostly bemused as I read the early part of the review, thinking ‘How is any of this good? He seems to view people only as instruments! The only time he ever does anything positive is when there’s a huge amount of glory to be gained…’
          Can anyone explain to me what they thought was so impressive and awesome about early Hoover, rather than dickish?

          • sourcreamus says:

            Early Hoover was someone who tried to do hard things and did them really well. By making mining more efficient he helped enable all of the progress of the industrial revolution to happen. As someone with an attachment disorder he was dickish to those around him and that speaks poorly of him but his results in organizing mining companies shows how he talented and hard working he was and how much he helped out mankind.

    • Vladimir Slepnev says:

      I was born in the USSR and know that the ARA’s help was real and huge. From all accounts I could find, the CRB’s help was also real and huge. And he couldn’t have been a very good conman if he refused to talk at parties and came off rude every time he opened his mouth. The “great decision skills but terrible social skills” narrative rings more true to me.

      • Often Abbreviated says:

        If his social skills were so terrible he would never have gotten the positions he did. Being made manager of the football team after a week when he’s no good at football, walking into an office in London and being made mining engineer in Australia when he doesn’t meet the requirements, these to me indicate someone who is very, very good at social politicking whenever he needs to be. It just gets discarded the moment he doesn’t need to be nice to that person anymore.

        You can read something like “He was aloof to the point of being cold and rude” and think, “Wow he must be a brilliant man with his mind on other things”. I read it as him being cold and rude to the person writing. If someone else comes in the room, someone important, someone he needs, I bet he lights up real quick.

    • tayfie says:

      Saying “You can square a lot of the contradictions by assuming half the information is false” is always true. But I agree verifying the sources for some of these stories is a good idea. Some of the more amazing stories sound like legends more than real people.

      You say everyone independent who meets him thinks he’s a lying, amoral conman. These are the people he leapfrogged. They are not independent. To make matters worse, they were probably asked many years later after Hoover was far more successful. Jealousy and spite are common reactions in such circumstances, especially if Hoover had the abrasive social manner attributed. People hate a successful jerk. It’s not just when jerks win.

      If you say he is an amoral conman, then what is the gain? You might say he is only after money and power, but that hardly explains his actions. Why feed a country like Soviet Russia that had zero public sympathy? Conmen do things with popular appeal. Hoover clearly didn’t care about public opinion, and that’s why it is hard to read him as a conman. He’s not slick enough. Why would he not run for President in 1920 after he is supposedly a gigantic war hero that led a huge charity effort?

      I’ll agree he is definitely a manipulative control-freak, and conjecture the charity work is attempted moral offsetting.

      Another common thread throughout the story is that Hoover has a knack for always putting himself somewhere miserable. This is more evidence against a conman only out for himself. Hoover never takes things easy and always seems to always find a difficult disaster to take over. If I may indulge in a bit of armchair psycho-analysis, his guardians never gave him any adversity, and never gave him any challenge, so he sought both in all his endeavors. The presidency was him finally biting off more than he could chew. His bitterness at FDR was probably motivated by self-hatred for not being good enough for the ultimate crisis.

      My general prior is that anyone who becomes leader of a country is usually exceptional in some way, and it annoys me to see them dismissed as garden-variety characters.

      • Often Abbreviated says:

        Saying “You can square a lot of the contradictions by assuming half the information is false” is always true.

        I can’t stress this enough – His own worshipful biography records him as a liar, a cheat, a conman, and a violent thief. I’m not errantly discarding the half of the story I don’t like, I’m discarding the half of the story provided by an admitted liar, that makes him look good.

        If you say he is an amoral conman, then what is the gain? You might say he is only after money and power, but that hardly explains his actions. Why feed a country like Soviet Russia that had zero public sympathy? Conmen do things with popular appeal. Hoover clearly didn’t care about public opinion, and that’s why it is hard to read him as a conman. He’s not slick enough. Why would he not run for President in 1920 after he is supposedly a gigantic war hero that led a huge charity effort?

        It’s kinda weird to take this position when it still made him a double-super war hero and put him (an ex-mining engineer and banker) withing spitting distance of the presidency. I think it’s hard to respect the position of “It didn’t help him at all!” when it very obviously did.

        Another common thread throughout the story is that Hoover has a knack for always putting himself somewhere miserable. This is more evidence against a conman only out for himself. Hoover never takes things easy and always seems to always find a difficult disaster to take over.

        Miserable placed far away from effective authorities are great places for the amoral to operate. The are opportunities for sharks. Where do criminal gangs, drug traffickers, human traffickers, blood diamond miners, the very worst slave operations operate? It’s not the Bay Area.

        My general prior is that anyone who becomes leader of a country is usually exceptional in some way, and it annoys me to see them dismissed as garden-variety characters.

        This means you probably have authoritarian tendencies. You shouldn’t trust people just because they have power.

  58. hdo says:

    John T Reed is one man currently alive who strikes me as having a similar psychological profile to Hoover, but maybe without the lying part. He’s a real estate author and blogger and his many rants may be coming from a similar place.

  59. Jon says:

    I’m equally confused about Hoover’s politics, although it’s not really his fault. The whole era confuses me. The Progressives, Hoover’s own faction, seem clearly related to modern progressives. But they also give me more of a technophile, rationalist feel than their modern counterparts. Am I imagining things? If not, where did this go?

    And how did Hoover so deftly merge his centralizing technocratic engineer side with his small-government individual-freedom pro-capitalism side? Maybe it wasn’t that deft? Maybe he started his life as a centralizing technocrat, then made a 180 after becoming a small-government individualist helped him dunk on FDR more effectively? But it didn’t feel that way. It felt like all of it was coming from some central set of core beliefs throughout his life.

    Consider what today’s small-government, individual-freedom loving people say about Hoover.

    Lawrence Reed’s Great Myths of the Great Depression:

    “Did Hoover really subscribe to a “hands off the economy,” free-market philosophy? His opponent in the 1932 election, Franklin Roosevelt, didn’t think so…. [Many examples follow, then:] Can any serious scholar observe the Hoover administration’s massive economic intervention and, with a straight face, pronounce the inevitably deleterious effects as the fault of free markets?”

    A blog from David Boaz: “Hoover didn’t cut federal spending, he doubled it. He established the Reconstruction Finance Corporation. He propped up wages and prices. Indeed, he launched the New Deal. And Green is right: In the face of these policies, Mellon’s memos to Hoover failed to stop the catastrophe.”

    Boaz links to a Steven Horwitz blog post, which says “Wilson’s book and its title [Herbert Hoover: Forgotten Progressive] are particularly telling here as she lays out the case for her title very clearly. It’s not “free market” ideology to argue Hoover was an interventionist; it’s good history.”

    My confusion here feels similar to my confusion about Tyler Cowen’s “state capacity libertarianism”. Creating a strong and effective state is certainly…a goal you can have. But I don’t understand the argument for calling this a libertarian project. At best, it’s a project not entirely opposed to libertarianism. Still, perhaps this is my ignorance. Cowen thinks that strengthening the state and instituting effective technocratic government can be allied to a small-government individualistic market-based philosophy. Whatever he’s smoking, maybe Herbert Hoover was smoking the same thing.

    I had that same confusion (“It is not at all clear what work the libertarian appendage to the state-capacity idea is doing. One comment that I saw rightly noted that the word “seems to be there to bring along hesitant people who like that label, not for its descriptive value.”). Would like to find the time to explore how that might connect to Hoover.

  60. Jon says:

    I’m equally confused about Hoover’s politics, although it’s not really his fault. The whole era confuses me. The Progressives, Hoover’s own faction, seem clearly related to modern progressives. But they also give me more of a technophile, rationalist feel than their modern counterparts. Am I imagining things? If not, where did this go?

    And how did Hoover so deftly merge his centralizing technocratic engineer side with his small-government individual-freedom pro-capitalism side? Maybe it wasn’t that deft? Maybe he started his life as a centralizing technocrat, then made a 180 after becoming a small-government individualist helped him dunk on FDR more effectively? But it didn’t feel that way. It felt like all of it was coming from some central set of core beliefs throughout his life.

    Consider what today’s small-government, individual-freedom loving people say about Hoover.

    Lawrence Reed’s Great Myths of the Great Depression:

    “Did Hoover really subscribe to a “hands off the economy,” free-market philosophy? His opponent in the 1932 election, Franklin Roosevelt, didn’t think so…. [Many examples follow, then:] Can any serious scholar observe the Hoover administration’s massive economic intervention and, with a straight face, pronounce the inevitably deleterious effects as the fault of free markets?”

    A blog from David Boaz: “Hoover didn’t cut federal spending, he doubled it. He established the Reconstruction Finance Corporation. He propped up wages and prices. Indeed, he launched the New Deal. And Green is right: In the face of these policies, Mellon’s memos to Hoover failed to stop the catastrophe.”

    One of Boaz’s links is to a Steven Horwitz blog post, which says “Wilson’s book and its title [Herbert Hoover: Forgotten Progressive] are particularly telling here as she lays out the case for her title very clearly. It’s not “free market” ideology to argue Hoover was an interventionist; it’s good history.”

    My confusion here feels similar to my confusion about Tyler Cowen’s “state capacity libertarianism”. Creating a strong and effective state is certainly…a goal you can have. But I don’t understand the argument for calling this a libertarian project. At best, it’s a project not entirely opposed to libertarianism.

    I had that same confusion (“It is not at all clear what work the libertarian appendage to the state-capacity idea is doing. One comment that I saw rightly noted that the word “seems to be there to bring along hesitant people who like that label, not for its descriptive value.”). Would like to find the time to explore how that might connect to Hoover.

  61. fion says:

    Arg, historic present tense renders this just about unreadable for me. 🙁 Maybe I’ll manage to come back to it, or maybe this’ll be the first SSC post I’ve not read in five years.

    (I’m aware this is a pet peeve of mine; I’m not saying you shouldn’t use it; just expressing general dismay.)

  62. rcousine says:

    I don’t see that anyone else has mentioned it, but Ken Whyte may be involved in a bit of a proxy battle with his former boss.

    Conrad Black, aka Baron Black of Crossharbour, was famously the founder of the Canadian paper “National Post,” and this Ken Whyte was the founding Editor of that same paper. Before Lord Black was knighted (or, ahem, before he was convicted and imprisoned for fraud) his great hobby project was an admiring biography of…FDR!

    So it may be valuable to read this book as a direct reaction to Ken’s former boss’ book. The two men are broadly of the political right (somewhat Canadian version), though Black’s positive view of FDR obviously marks him as a somewhat different kind of right-winger than Whyte.

    I will not stoop to “Black and Whyte” puns, leaving those instead as a gift for our host.

  63. beisenpress says:

    I see 4 strong personality traits in Hoover that can explain his seemingly contradictory actions:

    1. He was incredibly tenacious and competitive
    2. He was socially aloof
    3. He was strongly principled
    4. He was very compassionate, but sees people though a rationalist lens of statistics rather than personal stories

    These traits are self-reinforcing. Being socially aloof contributes to seeing people as statistics. Being strongly principled contributes to acting strongly on his compassion. I think they also explain some of his seemingly contradictory actions. Trait #1, competitiveness, clearly contributed to his success in business. It also explains why he felt the need to crush rivals in philanthropy. Trait #4, compassion for statistical lives, drove him to save perceived enemies in Germans and Soviets. Trait #2, being socially aloof, explains why he was such a poor politician. His inaction in the face of the Great Depression or the veterans Bonus Army is puzzling on the surface, but I think it can be traced to his strong principles. This only makes sense in the social context of early 20th century America. Inaction for a depression or starving veterans would be unthinkable now, but as Scott’s mentions in the review, those were very different times. The role of the federal government was much smaller. It was only in 1913 that federal income tax became practical with the passage of the 16th amendment. Hoover’s inaction was consistent with his small government principles.

    His lying and cheating to win mining rights in China is one thing I can’t explain. Perhaps, as a young man, his competitiveness was stronger than his sense of principles.

    • morris39 says:

      Plausible and well presented, but! Most of the posts here and the blog were essentially judgments of Hoover’s character not about the effectiveness of his actions. Why should that be so? What effect did Hoover have on the contemporary population, in the present day population? Do we have the wisdom and authority to judge someone’s life and particularly someone who is is not known by direct experience?
      That attitude smells of something. No?

      • beisenpress says:

        I agree with your point. The results of Hoover’s actions are more important than his character. I focused on Hoover’s character because the review explicitly asks how to reconcile Hoover’s seemingly contradictory character traits.
        Hoover’s famine relief efforts seem like unambiguous good. It seems he made major mistakes responding to the great depression, but I will leave that debate up to the experts. E.g here is Scott Sumner take on Hoover v FDR, written in response to this book review.
        And here is a more general economic history of the great depresssion from Brad Delong:

  64. benf says:

    Seems he was an Ends Justify The Means type, and in the crash he decided the most important end was to teach decadent American society a lesson about self reliance. Had he framed it instead as a problem to be solved instead, he may have acted differently.

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