Herbert Hoover was no laissez-faire president like Calvin Coolidge, however he did respect the constitution, and he never was willing to go as far as Franklin Roosevelt. He made a speech just before Roosevelt’s election to a third term, in which he made some salient points—ones we would still be wise to consider today.
With Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin in power, and with a myriad of other dictators and authoritarian powers sprinkled across Europe, it was critical that the free citizens of America see the danger of handing over the reigns of industry to government—that economic power is so much more than just economic. As Hayek said a few years later, “Economic control is not merely control of a sector of human life which can be separated from the rest; it is the control of the means for all our ends.”
Hoover explained this concentration of power that had preceded the tyrannies of every stripe popping up in Europe, and warned that the same could happen in America. The danger lies in the belief that government can solve all economic problems, if only it has enough power. Quoting from The Roosevelt Myth:
In every single case before the rise of totalitarian governments there had been a period dominated by economic planners. Each of these nations had an era under starry-eyed men who believed that they could plan and force the economic life of the people. They believed that was the way to correct abuse or to meet emergencies in systems of free enterprise. They exalted the state as the solver of all economic problems.
These men thought they were liberals. But they also thought they could have economic dictatorship by bureaucracy and at the same time preserve free speech, orderly justice, and free government.
These men are not Communists or Fascists. But they mixed these ideas into free systems. It is true that Communists and Fascists were round about. They formed popular fronts and gave the applause. These men shifted the relation of government to free enterprise from that of umpire to controller.
Hoover then goes on to name the ways in which the government is taking on the role of controller—and they are precisely the same controls government is taking on today:
Directly or indirectly they politically controlled credit, prices, production or industry, farmer and laborer. They devalued, pump-primed and deflated. They controlled private business by government competition, by regulation and by taxes. They met every failure with demands for more and more power and control … When it was too late they discovered that every time they stretched the arm of government into private enterprise, except to correct abuse, then somehow, somewhere, men’s minds became confused. At once men became fearful and hesitant. Initiative slackened, industry slowed down production.
Obama jokes about his exalted state. At the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner he said, “During the second 100 days, we will design, build and open a library dedicated to my first 100 days.” And joked, “My next 100 days will be so successful, I will complete them in 72 days. And on the 73rd day, I will rest.” But we should know by now that this is not funny: we have a dangerous belief in the power of the executive. The situation we face to day is in some ways less dangerous than when Hoover delivered this warning, as there are fewer external totalitarian powers to fight. However, at home we face the same challenge: will we cede our freedoms to government, in exchange for some promised, temporary economic security?