Eighty years ago this week, Herbert Hoover published a book of political philosophy entitled The Challenge to Liberty. Although little remembered today, it deserves scrutiny, especially by those interested in the history and theory of classical liberalism in its American context.
When President Hoover left the White House in 1933, he and his wife returned to Palo Alto, California to live. At first he maintained a public silence about the new chief executive and his shimmering New Deal. He did not wish, by any premature, partisan outburst, to jeopardize or appear to jeopardize economic recovery during a national emergency. At any rate he doubted that comments of his would have an effect in the current public atmosphere, poisoned as he considered it to be by the incessant “smearing” of his record by the opposition. He hoped also that, as New Deal measures failed (which he expected them to do), the American people would learn from disillusioning experience and return to their traditional values.
But if Hoover stayed aloof from the hullabaloo in Washington for tactical reasons, he was far from indifferent to what he observed. At the climax of his reelection race in 1932, he had portrayed the campaign in the starkest terms: Americans faced more than a choice between two men and two parties; it was a “contest between two philosophies of government” that would determine the nation’s course for “over a century to come.” The New Deal proposed by his challenger, Hoover had warned, was nothing less than a form of collectivism that would destroy the very foundations of the American system of life.
Everything that had happened since had reinforced this conviction. In September 1933, he told a close friend:
The impending battle in this country obviously will be between a properly regulated individualism (which I have always expounded as “American Individualism”) and sheer socialism. That, directly or indirectly, is likely to be the great political battle for some years to come.
Although Hoover continued at times to use the term “American Individualism” to describe his political philosophy, increasingly he invoked another word: liberalism. Liberalism, he said late in 1933,
is an intangible, imponderable thing. It is the freedom of men’s minds and spirits. It was born with the Renaissance, was re-enforced with the Reformation, was brought to reality by the American revolution, and has survived by much suffering down to the corruption of the great war [World War I]. Today we are engaged in creating regimented men, not free men, both in spirit and in economic life.
The progress of American civilization had come from its “fidelity to true liberalism,” he said. To be sure, our economic system had “often bred autocracies and privilege which in themselves tended to stifle freedom.” But, he insisted, until March 4, 1933 (the day of Franklin Roosevelt’s inauguration), America had “kept the lamp of liberalism alight by reform and not by revolution.”
For Hoover the fundamentals of historic liberalism were embodied in the Constitution and above all in the Bill of Rights. Increasingly, in 1933-1934, the latter —that charter of “ordered individual liberty”—was on his mind. “The discouraging thing,” Hoover lamented privately, “is that for some fancied economic boom the American people are prepared to sacrifice their most fundamental possession.” Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini were on the march in Europe, adding a somber dimension to his concerns. Everywhere, it seemed, the noxious forces of statism were recrudescent. By the end of 1933, as vast New Deal programs like the National Industrial Recovery Act proliferated, the profoundly worried former president believed that the Roosevelt administration’s policies were “driving more clearly to Fascism and Nazism than even towards socialism.”
Hoover now responded as he would respond so often to adversity in the years ahead: by firmly putting his pencil to paper. By early 1934, he was at work on a book that would confront the ascendant statist ideologies on the terrain where he felt they must be fought: that of philosophy and principle. He had done so once before, in 1922, in a slim volume called American Individualism. This time his foray into political advocacy would be more combative.
Although Hoover fretted that his planned salvo might do little good, he nonetheless prepared to unleash it with as much fanfare as possible. He arranged for the Saturday Evening Post, the country’s preeminent weekly magazine, to print two pre-publication excerpts. He had thousands of free copies distributed to political leaders, clergy, libraries, and other sources of influence on public opinion. He conceived the idea of asking “friendly college professors” to prepare a manifesto defending it against “the deluge of mud which may be coming.” After all, he tartly recalled, 1,300 professors had publicly petitioned him not to sign the Smoot-Hawley tariff bill in 1930. “I do not see why they should not make a declaration on Liberty itself apropos of this book.”
The prospects for wide circulation brightened during the summer of 1934 when the prestigious Book-of-the-Month Club adopted The Challenge to Liberty for October distribution. But to his annoyance, the Club decided to offer it conjointly with New Frontiers, a defense of the New Deal written by Secretary of Agriculture Henry A. Wallace. Hoover would have to share the spotlight with a political enemy.
Still, there seemed to be reason for hope. The country, he believed, had “turned definitely against the New Deal”—a development that his book could assist and shape, for, as he wrote to a friend in September, “we will have laid such foundations that will make the revulsion to the right instead of to the left. That, in fact, is one of the major objectives of the book.”
If Hoover’s mood tended toward the apocalyptic, it no doubt reflected the ordeal he had been through. Striving conscientiously throughout his presidency against the worst economic calamity in American history, he had found himself relentlessly caricatured as a cold and heartless leader. The failure of his reelection bid had been followed by the collapse of the nation’s banks during the last days of his presidency—a debacle deliberately precipitated, he believed, by President-elect Roosevelt’s refusal to cooperate with the outgoing administration. Nor had the advent of the New Deal led to a ceasefire from his foes. Roosevelt’s acerbic Secretary of the Interior, Harold Ickes, had publicly derided Hoover as “the champion of that ruthless exploiting individualism that was in the main responsible for the terrible economic situation in which we found ourselves.” As Hoover prepared to reenter the public arena, he expected a “deluge of defamation.”
On September 28, 1934 his cri de coeur at last appeared. According to Hoover, the American system of liberty, a system infused by the philosophy of historic liberalism, was under fundamental assault. Where liberalism championed the individual as master of the state and possessor of inalienable rights, alternative philosophies were now boldly advocating “the idea of the servitude of the individual to the state.” Among these philosophies—all sharing this fundamental premise—were Nazism, fascism, socialism, communism, and “regimentation” (his term for the New Deal).
Freely admitting that the American regime of liberty had at times been abused, Hoover expatiated on the need for reform and emphasized that America’s traditional social philosophy was not one of unfettered laissez-faire. But he insisted that the flaws in the system were “marginal,” corrigible, and far less pernicious than the “bureaucratic tyranny” that would inevitably accompany the collectivist alternatives. He criticized the “vast centralization of power in the Executive” that “National Regimentation” was bringing about in Washington. He denounced the “daily dictation by Government in every town and village” as “the most stupendous invasion of the whole spirit of Liberty” that America had experienced since colonial times. He attacked regimentation’s underlying “thesis” that “man is but the pawn of the state.” And he warned that even if a centralized “coordinating authority interfering with . . . billions of daily activities” were “composed of supermen,” it could not “remain abreast of the infinite diversity of life and circumstance in this nation of 125,000,000 people.”
In a powerful conclusion, the statesman-turned-political-philosopher drew the line:
We cannot extend the mastery of government over the daily life of a people without somewhere making it master of the people’s souls and thoughts. That is going on today. It is part of all regimentation.
Even if the government conduct of business could give us the maximum of efficiency instead of least efficiency, it would be purchased at the cost of freedom. It would increase rather than decrease abuse and corruption, stifle initiative and invention, undermine the development of leadership, cripple the mental and spiritual energies of our people, extinguish equality of opportunity, and dry up the spirit of liberty and the forces which make progress.
It is a false Liberalism that interprets itself into government dictation, or operation of commerce, industry and agriculture. Every move in that direction poisons the very springs of true Liberalism. It poisons political equality, free thought, free press, and equality of opportunity. It is the road not to liberty but to less liberty. True Liberalism is found not in striving to spread bureaucracy, but in striving to set bounds to it. Liberalism is a force proceeding from the deep realization that economic freedom cannot be sacrificed if political freedom is to be preserved. True Liberalism seeks all legitimate freedom first in the confident belief that without such freedom the pursuit of other blessings is in vain.
To Hoover, this was nearly sacred truth. Only partly in jest, he privately referred to his book as “the gospel according to Palo Alto.”
The Challenge to Liberty was Hoover’s first major public statement after leaving office, and as he had anticipated, its appearance was an “event.” By March 1935, more than 100,000 copies had been distributed, including 31,000 through the Book-of-the-Month Club. In the grim Depression years of 1934-35 this was a credible showing indeed.
Reviewing The Challenge to Liberty and New Frontiers in the Saturday Review of Literature, the historian Allan Nevins described the two books as “opening guns in a great battle” that would “rage with increasing fury” until after the election of 1936. In the weeks that followed, much of the response to Hoover’s work in fact bore a partisan hue. To ardent New Dealers it was dull and doctrinaire. Secretary Ickes, as usual, was caustic: Hoover, he asserted, wanted “liberty of privilege.”
Not all the commentary was hostile. Perhaps the most dispassionate review of The Challenge to Liberty came from a long-time friend, Professor Wesley C. Mitchell of Columbia University. “To call [Hoover] a reactionary or conservative,” wrote Mitchell, “is as wrong as to call him a radical. He occupies a middle ground and wages a war on two fronts. Hence he is exposed more than most public men to misrepresentations.” Hoover was warmly grateful for Mitchell’s comments.
But as the former President was beginning to realize, the “middle ground” he had once tried to occupy was not holding. As recently as 1920, he had been a hero to many of the nation’s Progressives. Franklin Roosevelt, who was on the losing Democratic ticket that year as vice presidential candidate, had been Hoover’s friend and had urged him to run for President as a Democrat—as Woodrow Wilson’s political heir. Now Roosevelt was President, his friendship with Hoover had dissolved into bitter antagonism, and the country was veering sharply to the left. Anxious, in this new political world, to clarify his own position, Hoover increasingly identified his political philosophy as “historic liberalism,” in contrast to what he scorned as the “false liberalism” of the New Deal. In 1937 he declared: “The New Deal having corrupted the label of liberalism for collectivism, coercion [and] concentration of political power, it seems ‘Historic Liberalism’ must be conservatism in contrast.”
With these words of recognition, his political odyssey was complete. The Bull Moose Progressive Republican of 1912, the Wilsonian food regulator of World War I and its aftermath, the self-described “independent Progressive” of early 1920, the assertive and reformist Secretary of Commerce whom conservative Republicans had tried to block from the GOP’s presidential nomination in 1928: he, Herbert Hoover, had become a man of the Right.
The publication in 1934 of The Challenge to Liberty enhanced Hoover’s standing as the intellectual leader of the Republican Party. Its trenchant criticism of the New Deal launched its author on what he later called a “crusade against collectivism” that did not cease until his death in 1964 at the age of 90.
But the book had more than purely biographical significance. The Challenge to Liberty was one of the first and most incisive expressions of intellectual resistance on the American Right to the statism of the New Deal. As Hoover hoped, his “gospel” ignited debate and kept alight “the lamp of liberalism” during the long nightmare years of the Great Depression. By articulating a critique of collectivism on the plane of political philosophy, his book helped to plant the seeds for the growth of the classical liberal wing of American conservatism in the decades ahead.
The Challenge to Liberty is not a scintillating work of literature. But in its unadorned and epigrammatic way, it makes a case for liberty that transcends the special circumstances of its time. Eight decades later, we might profitably read Hoover’s words, not only for their significance then but for their pertinence now.