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Friday, December 9, 2016

Reading List: American Individualism

Hoover, Herbert. American Individualism. Introduction by George H. Nash. Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, [1922] 2016. ISBN 978-0-8179-2015-9.
After the end of World War I, Herbert Hoover and the American Relief Administration he headed provided food aid to the devastated nations of Central Europe, saving millions from famine. Upon returning to the United States in the fall of 1919, he was dismayed by what he perceived to be an inoculation of the diseases of socialism, autocracy, and other forms of collectivism, whose pernicious consequences he had observed first-hand in Europe and in the peace conference after the end of the conflict, into his own country. In 1920, he wrote, “Every wind that blows carries to our shores an infection of social disease from this great ferment; every convulsion there has an economic reaction upon our own people.”

Hoover sensed that in the aftermath of war, which left some collectivists nostalgic for the national mobilisation and top-down direction of the economy by “war socialism”, and growing domestic unrest: steel and police strikes, lynchings and race riots, and bombing attacks by anarchists, that it was necessary to articulate the principles upon which American society and its government were founded, which he believed were distinct from those of the Old World, and the deliberate creation of people who had come to the new continent expressly to escape the ruinous doctrines of the societies they left behind.

After assuming the post of Secretary of Commerce in the newly inaugurated Harding administration in 1921, and faced with massive coal and railroad strikes which threatened the economy, Hoover felt a new urgency to reassert his vision of American principles. In December 1922, American Individualism was published. The short book (at 72 pages, more of a long pamphlet), was based upon a magazine article he had published the previous March in World's Work.

Hoover argues that five or six philosophies of social and economic organisation are contending for dominance: among them Autocracy, Socialism, Syndicalism, Communism, and Capitalism. Against these he contrasts American Individualism, which he believes developed among a population freed by emigration and distance from shackles of the past such as divine right monarchy, hereditary aristocracy, and static social classes. These people became individuals, acting on their own initiative and in concert with one another without top-down direction because they had to: with a small and hands-off government, it was the only way to get anything done. Hoover writes,

Forty years ago [in the 1880s] the contact of the individual with the Government had its largest expression in the sheriff or policeman, and in debates over political equality. In those happy days the Government offered but small interference with the economic life of the citizen.

But with the growth of cities, industrialisation, and large enterprises such as railroads and steel manufacturing, a threat to this frontier individualism emerged: the reduction of workers to a proletariat or serfdom due to the imbalance between their power as individuals and the huge companies that employed them. It is there that government action was required to protect the other component of American individualism: the belief in equality of opportunity. Hoover believes, and supports, intervention in the economy to prevent the concentration of economic power in the hands of a few, and to guard, through taxation and other means, against the emergence of a hereditary aristocracy of wealth. Yet this poses its own risks,

But with the vast development of industry and the train of regulating functions of the national and municipal government that followed from it; with the recent vast increase in taxation due to the war;—the Government has become through its relations to economic life the most potent force for maintenance or destruction of our American individualism.

One of the challenges American society must face as it adapts is avoiding the risk of utopian ideologies imported from Europe seizing this power to try to remake the country and its people along other lines. Just ten years later, as Hoover's presidency gave way to the New Deal, this fearful prospect would become a reality.

Hoover examines the philosophical, spiritual, economic, and political aspects of this unique system of individual initiative tempered by constraints and regulation in the interest of protecting the equal opportunity of all citizens to rise as high as their talent and effort permit. Despite the problems cited by radicals bent on upending the society, he contends things are working pretty well. He cites “the one percent”: “Yet any analysis of the 105,000,000 of us would show that we harbor less than a million of either rich or impecunious loafers.” Well, the percentage of very rich seems about the same today, but after half a century of welfare programs which couldn't have been more effective in destroying the family and the initiative of those at the bottom of the economic ladder had that been their intent, and an education system which, as a federal commission was to write in 1983, “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America …, we might well have viewed it as an act of war”, a nation with three times the population seems to have developed a much larger unemployable and dependent underclass.

Hoover also judges the American system to have performed well in achieving its goal of a classless society with upward mobility through merit. He observes, speaking of the Harding administration of which he is a member,

That our system has avoided the establishment and domination of class has a significant proof in the present Administration in Washington, Of the twelve men comprising the President, Vice-President, and Cabinet, nine have earned their own way in life without economic inheritance, and eight of them started with manual labor.

Let's see how that has held up, almost a century later. Taking the 17 people in equivalent positions at the end of the Obama administration in 2016 (President, Vice President, and heads of the 15 executive departments), we find that only 1 of the 17 inherited wealth (I'm inferring from the description of parents in their biographies) but that precisely zero had any experience with manual labour. If attending an Ivy League university can be taken as a modern badge of membership in a ruling class, 11 of the 17—65%, meet this test (if you consider Stanford a member of an “extended Ivy League”, the figure rises to 70%).

Although published in a different century in a very different America, much of what Hoover wrote remains relevant today. Just as Hoover warned of bad ideas from Europe crossing the Atlantic and taking root in the United States, the Frankfurt School in Germany was laying the groundwork for the deconstruction of Western civilisation and individualism, and in the 1930s, its leaders would come to America to infect academia. As Hoover warned, “There is never danger from the radical himself until the structure and confidence of society has been undermined by the enthronement of destructive criticism.” Destructive criticism is precisely what these “critical theorists” specialised in, and today in many parts of the humanities and social sciences even in the most eminent institutions the rot is so deep they are essentially a write-off.

Undoing a century of bad ideas is not the work of a few years, but Hoover's optimistic and pragmatic view of the redeeming merit of individualism unleashed is a bracing antidote to the gloom one may feel when surveying the contemporary scene.

Posted at December 9, 2016 22:58