Huey Long vs. Herbert Hoover: The Role of Government

 

            After World War I the United States experienced an era of tremendous economic growth that lasted throughout the 1920’s. In the autumn of 1929, mere months after President Herbert Hoover had taken office, the stock market crashed and the boom came to a halt signifying the beginning of the Great Depression. The 1930’s were a time of widespread unemployment and starvation, of competition and mistrust between groups of people looking for work and the means to feed their families, and of political evolution for a government seeking solutions to the problems facing the United States.  In 1932, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected President of the United States and immediately after his inauguration he began implementing a series of policies throughout the 1930’s that were collectively called the New Deal. According to President Roosevelt, the goals of the New Deal were to provide the “work” and the “security” the American people wanted.[1] Roosevelt’s policies thrust the federal government into a more predominant role in both the business and personal lives of Americans, causing contestation from the political left and the political right. Although the organizer of the Share Our Wealth Society, U.S. Senator Huey Long and former President Herbert Hoover, two prominent political personalities prior to the presidential elections of 1936, agreed that the nation was suffering and that the U.S. government had a role to play in the solution to the suffering, they nonetheless disagreed on what the causes of the suffering were and what role the government should assume in coming to that solution.

In a speech presented to the Share Our Wealth Society in 1935, Huey Long argued against the consolidation of wealth into the possession of the few and instead proposed the redistribution of wealth through what he considered a more equitable system than the capitalist system in place. Long seems to have pursued redistribution because he believed “the 600 ruling families of America…have forged chains of slavery around the wrists and ankles of 125,000,000 free-born citizens,” suggesting that a redistribution of wealth would free the citizens of America.[2] Conversely, a year later in 1936, Herbert Hoover during a speech presented while campaigning for the presidency also perceived an infringement of liberties, but his reasoning was different. Hoover believed the policies instituted by President Roosevelt’s New Deal were responsible for the infringement on the individuals and private enterprise. The New Deal policies such as the Agricultural Adjustment Act (1932) and the National Recovery Act (1933) were intended to redistribute wealth through taxation, although not to the extent that Long suggested. The political left argued that there had not been enough redistribution while the political right argued that too much had already occurred. The notable similarity between both Hoover’s and Long’s speeches, is that they both believed the system as it was was designed to infringe upon the liberties of Americans.

Hoover advocated for a “[t]rue liberal government” and stipulated that such a government was dependent upon free citizens.[3] Believing that the New Deal policies infringed upon liberties, he proposed scaling back the “authority in government” to restore those liberties he believed were being lost and thus achieve a liberal government.[4]  To Hoover, a liberal government was one that did not price fix, but rather allowed companies to set their own prices in accordance with what the market would tolerate and avoiding the “economic planning” of the New Deal.[5] Hoover equated the National Recovery Act, which was intended to have fixed codes that would regulate working conditions, set prices, and minimize competition; with “a Roman despot 1,400 years ago,” further stressing the point of the system’s oppressive nature and suggesting that it was antiquated.[6] Hoover believed that a liberal government was averse to Communism and the teachings of Karl Marx, to vast government spending on the public welfare, and to the influence of the new intellectual elite; the Brain Trust who advised President Roosevelt. Ultimately, Hoover proposed that the role of government was to protect the interest of American citizens by depersonalizing the federal government, or in other words, not interfering with business or engaging in economic planning.

Quite contrary to Hoover’s analysis of the role of government, Huey Long propagated an entire overhauling of the 1930’s United States socio-economic system. Although Hoover “proposed” several initiatives in his speech, he neither identified the methods or the means by which they would be achieved, nor a way to measure the success of the initiatives.[7] In contrast, Long’s speech provided specific monetary goals and set limits for the redistribution of the nation’s wealth, which also served as a means of measuring success. Essentially the claim made in Long’s speech was that the “public and private” debt was “$262,000,000,000,” and that debt was made the responsibility of the public, but the average American citizen did not benefit from the taxes collected.[8] Long associated this debt with being a form of slavery further stressing his point that six-hundred families held one-hundred and twenty-five million families in bondage. In response to this Long proposed a mixed capitalist system with elements of a socialist system whereby incomes were capped and each family earning less than the average family would be subsidized by the government. He further proposed regulating the hours of work so that manufacturing and agricultural industries only produce what was needed and make time for the consummation of leisure activities. He supported pensions for people over the age of 60. And, he believed providing “education and training for all children” on an equal basis. All of this, Long believed, could be paid for through taxation, taxation which he already noted was large and not doing the public any good. For Long, the role of the government was to ensure that all American citizens received “a fair chance to life, liberty, and happiness” which meant substantially more economic planning than the New Deal exhibited in the economy, and vastly more than what Hoover proposed.[9]

For more than a hundred years prior to the Great Depression the United States had been experiencing unprecedented amounts of change and population growth: ranging from the end of slavery, to the occupation of the land from coast to coast, the industrial revolution which fostered tycoons and moguls, the agricultural revolution that provided a sustainable food source that allowed the population to balloon, and in the early 1900’s, the expansion of the institution of investment banks. By the 1930’s, there had never been a situation as the people of that time faced, there was no rubric that could be applied to remedy the situation because of the depth and breadth of the circumstances that led up to it, and it took the daring willingness of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to experiment; sometimes failing and sometimes through trial and error figuring out what would work.

Both the Great Depression of the 1930’s and the experimental nature of President Roosevelt’s “New Deal” evoked many opinions from all aspects of the political spectrum, claiming to have answers and solutions to the socioeconomic plight of the United States and its citizens. And just as there were normative prescriptions there was also finger pointing and blame casting, however, in reality there was no one person or situation that led to the collapse of the Stock Market in 1929, the issues were systemic, multi-faceted and deeply layered. Furthermore, the United States was not alone in the Great Depression, it was a global calamity. Nonetheless, that does not mean factors which contributed to the collapse cannot be isolated. The Lasissez-Faire prerogative of the United States government toward business during the 1920’s led to the deregulation of business and in particular the commercial and investment banking industry. During the 1920’s the citizens of America were further stratified along the lines of wealth as it continued to consolidate in the possession of the few. So, when the market did crash in 1929 and the bank run commenced causing many banks to collapse because they did not have the prudent reserves to meet the demand, hundreds of thousands of people lost their savings and the system eroded over the next four years into the Great Depression. By 1933, 13 million people were unemployed and the socio-economic conditions were not showing any sign of improvement; this was the state of the nation that President Delano Roosevelt inherited as he came into office and led to the experimentation of the New Deal.[10]             .

During the four years, between 1929 and 1933, Herbert Hoover was the president of the United States and he convinced Congress to pass the Agricultural Marketing Act of 1929 with a budget of “$500 million to buy up agricultural surpluses” and “authorized $420 million for public works projects” to stimulate the economy through employment.[11] Yet, four years later during his speech he argued that President Roosevelt’s initiatives, which by definition did exactly the same thing, save for the fact of who was primarily impacted. During his presidency Herbert Hoover focused on the Trickle-Down economics theorem, whereas, Roosevelt instead distributed government funds more broadly across the nation to a more varied population of citizens. Comparing the facts and what Hoover said in his speech, it appears that the redistribution of wealth was not an infringement of liberties as long as the money was directed at the elite; the wealthy. Hoover’s speech seems to have been more focused on ideology than on rectifying the economic situation in the country. Conversely, after evaluating the evidence, Huey Long’s speech, through the utilization of statistics from both the government and Wall Street, took into account many of the factors and conditions that led to the economic distress of the 1930’s. Thus, by stripping both arguments down to their bare assertions two roles of government can be discerned: Restore the U.S. government to what was clearly identified in the U.S. Constitution and allow the people to suffer; or allow the interpretation of the U.S. Constitution—making amendments as necessary—to evolve so that the people no longer suffer. Two highly contradictory perspectives on the role the U.S. government should assume by two distinct individuals. President Lincoln, in the Gettysburg Address during the American Civil War said that we have a “government of the people, by the people, for the people,” and as such there is too much at stake for any one person to decide the fate of the nation, that is reserved for the people and together the people decide the plan of action and the role of the U.S. government. Those decisions have been made by the people of the United States through listening to and evaluating controversial and contradictory arguments since before the American Revolutionary War; and such was the nature the Democratic Republic when both Herbert Hoover and Huey Long spoke to the American people.

Bibliography

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Accepting the Presidential Nomination at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago: July 2, 1932.” The American Presidency Project. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=75174&st=&st1=

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CITATIONS

[1] Roark, James L., et al., “The American Promise: A History of the United States.” 5th Edition. (New York: Bedford St. Martin’s, 2012), 790.

[2] Huey Long, 176.

[3] Herbert Hoover  and Minnie Hardin, 182.

[4]Herbert Hoover and Minnie Hardin,. 182.

[5] Herbert Hoover and Minnie Hardin, 182.

[6] Herbert Hoover and Minnie Hardin, 182.

[7] Herbert Hoover and Minnie Hardin, 183.

[8] Huey Long, 176.

[9] Huey Long, 175.

[10] Roark, James L., et al., ch 23.

[11]Roark, James L., et al., 774.

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