Was Hoover laissez-faire?

No. I know this from reading Eric Rauchway‘s great book The Great Depression and the New Deal. Right on page three ((all page numbers and unattributed quotes in this post come from Rauchway’s book)) he says, “Contrary to Democratic accusations, the Republicans did not do nothing” and chapter two is devoted to chronicling the many things Hoover did (and didn’t) do in response to the worsening economic situation. In that chapter, Rauchway chronicles episode after episode of Hoover’s interventions in the economy including wage supports, imposing tariffs, massive public works programs, limitations on immigration and increasing the Fed’s control of key interest rates.

Hoover was known to be a logistical genius (pg. 23) and future President Roosevelt said of Hoover, “He certainly is a wonder and I wish we could make him President.” This genius led Hoover to believe the economy could be organized by the government and then managed by a cabal of business owners who would work together with “intelligent cooperation”. For example, meetings with big business were held to get their agreement to not lower wages (pg. 26). He created the Federal Employment Stabilization Board to help local governments fund public works and decrease unemployment (pg. 32).

A central tenet of laissez-faire ideology is free trade. As the President that signed the Smoot-Hawley tariff bill into law, Hoover was far from a free trader (pg. 28). Another pillar of laissez-faire is the free movement of people. “Hoover also ordered stricter enforcement of anti-immigration legislation” (pg. 33) leading to a hundred thousand less immigrants.

It seems President Hoover was ideologically amenable to government intervention and he did intervene in a number of ways. Rauchway makes a persuasive case that Hoover was not laissez-faire in thought or deed.