Welcome to Perspectives and Commentaries:
On Herbert Hoover's AMERICAN INDIVIDUALISM
by Gordon F. Brown
Welcome to Perspectives and Commentaries:
On Herbert Hoover’s AMERICAN INDIVIDUALISM
by Gordon F. Brown
As for this website, our interest is in individualism—as a philosophy and as a practice. Herbert Hoover’s American Individualism is right on target with these interests. While we invite everyone to read this 30-page pamphlet—available from the Herbert Hoover Library Association in West Branch, Iowa —our focus here is to provide our own perspective on Hoover ‘s work.
The current relevancy for this commentary can be seen by recognizing that we find ourselves embroiled in torturous conflicts throughout the world and taking note that Hoover ‘s primary interest was identifying pathways to peace.
In 1922, when he was 48 years old, Herbert Hoover published his American Individualism. It is reasonable to assume that his perspective at the time was greatly influenced by his humanitarian service before and after WWI. In 1914, before the US entered the war, Hoover served as head of the Commission for Relief in Belgium with the responsibility for distributing food to 10 million war victims after Belgium had been overrun. And after the war, there was his experience of serving as head of the American Relief Administration charged with distributing shipments of food for even more millions of starving people in Central Europe. To this day, the Belgians hold his name in a place of national recognition and honor.
What appears to have been Hoover ‘s primary focus when writing American Individualism was the means by which lasting peace could be achieved and the ravages of war avoided. The commentary that follows organizes his thoughts around today’s challenges for achieving peace.
As described in his pamphlet, for Hoover, the beginning point (and the sine qua non) is to understand that the individual—rather than the group—is the primary building block of society. It is through the contributions by individual members that society progresses. Furthermore, residing within each individual is the “spark” and compass for fulfilling one’s own potential. And it is this fulfilling process, person-by-person, that society makes progress toward peace. Rather than the old individualism of “every man for himself,” Hoover ‘s perspective raises individual freedom to the level of a “philosophy of individualism” by making the principle of individualism applicable to every individual. That is, the challenge goes beyond simply drawing the line that maximizes your freedom and mine—it is an ongoing and dynamic search for that ever-shifting line that maximizes the freedom for every individual.
He further stated that the nemesis of individualism is centralized planning—whether through an application of socialism, bureaucracy, or brute force. Any type of dictatorial or top-down planning creates a Lilliputian-type restraint on individual initiative and creativity. Hoover characterized himself as an “unashamed individualist” and as one who embraced a philosophy of individualism. He distinguished American Individualism as uniquely rejecting the notion of “some group dominating somebody else” (p. 5) by divine right, hereditary privilege, or those landed estates that have a tradition even in European democracies. Hoover described several tools available to those desiring to maximize freedom for every individual: democracy, free market economics, and service.
Democracy, as Hoover appears to use the term, is a tool by which the citizenry can establish public policy. Care is to be taken to insure that such an approach is used exclusively for establishing those rules that will maximize every individual’s freedom. The principle of individual freedom is the “touch stone” (p. 32) against which every rule of law is validated or invalidated. When democracy is used as a means for central control over the citizens, it becomes simply another form of dictatorial or top-down planning—and is inherently self destructive.
An economic system, such as a free market, can be a powerful tool providing for equal opportunity. Coupling equal opportunity with individual dedication and skill, the free market requires every individual to “stand up to the emery wheel of competition” (p. 4). Material benefits can be a significant incentive for stimulating individual achievement. However, as it is with democracy, considerable attentiveness is required to insure that a free market does not become just another form of central planning biased toward a policy of distributing the national wealth or the excessive accumulation of wealth by a few.
A third tool for maximizing individual freedom is that of “service.” From this perspective, you are helping yourself when you help another to more fully realize his/her individual potential. The rational sequence can be described as follows: Sustained peace is a prerequisite for one’s own individual freedom; peace can only be achieved when freedom is maximized for every individual; and helping to maximize the freedom of another—through education, for example—is to advance the cause of peace and the security of one’s own freedom. The key point here is that “helping” is not simply handing out material goods and intellectual suppositions; helping is a matter of acting so as to increase another’s individual freedom. Gifts of goods and ideas are a means for achieving the specific goal of increasing every individual’s freedom.
While Hoover suggested these and other tools for implementing a philosophy of individualism, we can take note that the pamphlet itself is organized around four general approaches, any one of which he contended can reasonably affirm the philosophy of individualism: philosophic, political, economic, or spiritual.
Perhaps of greatest relevance to our 21st Century challenges—and therefore our focus—is a couple of his comments regarding the spiritual contribution to individualism.
First, Hoover ranks the spiritual contribution over some, if not all, of the other three. As he puts it: “Our social and economic system cannot march toward better days unless it is inspired by things of the spirit” (p. 12).
Looking at our current conflicts around the world, it appears that policy makers have underestimated the significance of spiritual (purpose of life) matters in public policy decisions, and our leaders seem unprepared to deal with such matters when confronted by them.
And second, he states that “Our diversified religious faiths are the apotheosis [ideal example] of spiritual individualism” (pp. 12-13). Such a position can be seen as maximizing every individual’s freedom of choice. Within this context, market forces can become vehicles for stimulating the spread of the most viable ideas on religion to the public at large.
The nemeses, as always, are those societies that establish one religion backed by law and sustained through public taxation—again, a practice still observed in some European democracies.
Today’s lesson for our policy makers may be to seek out partners for peace with countries that have a flourishing diversity of religious organizations from which the citizens can freely choose. And conversely, they would be prudent to apply a standard of high scrutiny to interdependencies when that is not the case.
Wouldn’t it be remarkable if Hoover ‘s ideas on a philosophy of individualism, and particularly those on meaning-of-life issues as he expressed them in 1922, come to be seen in 2022 as the pathway whereby society achieved an unparalleled promise of conflict resolution without war or the threat of war. Conceivably, Herbert Hoover’s legacy could become that of foretelling the pathway to peace in the 21st Century.
I shared a draft of this commentary with Herbert Hoover’s grandson, Herbert (“Pete”) Hoover, III. Pete had a personal relationship with his grandfather for many years. His response included the following on September 15, 2008:
Good Morning Gordon,
…I have read your draft, and I think it is excellent–if not better! Very well done. Now what?….
Warm regards, Pete
On September 4, 2009, I asked Pete Hoover’s permission to quote him, to which he responded:
…by all means, use my comments if you wish….
Best regards, Pete