In recent years, a debate has arisen regarding the extent of Herbert Hoover's progressive and Keynesian leanings, with conservative historians suggesting that Hoover may have been less of an advocate for laissez -faire capitalism than was commonly believed during his lifetime. Ideologues such as Amity Shlaes and Murray Rothbard have suggested that Hoover was a closet statist and New Dealer, and that Franklin Roosevelt simply continued many of these policies in a natural progression. On the other hand, liberal and mainstream historians have generally accepted the idea that Hoover was perhaps a more activist president than his earlier reputation may have indicated, but disagree with conservative historians as to the extent of Hoover's progressive inclinations. They argue that Hoover's retreat from laissez-faire policies was too little, too late, and ultimately inadequate to deal with the severity of the economic crisis, a position in direct opposition to the claims of historians such as Shlaes and Rothbard.
For conservative supporters of unregulated market capitalism, Hoover's "progressive" policies were the actual cause of the Great Depression, and rather than alleviating the economic turmoil, actually made it worse. They use Hoover and FDR as object lessons in how not to deal with the periodic downturns within capitalism, arguing like their 19th Century predecessors that the system is self-correcting. The truth about Hoover's economic politics lies somewhere in-between, and in fact, the subtlety of his shifting opinions regarding government intervention and the gap between his rhetoric and his actions are what has allowed biased historians to find ample evidence for whichever characterization of Hoover they support while conveniently ignoring the details which might otherwise complicate that characterization.
In particular, the recent work of conservative historians Murray Rothbard, Robert Murphy, and Amity Shlaes fabricates an argument suggesting that not only was Hoover a secret progressive, but that this hidden agenda was ultimately responsible for the devastation of the Great Depression. Furthermore, these conservative historians are shameless in their revision, as this altered history of the Great Depression is almost certainly a roundabout way of influencing the current debate regarding the latest economic catastrophe caused by deregulation.
By portraying Hoover as far more progressive than he actually was, and by entwining his policies with those of FDR, Shlaes, Rothbard, and others actively seek to shift the blame for the Great Depression from the undeniable failure of laissez-faire economics to those policies which actually succeeded. Thus, their work is two-fold; it serves to exonerate their own political ideology for the damage it caused during Great Depression (and arguably, for the damage currently being done by the Great Recession), and to disparage any opposing or differing opinions regarding the management of the American economy.
In order to better understand Hoover's complex position regarding government intervention during the Great Depression, and how this position is twisted and redacted into the fictional character that is "the progressive Herbert Hoover," it will be useful to briefly examine Hoover's early history and career in public service. Though seemingly ancillary information such as his religious upbringing and childhood poverty may seem to have little relevance when discussing the substance of his economic policies, it is important to examine these details because even something like his Quaker background will ultimately be used by conservative historians as a means to argue for Hoover's condemnation (to the point that one historian even manages to make a connection between his Quaker upbringing and Joseph Stalin's Soviet Russia.)
Hoover was born into poverty and worked his way up the socioeconomic ladder, becoming a millionaire businessman and mining engineer in the model of the 19th Century American success story. To some extent he was already considered a progressive reformer rather than a conservative, described as "a visionary, a man ahead of his times" and in the 1920s, there was even some doubt about whether he was a Republican at all, considering his first government position had been with the Democratic administration of Woodrow Wilson, and his frequent alliance with the progressive-reform factions of both major parties.
Hoover was happiest as a bureaucrat and administrator rather than as a political leader, especially in his jobs as relief commissioner in Europe and as Food Administrator during World War I. John Maynard Keynes met him at the Versailles Conference in 1919 and was very favorably impressed at his fear that social, political…