The main idea of this book is to present America as a country and culture that not only rejects popular ideas of socialism, which by this time already proved to be a source of bloody mess, but also present much better alternative by maintaining something like enlightened individualism. Author seems to intend to demonstrate that the core feature of America – individualism is main reason of American prosperity. Even more than that, it is the foundation of society, especially if combined with voluntary cooperation in various associations, corporations with enlightened management, and benevolent government that serves as fair arbiter of all contradictions.
This book that was first published in 1922 expressed Hoover’s understanding of America and its key distinction from countries of Europe despite common religion and cultural heritage. As a consequence, America rejected socialism, while Europe embraced this ideology. This was a huge contrast in cultural attitudes when for America individual is first and society is basically contract between free individuals. For Europe, the society comes first and individuals are just material that is used as needed to benefit society. From his experience before and during WWI Hoover understood that socialism could not possibly work as productive economic system and that its success in Europe was based on illusions and hatred that developed in deeply divided by class Europe. It had relatively little foundation in America of the time. Introduction also describes later ideological development of Hoover and discusses validity of this work for our time.
Here Hoover first states an obvious fact that revolutions where exploding all over the Europe, but found little fuel in America and explains it by specific qualities of American creed:
The key here is real opportunity for individual, not legalistic framework of society. Hoover, however, claims that it is not kind of laissez faire when “every man for himself”, but rather consistent structure where weak helped and strong contained so that everybody would have chance.
Hoover starts here by stating that individual qualities such as intelligence and character are property of individual and could not be used effectively without this individuals’ support for whatever productive purposes they need to be used. So, since individuals are not equal in these qualities any attempt to limit individual from using fruits of his effort would lead to diminishing of this effort by individual and necessarily decrease of society’s productivity as whole. Hoover also discusses here leadership as one of such individual qualities, and very important for production at that, which he contrasts with the crowd that he considers mainly destructive.
Here Hoover discusses spiritual qualities of American society, which unlike old European society, believe that “divine inspiration” resides not in a few god-selected aristocrats, but in every individual. Consequently everything in America is growing from bottom up via individual efforts, voluntary societies, and individual effort for common good, even if at some cost to individual.
Here Hoover discusses contrast between American economic development based on individual effort, that brought huge growth in productivity and well being for everybody, and socialistic economic method that suppresses individual, resulting in misery and economic destruction. However Hoover very positive to ideas of top down control of economic activities if it is conducted in form of corporations managed by enlightened leaders and regulated by government. Consequently he sees progress as increase in cooperative forms of organization, which somehow will retain space for equality of individual opportunities.
Hoover here states that the only appropriate political organization is Democracy, which “arises out of individualism and prospers through it alone”. He believes that government should play role of arbiter in all interaction between individuals and organizations and suppress whatever business activities it considers harmful via legislative intervention such as antitrust laws. He mainly dismisses government incompetence, and typical behavior of bureaucrats on the ground that nothing is perfect and claims that American bureaucracy somewhat better than bureaucracy in the old world. It just needs to be managed solving its insufficiencies as needed.
Here Hoover once again stated that individualism is the primary force of American civilization for three centuries that made America the most prosperous country in the world. He believes that this would lead to America successfully avoiding dangers of both reaction and radicalism and will produce better, brighter, and broader individualism that would service not inly to individual but also to “our fellows”. He ends with hope that the future will lead not only to retaining individualism of the most critical feature of America, but to its expansion into the new quality of “glorified service” that would become “part of national character”.
MY TAKE ON IT:
I believe that Hoover was completely correct when he stresses American individualism as the source of American prosperity. However I do not believe either in enlightened corporate managers or in benevolent government bureaucrats. I believe that every individual always act in his/her own interest whether material or psychological and could not possibly act in any other way. Therefore the best way is to structure society so that each individual would make the vast majority of decisions influencing his/her condition, rather than these decisions made by somebody else on individual’s behalf. This is possible only if each individual has property and can decide how apply this property in such way as to maximize material and psychological returns to self. As soon as one individual gets to decide how to use resources produced by other individuals, these others bound to be sacrificed to controlling individual’s needs whether it is corporate manager satisfying his material need to get rich by increasing value of his/her stock options at the expense of long term prospects of the company and jobs of its employees; or some great leader like Hitler or Stalin sacrificing millions of lives to the psychological need of building the great Germany or promoting world wide communist revolution correspondingly.