Speaking in New York near the close of the 1928 Presidential campaign, Herbert Hoover presented the choice between himself and his opponent, Democrat Al Smith, as one between “state socialism” and the protection of private enterprise. He reminded his listeners that during its involvement in World War I, the US government had directed energy toward the war effort by assuming unprecedented powers to regulate private industry. He made the case that the country’s recovery from the war effort was due in large part to the government’s relinquishing these powers at the war’s conclusion, contrasting this decision with that of some European powers, whose economies were still struggling.
A little less than halfway through this speech, Hoover introduced his famous characterization of the American economic system as based on “rugged individualism”:
“During the war we necessarily turned to the Government to solve every difficult economic problem. The Government having absorbed every energy of our people for war, there was no other solution. For the preservation of the State the Government became a centralized despotism which undertook responsibilities, assumed powers, exercised rights, and took over the business of citizens. To large degree we regimented our whole people temporarily into a socialistic state. However justified it was in time of war if continued in peace time it would destroy not only our system but progress and freedom in our own country and throughout the world. When the war closed the most vital of all issues was whether Governments should continue war ownership and operation of many instrumentalities of production and distribution. We were challenged with the choice of the American system “rugged individualism” or the choice of a European system of diametrically opposed doctrines — doctrines of paternalism and state socialism. The acceptance of these ideas meant the destruction of self-government through centralization of government; it meant the undermining of initiative and enterprise upon which our people have grown to unparalleled greatness.”
In the part of the speech that follows, Hoover explains his reasons for objecting to federal involvement in private business.
The collapse of the stock market in 1929, the nation’s fall into economic depression, and Hoover’s ineffectual measures to end this crisis would dispose the electorate to listen in 1932 to Franklin Roosevelt’s opposing view of the role of government in business.