In this January post, I noted some of the uncanny parallels between George W. Bush and Herbert Hoover: Both were president during a time of economic crisis; both presided over vast expansions of government that helped cause the crisis or at least make it worse than it might have been otherwise; finally both were (inaccurately) portrayed by their political opponents as dogmatic free market advocates, when in fact both were highly statist. After leaving the presidency, Bush is unconsciously imitating Hoover in yet another way – by rhetorically supporting free markets and criticizing the even more interventionist policies of his Democratic successor (which in both cases built on the expansions of government initiated by the Republicans who preceded them):
Former President George W. Bush, outlining plans for a new public policy institute, on Thursday said America must fight the temptation to allow the federal government to take control of the private sector, declaring that too much government intervention will squelch economic recovery and expansion….
“As the world recovers, we will face a temptation to replace the risk-and-reward model of the private sector with the blunt instruments of government spending and control. History shows that the greater threat to prosperity is not too little government involvement, but too much,” said Mr. Bush…
Bush’s belated support for free markets follows in Hoover’s footsteps. After leaving office in 1933, Hoover wrote books and articles defending free markets and criticizing the Democrats’ New Deal. Some of his criticisms of FDR were well-taken. Many New Deal policies actually worsened and prolonged the Great Depression by organizing cartels and increasing unemployment. But by coming out as a free market advocate, the post-presidential Hoover actually bolstered the cause of interventionism because he helped cement the incorrect impression that he had pursued free market policies while in office, thereby causing the Depression. Bush’s post-presidential conversion creates a similar risk: it could solidify the already widespread impression that he, like the Hoover of myth, pursued laissez-faire policies which then caused an economic crisis.
What should Bush now do if he genuinely wants to help the free market cause? The best thing would be to take up economist David Henderson’s half-joking suggestion that he “express his regret at nationalizing airport safety, carrying out illegal surveillance of U.S. citizens, raiding medical marijuana clinics, bailing out General Motors, AIG and other companies, and socializing prescription drugs for the elderly [the biggest new government program from the 1960s until the present financial crisis].” Bush could also point out that he advocated an ideology of “compassionate conservatism” that included vastly expanded government, and an “ownership society” that (in his own words) involved “us[ing] the mighty muscle of the federal government” to incentivize dubious mortgages of the kind that helped cause the financial collapse of 2008. The greatest contribution Bush can now make to free market policies is to dispel the impression that he pursued them while in office.
It is probably unrealistic to expect any politician to admit major mistakes or point out that he is now advocating policies vastly different from those he pursued while in office. So the second-best way for post-presidential Bush to support free markets is to say as little about the subject as possible. The more the cause is associated with him, the worse off it will be.