The Only Trouble with Capitalism Is Capitalists. They’re Too Damned Greedy

Herbert Hoover? Mark Sullivan Jr.? Harold G. Moulton? Apocryphal?

money07Dear Quote Investigator: U.S. President Herbert Hoover perceived the dangers of stock market speculation in the late 1920s and tried unsuccessfully to convince the Governor of New York to introduce regulations. After the Wall Street Crash in October 1929 he supposedly reacted bitterly:

The only trouble with capitalism is capitalists; they’re too damn greedy.

Is this an accurate quotation?

Quote Investigator: The evidence for this quotation comes from the oral testimony given in 1968 by Mark Sullivan Jr. whose father and Herbert Hoover were close friends. The transcript is preserved at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library. The Sullivan and Hoover family members went fishing together and dined with one another often. The son was born in May 1911; hence, he was 18 at the time of the Stock Market Crash. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

Incidentally, that reminds me of a remark I can remember Mr. Hoover making. This was when he was President and I’m quite sure it was after the Depression had started. I can remember him saying, under some circumstances somewhere: “You know, the only trouble with capitalism is capitalists; they’re too damned greedy,” Of course, that was part of the trouble in the late 20s. If the big corporations, instead of raking in all the profits, had lowered the prices of their products, I suspect we’d have come through with a less severe depression.

The timeframe indicated was between 1929 and 1933. Hoover may have made the comment to Mark Sullivan Sr., and it was heard by his son.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

The first part of the expression was in circulation by 1935 as shown by an article in a California newspaper that reported on comments by the head of an influential policy institute: 2

Harold G. Moulton, president of the Brookings Institute, is no radical. He may be taken with some seriousness, therefore, when he says that “the trouble with capitalism is the capitalists.”

The idea is this: That capitalism as we have known it, especially in America, tends to destroy itself by its short-sightedness.

In 1936 a columnist in an Iowa newspaper noted that Moulton had written an article in the top business magazine “Fortune” which discussed his recently published book. The first part of the quotation appeared in “Fortune”: 3

The book was summarized by Dr. Moulton In an article “Economic Progress Without Revolution.” The article appeared In Fortune Magazine under the caption “The Trouble with Capitalism is the Capitalists.”

In 1968 Mark Sullivan Jr. shared his testimony as presently previously in this article.

In 1975 the biography “Herbert Hoover: Forgotten Progressive” by Joan Hoff Wilson was published, and it included the quotation: 4

The closest Hoover probably ever came to admitting the truth was when he bitterly confided to Mark Sullivan: “You know, the only trouble with capitalism is capitalists; they’re too damn greedy.”

In 1979 the biography “Herbert Hoover: A Public Life” by David Burner was released. According to Burner, Hoover urged New York Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt to regulate Wall Street. He also summoned the President of the New York Stock Exchange and requested internal regulation, but Hoover’s actions were ineffectual: 5

The day before the market break of October 23 Hoover complained to a visitor about the “size and extent of stock market operations.” Forever afterward he was fond of saying: “The only trouble with capitalism is capitalists. They’re too damned greedy.”

The footnote accompanying the quotation pointed to the testimony provided by Mark Sullivan Jr. stored at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library. The excerpt presented at the beginning of this article is from that document.

The remark was striking and a book review of Burner’s volume published in 1979 in the “Des Moines Sunday Register” of Des Moines, Iowa reprinted the words together with another quotation: 6

No friend of the idle rich, Hoover would remark: “The only trouble with capitalism is capitalists. They’re too damned greedy.” And he once wrote: “In every society there will always be at the bottom a noxious sediment and at the top an obnoxious froth.”

In 1992 a piece in “The New York Times” referred to the complexity of Hoover’s legacy. The WWI era relief efforts he managed saved many lives. Also: 7

Seventy years before politicians discovered children, he founded the American Child Health Association. The problem is, Hoover defies easy labeling. How can you categorize a ‘rugged individualist’ who once said, ‘The trouble with capitalism is capitalists; they’re too damn greedy.'”

In conclusion, the memories of Mark Sullivan Jr. recorded in 1968 provide substantive evidence that Herbert Hoover did speak the quotation. However, the quotation was reportedly spoken decades earlier, and delayed human recollections are imperfect which reduces their probative value.

On the other hand, the phrase “the trouble with capitalism is the capitalists” was in circulation by the 1930s. QI believes that this increased the plausibility that Hoover may have employed it as part of a longer comment. Perhaps future researchers will uncover more evidence.

Image Notes: Portrait of Herbert Hoover via Wikimedia Commons. Image of stacked coins from PublicDomainPictures at PixaBay.

(Great thanks to Alex Marklew who inquired about a more complex two-part quotation that included the phrase: “The problem with capitalism is capitalists”. This caused QI to explore the original quotation and this related quotation. Special thanks to archivist Matthew Schaefer and the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library.)

Notes:

  1. Oral History Interview with Mr. Mark Sullivan Jr. conducted by Raymond Henle on November 30, 1968 at Herbert Hoover Oral History Program Offices in Washington, D.C. (Accessed via scans from the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library in West Branch, Iowa; thanks to archivist Matthew Schaefer)
  2. 1935 November 16, The Oxnard Daily Courier, Capitalist Danger, Quote Page 2, Column 1, Oxnard, California. (NewspaperArchive)
  3. 1936 October 29, Jefferson Herald, Facing Facts with Bishop G. Bromley Oxnam (Methodist Episcopal Church), Quote Page 3, Column 4, Jefferson, Iowa. (NewspaperArchive)
  4. 1975, Herbert Hoover: Forgotten Progressive by Joan Hoff Wilson, Series: The Library of American Biography, Chapter 5: The Progressive in Time of Depression, Quote Page 166, Little, Brown and Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Verified on paper)
  5. 1979 (Copyright 1978), Herbert Hoover: A Public Life by David Burner, Chapter 12: The Depression, Quote Page 247, Footnote Page 398, Alfred A. Knopf, New York. (Verified on paper)
  6. 1979 January 21, Des Moines Sunday Register (The Des Moines Register), The man who would not pose by Richard Doak (Staff Writer), (Book Review of “Herbert Hoover: A Public Life” by David Burner), Quote Page 4B, Column 1, Des Moines, Iowa. (Newspapers_com)
  7. 1992 August 10, New York Times, Editorial Notebook: Remembering Herbert Hoover: The Democrats Choose The Wrong Bogeyman by David Shipley, Quote Page A16, Column 1, New York. (ProQuest)