Blogs > Liberty and Power > Happy Birthday to Warren Buffett's Daddy

Aug 13, 2005 3:29 pm


Happy Birthday to Warren Buffett's Daddy



A google search brings up four thousand pictures of Warren Buffett but not a single one of his father Howard. A biography does not exist and apparently his papers are unavailable. Perhaps it all makes sense. During his life, and as a member of Congress, Howard Homan Buffett always put principle over popularity. As Joseph Stromberg aptly puts it, he was the Ron Paul of his day.

Born on this day in Omaha, Nebraska on 1903, Buffett came from a family of prominent grocers. As president of the Buffett-Falk & Company founded in 1931, he prospered through shrewd investing in the stock market.

Running on a pledge to fight those who would “fasten the chains of servitude around America’s neck,“ he served in Congress as a Republican from 1942 to 1948 and 1950 to 1952. As Bill Kauffman writes:

He marked himself an oddball by returning a pay raise to the Treasury and by subjecting each piece of legislation to a simple test:

“Will this add to, or subtract from, human liberty?”

Very few House bills passed Howard Buffett’s test.

In four non-consecutive terms representing Omaha in the U.S. House of Representatives, the radical backbench Republican compiled an almost purely libertarian record. He opposed whatever New Deal alphabet-soup agencies and Fair Deal bureaucracies emerged from the black lagoon of the Potomac….

Buffett was also a strict isolationist, denouncing NATO, conscription, the Marshall Plan (“Operation Rathole”), and the incipient Cold War, which he believed would enchain Americans in “the shackles of regimentation and coercion...in the name of stopping communism.” Foreign aid was a Buffett bugaboo. The story is told that as the family drove past the British Embassy late one night, Howard, seeing the lights still on, quipped, “They even stay up late to think of ways to get our money.”

Buffett summed up his views of America and the world in a speech on the House floor condemning the Truman Doctrine: “Even if it were desirable, America is not strong enough to police the world by military force. If that attempt is made, the blessings of liberty will be replaced by tyranny and coercion at home. Our Christian ideals cannot be exported to other lands by dollars and guns. Persuasion and example are the methods taught by the Carpenter of Nazareth, and if we believe in Christianity we should try to advance our ideals by his methods. We cannot practice might and force abroad and retain freedom at home. We cannot talk world cooperation and practice power politics.”….

Congressman Buffett’s son, while revering Pop as a tower of integrity and honesty, seems not to have inherited the old man’s libertarian streak. Warren Buffett is a liberal Democrat whose favorite political causes are legalized abortion and population control.

But surely the father bequeathed the son a confident contrariety, for if Warren Buffett lacks Howard Buffett’s politics, he shares his disdain for the eastern citadels of commerce and power, choosing to live in his hometown of Omaha: a radically decentralist act of which Rep. Buffett would have heartily approved.

After losing a primary for the U.S. Senate, Buffett retired. He became a well-known figure among the small besieged libertarian “remnant” during the Cold War era. His most notable legacy from this standpoint was a founder of The Institute for Humane Studies. He died in 1964.

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David T. Beito - 8/15/2005

Years ago, I was told that Warren Buffett had refused to make his father's papers available because he regarded his political views as wacky and an embarassment to the family name.


Kenneth R Gregg - 8/15/2005

I've wondered why there has been no bio of Buffett as well. He certainly was an interesting person and, as far as I'm aware, there are no academic papers on him as well.

Just a thought.
Just Ken
kgregglv@cox.net


David T. Beito - 8/15/2005

Good point. I've heard that too. What was the state of the Japanese economy at the outbreak of the Korean War?


Charles W. Nuckolls - 8/15/2005

Yes, but what put Japan over the top economically was proxmity to the theater of war in the earily 1950's.


David T. Beito - 8/14/2005

Japan did not get any money at all from the Marshall Plan and yet prospered.

The examples of foreign aid disasters are legion including Iran under the Shah. The level of aid has been real, not just a matter of rhetoric. The leading foreign aid recipients in Africa, including Tanzania, often have the poorest economies.


Ralph E. Luker - 8/14/2005

It seems impossible to me, at least, to deny that the massive inflow of cash and other assistance represented in the Marshall Plan somehow hendered economic recovery in the devastated economies of Germany, Greece, Japan, Sweden, and Turkey after World War II. And to suggest that Afghanistan is evidence of the failure of similar plans ignores the fact that allied nations, including the United States, have not lived up to rhetorical commitments. Instead, Afghanistan continues to be dominated by traditional warlords and its economy sustained by addictive cash crops.


Max Swing - 8/14/2005

As a German, I'd say that the Marshall Plan has benefit some, but mostly those who are now in favor of more socialism in Germany (if that were even possible).

I didn't like the Marshall Plan at all, because it was used to subside a political status quo that even is visible in German's "Grundgesetz", a right for social subsidies.

However, the British had the better idea, because in their Zone, they were willing to grant private enterprises to operate freely, which was then extended on US Zones like Württemberg and even came to Baden.
They were the motor of the 50s great economic success and not the beaurocratic institutions that got sponsored by the Marshall plan.

Other victims of the Marshall Plan include Greece, Sweden and Turkey (all who had to go through painfull transitions).

The true success of the Marshall Plan is due to the Free Trade agreements and its implementation.

If the spending policy of the Marshall Plan was so good, why didn't it work with other countries and especially today with Afghanistan and Iraq or with UN Foreign Aid? It was not the giving of money that brought the German economy afoot, it was the free trade and entrepreneurship that won the country. (Most notably, the Trümmerfrauen)


Ralph E. Luker - 8/14/2005

I suppose that, in part at least, we differ in the meaning we attribute to "free market." Yours, I take it, is a more pureist one and one such that I would claim has never existed. By free market, I simply mean one in which the state does not own the means of production and control the flow of goods and services.


Steven Horwitz - 8/13/2005

The flawed premise in your argument Ralph is that the Marshall Plan did anything to forward a "free market." As the historian Michael Hogan put it in The Marshall Plan: American, Britain, and the Reconstruction of Western Europe, 1947-1952 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press):

"American Marshall Planners...tried to transform political problems into technical ones that were solvable, they said, when old European ways of conducting business and old habits of class conflict gave way to American methods of scientific management and corporative collaboration." (p. 19)

The Marshall Plan was corporatism at its "finest." There wasn't even the rhetoric of free markets in the air. A very intersting study would be to compare US policy for the "reconstruction" of Iraq with the Marshall Plan. I'd bet a lot of cash that you'd find the same rhetoric and ideology, and that many of the same kinds of private actors are enriching themselves through state benefits, and at the expense of those being "reconstructed."


Ralph E. Luker - 8/13/2005

David, Your capacity to admire the perverse never ceases to amaze me. Opposition to the Marshall Plan? I should think that containing the threat of Communist domination of Europe after WWII would be desireable from a libertarian perspective and that libertarians could agree that a strengthened free market economy in post-war Europe was the best defense against the threat of an expansive alliance of communist states.

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