Illiberal Reformers

Race, Eugenics, and American Economics in the Progressive Era

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A rare occurrence: the University Near Here actually owned a recent non-fiction title that I wanted to read. I didn't have to bug the Interlibrary Loan people. Good for them.

Published earlier this year, Illiberal Reformers is a scholarly critical look at the roots of the US Progressive movement in the late 19th and early 20th century. The author, Thomas Leonard, is a lecturer at the Department of Economics at Princeton. He covers much the same ground as Jonah Goldberg did in Liberal Fascism, but (as far as I can tell from the reviews at Amazon) to much greater mainstream respectability. (See Jonah's comments on that.)

Leonard acknowledges the "good work" accomplished by those early Progressives: workplace reforms, safer food, women's suffrage, trust-busting, etc.) We might differ, of course, on how much of that progress would have occurred anyway, as a result of increased prosperity.

But—and this is a huge but—these early reformers were also endowed with massive amounts of hubris about their abilities to reshape American society, and the American economy, more to their liking. They weren't socialists, by and large. But they were united in their arrogant contempt for laissez-faire free-market economics specifically, and individualism (generally); they simply knew that their conscious "reality-based" designs and plans would produce superior results. Why wait for Adam Smith's magic Invisible Hand to produce results when you can grab control of the state, and directly use its Visible Fist to get the superior outcomes you desire? Why not push people around in the name of the collective good-as-you-see-it.

This required, naturally, a national government endowing itself with vast new powers, damned be the Constitutional niceties. Woodrow Wilson is one of those damners, quoted as arguing that the Constitution and its government be viewed as a living thing, evolving via Darwinist processes, rather than the old constraining fuddy-duddy Newtonian rules envisioned by the Founders.

This alludes to another feature of the early Progressives: they were devotees of the junk science of the day. The poor understanding of evolution combined with unsophisticated economics resulted in "scientific" racism and an obsession with all things eugenic. This manifested itself in all sorts of nasty policies: racial segregation, stupid immigration restrictions, minimum wage laws designed to keep the "unfit" out of the workplace, etc. While the Progressive movement was fine with women getting to vote, they were largely opposed to their presence in the workplace: a functioning family had the father earning a "living wage", while the little lady stayed home, baked, and tended the kiddos.

Now: Progressivism was far from a uniform movement. For example, not all Progressives championed Prohibition—but a lot did. And Progressives were not the only racists in the American tent—but they were clearly on the wrong side, and their shimmering belief in their own moral rectitude makes it somehow unforgivable.

Leonard is obviously interested in promoting his thesis, but he does this effectively by quoting the Progressives' own self-incriminating words, with only a gloss of his own interpretations. Irony: Leonard teaches at current-day Princeton, but one of his main victims is a previous President of Princeton, the aforementioned Woodrow Wilson.

If I had one complaint about Leonard's approach, it's that he doesn't go far enough. It's to easy for modern Progressives to scoff: well, except for all that early eugenic stuff, our movement was just fine. I have high hopes for his future work, though: see, for example, his review of Nudge by Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler, taking on the paternalistic conceit of two modern Progressives.


Last Modified 2024-01-26 10:11 AM EST