Magazine | June 13, 2016, Issue

The Regressive Progressives

Illiberal Reformers: Race, Eugenics, and American Economics in the Progressive Era, by Thomas C. Leonard (Princeton, 264 pp., $35)

Conservatives enjoyed extra helpings at the all-you-can-eat schadenfreude buffet when leftists at Princeton made the astonishing discovery that Woodrow Wilson was a racist and demanded that his name be struck from Princeton’s well-known school of public affairs. Wilson’s racism and other unappealing traits have long been well known among conservatives but came as news to the liberal ignorati.

The revisionist literature on Progressivism and the New Deal, once the near-exclusive province of conservative authors and a few eclectic economic historians, has been “going mainstream” for quite a while. The old narrative of brave and altruistic Progressive reformers’ taking on “monopolist robber-baron capitalism” and government corruption, a narrative that dates back to the Progressive Era itself, has given way to a more spectral understanding that presents a complicated and mixed picture. This revisionism ought to, but somehow does not, prompt serious reflections about today’s so-called progressivism, which in many respects departs significantly from its forebears but in other ways is a direct lineal descendant.

The latest entrant in the literature is Princeton economic historian Thomas C. Leonard’s Illiberal Reformers. On the surface, as the subtitle indicates, the book is confined to the realm of economics, but Leonard captures very well how the various strains of Progressive thought — philosophy, political science, history, biology (especially Darwinian evolution), religion, law, and economics — were all amalgamated in the Progressive embrace of eugenics. “Hundreds, perhaps thousands of Progressive Era scholars and scientists proudly called themselves eugenicists,” Leonard observes.

The idea of eugenics is thought to be wholly discredited or repudiated today; Leonard weaves in a number of useful reflections on Progressive ideas that have endured. What is now widely called “the administrative state” constitutes the central crisis of American government today, and Leonard nicely traces out the Progressive roots of this scourge. He concisely explains the core idea of Progressivism: that “science” should replace “politics” as the basis for government. This in turn gave license to the idea that “an industrialized economy should be supervised, investigated, and regulated by the visible hand of a modern administrative state.” Leonard is equally clear, albeit brief in his explanation, that this new form of government entailed abandoning the classical-liberal philosophy of individual rights. He calls this “one of the most striking intellectual changes of the late 19th century, one with far-reaching consequences.” He is especially good in clearing away many of the myths and misconceptions about “social Darwinism.”

German historicism and Darwinian evolution provided the philosophical and scientific bases for abandoning natural rights and validating the presumption that expert administrators could guide the nation more wisely than elected politicians. Leonard notes the inherent contradiction of a movement that, on the one hand, called for more populist democracy but, on the other, wanted to govern more through expert elites isolated from direct political accountability — a contradiction that persists today. Leonard also briefly notes the Progressives’ “extravagant” and “outsized” faith in their own scientific expertise and altruism. He notes that most Progressives’ grasp of science was superficial, even for its time, and the same should be said for their grasp of German philosophy.

If Leonard’s exploration of these central aspects of Progressive ideology is underdeveloped, it is because of his intense and thorough focus on the central question of eugenics in economic thought. To the extent that eugenics is thought about today, it is chiefly relegated to social and political enthusiasms, and it is Leonard’s great service to have provided an exhaustive and detailed account of its centrality to advanced economic thinking and of the specific policies Progressive economists advanced in its name. And his exploration goes beyond simple issues of racial condescension to show how specific economic doctrines were vitally connected to eugenic ideology.

The most embarrassing idea was that the minimum wage could be a tool for discouraging immigration and promoting racial purity. (No one tell Paul Krugman.) “A minimum wage worked on two eugenic fronts,” Leonard explains. “It deterred immigrants and other inferiors from entering the labor force, and it idled inferior workers already employed. The minimum wage detected the inferior employee.” The Progressive economists a hundred years ago understood what progressive economists today have forgotten or willfully overlook: A minimum wage prices out marginally productive workers, who today as then tend to be young, unskilled, and minorities. The Progressives a century ago thought this would indirectly discourage immigration and reduce birth rates among immigrant populations. A number of other labor-union and liberal measures of the New Deal, such as the Davis-Bacon Act, also had eugenic underpinnings; they ironically remain totems of liberalism today, despite their nefarious origins.

Leonard fully traces out several other forgotten faces of Progressive illiberalism, such as the surprising connection of eugenics with religion and even conservationism. Eugenics, he writes, was “a keystone of the American conservation movement.” Charles Van Hise, president of the University of Wisconsin and a prominent conservationist, “said that Americans must abandon individualism for the good of the race.” Here we can see the seeds of the obsession with the “population bomb” of the 1960s and 1970s. There is one surprising omission from his vast catalogue of eugenic ideas and advocates: Margaret Sanger is barely mentioned.

Leonard also notes that Progressive economic policies were targeted not only against “inferior races” but also against women of all races, because women were either inferior or fragile, requiring the protection of the state. He correctly notes that, ironically, the only resistance to this paternalistic condescension came from the few conservative defenders of markets and individualism, such as Justice George Sutherland, who wrote the reviled Supreme Court opinions striking down sex-discriminatory labor laws.

The smug condescension of Progressives was of a piece with what Leonard describes as their “unstable amalgam of compassion and contempt,” a trait that still very much afflicts today’s self-described progressives. It hardly needs saying, but Leonard says it anyway: “American Progressive Era eugenics was anti-individualist and illiberal. . . . The original progressives’ illiberal turn did not stop at property and contract rights. They assaulted political and civil liberties, too, trampling on individual rights to person, to free movement, to free expression, to marriage and reproduction.”

An unstated implication of Leonard’s conclusion is that a return to the principles of individual liberty and truly limited government might be in order, for even if it is true that eugenics is discredited, the undemocratic administrative state marches on, running roughshod with the latest pseudo-science in the same fashion as the eugenicists of a century ago. And while eugenics is gone certainly in name, has the idea of the “scientific” management of the human race been completely abandoned, in the age of increasing abortions for sex selection and disability avoidance, not to mention the coming age of genetically modified “designer babies”? Illiberal Reformers is a great achievement and an important contribution to the revisionist historical literature, but its tight focus on eugenics and economics avoids the deeper ethical ground on which we must confront this phenomenon.

– Mr. Hayward is the Ronald Reagan Distinguished Visiting Professor at Pepperdine University.

Steven F. Hayward is a visiting professor at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley, and a fellow of the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington. He writes daily at

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