Magazine article The American Conservative

Progressive Eugenics

Magazine article The American Conservative

Progressive Eugenics

Article excerpt

Progressive Eugenics Illiberal Reformers: Race, Eugenics, and American Economics in the Progressive Era, Thomas C. Leonard, Princeton University Press, 264 pages

Love it or hate it, the Progressive Era in American history has a definitive narrative. Aghast at the political corruption, dangerous working conditions, and fetid living situations produced by industrial capitalism, progressive reformers like Teddy Roosevelt sprang into action, using the reins of big government to tame the growing corporate beast in defense of average Americans during the first two decades of the 20th century.

"Progressivism has been portrayed as essentially a middle-class defense against the status pretensions of the new industrialists, a defense of human values against acquisitive habits, a reassertion of the older tradition of rural individualism," wrote New Left historian Gabriel Kolko in his revisionist history of the Progressive Era, The Triumph of Conservatism: A Reinterpretation of American History, 1900-1916. That portrayal, still the conventional wisdom today, is wrong, as Kolko convincingly demonstrated: "It is business control over politics ... rather than political regulation of the economy that is the significant phenomenon of the Progressive Era." Kolko called this "political capitalism" or "the utilization of political outlets to attain conditions of stability, predictability, and security-to attain rationalization in the economy." Today we know this simply as politics.

While Kolko demolished the myth that Progressive Era reforms were instituted to create a more economically just society nearly six decades ago, we had to wait until now for Thomas Leonard's Illiberal Reformers: Race, Eugenics and American Economics in the Progressive Era to shine a light on what many progressive economists believed about workers, racial and ethnic minorities, and women. What Leonard found should disabuse anyone of the notion that these economists were bleeding-heart liberals who selflessly advocated for the marginalized and the dispossessed. Rather, with quotation after quotation, Leonard shows the dark heart of many progressive economists and their efforts at widespread social control through state coercion. The collective sense of superiority and contempt for ordinary people exhibited by the progressive thinkers that Leonard has unearthed is genuinely revolting.

As Leonard makes plain, progressives were largely a class of people above and apart from those their reforms affected. Descended from New Englanders with family ties stretching back to the Massachusetts Bay colony, progressive intellectuals had an evangelical fire for redeeming America in top-down fashion:

Progressives did not work in factories; they inspected them. Progressives did not drink in saloons; they tried to shutter them. The bold women who chose to live among the immigrant poor in city slums called themselves 'settlers,' not neighbors. Even when progressives idealized workers, they tended to patronize them, romanticizing a brotherhood they would never consider joining.

To put it crudely, they were snobs trying to civilize those they considered slobs. And if that didn't work, they weren't opposed to making dramatic policy proposals to control those they considered inferior. The progressives, you see, knew what was good for the "social organism." They were benevolent doctors who could use state power to apply the cures society needed without the taint of self-interest.

Progressives, writes Leonard, "found a way to make a vocation of reform." They did so first by transforming the obscure study of political economy into the university discipline of economics and then by erecting the administrative state, which they staffed and controlled, to carry out the scientific reforms they proposed. Their model for this expert-guided state was Germany, where many of the early progressive economists did graduate studies in political economy. The German economists, writes Leonard, were "socialists of the lectern" who "believed social problems could no longer be left to individuals or voluntary associations, but must be dealt with by an expert-guided state. …

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