Arnold Kling  

Richard T. Ely, Founding Fascist

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One of the revelations of Jonah Goldberg's Liberal Fascism was the beliefs espoused by Richard T. Ely, the founder of the American Economic Association. In this essay, Ely wrote

The law of society is service. This is the supreme law of society from which no one can escape with impunity. Ethical teachers now approach unanimity in the assertion that the criterion of right conduct is social well-being. The welfare of society is the test of conduct in the individual. It would be interesting to take four great writers--a theologian, a jurist, a professor of natural science, and a student of society--and to discover their entire and complete harmony in the view that the purpose of the rules of right individual conduct is the welfare of society.

Goldberg writes (p. 117)

Richard Ely, a fervent believer in "industrial armies," was a zealous believer in the draft. "The moral effect of taking boys off street corners and out of saloons and drilling them is excellent, and the economic effects are likewise beneficial."

Later, (p. 219),

"God works through the State in carrying out His purposes more universally than through any other institution," proclaimed the founder of the American Economic Association

Goldberg also says that Ely was tainted by the eugenic racism that was prevalent among early progressives.

At the annual meetings of the American Economic Association, a focal point is the Richard Ely memorial lecture. This year, the speaker was Nicholas Stern and the topic was global warming. No doubt, Ely would have been pleased.

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CATEGORIES: Political Economy

COMMENTS (18 to date)
Barkley Rosser writes:

Oh my. Well, as a product of Ely's old hangout at Wisconsin, I guess I should step in to defend him.

First of all, to identify anybody who somehow thinks that there is some kind of aggregate welfare of society that should be maximized as a "fascist" seems ridiculous. OK, so Ely was not a Randian, ultra-individualistic libertarian. But this claim by Goldberg is just a screaming example of why this is such a pathetic book.

I do not support the draft, but plenty of people have supported the draft over time who were not fascists. Switzerland currently has a universal draft, partly justified on these kinds of social grounds. Is Switzerland fascist?

Now, it is correct that many progressives, including Ely, supported eugenics. However, I am unaware of him tying it to racial categories as Hitler would later do. And, certainly the conservatives of his day were far more racist than was Ely. And, finally, I would note that I see a lot of implicitly eugenicist arguments on this blog: IQ is inherited, and higher IQs are good.

Les writes:

My question to Mr. Ely is whatever happened to government of the people, for the people and by the people?

No-one ever told me that the task of the people was to serve the government. Isn't that Communism and/or Fascism and/or tyranny?

Arnold Kling writes:

I think that some sort of transcendental concept, such as "greater good," is generally defensible. What is much less defensible is equating that with the state and with conscription.

I think that Goldberg's use of the term fascism for the most part costs him more intellectual points than it gains him. But trying to come up with a definition of fascist ideology which clearly excludes Ely and other Wilson-era progressives is not easy. Go ahead and try.

John Thacker writes:

But trying to come up with a definition of fascist ideology which clearly excludes Ely and other Wilson-era progressives is not easy.

And clearly includes Mussolini and Franco, one should add. One might even add also clearly excludes Stalin and Mao, but then it starts to get *really* hairy.

John Thacker writes:

And, certainly the conservatives of his day were far more racist than was Ely.

Problem 1 is that the US didn't have much of a "conservative" tradition. Until the progressives came along, the US tradition was largely a form of classical liberalism on both sides, with differences in various emphases and various breaks with principle. (Republicans tended to be high tariff supporters, for example.)

Problem 2 is that if you want to point out "conservatives," then I just can't accept that they were more racist than Ely, and certainly not "far more racist." William Howard Taft, for example, vetoed an immigration bill that would have applied a literacy test.

True that there weren't a whole lot of people opposed to eugenics. OTOH, the people that were strongly opposed to it were G.K. Chesterton and the Catholic Church, both of whom it would be difficult to call precisely conservative or liberal.

Chris Rasch writes:

Personally, I see fascist as a scaled adjective. So a given institution or society can be more or less fascist. With respect to the Swiss, the draft is a fascist institution, but Swiss government and culture as a whole is not particularly fascist.

Jim writes:

"This year, the speaker was Nicholas Stern and the topic was global warming. No doubt, Ely would have been pleased."

Don't forget the fascist scientists who provided the fascist evidence for Stern's report, or the fascist weathergirls who perpetuate the fascist myth that fascist temperatures are fascistly rising.

Horatio writes:

What was he supposed to title his book?

Would this more accurate title sell as well?

"Leftists are not really liberal and have just as much in common with fascists as neoconservatives"

Of course not! The objections of myopic intellectuals mean nothing when inaccuracy will earn you a cool million.

Lewis writes:

I'm reading the book right now. The title comes from HG Wells. "Liberal Facism" or "Enlightened Nazism" was a term he used to describe his brand of socialism/collectivism. Right now I'm in the chapter about the world's first Facist Dictator:
Woodrow Wilson.

Interesting stuff.

Chuck writes:

"God works through the State in carrying out His purposes more universally than through any other institution," proclaimed the founder of the American Economic Association"

That sounds like a sentiment you are more like to hear from the evangelical right than from the left.

Lots of people love to tell people what to do. 'Liberals' are no more fascist for banning transfats than conservatives are fascist for trying to keep gays from marrying.

Taking his book seriously is really foolish.

Buzzcut writes:

Taking his book seriously is really foolish.

Yeah, god forbid you would actually, you know, READ it. And respond to the arguments.

No, let's just make snarky comments on some blog and just dismiss it out of hand.

I hope that this book comes to my local library soon.

Eric H writes:

to identify anybody who somehow thinks that there is some kind of aggregate welfare of society that should be maximized as a 'fascist' seems ridiculous

Barkley's comment demonstrates a common problem. Fascism cannot be defined as one thing, it is a combination of characteristics. By concentrating on just one of those at a time, you can either find that everybody or nobody is a fascist, as you find convenient.

In much the same way, five blind men concentrating on various portions of an elephant can develop completely contradictory descriptions of that beast. You might conclude from their claims that anything could be an elephant (a fan, a snake, a spear, a tree), that there is no such thing as an elephant, or that the blind men are dishonest witnesses. Or you might conclude that an elephant consists of a variety of disparate parts in relatively fixed proportions. Does it become less elephantlike if you cut off its tusks?

8 writes:

That sounds like a sentiment you are more like to hear from the evangelical right than from the left.

And he criticizes Social Gospel and Huckabee in the book. In an interview he said writing the book made him more libertarian.

I consider fascism as a return to tribalism. Your tribe was your extended family and you did what the tribe said. If you went against the tribe there were severe repercussions. You could not escape the tribe except by death or exile and every decision was made with the tribe in mind.

Both sides have fascistic tendencies, but the left moreso than the right in America, if only because of the scale of their plans.

Barkley Rosser writes:


Regarding one point you made, I did not see Ely's advocacy of the draft being tied to subordination of the individual to the state particularly, as you appeared to claim. Rather it seemed to be more an argument for character building, more along moralistic lines.

Regarding this difficult question of "what is fascism?" well, yes, it is a multidimensional thing, a few of which one might find hints of in Ely's thought, with his ultimate placement of the state over the individual being really about the only serious one, especially given that his eugenicism did not particularly take on a racial or ethnic or nationalistic character that I am aware of.

So, what are some of the other characteristics that are commonly identified with fascism? One very important one is being opposed to democracy as a political system, preferring instead an authoritarian or totalitarian dictatorship by a great leader. Offhand, I would say that this is a necessary element for someone to be a true "fascist" and this was the form of virtually every system and nation that has been seriously labeled as "fasicst" pretty much anywyhere by anybody. Ineed, during the heyday of fascism in the 1930s, this was very explicit and forward: the argument was that the democracies had "failed," and that only a dictator could achieve desirable national and social ends.

Needless to say, Ely was totally pro-democracy. This alone pretty much turns that claim that he was a "fascist" into utter nonsense.

Some other generally accepted characteristics are an emphasis on extreme nationalism, often tied to ethnocentrism or racism, that the ethnic or racial group dominant in the nation is perceived as "superior." I am unaware of anything along these lines in Ely, although I think that he did consider himself to be a patriotic citizen of the USA.

Another characteristic, not unconnected to the previous one, is a belief in natural hierarchies and inherent inequalities between people. The superior race/ethnic group/ubermensch individual, whatever, has the right, even the moral duty, to rule over others and dominate them, ultimately for their own good, although in the nastier versions of fascism, especially as in Hitler's Germany, this last part did not matter as all that matters is what is good for the Master Race.

I am unaware of anything at all of this sort present in Ely's thought. He was a Christian socialist institutionalist who supported movement towards egalitarianism. This latter is something that is not supported by either libertarians or fascists (no, I am not suggesting that libertarians are therefore fascists).

Regarding more specifically economics, here more of a case can be made, although some parts definitely do not fit, such as the already mentioned issue of views regarding hierarchy (or inequality) and egalitarianism, where Ely clearly did not agree with traditional fascist notions.
The traditional view of fascist economics, as implemented and supported in both Italy and Germany before WW II, was "corporatism," which involved state intervention to tamp down class conflict and to in various ways direct the economy. In Italy this involved lots of nationalization, that is "classical socialism," much of which was not undone until very recently. In Germany it did not involve nationalization (even though "socialist" was in the official title of the Nazi party), but rather involved more vigorous direct command control of the economy.

Ely did support concern about a national interest. But I am unware of him viewing using the state to tamp down class conflicts particularly. When he was nearly fired from the University of Wisconsin (leading to its Board of Regents declaring in a famous declaration that the UW would not limit the "sifting and winnowing" of ideas needed to reach the truth), it was because he was advocating state-supported workmens' compensation, something now long in place in the US. He was pro-labor rather than pro-state over labor and capital. In this regard he was more socialist than fascist.

Scott Scheule writes:

Bravo, Barkley. Beware though, if you keep challenging Kling's isolated snarks, you're liable to get booted, like General Specific was.

Barkley Rosser writes:

Oh well, I'll take my chances.

Even though nobody is replying to my long defense of Ely, I will throw in a final observation. This business of Goldberg's book reminds me of the screeds one used to hear of from the John Birch Society that Eisenhower and pretty much the entire Democratic Party were all Communists. The arguments were not really all that different. Just as one can find some former socialists who ended up as fascists, especially in Italy (and if one goes back to WW I, in Germany), one could find a lot more people in the New Deal who had been former Commies (with some who were actually still party members secretly in the administration; Joe McCarthy was not completely wrong). And all those arguments about people supporting state control or the supremacy of the state over the individual applied just as well and equally to this charge as to the charge of fascism.

So, all these "liberals" are just communists/fascists (eeeeek!). Now, in some sense this is a view held by many libertarians, and I would fully agree that indeed where communism in practice (as opposed to theory) and fascism converged was on their shared love of dictatorially ruled, all powerful states.

The problem has always been when one makes this jump from observing that an old progressive Social Christian type like Ely, or Woodrow Wilson or FDR, liked some degree of state intervention in the economy and asserted some degree of supremacy of national interest over individual interest to the "ah ha!" of that they were obviously a bunch of communists/fascists, or whatever. Ely in post-WW II terms looks most like some European social democrat, who were the strongest opponents of the Nazis in Germany (in contrast with the Communists, who covertly aided the Nazis against the ruling Social Democrats), and despite the scary contingent prophecies of Hayek, have not gone down a Road to Serfdom to dictatorship in practice since then, with many of these countries being well ahead of the US now on a wide variety of civil liberties today (waterboarding anybody?).

I would also note that corporatist policies when carried out within a democratic context within a relatively small and homogeneous society can lead to pretty good macro performances. One of the more dramatic examples is the case of the actually existing, post-WW II Austrian economy, where arguably much of the economic institutional setup was left over from the Nazi era and continues to have a strongly corporatists form in terms of labor-management negotiations to this day. However, it was put into a democratic context, and the Austrian economy has performed very well, thank you, with the latest Country Survey of it by The Economist practically falling all over itself to praise the place.

Really, once again, there is this very important political bottom line that gets scarfed over by the likes of Goldberg, and is the source of the marketing and publicity. Both communists and fascists in practice supported anti-democratic dictatorship. This has never been the case for any "liberal," whether of the classical/libertarian sort, or the fuzzier more statist sort that one finds in the US today (or in the era of FDR or whenever). Goldberg is therefore ultimately engaged in a really pathetic intellectual smear job, just propaganda of the worst sort. And labeling Ely as a "fascist" is simply a part of this.

N.Ramagopal writes:

Milton Friedman advocated a minimum level of income for all Americans through the negative income tax and provision of free school education through vouchers. Hayek saw nothing wrong in state support for widows and orphans, as well as for the arts. Going by Kling's reasoning about Ely's ideology, the authors of Capitalism and Freedom and The Road to Serfdom were socialists: ensuring a minimum level of income, government support for the "vulnerable" sections and state funding for the arts are socialist ideals.
In fact an Austrian Economist, I think it was Rothbard , branded Friedman a socialist at heart!

Barkley Rosser writes:


Sorry to pick on you at this difficult time, but in case you have not been made aware of it, you should know that there is now a posting by me on Jonah Goldberg's site at about his book in which I criticize him regarding the origins of corporatism and then name this posting by you as an example of the misuse to which his book is being put, that is, people going from discussions of what constitutes "liberal fascism," (or "nice" fascism), which Goldberg insists should be a neutral, descriptive term, to simply assuming that Goldberg has shown that "liberals are fascists," and that therefore the term can be applied to anyone labeled a "liberal," without using the moderating modifier of "liberal fascism" (or "nice" fascism"). Again, the fact that neither Richard Ely then, nor Nicholas Stern now, is for ending democracy (although Ely did support suppressing anti-war dissent during WW I), means that at worst they were/are "liberal fascists," not just plain "fascists" without any modifiers.

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