David R. Henderson  

Illiberal Reformers is Heartening

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illiberal reformers.jpg

No, using "is" instead of "are" is not a typo. Illiberal Reformers is the title of an excellent book by Princeton University economics lecturer Thomas C. Leonard. The subtitle is "Race, Eugenics & American Economics in the Progressive Era." Some students of mine from last quarter and I meet weekly to discuss interesting books and articles. On the agenda last week and this week are some chapters from Leonard's book.

Russ Roberts, by the way, has an excellent interview with Leonard on EconTalk. Arnold Kling also has an excellent review of Leonard's book.

The students are leading the discussion and occasionally I'm adding some historical context, for example, explaining that Richard Ely, who is mentioned numerous times in the book as a major progressive who had eugenicist and racist views, was not some bit player but, rather, the founder of the American Economics Association, which is the largest economics association in the world. I point out that there is a prestigious lecture named after Ely at the AEA's annual meetings. I also, at our recent meeting, speculated that fewer than 15 percent of the people who attend the meetings know anything about his views.

Yesterday, I ran into one of the students and we started discussing some of the chapters. We both agreed that at first we found the book profoundly upsetting. But now that we have some perspective, we can actually be heartened by where we are today. To realize that some of the most prestigious thinkers during the Progressive Era--President Woodrow Wilson, Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, and famous economist Irving Fisher, to name three--had racist or eugenicist views, that such views were mainstream, and that such views would be soundly rejected today by a huge percent of the population and a huge percent of intellectuals is grounds for optimism rather than the opposite.

I told him that it reminded me of a similar situation I experienced in the late summer of 1968. I was 17 at the time and becoming a libertarian, although I wasn't sure of the word's meaning. A friend and I were invited by some slightly older libertarians to meet with them on a Saturday evening. One of the main agenda items, it turned out, was for the two of them who had visited Milton and Rose Friedman at their summer home in Vermont to tell about that experience. The main thing I remember from their "trip report," other than how gracious Milton and Rose were, was that the two young guys were playing "ain't it awful" about the intellectual state of the world and that Milton had told them that the intellectual state of the world was so much better in 1968 than it had been 20 years earlier, just after World War II had ended. Socialists and Communists dominated the intellectual debate way more then, said Milton, than now (meaning 1968.)




COMMENTS (11 to date)
Thaomas writes:

"The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."

And "I have a dream" that one day Liberals and Libertarians will together achieve a carbon tax, elimination of business and wage taxation, a progressive consumption tax and cost benefit analysis of existing and proposed regulations.

Hazel Meade writes:

@Thaomas,

... and a global free market. ;)

LD Bottorff writes:

The progressive racists of the late 19th century were as certain of their scientific rationale as are the global warming alarmists today. Today's global warming alarmists may be right, but we may find out in a few generations that they weren't. What well-founded beliefs do we hold today that will be considered as ghastly as we now consider the progressive racism of the late 19th century?

Weir writes:

I think they're embarrassed to express their racist or eugenicist views openly, true, and that's as much progress as we really ought to expect. But in their own lives they act as though the Webbs were quite right, and the poor are like parasites. They say out loud the acceptable thing. But in practice they're eugenicists.

They fight and claw desperately to keep poor kids from getting into good schools. Rich kids and poor kids are segregated at birth, and today's progressives really like it that way. They actually think poor kids are defective at birth. They think poor kids should be quarantined.

They preach equality and the idea we're blank slates, but what they practice is assortative mating, gated communities, occupational licensing, low density housing, the importance of credentials for all things. Getting their kids and grandkids into Harvard and Yale, marrying inside the same caste, saying all the right things, assuming all the manners of the ruling class, it's a lifelong, fulltime, pursuit. And if it means keeping the genetically inferior from getting anywhere near their Golden Children, that's a price they're eager to pay.

mico writes:

"But now that we have some perspective, we can actually be heartened by where we are today. To realize that some of the most prestigious thinkers during the Progressive Era--President Woodrow Wilson, Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, and famous economist Irving Fisher, to name three--had racist or eugenicist views, that such views were mainstream, and that such views would be soundly rejected today by a huge percent of the population and a huge percent of intellectuals is grounds for optimism rather than the opposite."

I won't comment on race, but the wider eugenicist argument is undeniably correct: modern technology reduces the level of strength, intelligence, and health required to survive and reproduce. Absent counteracting forces then these traits will degenerate in the population. Welfare states - which the Progressives supported and continue to support - accentuate this further.

It would be one thing if Darwinian evolution had been convincingly disproved. That seems to be the unstated assumption of anti-eugenicist writers; Leonard never actually critiques the scientific opinions of the Progressives in scientific terms, only in terms of political consequences and social desirability. But Darwinian evolution hasn't been disproved and indeed the harshest critics of eugenics seem to be the nominally strongest supporters of Darwinian evolution.

Greg G writes:

mico,

The Eugenicist movement was (and still is as you show here) a misunderstanding and perversion of Darwinian principles.

Darwinian evolution has two main drivers: variation and selection. Selection is always for the traits best suited to successful reproduction in the current environment. Selection is reliable, relentless and needs no central planning style assistance from humans to operate reliably. Everybody dies.

It is variation that sometimes fails and causes species to go extinct. Evolution can't select for a trait that is not there. Populations with more genetic diversity are more evolutionarily robust and populations with less genetic diversity are more evolutionarily fragile. This is especially true regarding immunity to various diseases.

Genetic diversity is crucial to evolutionary robustness because no one can know what traits might be most needed in some future environment.

Eugenics has it's evolutionary principles backwards and is a grotesque misunderstanding of real Darwinian concepts.

mico writes:

Greg G.

I don't think the Progressives believed mankind would go extinct. I think they believed that mankind's changing environment was producing new selection pressures that weren't necessarily pointing in a desirable direction. This argument seems sound to me. For instance, in settled urban society with high standard of living, why shouldn't myopia be universal? It does not reduce fitness much. Equally, though, universal myopia isn't desirable. That's a minor example.

Greg G writes:

mico,

Evolutionary theory is about which species survive and which don't, not which traits are "desirable" in some way that is divorced from evolutionary success.

Some people think more diverse populations are desirable and some don't in terms of individual human value judgments. Eugenicists conflate that question with the question of robustness in terms of evolutionary survival. You are probably right that Progressives (and certainly conservatives) did not expect mankind to go extinct. Even so, their writing is filled with concerns that mankind is becoming less robust in some way directly related to Darwinian Theory. That is a misreading of Darwinian Theory.

Perhaps as someone who has long worn corrective lenses for poor eyesight I have lost my objectivity on your "minor example." Could you sight a major example where eugenics is more urgently needed?

Monte writes:

@LD Bottorff,

What well-founded beliefs do we hold today that will be considered as ghastly as we now consider the progressive racism of the late 19th century?

The Welfare State, though more ill-fated than ghastly, once it is allowed to run its full course. I suspect that we'll ultimately come full circle back to the aphorism of "He that will not work shall not eat." It's simply an ad infinitum change in attitudes towards the poor.

Roger Sweeny writes:

Add to the list, H.G. Wells. This is from his 1902 Anticipations:

And how will the New Republic treat the inferior races? How will it deal with the black? ... the yellow man? ... the Jew? ... those swarms of black, and brown, and dirty-white, and yellow people, who do not come into the new needs of efficiency? Well, the world is a world, and not a charitable institution, and I take it they will have to go ... And the ethical system of these men of the New Republic, the ethical system which will dominate the world state, will be shaped primarily to favour the procreation of what is fine and efficient and beautiful in humanity--beautiful and strong bodies, clear and powerful minds ... And the method that nature has followed hitherto in the shaping of the world, whereby weakness was prevented from propagating weakness ... is death ... The men of the New Republic ... will have an ideal that will make the killing worth the while.

Wells was one of the most prominent British left intellectuals. He eventually lost much of the racism but continued to believe in a world state run by people like him. What could go wrong?

Fred Anderson writes:

Greg G. writes, "It is variation that sometimes fails and causes species to go extinct."

This seems to me echoic of the observation that freer societies tend to be and become more prosperous than their less free neighbors. That is because this greater freedom -- "We'll let any damnd fool try any crazed idea he may have." -- leads to greater variety. Hence more rapid evolution / progress than more programmed societies will enjoy.

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