Shedding Light on Progressivism’s Dark Side

A new book details the progressive movement’s reliance on eugenics and race science as well as its effort to exclude the disabled, blacks, immigrants, the poor, and women from full participation in American society.

The words “progress” and “progressive” evoke images of enlightened reformers selflessly promoting justice and overcoming ignorance and bigotry. I guarantee, however, that anyone who reads Thomas C. Leonard’s new book, Illiberal Reformers: Race, Eugenics, & American Economics in the Progressive Era, will be troubled—and, in many cases, shocked—by some of the motivations of the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century progressives who sought to dismantle the American experiment in ordered liberty and replace it with the administrative state.

In this well-researched and readable text, Leonard demonstrates just how deeply in thrall the progressive movement of this period was to some truly disturbing ideas. Those who bore the brunt of their efforts to apply these beliefs to American life were groups that contemporary progressives invariably claim to champion. While avoiding rhetorical excesses, Leonard draws attention to the sheer hubris characterizing those who believed they could create a new world through their top-down bureaucratic direction of society and the economy.

Shadows and Light in the Nineteenth Century

There is much to admire about the nineteenth century. This was an era in which the Industrial Revolution and capitalism began lifting at a furious rate millions of people out of the material poverty which their forebears had endured for centuries. Throughout the West, absolute monarchies yielded to liberal constitutional regimes in which political, civil, and economic liberties gained increasing recognition. Remarkable advances also occurred in the sciences. These furthered humanity’s understanding of the natural world and radically reduced the impact of disease.

Darker forces, however, were also at work during this period. Scientific racism, for instance, exercised significant influence on the educated classes. In his Descent of Man (1871), Charles Darwin even prophesied that “the civilized races of man will almost certainly exterminate, and replace, the savage races throughout the world.” Nor did all nineteenth-century elites hold benign views of the workings of human freedom. Keep in mind, many of these individuals were not reactionaries concerned with preserving outmoded premodern hierarchies. Some of them belonged to the world’s largest democracy.

Leonard’s book details the rise of American social reformers who, under the direct and indirect influence of ideas that thrived in late nineteenth-century German universities, came to regard extensive state intervention as the means to solve social and economic problems. This was accompanied by deep skepticism about the seemingly chaotic workings of free markets and the bottom-up American associational approach to social ills. As Leonard demonstrates, ministers of religion such as Washington Gladden, lawyers such as Felix Frankfurter, efficiency experts such as Frederick Winslow Taylor, economists such as Richard T. Ely, and politicians such as Woodrow Wilson believed they simply knew better. They also yearned for a chance to prove it.

Leonard’s particular focus is on the economic progressives. He underscores this group’s roots in liberal Protestantism and the associated social gospel movement that “pursued economic and social improvement through a scientifically informed mission of social redemption.”

Such people, it turns out, were intent on immanentizing the eschaton decades before mid-twentieth century German political theologians and Latin American liberation theologians went down that path. The economic progressives viewed the state as an almost divine instrument for realizing this end. “God works through the State,” Ely proclaimed. Another economic progressive, John R. Commons, “told his Christian audiences that the state was the greatest power for good that existed among men and women.” The church, apparently, just wasn’t that important.

A Dangerous Mix

This mixture of utopianism, faith in the state, and sheer confidence in their own righteousness was one aspect of the progressives’ mindset. Another influence, Leonard illustrates, stemmed from particular ideas flowing from or associated with Darwinism.

To be sure, Leonard points out, people from across the political spectrum found something in Darwin’s thinking to support their positions. Some economic conservatives, most notably Herbert Spencer, appealed to survival of the fittest (though his own evolutionary views predated Darwin’s, as Leonard points out). Yet this principle also inspired economic progressives such as the English mathematician Karl Pearson (a father of modern statistical theory but also a eugenicist), who, as Leonard observes, “found a case for socialism in Darwin.”

These ideas made their way into economic progressives’ arguments for systematic state intervention. Many economic progressives held, Leonard demonstrates, that “regulation was the most efficient route to better heredity.” Science, they believed, had opened the way to identify the fittest. It followed, so the progressives believed, that “state experts would select the fittest by regulating immigration, labor, marriage, and reproduction.”

The broader effect was to advance the “scientific” case for dispensing with the divided government bequeathed by America’s founders. Economic progressives regarded such arrangements as obstructing the development of a centralized government capable of ensuring that society remained a “healthy organism.” The use of such language was partly about grounding the progressives’ agenda in the authority conferred by the new science of biology. It also reflected, however, the progressives’ lack of interest in and hostility toward individual liberty.

Enter Eugenics and Race Science

The proliferation of such concepts made it easier for two other elements to acquire traction among economic progressives. The first was eugenics, in the sense of replacing random natural selection with purposeful social selection. The second was “race science.” Grounded on the then-widespread conviction that different races were inherently dissimilar in abilities and habits, race science drew heavily on “polygenism”: the now-generally rejected theory that humans evolved from several independent pairs of ancestors.

Today we associate eugenics and race science with the policies of regimes such as National Socialist Germany. These included the 1935 Nuremburg race laws, the regime’s efforts to sterilize (beginning in 1934) and euthanize (beginning in 1939) the mentally and physically impaired, and its frenzied and yet systematically planned attempt to wipe the Jews off the face of the earth during World War II.

For a long time, however, eugenics and race science enjoyed great respectability. For at least three decades, Leonard notes, “eugenic ideas were politically influential, culturally fashionable, and scientifically mainstream.” They flourished, he adds, in “nearly all non-Catholic Western countries.” In 1911, for example, the Governor of New Jersey, Woodrow Wilson, signed forcible sterilization legislation that targeted what eugenicists regarded as “the hopelessly defective and criminal classes.” Likewise, the claims of race science were widely accepted by progressives. In his History of the American People (1902), for instance, Wilson asserted that southern and eastern Europeans had “neither skill nor energy nor any initiative of quick intelligence.”

So how did such ideas shape the economic progressives’ policy prescriptions? Economic progressives, Leonard shows, didn’t hesitate to invoke eugenics’ emphasis on planned selection as part of their proofs for economic planning’s superiority over free markets: “Just as the plant or animal breeder outdid nature, the analogy went, so too did the intelligent administrator of the economy outdo the economy left alone.”

In some cases, the influence of eugenics and race science combined to produce very specific policy advocacy by progressives. Many, for instance, tried to ensure that the health care provided to black Americans was “accompanied by eugenic measures designed to reduce the quantity and improve the quality of black births.”

Economic progressives also concluded that the “unemployable” (such as the mentally and physically disabled) or those who threatened to drag down the wages of inherently more productive Anglo-Saxons (such as Eastern European Jews or migrants from Asia and Southern Europe) had to be squeezed out of labor markets in the name of greater economic productivity. Economic progressives subsequently designed regulatory measures to achieve this end.

This included advocacy of minimum wage laws. These, it was held, would ensure that “only the productive workers were employed” by pricing low-skilled migrants out of labor markets. Economic progressives also favored the use of literacy tests to curtail legal immigration of apparently inferior races into America. That way, such groups wouldn’t even compete with Anglo-Saxons in the first place.

Women didn’t escape the economic progressives’ dragnet. As good eugenicists, the progressives believed sound breeding meant that women should not work outside the home. Many economic progressives saw state-mandated minimum wages and family wages as a means of keeping women—especially Anglo-Saxon women—at home in their natural state. This, it was hoped, would also stem declining birthrates among Anglo-Saxon families, thereby reducing the chances of America being overrun by “naturally inferior” peoples who bred like rabbits. Progressive labor reformers, Leonard illustrates, invariably pressed “to protect women from employment and to protect society and the race from the employment of women.”

What about Today’s Progressives?

It is a tribute to Leonard’s scholarship that he doesn’t present these and other views as completely uniform among progressives, and he does highlight prominent exceptions. Nonetheless, Leonard illustrates that race science and eugenics were powerful motivations for the vast majority of prominent economic progressives.

Progressives weren’t the only people to hold such views. They were part of the intellectual air throughout most of the West. What especially marked the progressives, however, was an eagerness to use the state to give effect to such ideas.

Leonard does not draw explicit comparisons between the progressives and today’s modern liberals. Nevertheless, they are not difficult to discern. One is faith in self-identified elites who purport to know better than everyone else. Another is impatience with those political, economic, civil, and religious liberties that get in the way of grand designs imposed from the top down. A third is a preferential option for the state, based on disbelief in the ability of individuals and communities to resolve many of their own problems.

Above all, one comes away from this book appreciating that the association of words such as “progress,” “scientific consensus,” and “improvement” with particular ideas, laws, and policies doesn’t mean they actually promote the common good or respect human freedom. Sometimes “progress” is regression, “improvement” often involves unjust discrimination against particular groups, and many a “scientific consensus” has been disproved within a generation.

These aren’t arguments against change per se. They are, however, arguments for two things that should always go hand in hand: humility in the quest for truth and caution in the use of state power.

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