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In "Illiberal Reformers," Thomas Leonard reexamines the economic progressives whose ideas and reform agenda underwrote the Progressive Era dismantling of "laissez-faire" and the creation of the regulatory welfare state, which, they believed, would humanize and rationalize industrial capitalism. But not for all. Academic social scientists such as Richard T. Ely, John R. Comm In "Illiberal Reformers," Thomas Leonard reexamines the economic progressives whose ideas and reform agenda underwrote the Progressive Era dismantling of "laissez-faire" and the creation of the regulatory welfare state, which, they believed, would humanize and rationalize industrial capitalism. But not for all. Academic social scientists such as Richard T. Ely, John R. Commons, and Edward A. Ross, together with their reform allies in social work, charity, journalism, and law, played a pivotal role in establishing minimum-wage and maximum-hours laws, workmen's compensation, progressive income taxes, antitrust regulation, and other hallmarks of the regulatory welfare state. But even as they offered uplift to some, economic progressives advocated exclusion for others, and did both in the name of progress. Leonard meticulously reconstructs the influence of Darwinism, racial science, and eugenics on scholars and activists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, revealing a reform community deeply ambivalent about America's poor. Economic progressives championed labor legislation because it would lift up the deserving poor while excluding immigrants, African Americans, women, and "mental defectives," whom they vilified as low-wage threats to the American workingman and to Anglo-Saxon race integrity. Economic progressives rejected property and contract rights as illegitimate barriers to needed reforms. But their disregard for civil liberties extended much further. "Illiberal Reformers" shows that the intellectual champions of the regulatory welfare state proposed using it not to help those they portrayed as hereditary inferiors, but to exclude them.


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In "Illiberal Reformers," Thomas Leonard reexamines the economic progressives whose ideas and reform agenda underwrote the Progressive Era dismantling of "laissez-faire" and the creation of the regulatory welfare state, which, they believed, would humanize and rationalize industrial capitalism. But not for all. Academic social scientists such as Richard T. Ely, John R. Comm In "Illiberal Reformers," Thomas Leonard reexamines the economic progressives whose ideas and reform agenda underwrote the Progressive Era dismantling of "laissez-faire" and the creation of the regulatory welfare state, which, they believed, would humanize and rationalize industrial capitalism. But not for all. Academic social scientists such as Richard T. Ely, John R. Commons, and Edward A. Ross, together with their reform allies in social work, charity, journalism, and law, played a pivotal role in establishing minimum-wage and maximum-hours laws, workmen's compensation, progressive income taxes, antitrust regulation, and other hallmarks of the regulatory welfare state. But even as they offered uplift to some, economic progressives advocated exclusion for others, and did both in the name of progress. Leonard meticulously reconstructs the influence of Darwinism, racial science, and eugenics on scholars and activists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, revealing a reform community deeply ambivalent about America's poor. Economic progressives championed labor legislation because it would lift up the deserving poor while excluding immigrants, African Americans, women, and "mental defectives," whom they vilified as low-wage threats to the American workingman and to Anglo-Saxon race integrity. Economic progressives rejected property and contract rights as illegitimate barriers to needed reforms. But their disregard for civil liberties extended much further. "Illiberal Reformers" shows that the intellectual champions of the regulatory welfare state proposed using it not to help those they portrayed as hereditary inferiors, but to exclude them.

30 review for Illiberal Reformers: Race, Eugenics, and American Economics in the Progressive Era

  1. 5 out of 5

    Mehrsa

    If we do not understand the deep "scientific" racism of the progressive era, we are in danger of over estimating the "progress" that was made. This book is a much-needed perspective. Progressive reformers did do lots of great economic, education, and other reforms but they also believed in eugenics and social darwinism. They took Darwinian evolution as a proscriptive design mandate and decided to speed up the natural process. This of course was inspiration to the Nazis who pursued these aims to If we do not understand the deep "scientific" racism of the progressive era, we are in danger of over estimating the "progress" that was made. This book is a much-needed perspective. Progressive reformers did do lots of great economic, education, and other reforms but they also believed in eugenics and social darwinism. They took Darwinian evolution as a proscriptive design mandate and decided to speed up the natural process. This of course was inspiration to the Nazis who pursued these aims to horrific ends, but these ideas were prevalent in America before the world wars.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Megan Chappie

    Dang that was good. Distressing. But good. Eugenics is...eugenics is just distressing, even from a distance of a hundred years or so. I didn't realize Woodrow Wilson was so racist. I always thought of him as a rather pathetic idealist, which I guess I still do. But now he's a racist pathetic idealist. (To be fair, Leonard notes that we don't really know where Wilson stood on race at the time of his presidency. People change, and I sincerely hope Wilson did. But ugh. Some of the THINGS that man w Dang that was good. Distressing. But good. Eugenics is...eugenics is just distressing, even from a distance of a hundred years or so. I didn't realize Woodrow Wilson was so racist. I always thought of him as a rather pathetic idealist, which I guess I still do. But now he's a racist pathetic idealist. (To be fair, Leonard notes that we don't really know where Wilson stood on race at the time of his presidency. People change, and I sincerely hope Wilson did. But ugh. Some of the THINGS that man wrote. UGH. I need to go wash my hands or something.) Charlotte Perkins Gilman had some CRAZY ideas, man. Communal kitchens and laundries and nurseries. Uh-huh. That sounds like a great model for society. T.S. Eliot, sir, you wrote such great poems about cats, why do you have to have to have ideas that make me want to vomit? Seriously, so many of these snobbish, controlling, elitist, BEASTLY progressives make me want to VOMIT. "Let's put in place a minimum wage, that way unfit workers will be unemployed, and we'll be able to tell who's unfit just by looking at who's unemployed! And then we can institutionalize the unfit, and sterilize the unfit, and euthanize the unfit--oops did I say 'euthanize?' Oh, my bad, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to say that, our civilization isn't civilized enough to appreciate the fact that murder is less cruel than letting hereditary vices get out of control. Yet." UGH. IT'S OUTRAGEOUS. I love this quote from the epilogue: "Progressivism's legacy is this strange and unstable compound of compassion and contempt." Isn't that a pithy way of putting it?

  3. 4 out of 5

    Don Mashak

    This is a great book for understanding the Progressive Globalist Insurgency in America. This books is written by a hardcore Progressive Professor who remains an hardcore Progressive. And he quotes the Founder's of Progressivism. In Chapters 1-3 you learn Progressives think the concept of Natural Rights of the individual is nonsense. That the think the US Constitution is a hindrance and should be scrapped. And that they installed the Administrative State as a Fourth Branch of Government to sneak This is a great book for understanding the Progressive Globalist Insurgency in America. This books is written by a hardcore Progressive Professor who remains an hardcore Progressive. And he quotes the Founder's of Progressivism. In Chapters 1-3 you learn Progressives think the concept of Natural Rights of the individual is nonsense. That the think the US Constitution is a hindrance and should be scrapped. And that they installed the Administrative State as a Fourth Branch of Government to sneak in their Forced Progressive Metaphysics over generations so no one generation notices enough change to revolt... Chapter 6 discusses that Progressives say that humanity is not composed of individuals but rather is a single "Social Organism". Best analogy I can give is Humanity as a colony of Honeybees with the masses being expendable worker bees, with no rights, who exist only to serve the Progressive Hive Community as ordered by the Progressive Educated Elite King and Queen Bees. Chapters 7 - 10 describe in detail the racist and sexist attitude Progressives have toward minorities and women. On the downside, it is written deliberately with big words in such a way that the average reader may have difficulty reading and comprehending it. I had to read the book 3 times to understand it and get past my own Cognitive Dissonance in not wanting to believe how evil Progressivism is.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Vincent Li

    A challenging book, an intellectual history that is not written as a narrative but around grand themes of the progressive movement. Some of the writing is confusing (especially difficult to follow without at least basic knowledge of the progressive movement, I struggled since it's been a while since I've read up on all my reform movements) and Leonard clearly is sympathetic to the pre-progressive era. The book is a fascinating read that does not try to trade off nuance and understandability (i.e A challenging book, an intellectual history that is not written as a narrative but around grand themes of the progressive movement. Some of the writing is confusing (especially difficult to follow without at least basic knowledge of the progressive movement, I struggled since it's been a while since I've read up on all my reform movements) and Leonard clearly is sympathetic to the pre-progressive era. The book is a fascinating read that does not try to trade off nuance and understandability (i.e. the book is hard to understand and very nuanced). Leonard tries to write a history of the progressive movement with all its associated grays, in particular on progressive era eugenics, which is a topic that is only recently starting to emerge into the more public eye (through books such as Imbecile). Leonard does not try to present the progressive movement as unified at all but grouped around certain themes. For example, on a long chapter about darwinism, it's clear that darwinism was used by both promoters of laissez faire economics (Herbert Spencer as promoting the most fit) as well as socialists (including the scientists Alfred Wallace and Muller who thought capitalism just promoted the predatory). Leonard writes a few times to remind the reader that progressivism as an ideology is not necessarily liberal or conservative (the title of book refers the fact that Leonard sees the progressives as repudiating the classical liberal conception of individual rights in favor of a social organism theory) but grounded in a set of ideas, in particular about the nation as a collective, technocratic rule, obsession with science and exclusion of certain people (from immigrants, to women, to the poor) in decision making. Leonard makes it clear that eugenics was not an unfortunate incidental branch of the progressive movement but a central plank. Eugenics appealed fundamentally to all tenets of progressivism. It was seen as a scientifically valid theory to be administered by state experts that would improve the national stock. Eugenics was seen as a way to short cut nature and natural selection which either was too slow or wasteful or did not select for the desirable traits. It's disturbing to see how many luminaries of the progressive age promoted and espoused eugenics (it's almost all of them). The language these political, scientific and social leaders used to refer to eugenics is just truly sickening and disturbing. The wide popularity of eugenics is shocking. For example, after the scopes monkey trial, the textbook which already had a section on eugenics removed darwinism and expanded its section on eugenics. Along with the progressive's blind worship of the virtues of the objective scientist, they never questioned just how scientific or objective many of these theories were (including the idea that men are stronger than women because they have more water in their blood). It's also really fascinating how many modern institutions and concepts arose out of this complex era. For example, the history of the minimum wage was actually deeply rooted in eugenic ideas. According to Leonard, many supporters of the minimum wage saw the the minimum wages as a means to cut out immigrant laborers out of the workforce. The progressives had the fear that foreign labor (tied closely to racial stereotypes) had lower standards of living and therefore demanded less wages, depressing wages for American labor. The fear of the influx of unskilled labor would depress American wages enabled the progressive to enact racially motivated quotas on immigration. However, for immigrants already in the country, the minimum wage would act as a way to criminalize any hiring of lower skilled labor and therefore separate out the "unworthy" for the administrative state to either sterilize or separate in colonies (I know hard to believe! but read the book). Not less fascinating is the close relationship between the progressive movement and the rise of the field of economics. The economics associations, academic departments and use in government exploded from practically nothing to an accepted and vital field during the progressive era. In particular, I found it fascinating how tightly close early economists and eugenics were bound. In particular, it was interesting that early american economists were trained in germany and developed ideas of the state as a social organism that could be guided by technocratic expert. The book also has a fascinating chapter on women, which discussed the various progressive viewpoints towards women as both needing protection (for their own good, as well as healthy mothers) and a threat to the man's wages. Leonard makes the interesting point that much labor legislation that failed were upheld by the court for women (in part by the famous Brandeis brief of social sciences demonstrating the frailty of women as well as the need for their health for children, which Leonard notes is mostly clippings from various sources that happen to support the case) excluded or restricted the ability of women to work. A fascinating book, that does not easily lend itself to easy summary. It's full of interesting connections and surprising history. At the very least, the book should be read to give people a humble view of our understanding of history. The book is one of the best pieces of evidence that history is complex, and even the history of the progressive movement, seen typically as on the "right" side of history, leaves behind an ambiguous and tense legacy.

  5. 4 out of 5

    The American Conservative

    "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." Read the full review, "Progressive Eugenics," on our website: http:/ "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." Read the full review, "Progressive Eugenics," on our website: http://www.theamericanconservative.co...

  6. 4 out of 5

    Vincent DiGirolamo

    Makes it harder to admire my progressive era heroes. The little problem of eugenics--a hideous, coercive, all-justifying ideology of racial superiority and inferiority—was not a minor aberration but lay at the heart of their social engineering. I'm not ready to toss out social engineering, the application of reason and science to address social problems, but I am ready to acknowledge its undemocratic tendencies, which we must guard against as we seek a better future--for all. Makes it harder to admire my progressive era heroes. The little problem of eugenics--a hideous, coercive, all-justifying ideology of racial superiority and inferiority—was not a minor aberration but lay at the heart of their social engineering. I'm not ready to toss out social engineering, the application of reason and science to address social problems, but I am ready to acknowledge its undemocratic tendencies, which we must guard against as we seek a better future--for all.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Jerry

    It was very appropriate to read this after Foundation. It’s about the progressive economists who wanted to, as Asimov’s characters put it, create in America “the mental framework of a ready-made ruling class”. Scientific government at the turn of the century was the necessary successor to democracy. It required created an administrative class of disinterested experts to take over from legislatures. In the United States it was often called “the Wisconsin idea” but most progressives looked to Germ It was very appropriate to read this after Foundation. It’s about the progressive economists who wanted to, as Asimov’s characters put it, create in America “the mental framework of a ready-made ruling class”. Scientific government at the turn of the century was the necessary successor to democracy. It required created an administrative class of disinterested experts to take over from legislatures. In the United States it was often called “the Wisconsin idea” but most progressives looked to Germany as the epitome of the scientific state, something Chesterton decried in Eugenics and Other Evils. The basic idea at the economic level is that letting people do what they wanted with their time and money was too slow, and often rewarded the wrong people—those with ambition. The new science of economics would allow economists to understand economic forces and then “control them and mould them to ever higher uses”. Democracies need to be democratic, but they also need to function, and nearly all progressives believed that the new industrial economy necessitated a vigorous administrative state guided by experts. But because people were at the center of all economic decisions, and as Democracy had already proven that people do not make the right economic decisions, it was also necessary to dissolve the people and create a new one. Darwin, especially a Lamarckian Darwinism, provided the answer: the same experts who were taking over the natural market would take over for natural selection. Eugenics would become the new religion of the progressive world, “a national creed amounting to a religious faith”. Preaching the gospel of eugenics came naturally to American eugenicists. Irving Fisher, whose father was a Congregationalist minister, said that to redeem humankind, Americans “must make of eugenics a religion.”… Fisher believed that eugenics would reunite science and religion, because eugenics provided a scientific foundation for religious ethics. Eugenics did not simply assert that war was wrong. Eugenics demonstrated why war was wrong—war destroyed the best heredity—and thus eugenics was a new and potent ally of morality. Many of the strange laws of the past, such as blood testing for marriage licenses, came out of this movement. Also, laws we don’t see as strange. The minimum wage was designed to identify inferior people and remove them from the workforce—sometimes, unironically called removing the unemployables from the workforce. For economic reformers who regarded inferior workers as a threat, the minimum wage provided an invaluable service. It identified inferior workers by idling them. So identified, they could be dealt with. The unemployable would be removed to institutions, or to celibate labor colonies. … Felix Frankfurter… invoked the segregating effects of minimum wage laws to justify his defense of Oregon’s minimum wage law. Frankfurter argued that the states’ police power permitted them to override the individuals right to freely contract in the name of protecting society’s health, welfare, or morals. Because a successful minimum wage sorted “the normal self-supporting worker from the unemployables” (by idling them), it served a compelling state interest in public health. The minimum wage, Frankfurter suggested, was but a first step toward the solution of determining “how to treat those who cannot carry their own weight.” It explains why progressives such as President Woodrow Wilson were often virulently anti-black. Jim Crow was needed, Wilson said, because without it, black Americans “were a danger to themselves as well as to those whom they had once served.” When President Wilson arrived in Washington, his administration resegregated the federal government, hounding from office large numbers of black federal employees. … The progressive goal was to improve the electorate, not necessarily to expand it. This is a fascinating book, and a very quick read; that’s a plus, but it’s also a minus. It is heavily footnoted, and that’s necessary to follow up on the ideas, which are almost all provided more as sketches than as full descriptions. It also means he doesn’t always define his terms. When discussing how progressivism crossed the right and left divide, he also uses the term conservative to describe Teddy Roosevelt—while describing Roosevelt as both against laissez faire and for government growth. Now, his point may well be that the better dichotomy is between liberal and illiberal, but even that’s not fully defined. He’s clearly talking about classical liberalism, but you have to go in knowing this. On a more pedantic level, he highlights the shows the inconsistency of Richard Mayo-Smith by highlighting his use of “colonist” to refer to “the early Anglo-Saxon settlers” and “immigrant” to refer to later arrivals. But that really does require further discussion, because the later immigrants obviously weren’t colonists and the colonists weren’t immigrating—they weren’t leaving their country. The point is that Mayo-Smith gives one set an honorific (colonists) that the other set does not get, but Mayo-Smith seems technically correct even if his purposes were wrong. But those aren’t really problems but issues that must be accepted unless you want to read a much longer book. Leonard’s purpose is to describe the history of a really bad idea (eugenics) and its marriage to another bad idea (that experts can supersede democracy without horrific results). Histories of bad ideas show us something about how science works and what happens when it is harnessed to political and economic purposes.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Jason Furman

    Illiberal Reformers was very interesting presenting what was (to me) a combination of new evidence and interoperation about the founding of American professional economics in the late nineteenth century, the establishment and growth of the administrative state over the period and into the early twentieth century, and their relationship to the widespread enthusiasm for eugenics and other racist, sexist, anti-Semitic, and otherwise exclusionary thought. The flaw of the book, however, is that while Illiberal Reformers was very interesting presenting what was (to me) a combination of new evidence and interoperation about the founding of American professional economics in the late nineteenth century, the establishment and growth of the administrative state over the period and into the early twentieth century, and their relationship to the widespread enthusiasm for eugenics and other racist, sexist, anti-Semitic, and otherwise exclusionary thought. The flaw of the book, however, is that while it is very carefully researched it also often lapses into the overly polemical, one-sided, and simplified that mar the telling of an interesting history and perspective. Thomas Leonard’s history argues that in the late nineteenth American economics, influenced by German economics, became oriented towards making itself of use to the state in employing “science” in the service of “progress,” where progress was measured in collective terms, mostly that of the nation. America set up various expert panels, many run by or staffed by economists, to study social problems and then often created agencies, again run by or staffed by economists, to solve them. This shift of the economy away from laissez faire or state and local control to federal control and administrative agencies happened simultaneously with the rise of the prestige of science in general and economics in particular. The dark side of this, Leonard argues, is that these progressive economists all embraced eugenics. He argues that this was related to their belief in scientific social control and a moral worldview that privileged the collective over the individuals. He is semi-successful in making that link, but it is weakened considerably by (in his own admission) the widespread support for eugenics, racism, anti-immigrant sentiment, etc., across the political and ideological spectrum at the time. As an intellectual history, Leonard is fascinating and I’m glad I now know more about this slice of time. But he does not live up to some of his own claims. For example, he writes that “Ideology is a useful tool of taxonomy, but when it is reduced to one dimension, it is the enemy of nuance” but then most of the discussion in his book replaces the traditional one dimension (progressive vs. conservative) with a different one dimension (liberal vs. illiberal, the later seemingly expanded to cover everything from supporters of a flat tax to supporters of a wealth tax. I was particularly surprised when in the conclusion he wrote “Progressivism is too important to be left to hagiography and obloquy” when the book itself was mostly obloquy. Ultimately the most interesting question is “so what” and I’m not sure I know the answer to this. Leonard shows that one hundred years ago some people argued that it was a good thing that it would increase unemployment for Blacks and immigrants. This may be the intellectual history of the minimum wage, but for today’s purpose the relevant question is the empirical one of whether the minimum wage, for example, raises the wages of Black people or causes large increases in Black unemployment. Moreover, Leonard’s book is dripping with disdain for all sorts of things like antitrust, basic labor rules, and the income tax, all of which are widely accepted today and clearly compatible with a range of political philosophies. That said, understanding how widespread scientific fallacies were at the time should give us some pause about our understanding today and without any breaks in the form of taking individual liberty and spontaneous order seriously we could recreate some of the problems caused by the hubris of eugenicists one hundred years ago. In that sense, the dictum that those that do not understand history are doomed to repeat it may be relevant for economic thought as well.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Max Tang

    Thomas Leonard is an economic historian at Princeton. This book recounts American professional economists’ ascension to political relevance in the Progressive Era, and the dark shadows they left on history. In the late 19th/early 20th century, economics was barely a discipline in American academics. The earlier economists, including iconic figures such as Irving Fisher, were indoctrinated in Germany, where people believed in a strong, administrative state. Thus, returning to the U.S., they initi Thomas Leonard is an economic historian at Princeton. This book recounts American professional economists’ ascension to political relevance in the Progressive Era, and the dark shadows they left on history. In the late 19th/early 20th century, economics was barely a discipline in American academics. The earlier economists, including iconic figures such as Irving Fisher, were indoctrinated in Germany, where people believed in a strong, administrative state. Thus, returning to the U.S., they initiated a reform movement and abandoned the laissez-faire beliefs of classical liberalism. The progressives believed in science, and they believed in scientific management. The scientific management of state derives its principles from the scientific management of firms. The progressive economists were fervent believers in efficiency. They favored large companies for the thesis that those companies are better managed than small businesses. They found natural alliance in bureaucrats and power brokers. It was the progressives’ view on labor that would appall a more modern reader. The progressives found scientific truism in Darwinism, and quickly adapted the theory of natural selection to their political agenda. (The phenomena again exemplifies the absurdity that everybody finds a little something in Darwinism.) Yet their usage of Darwinism contradicted themselves. They believed the superiority of the Anglo-Saxon race. Paradoxically, they also believed that the inferiorior breeds may drive out the Teutonic stock. One may ask - if the Teutonic stock is indeed superior, shouldn’t they endure and thrive instead? Why protection is needed? Race taxonomy was carefully studied. The East and Southern Europeans, the Chinese, the Africans were quickly classified as unintelligent and unfit. The great nation should exclude these inferior people. Immigration policy took a restrictive turn exemplified by the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882. Minimum wage was introduced, precisely to price out those inferior people who would accept a lower wage. Women were targeted by minimum wage as well. Progressives argued that women were physically unfit, and should stay at home and serve the household rather than enduring factory labor. Eugenics was the zeitgeist of the time. Most progressive intellectuals, racist or not, favored eugenics (like the colored people, the drunk, pauper, stupid people of the Aryan race should be cleansed as well). Indiana passed its forcible sterilization law in 1907. More than 30 states followed. The progressives also impeccably argued that war was wrong because it destroyed the best heredity. The First World War woke up some of the progressive intellectuals to the true color of the German administrative state. Yet some, such as Irving Fisher, was not ready to concede. This reminds us of the complexity of studying great minds from history. Professor Leonard’s engaging style makes the book a real page turner. I would recommend it to everyone.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Alex Zakharov

    By sheer coincidence I happened to read the book right after James Scott’s “Seeing Like a State”, and rather fittingly “Illiberal Reformers” presents a preeminent example of High Modernism going off the rails during the Progressive Era in America. (In)famously, this is the era during which the administrative state was born and the rule of experts was erected in an effort to regulate, rationalize and improve the messy effects left by rapid industrialization, immigration, and political corruption. By sheer coincidence I happened to read the book right after James Scott’s “Seeing Like a State”, and rather fittingly “Illiberal Reformers” presents a preeminent example of High Modernism going off the rails during the Progressive Era in America. (In)famously, this is the era during which the administrative state was born and the rule of experts was erected in an effort to regulate, rationalize and improve the messy effects left by rapid industrialization, immigration, and political corruption. The first half of “Illiberal Reformers” is a story of how this rationalizing effort impacted America, and as you can infer from the book’s title it is not a pretty ride, including stops such as Immigration Act of 1924, forced sterilization (Buck vs Bell, 1927), and voting reforms that empowered women but disenfranchised African Americans. The second half of the book concentrates almost exclusively on eugenics which in early 20th century was wildly popular all over the world, including United States. Bureaucratic experts exercising the power of the state to improve heredity of the nation is as horrific as it sounds, and it is a story worth knowing. On a few occasions, Thomas Leonard seems to conflate eugenics as a program, as objectionable as it was, with genetics as a respectable science. This is unfortunate, after all, it is this conflation that discredited genetics for over 40 years and brought us “blank slatism”. “Illiberal Reformers” is a short and an often-disturbing read, but it gives an important key to understanding modern politics and culture.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Brad Peters

    Leonard has written an economic history of the Progressives, which he would include academics, social gospel adherants and politicians alike. It's a look at how they enlisted the newest member of the Academy, "Economics" and their influence on the late 19th and early 20th century. Regardless of where they originated from, Progressive shared a profound discontent with liberal individualism and championed the "collective over individual men and women and justified greater social control over indiv Leonard has written an economic history of the Progressives, which he would include academics, social gospel adherants and politicians alike. It's a look at how they enlisted the newest member of the Academy, "Economics" and their influence on the late 19th and early 20th century. Regardless of where they originated from, Progressive shared a profound discontent with liberal individualism and championed the "collective over individual men and women and justified greater social control over individual action." (8) There was an evangelical zeal, he writes, to "Set the world to rights" and the Progressives worked tirelessly to "redeem" America, a version of "betterment" that tragically was often fueled by Darwinistic Evolutionary rationalization, Eugenics and plain-ol' racism and sexism. Of course, so much of the Progressive spirit was a reaction to the excesses - many of them obscene - of the unrestrained capitalistic zeitgeist of the Age of Industry. From financial panics, to the closing of the frontier, union strikes and rising unemployment during the 1890s painted a bleak picture. A laissez faire government proved incapable of governing it all. "The economy wrought by industrial capitalism was a new economy" he writes on 21, "and a new economy necessitated a new relationship between the state and economic life. Industrial capitalism, the progressives argued, required continuous supervision, investigation, and regulation. The new guarantor of American economic progress was to be the visible hand of an administrative state, and the duties of administration would regularly require overriding individuals' rights in the name of economic common good." Government was relocated from predominantly a local enterprise to a national one. Of course, what the "common good" is, is very much open to interpretation, but the economic progressives, driven by a Darwinian understanding that societies, like all living organisms, were "organic" and "holistic" meant that the preservation of an individual's inalienable natural rights (liberalism) "were only a pleasant fiction." (22) Society comes first, the individual is second. "The state is a part of us" said one (43), and "the taxpayer's duty to the state was no different than the duty to oneself and one's family." Perhaps one of the strongest progressives, Woodrow Wilson, dismissed talk of inalienable rights as "nonsense" and it was the duty and responsibility of the administrative state to determine for all what that "common good" was. Progressives came from both sides of the aisle. "In the progressive self-conception, they were not partisans of a class or any other interest. They were defenders of the public good, selfless scientists motivated solely by the truth" (54) As the machine began to turn, racism and a belief in the "good" of eugenics was present through it all. Blacks, immigrants, women, the poor, the feeble; all were deemed "unprepared" for modern society (to use Wilson's word) and were viewed as a danger not only to themselves, but to the social fabric as a whole. "Remedies" abounded: Disenfranchisement, castration, deportation, segregation. "Efficiency" in all things greased the dehumanizing machinery and that gospel was preached by Frederick W. Taylor's bestseller, THE PRINCIPLES OF SCIENTIFIC MANAGEMENT. Progressives loved his work and the push for scientific efficiency came with the promise of improved working conditions and even wages for the common man. The catch came in that Taylor's premise was the worker would need greater surveillance in order to stay "in line" not by "self seeking" capitalists but by ... experts." (63) Enter Darwin. It wasn't too many steps from there for many to conclude that such a "scientific management" could be applied to all of mankind. Woodrow Wilson, again, said: "Government was a living organism accountable to Darwin, not Newton." Adaption of government and society was critical to survival for the whole, even if individuals, groups, or branches of government (read Congress) had to be diminished or marginalized. Economist Irving Fisher said it straight: "most important of all is human heredity, by eugenic regulation to prevent the prolongation of weak lives and to conserve the racial stock. Humanitarian impulses betray us into favoring the survival of the unfit and their perpetuation in the next generation, such shortsighted kindness must be checked." The admixture of present and historic racism coupled with new discoveries in heredity led the Progressives and the country down a sorrowful path of "experimentation" on how best to defend the American organism from the parasites that threatened to doom it to extinction. "The absolutely unfit would plague society until society conrolled their breeding. The price of progress was eugenics." (74) The second half of the book focuses on "The Progressive Paradox" in which Leonard looks at the raging debate that ensued over "the value" of labor and laborers. Who or what is to decide it? Market indicators or administrators of the state? The Industrial Revolution did many things, but one thing was sure: by turning self-employed men into wage earners, the established labor hierarchy's center of gravity was shifted and threatened to topple. (79) Why? Through millennia, labor's value had been defined by the person, not the service provided by the person. A woman was paid less than a man because she was a woman. A propertied man, in the American past, was a full citizen but "wage slaves" were always looked down upon by the elites. "Reformers still saw a bit of the slave in the wage earner, no matter how ubiquitous the employee now was. When millions of women and immigrants, long considered to be inferiors, joined the influx into employment, this only reinforced the prejudice that wage earners were to fit to fulfill the duties of citizenship, whatever sympathy republican ideology had for the working poor was tempered by a lingering disdain for their inferiority." (84) Darwin, who died in 1882, didn't live to see how his theories would play out, but seemingly everyone could use a little Darwin in making sense of the age. For many Progressives, the gradual changes and "survival of the fittest" ideas put forth by Darwin, would theoretically, "answer" the problem of inferiority. The problem though was that it was too slow for men (and a few women) intent on restructuring American life. Enter eugenics. If natural selection was too slow, the administrative state was obligated to speed it up. Where "Science will determine who is fittest, state experts will select them by regulating immigration, labor, marriage and reproduction -- artificial selection." (98) "Natural selection was wasteful, slow, unprogressive and inhumane. The solution was social selection, which improved upon nature." (100) The biological conception of the State and of nationality meant that uninvited parasites were potential threats to its survival." (102) From 1900-1930, eugenic ideas were politically influential, culturally fashionable and scientifically mainstream. Conservatives, progressives, socialists ... everyone was buying in. 110, 115 And herein lies the paradox. How do reformers view the poor as victims of a capitalistic system run amok, while at the same time view them as threats requiring restraint? So called scientific experts found the solution in ranking the underclass into "pyramids of humanity". Racial distinctions were the first and most convenient to make, all of course, "based on science." Old American prejudices were given a new lease on life as spiritual and moral failure among the "red, yellow, black and brown" people were given a scientific luster to the age-old tropes. The unfit were decidedly not Anglo-Saxon. Alas, the evils of capitalism were not imposed on Anglo-Saxon America, but was imported by immigrants from the south and east of Europe. Thus, many advocated, and policy followed by the 1920's, the "elimination" of the unfit. These newcomers, all white of course, had to be designated as "unemployable" which were defined as "the sick and the crippled, the idiots and lunatics, the blind and the deaf and the dumb and ... the morally deficient." "They should not be allowed to debauch the labor market, to wreck by their competition the standards of other workers" said Walter Lippman. Making wages a function of race (and of gender or intelligence) was vital to the argument for exclusion (135). Leonard notes that the revolution devoured its own. Prior to 1880, Darwinism was used to explain how the US had arisen so far, and so fast. It's natural selection. But the immigrants of old were not the immigrants of new, at least in the minds of nativistic Progressives, so they reversed their evolutionary application and suddenly the southern and eastern Europeans were condemned as weak and opportunistic, not the strong. Wilson described them as having "neither the skill nor energy nor any initiative of quick intelligence." (157) This kind of thinking was applied to women in the workforce as well, and Leonard devotes a whole chapter to that manifestation as well. We are apt to say today, that "we don't want to be on the wrong side of history." Progressives and non-progressives alike claim the Authority of Science to refute, rebut or (often) dismiss any idea, tradition or belief they deem backward. Leonard's book illustrates that even the "best" science, and an era's "best" intellectuals and politicians are not omniscient and Darwinian thought, taken straight, leads to some conclusions we Americans today are trying to hide from. History is instructive and the currents of scientific and political thought can often lead a ship of state aground.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Drtaxsacto

    I have always been fascinated by that part of American intellectual history where the progressives were first prominent. The period mixed a bit of hubris with a long list of inventions of major proportions. The inventions were not limited to physical objects or processes. Two of the most important were an increased reliance on "scientific" thinking and an optimism about the capabilities of human endeavor. Think long enough about an issue and you can come up with the "right" answer. In science th I have always been fascinated by that part of American intellectual history where the progressives were first prominent. The period mixed a bit of hubris with a long list of inventions of major proportions. The inventions were not limited to physical objects or processes. Two of the most important were an increased reliance on "scientific" thinking and an optimism about the capabilities of human endeavor. Think long enough about an issue and you can come up with the "right" answer. In science that led to thinkers like Charles Darwin. In politics, beginning with people like Woodrow Wilson or Herbert Crowly, that led to increased skepticism traditional Constitutional thinking. Progressives like Wilson thought that the Founders were a) not as well informed as them and b) mired in an earlier time. Thus they rejected universal principles. If you could build a theory of how many evolved why not also build a theory of how to make manufacturing more efficient (Frederick Lewis Taylor) or clean out the corruption of political machines (in the municipal reform movements in New York, San Francisco and loads of other cities). At the linchpin of all these movements were the evolving universities, which soon after the Civil War began to change - in part because of the influence of German universities which divided learning into discrete disciplines. Leonard's book examines the energy that went into all of these things but he also uncovers the back side of some of the idealism. Woodrow Wilson was a reformer (of sorts) but he was also a racist who in his first term as President tried to systematically exclude Blacks from Federal Civil Service. Leonard discusses the mutation of evolutionary theory into eugenics (if we know how species evolve then why not perfect those species). All of this was fueled in part by the growth of professions who thought they possessed unique capabilities based on their education and training. The newly evolved universities of the times helped to fuel some very interesting research, some real reform movements for governments but also some very negative trends.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Michael Kruse

    Excellent, if disturbing, read about eugenics and the origins of progressive ideology in the early Twentieth Century. This is a dark chapter in our history of which few people are aware. It should push us all toward self-criticism and developing awareness of the ideologies under-girding our view of the world.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Brad Johansen

    Eugenics as the foundation of social science This book provided a history into the development of modern social science that began in the early 20th century. Well reasoned, well sourced and an effective history.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Tim Sutton

    Very informative and a good read.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Aaron Brand

    Through myriad quotes and extensive summations of the thoughts and beliefs of the time, Thomas Leonard paints a shocking and revealing picture of an era of American history that is often overlooked. The Progressive Era of economics (roughly 1880 to 1920) was defined by the rise of the economist-statesman, or rather, the data-driven statesman. By using "their own words", Leonard highlights the gross stereotypes and horrific practices the early progressives used to achieve their goals. But is this Through myriad quotes and extensive summations of the thoughts and beliefs of the time, Thomas Leonard paints a shocking and revealing picture of an era of American history that is often overlooked. The Progressive Era of economics (roughly 1880 to 1920) was defined by the rise of the economist-statesman, or rather, the data-driven statesman. By using "their own words", Leonard highlights the gross stereotypes and horrific practices the early progressives used to achieve their goals. But is this simply judgment of the past through a refined modern lens? Although our views toward particular practices of the early progressives have "evolved", Leonard shows that the progressive mindset has not. And even though we cannot draw a direct parallel between the pervasion of eugenics throughout so many turn-of-the-twentieth-century public policies and positions and today's progressive views on say, abortion (although even Planned Parenthood founder and ardent eugenicist Margaret Sanger thought abortion was murder), the progressive belief that society is a living, breathing organism that can be artificially perfected through data-driven policies remains undeterred. So there is no one-to-one smoking gun that connects the racist, sexist, anti-immigrant progressive eugenicist of the 1900s with the 21st century progressive, but the policies that Leonard clearly shows were racist, sexist, and anti-immigrant 100 years ago remain important pillars in the modern Democratic and progressive political platforms. Minimum wage laws, occupational licensing, and maximum hour laws all infringe on the freedom of contract and an individual's right to pursue work on his or her own terms. And while the modern progressive may have attempted to drop the racist or sexist language that girded the views of Leonard's "illiberal reformers", they cannot shake their inherent view of "the poor, valorizing some as victims deserving help, while vilifying others as threats requiring restraint" (189). Thus, using the tools of social sciences, economics, and public administration, today's progressives continue the legacy of their forebears by attempting to save society from itself.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Christian Barrett

    Leonard walks through the 19th and 20th centuries and shows how the “Progressive Era” was not so progressive for everyone. Using the term “illiberal reformers” he focuses on the implications of those that held to social-Darwinism ideologies on “race, eugenics, and American economics.” This book ultimately shows the wickedness of the ideas that were propagated during this time and how it turned into what we would call today, cultural-Marxism or economic-Marxism. This is an important book in order Leonard walks through the 19th and 20th centuries and shows how the “Progressive Era” was not so progressive for everyone. Using the term “illiberal reformers” he focuses on the implications of those that held to social-Darwinism ideologies on “race, eugenics, and American economics.” This book ultimately shows the wickedness of the ideas that were propagated during this time and how it turned into what we would call today, cultural-Marxism or economic-Marxism. This is an important book in order to understand where the secular left has come from in terms of creating the welfare state and ultimately where they want to go. Which is to have no dissenting views, total reliance on the government, and expansion for some, but not all. This book is a great history lesson and warning for us today. It leaves me asking the question, “In a 21st ‘progressive state’ who will be excluded?”

  18. 5 out of 5

    David Blankenship

    This is a fascinating account of how the progressive movement could be both admirable and horrible at the same time. The intentions to create a better America through social reform were undermined by a sense that some were simply inferior and so should be marginalized through eugenics, restrictive immigration, and other practices. Even something as fundamental to the modern economy as the minimum wage was designed to weed out undesirables. A most interesting look at a forgotten side of history.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Supriyo Chaudhuri

    Quite a remarkable book - a history of ideas of American 'progressive' economics - outlines the close interrelation between racism and economic reform in America in early Twentieth century. It takes the discussion beyond trust-busting and the usual mythology of big business versus little men and examines closely the ideas of the economists, who came into prominence and power in this period. Not an easy read, with lots of names and ideas, but a great book to uncover the roots of some of the debat Quite a remarkable book - a history of ideas of American 'progressive' economics - outlines the close interrelation between racism and economic reform in America in early Twentieth century. It takes the discussion beyond trust-busting and the usual mythology of big business versus little men and examines closely the ideas of the economists, who came into prominence and power in this period. Not an easy read, with lots of names and ideas, but a great book to uncover the roots of some of the debates we are still having.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Daniel Ogburn

    A perfect example of what happens when people have too much faith in their own expertise, intelligence, and are given the power to try to reshape society in their image. The racist aspects of the progressive movement have been downplayed or completely ignored in schools. (Which makes sense ,government schools want present a positive image of the pro-government progressives) Today many of the same progressive policies are still being advocated for. People need to understand their original motivation A perfect example of what happens when people have too much faith in their own expertise, intelligence, and are given the power to try to reshape society in their image. The racist aspects of the progressive movement have been downplayed or completely ignored in schools. (Which makes sense ,government schools want present a positive image of the pro-government progressives) Today many of the same progressive policies are still being advocated for. People need to understand their original motivations.

  21. 4 out of 5

    ✩ lauren ✩

    this book was....startling, to say the least. i can't believe there are so many disgusting truths about the Progressive Era that i never learned about in school. just wow. so many things shown in this book were shocking as hell, but enlightening and worth reading about in my opinion. this book was....startling, to say the least. i can't believe there are so many disgusting truths about the Progressive Era that i never learned about in school. just wow. so many things shown in this book were shocking as hell, but enlightening and worth reading about in my opinion.

  22. 5 out of 5

    David McGrogan

    This is undoubtedly a hugely important and shocking book. It is vital reading. My only criticism is that while brevity is the soul of wit, at times the author could be accused of being a little too brief: there are a few places where one or two more twists of the knife would have been beneficial.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Dave Benner

    One of the best and most mind-blowing books I've read in the last decade. Leonard here proves that the extent to which the eugenics movement influenced progressive economic thought was much greater than it has ever been portrayed. One of the best and most mind-blowing books I've read in the last decade. Leonard here proves that the extent to which the eugenics movement influenced progressive economic thought was much greater than it has ever been portrayed.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Lance Cahill

    Fantastic book. Should be paired with any history of the Progressive Era in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Lorraine Fernando

    Assigned reading for school. I’ve never gone from super bored to super intrigued so quickly.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Joshua

    Brilliant, it is a missing puzzle piece in the tapestry of political history.

  27. 5 out of 5

    PAUL A FAHEY

    AWSOME! Provides Clearity to Progressivism. This writing provides the Tools to dive into the COMPLEXITIES of the Movement & the myriad of ways it effects us today.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Paul Sand

    my report my report

  29. 4 out of 5

    Harrison Vetter

    Frightening stuff that remains unknown to most in American society today.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Emily Smith

    This book has a lot of potential for being very informative to understand past and present economics regarding social reformers. However, the author seemed to have targeted the language toward economists rather than laymen, like myself. Hence, it was at times dull and difficult to get through. Overall, I did learn quite a bit on the social reformers that gave us many of the work environments we now benefit from while also learning that the reasons behind these reforms were not always good-intent This book has a lot of potential for being very informative to understand past and present economics regarding social reformers. However, the author seemed to have targeted the language toward economists rather than laymen, like myself. Hence, it was at times dull and difficult to get through. Overall, I did learn quite a bit on the social reformers that gave us many of the work environments we now benefit from while also learning that the reasons behind these reforms were not always good-intentions.

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