by Jon Sanders
Director of the Center for Food, Power, and Life, Research Editor | John Locke Foundation
The New Republic reviews an important new book by Thomas C. Leonard: Illiberal Reformers: Race, Eugenics & American Economics in the Progressive Era.
Among his revelations: The minimum wage was created to destroy jobs; progressives (including the founders of this magazine) really did hate small businesses and they were all way too enthusiastic about Germany’s social structure. But Leonard’s personal politics are hard to read, and at the very least he’s invested in progressivism, writing that it’s “too important to be left to hagiography and obloquy.”
The illiberal reformers of Leonard’s title are the first generation of American economists, born between 1850 and 1870. Late nineteenth-century tycoons, their hearts full of social gospel and their pockets full of other people’s labor, founded colleges like Cornell, Stanford, Johns Hopkins, The University of Chicago, and Vanderbilt. These new schools weren’t bound to the classical curricula of their New England predecessors, and they prioritized practical research and creating experts. They promoted the study of “political economy”—”economics” by 1900—and the discipline took academia by storm.
The first generation of American economists were not laissez-faire capitalists, as an observer might reasonably imagine based on the current state of the field. In fact, they were anything but. “As Christians they judged laissez faire to be morally unsound,” Leonard writes, “and as economists they declared it functionally obsolete.” The British (think Adam Smith) model was unsuited for the era of railroads, labor unions, and scientific management. They much preferred the German idea of society as a single organism. Granted the premise that individuals were shaped by the nation and not the other way around, progressive economists had to decide who would run the country. These people had to be unbiased, scientific, brilliant, and out for the public good. The progressive economists decided on themselves.
In the early twentieth century, progressives displayed an open contempt for individual rights. In a 1915 unsigned editorial at this magazine, the editors ridiculed the Bill of Rights as a joke. …
If Leonard didn’t have the quotes from prominent progressives to back up his claims, this would read like right-wing paranoia: The state’s most innocuous protections reframed as malevolent and ungodly social engineering. But his citations are genuine. Charles Cooley, a founding member of American Sociological Association, warned that providing health care and nutrition for black Americans could be “dysgenic” if not accompanied by population control. The eugenicists weren’t just dreaming: Between 1900 and the early 1980s, over 60,000 Americans were involuntarily sterilized under the law.
To bring right-wing fears full circle, the progressive Supreme Court of 1927 (including Oliver Wendell Holmes and Louis Brandeis) ruled 8-1 in Buck v. Bell that forced sterilization was constitutional. Holmes wrote that, “It is better for all the world if, instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes.”
Daren Bakst found an equally odious judicial opinion in North Carolina. In his Policy Report on North Carolina’s forced-sterilization program, he quoted from the 1976 North Carolina Supreme Court opinion In Re Moore. The court upheld the eugenics law as constitutional, going so far as to declare it the “duty” of the legislature to enact sterilization laws and “limit a class of citizens in its right to bear or beget children with an inherited tendency to mental deficiency, including feeblemindedness, idiocy, or imbecility,” so as to “protect the public and preserve the race from the known effects of the procreation.”
The title of this post comes from this passage in Ryan McMaken’s Mises Wire piece on the Leonard book:
The minimum wage issue is especially interesting from an economic perspective, since the fact that the minimum wage destroys jobs was once its main selling point. That is, it was designed to destroy jobs for undesirable poor whites and alleged non-white racial inferiors.
The whole concept of the “living wage” was once a benchmark used to evaluate the worth of a human being. That is, if you couldn’t earn a living wage, you were ripe for sterilization.
The minimum wage was thus a convenient way of weeding out the undesirables from the more valuable human beings. In other words, in pursuit of the Progressive ideal of “racial hygiene,” the minimum wage was a key part of the agenda.
Those two planks would be very, very familiar — not to mention comfortable — to the Progressive Eugenicists of not that long ago. Opposition to free enterprise and the Bill of Rights would be, too, of course.
That “moral” movement purports to care for the poor, but anyone observing the actual effects of their policies would — if they didn’t make allowances for economic naiveté, stultifying ignorance, and dangerous self-delusion — conclude that the guise of “caring for the poor” is useful to that movement only so far as sheep’s wool is useful to wolves incognito.