Acton Institute Powerblog

‘Disturbing ideas’ of the Progressive Movement

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In a new article at the Public Discourse, Acton’s director of research Samuel Gregg, reviews Thomas C. Leonard’s new book, Illiberal Reformers: Race, Eugenics, & American Economics in the Progressive Era.  Leonard’s latest “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.”

Gregg starts his article by noting both the positive and negative events that took place 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.

Gregg highlights how the ideas of Darwinism took root within the historical social progressive era and worked their way into the minds of economic progressives:

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.

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 hereditary.” 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.”

Toward the end of Gregg’s article, he shows how eugenics and race science influenced the progressive era:

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.

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

You can read Gregg’s full article at the Public Discourse.

Kyle Hanby