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The Disaster of Progressivism


Illiberal Reformers: Race, Eugenics, and American Economics in the Progressive Era by Thomas C. Leonard (Princeton University Press, 2016), 264 pages.

In his paper, “The Study of Administration,” Woodrow Wilson offered his reassurances that the professionalization of bureaucracy in America would not result in a “domineering, illiberal officialism.” Free Americans, Wilson argued, had nothing to fear from borrowing bits of Prussia’s systems of administration. He forecast the separation of the science of administration from the vagaries of politics, obsessed with the idea that a relative handful of wise reformers must save the “unphilosophical bulk of mankind” from themselves. In his book Illiberal Reformers, economist Thomas Leonard examines the Progressive Era drive to dispassionately apply science to politics and the often baleful consequences thereof. Leonard’s study perfectly captures the Progressive impulse, a misguided, authoritarian appeal to the idea of expertise that bewitched Republicans and Democrats alike. Illiberal Reformers shows that the liberal-conservative paradigm we know today simply cannot explain the Progressivism of the early 20th century.

The book is divided into two parts. The first chronicles the rise of the Progressives, itself taken up in three acts: their efforts to take advantage of the reform opportunities afforded by “recurring economic crisis,” to leverage the “new authority of social science,” and to build, together with the economics profession, a functioning governing apparatus, a “fourth branch” of government. The second, “The Progressive Paradox,” explores the tension inherent in Progressives’ faith in the power of social control. Blinkered by that faith, they overlooked both the unintended consequences of their efforts and the possibility that the experts they held in such esteem “could have interests and biases of their own.” In Illiberal Reformers, we see that the Progressives regarded themselves as above politics, their ideas as transcending it; theirs was a “commitment to disinterested truth-seeking,” the even objectivity of the scientist as against both the greed of the capitalist and the power lust of the politician.

And as the “children of middle class ministers and missionaries,” they brought their forebears’ missionary zeal to their reform efforts. Committed to remaking the country, they heralded a new social and economic order, in which the welfare state and regulatory bureaucracy would temper the perceived excesses of market liberalism. “The new economics, [progressives] claimed, could diagnose market ills and prescribe remedies that would treat or cure them.” For libertarians, who have been screaming into the void about Progressive Era illiberalism for decades, Leonard’s book is a welcome amendatory account, careful scholarship that considers early Progressivism for what it actually was. Today, the words “liberal” and “Progressive” are used practically interchangeably, but it turns out that the Progressives of the early twentieth century weren’t very liberal at all.

The ideas contained in what we must now call classical liberalism — for example, constitutionally limited government with a clear separation of powers, individual rights, and economic liberalism (that is, laissez faire) — were the very ideas that Progressives explicitly forsook; they were looking for a new, modern manner of governing, armed with the power and insights of scientific progress.

As Leonard observes in his first chapter, “progressives were discontented with liberal individualism,” the “licensed selfishness” that placed mere individuals above the sacred prerogatives of the collective, whether called the nation, the public good, or the social organism. Liberalism had been comparatively modest in its ambitions, almost resigned, admitting that perhaps the best we can hope for as imperfect human beings is the limitation of government’s destructive potential. With the hard-won understanding that government and civil society are not one and the same, liberalism limited and divided the functions of government in the hope that it would allow society’s other institutions — commercial, religious, charitable —  to flourish.

Eliminating bias

The administrative state often takes center stage in Leonard’s historiography, and it is well that it should, for the administrative state truly has — quite as Progressives promised — transformed American life and politics. Progressive reformers wanted to harness the scientific-management ideas of industrial-efficiency pioneers such as Frederick Winslow Taylor. That meant the conscious repudiation of laissez faire in favor of “a vigorous administrative state guided by experts,” a system under which social scientists would convene in sterile new bureaus to decide upon the correct course of action. Once decided, plans could be implemented posthaste, unhampered by the tedium of a plodding legislative process. The Progressives believed that “science ensured objectivity,” underestimating or else ignoring the fact that individuals and institutions have their own biases and motivations.

As Public Choice theory has taught us, it is not enough merely to invoke the objective, impartial power of science, as if science itself exists in a vacuum, apart from its very human practitioners, with all of their prejudices and predispositions. Instead, we must shape our institutions to hedge against the risk, always doing its utmost to assert itself, of corruption and abuse of power. Perhaps counterintuitively, the kind of impartiality we seek in law and public policy is the result of dividing and decentralizing political power, not concentrating it in the name of science and progress. This is not necessarily a straightforward concept, not even for the highly intelligent. As Leonard explains, the Progressives demonstrated an “outsized confidence” in their ability to reform America’s party system and political culture, to reshape political institutions into vessels for the new science that they hoped to deploy. After all, how could anyone justify not using scientific advances to make society more just, healthy, safe, and efficient?

Immersed in the related ideas of nativism and eugenics, progressive bellwethers such as Francis Amasa Walker and Henry Pratt Fairchild poured scorn on immigrants, whom they regarded as “supplanters of native children.” Leonard notes that the nativists did not perceive the irony of such statements, despite being themselves the descendants of immigrants. Progressives proposed a diverse array of policies to attend to the perceived racial and economic problems of new immigration.

For example, Leonard shows that, in their nonage, minimum-wage mandates were efforts to deter “immigrants and other inferiors” from entering the work force, to identify and remove undesirable, unfit “industrial invalids.” More than helping unskilled labor or the indigent, the goal was controlling them. Progressive social scientists proposed the forced removal of such inferiors to “rural labor colonies” and “celibate colonies,” where they could be monitored by the appropriate government authorities. For Progressive reformers, the inhuman policies of compelled segregation and sterilization were the natural corollaries of minimum-wage laws. And if the minimum wage meant unemployment, then it was unemployment of a kind that indicated social health, that kept the lowborn (women, immigrants, Catholics, blacks, et cetera) from sullying the dignity of work.

The early hierophants of minimum-wage laws understood, as Leonard notes, its “power to exclude”; they advocated wage floors using the specious rationale that had been used to defend tariffs, that native American businesses ought to be favored, protected by the law from the dreaded contagion of cheaper foreign goods — that is, protected by the positive law from economic law. And, indeed, the social-work journalist Paul Kellogg proposed a policy that would be a bastard mixture of the tariff and minimum wage, a law that would “compel all immigrants to earn at least $2.50 per day or else be denied entry.”

Dark origins

Strict control over the workplace and the terms on which work would be undertaken were the natural political companions of Progressives’ eugenicist ideas. “[Enthusiasm] for eugenics,” Leonard notes, was not confined to Progressives but was rather “utterly conventional” in the dawning years of the 20th century. Eugenics, put simply, is the science of human breeding; at the turn of the century, libertarians, authoritarians, and everyone in between submitted his own version of prescriptive eugenics, convinced of the underlying claim that scientific knowledge could and should be applied to human procreation and pedigree. Given Progressivism’s present-day associations with social and political inclusiveness, tolerance, and open-mindedness, the contemporary reader may be surprised at the avowed values of Leonard’s illiberal reformers. Theirs was a vision of America that was distinctly white, literate, Protestant, and middle-class, a “Teutonic” homeland unsullied by the rabblement of southern and eastern Europeans. They fretted about “racial disaster” and relegated entire swaths of the population to the category of “hopelessly defection.”

If libertarians are all too familiar with and sensitive to these dark, illiberal origins of Progressivism, then today’s Progressives seem to know almost nothing about them. Malcolm Harris’s review in The New Republic even admits, with what seems like embarrassment, that “[if] Leonard didn’t have the quotes from prominent progressives to back up his claims, this would read like right-wing paranoia.” But, of course, there’s nothing at all “right-wing” about pointing out the illiberalism of Progressivism, nothing surprising about the Progressive record of racism, eugenics, and cruel social engineering. That so many of today’s illiberal “liberals” will doubtless be shocked and scandalized by Leonard’s study ought to give us pause. Could American “liberals,” for whom the label “Progressive” is a cherished badge of honor, really not know the basic history of Progressive Era ideas and policies? Perhaps the fact that so many of their pernicious ideas remain in the contemporary Progressive’s DNA make an honest look at the past uncomfortable for him. Most of today’s academics, reformers, and general do-gooders still embody the underlying authoritarianism of the early Progressives, Wilson’s basic error of believing that a small number of the wise and altruistic can draw up a plan that just works.

The study of Progressivism is important because, as Leonard notes, it prevailed — against the magnificent Enlightenment tradition that taught us to fear government and guard our freedoms jealously, that showed us liberty is the source of societal order, it prevailed. The future of freedom is far from clear, but it is undoubtedly more auspicious because of Leonard’s exceptional book.

This article was originally published in the September 2016 edition of Future of Freedom.

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    David S. D'Amato is a policy advisor at the Future of Freedom Foundation, an attorney, and an adjunct law professor. He is also a regular contributor at the Cato Institute's Libertarianism.org and a policy advisor at the Heartland Institute. His writing has been featured at public policy organizations such as the Institute for Economic Affairs, the Centre for Policy Studies, and the Foundation for Economic Education, and in popular media such as Forbes, Investor's Business Daily, Newsweek, and RealClearPolicy.