Eugenics: The progressive movement’s dirty little secret

Many of today’s so-called progressives try to highlight diversity and civil liberties, but not too long ago many following this philosophy were engaged in the eugenics movement. Art Carden and Steven Horwitz remind us in this month’s issue of The Freeman:

According to the received account of the Progressive Era, an enlightened government swept in and regulated markets for goods, labor, and capital, thereby protecting the hapless masses from the vicissitudes of unrestrained laissez-faire capitalism. The Progressives had faith that experts would rise above self-interest and implement wise plans to create a great society. The resulting state-level workplace safety regulations, restrictions on child labor, and minimum wages restored dignity and safety to the trod-upon and exploited workers.

Despite the widespread acceptance of this narrative, there are many reasons to question whether it accurately portrays the motivations and hopes of some Progressive-Era reformers. In a 2005 article in the Journal of Economic Perspectives, “Eugenics and Economics in the Progressive Era,” the economist Thomas C. Leonard offered a completely new historical account of the sources of Progressive-Era labor legislation and the intentions of its supporters. Leonard’s work, including an important 2009 article coauthored with legal scholar David E. Bernstein for Law and Contemporary Problems, “Excluding Unfit Workers: Social Control Versus Social Justice in the Age of Economic Reform,” indicates that lurking behind what many people see as humanitarian reforms was something much uglier.

Leonard and Bernstein argue that some of the most prominent of the Progressive reformers were “partisans of human inequality.” They supported interventions as ways to forward their eugenic goal of a purer (that is, whiter) human race by eliminating the opportunities for the “unfit” to get meaningful work. The “unfit” here included not just nonwhites (especially African-Americans) but also the “insane,” immigrants (especially from central and eastern Europe), and in a somewhat different way, women.

In other words, what we today think of as the unintended consequences of laws supported by today’s well-meaning but economically uninformed Progressives were actually the intended goals of some of their intellectual ancestors a century ago. Early Progressive economists understood the effects of these interventions, but they thought those effects were desirable.

The Progressive economists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw social science not merely as a means of inquiry and understanding but as a guide to social management and control. The advent and broad acceptance of Darwinism in the late nineteenth century, combined with a more general belief in the power of science and scientific management to solve social problems, led to a fascination with eugenics and the possibility of using public policy to ensure the “survival of the fittest” and the purity and strength of the human race. In the hands of many thinkers at the turn of the twentieth century, Darwinian theory became a rationale for using the power of government to weed out the “undesirable” and “unfit” in much the way that the new understanding of evolution was changing agriculture and animal husbandry. Eugenics clubs and societies grew rapidly and many of the leading intellectuals of the early twentieth century, including a number of well-known economists (such as John Maynard Keynes and Irving Fisher, perhaps the most famous American economist of the time), were active in these groups and saw their work through the lens of eugenics.

Many states had eugenics laws on the books, including my home state of Georgia; which apologized for its role in this horrible movement back in 2007. Among the cases that gained noterity during this time was Buck v. Bell — a 1927 Supreme Court case involving a mentally handicapped woman, Carrie Buck, who was subject to a Virginia law mandating that she be sterilized so she would, in the state’s view, be prohibited from spreading her retardation.

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, who is often hailed as a great icon by today’s progressives, wrote in his opinion upholding Virginia’s statute that “[t]hree generations of imbeciles are enough,” referring to Buck’s mother and daughter, who were also mentally handicapped. Later in life, it was determined that Buck was not mentally handicapped at all as reporters visiting her believed she was of “normal intelligence.”

This is one reason I laugh to myself when progressives talk about how conservatives are “anti-science” on an issue like global warming. I don’t deny that the earth is warming, but I’m not convinced that humans are the cause and the so-called “evidence” that has been presented is either cooked (no pun intended) or misleading; and it certainly doesn’t warrant economically crippling policies that won’t have any real impact on the climate.

Eugenics, despite its mainstream acceptance from the late 19th to mid-20th centuries, was pseudo-science based on the idea that bad genes could be weeded out of society. It makes you wonder if opponents to this horrible practice were derided as “anti-science” or told they should be subjected to Nuremberg-style trials.

Today’s progressives may downplay this dirty little secret of their political philosophy, but history speaks for itself.


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