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  • Illiberal Reformers: Race, Eugenics, and American Economics in the Progressive Era by Thomas C. Leonard
  • Guy Alchon
Illiberal Reformers: Race, Eugenics, and American Economics in the Progressive Era Thomas C. Leonard Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016 264 pp., $35.00 (cloth)

Illiberal Reformers tells two stories: one is of the progressive social scientists who demoted laissez-faire and raised up the modern administrative state; another is of the racialist and eugenic ambitions of these same social scientists, chiefly the new economists who rose to influence late in the nineteenth century. Included among these were Richard T. Ely, John R. Commons, Simon Patten, Irving Fisher, and Thorstein Veblen. Thomas C. Leonard insists that although they may be obscure to contemporary readers, they matter, “because they prevailed” (xiii). The progressives “fashioned the new sciences of society, founded the modern American university, invented the think tank, and created the American administrative state, institutions still at the center of American public life” (xiii). In doing so, these progressives proved entirely too certain of their own disinterestedness, succumbed to pseudoscientific prejudice against immigrants, women, and African Americans, and endorsed a ruthless program of racial domination and eugenic public policy—all in the name of science.

Leonard begins by rehearsing the story of the rise of the new social sciences, a history already well developed by Dorothy Ross in The Origins of American Social Science (1991), Thomas L. Haskell in The Emergence of Professional Social Science: The American Social Science Association and the Nineteenth-Century Crisis of Authority ([1977] 2000), Mary Furner in Advocacy and Objectivity: A Crisis in the Professionalization of American Social Science, 1865–1905 (1977), and others. He rightly notes the central place of the Protestant Social Gospel in the emergence of the social sciences. “The American Economic Association (AEA) founded in 1885,” Leonard writes, “embodied the social gospel’s distinctive amalgam of liberal Protestant ethics, veneration of science, and the evangelizing activism of pious middle-class reformers” (12). The AEA economists mostly took graduate training in Germany and came away dedicated to research, the seminar, and the social potential of state action. They were also young; Ely, the motivating force behind the establishment of the AEA, was just thirty-one. “The good Christian should be concerned with this world, Ely said, not with the next” (12–13). The new economists (or economic progressives) generally saw themselves as labor reformers; they brought to the “labor question” of their day fresh work on unemployment, wages and hours, and immigration. And to this they also brought an obsession with the new gospel of efficiency and “an extravagant belief in administration” (9).

Having established themselves in the new university system by 1900, progressive economists sought most to influence government. “If administrative government was henceforth to be the guarantor of American economic progress,” Leonard avers, “then the expert economist must lead” (32). Through the American Association for Labor Legislation and similar “think tanks,” the economists moved first in Wisconsin to bring their [End Page 94] allegedly scientific expertise to bear upon state government. Inexorably, they moved on to federal regulatory agencies and, during Woodrow Wilson’s first term, erected the rudiments of a “fourth branch” of government, a nascent administrative state.

In its second half, the book makes plain the deep impression made upon the economists by Darwin. Leonard reminds us that “it is difficult to overestimate the importance of Darwinian thinking to American economic reform in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era” (89). He makes a strong case for the indeterminacy of this fascination, that it was not fated to develop along pessimistic and hard, illiberal Social Darwinist lines. Still, given their overweening and self-justifying scientism, their preference for the administrative diktat over democratic politics, it cannot be surprising that these and many other social scientists embraced the apparent logic of eugenics. Early in the twentieth century, some, like Fisher, Ely, Commons, and even the more ambivalent Patten jettisoned natural selection for artificial selection by scientist-experts. This was the premise on which the improvement of Anglo-Saxons would rely. The means would be ruthless eugenic policy against the rest. Commons neatly summarized this Neo-Lamarckian stance: heredity, he claimed, “can be...


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