Eugenics: Progressivism’s Ultimate Social Engineering
The Freeman • October 2011 • Volume: 61 • Issue: 8
By: Art Carden and Steven Horwitz
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….
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