Dark Side of Progressivism Exposed: From Eugenics to ‘Race Science’

Feb 10, 2017 by

By Samuel Gregg –

A new book 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.

The words “progress” and “progressive” evoke images of enlightened reformers selflessly promoting justice and overcoming ignorance and bigotry. I guarantee, however, that anyone who reads Thomas C. Leonard’s new book, “Illiberal Reformers: Race, Eugenics, & American Economics in the Progressive Era,” will be troubled—and, in many cases, shocked—by some of the motivations of the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century progressives who sought to dismantle the American experiment in ordered liberty and replace it with the administrative state.

In this well-researched and readable text, Leonard demonstrates just how deeply in thrall the progressive movement of this period was to some truly disturbing ideas. Those who bore the brunt of their efforts to apply these beliefs to American life were groups that contemporary progressives invariably claim to champion. While avoiding rhetorical excesses, Leonard draws attention to the sheer hubris characterizing those who believed they could create a new world through their top-down bureaucratic direction of society and the economy.

Shadows and Light 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.

Leonard’s particular focus is on the economic progressives. He underscores this group’s roots in liberal Protestantism and the associated social gospel movement that “pursued economic and social improvement through a scientifically informed mission of social redemption.”

Such people, it turns out, were intent on immanentizing the eschaton decades before mid-twentieth century German political theologians and Latin American liberation theologians went down that path. The economic progressives viewed the state as an almost divine instrument for realizing this end. “God works through the State,” Ely proclaimed. Another economic progressive, John R. Commons, “told his Christian audiences that the state was the greatest power for good that existed among men and women.” The church, apparently, just wasn’t that important.

A Dangerous Mix

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.

To be sure, Leonard points out, people from across the political spectrum found something in Darwin’s thinking to support their positions. Some economic conservatives, most notably Herbert Spencer, appealed to survival of the fittest (though his own evolutionary views predated Darwin’s, as Leonard points out). Yet this principle also inspired economic progressives such as the English mathematician Karl Pearson (a father of modern statistical theory but also a eugenicist), who, as Leonard observes, “found a case for socialism in Darwin.”

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 heredity.” 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.”

The broader effect was to advance the “scientific” case for dispensing with the divided government bequeathed by America’s founders. Economic progressives regarded such arrangements as obstructing the development of a centralized government capable of ensuring that society remained a “healthy organism.” The use of such language was partly about grounding the progressives’ agenda in the authority conferred by the new science of biology. It also reflected, however, the progressives’ lack of interest in and hostility toward individual liberty.

Source: Dark Side of Progressivism Exposed: From Eugenics to ‘Race Science’

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