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Illiberal Reformers: Race, Eugenics, and American Economics in the Progressive Era

Thomas C. Leonard joins us to discuss the rise of the Progressive Era around the turn of the twentieth century. What ideas did these early progressives hold?

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Who were the academics, reformers, and social scientists that made up the early American progressive movement at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century? The positions held by today’s progressives only bear a passing resemblance to those of the Progressive Era; how have the original progressives’ ideas changed over time?

Thomas C. Leonard joins us this week for a discussion on the founding of the Progressive Era and the creation of the American regulatory and welfare state.

Is there anything inherently wrong or dangerous about the idea of turning over certain aspects of government to experts? How did Darwin’s theories play into the beliefs of these new progressives? Why did the progressives of this era embrace eugenics, racial science, and other ideas that today we would consider abhorrent?

Show Notes and Further Reading

Thomas C. Leonard’s new book, Illiberal Reformers: Race, Eugenics, and American Economics in the Progressive Era (2016).


Trevor Burrus: Welcome to Free Thoughts from and the Cato Institute. I’m Trevor Burrus.

Aaron Powell: And I’m Aaron Powell.

Trevor Burrus: Joining us today is Thomas C. Leonard, research scholar at the Council of the Humanities at Princeton University and lecturer at Princeton University’s Department of Economics. He is the author of the new book, Illiberal Reformers: Race, Eugenics, and American Economics in the Progressive Era. Welcome to Free Thoughts.

Thomas Leonard: Thanks. Nice to be with you.

Trevor Burrus: So I’d like to start with the title which says a lot by itself. Why Illiberal Reformers?

Thomas Leonard: Well, everyone knows that the scholars and activists who dismantled laissez faire and built welfare state were reformers. They don’t call it the progressive era for nothing. But it’s my claim that a central feature of that reform, central feature of erecting the regulatory state, a new kind of state, was the producing of liberties in the name of various conceptions of the greater good. Not just economic liberties, property rights, contract and so forth, that’s sort of a well-known part of the transition from 19th century liberalism to 20th century liberalism, but also I maintain civil and personal liberties as well.

Trevor Burrus: And what time period, are we talking about just after the turn of the century or the turn of the 20th century or going back further than that?

Thomas Leonard: Well, the idea is the architecture, if you will, the blueprints were drawn up sort of in the last decade and a half of the 19th century and they gradually made their way into actual sort of legislation and institutions, government institutions in the first 2 decades of the 20th century. Sort of—to use the usual scholarly terms kind of late gilded age and then the progressive era.

Trevor Burrus: So, who are these people, these reformers? Are they politicians mostly or are they in some other walk of life?

Thomas Leonard: Eventually they are politicians, but the politicians have to be convinced first. So the convincers in the beginning are a group of intellectuals or if you like scholars. They are economists, sociologists, population scientists, social workers.

Trevor Burrus: Population scientists, are those basically Malthusians or—?

Thomas Leonard: No. Today we call them demographers.

Trevor Burrus: We don’t use that term anymore. We call them what today?

Thomas Leonard: No. No. Today, we would call them demographers.

Trevor Burrus: Oh, okay.

Thomas Leonard: Yeah. It’s not quite—it doesn’t have to sound that sinister. But one of the interesting things, Trevor, about social science in this kind of—in its very beginnings in the late 19th century is its—it’s only beginning to become an academic discipline which is part of the book story. And a lot of social science kind of social investigations, fact-finding, research reports, a lot of that is being done outside the academy in the immigrant settlement houses, to a lesser extent in government administrative agencies, in investigations funded by the brand-new foundations and eventually in this brand-new invention called the Think Tank.

Aaron Powell: Was this increasing influence by— what these people are ultimately working is largely academic, so is this new for academics or academics this influential before this?

Thomas Leonard: No. It is new. It’s a revolution in academia. If we could transport ourselves backwards in time to Princeton, say, in 1880, we wouldn’t recognize the place. American colleges, you know, just after the Civil War were tiny institutions. They weren’t particularly scholarly. They were denominational. They were led by ministers. In Princeton’s case, they would have been finishing southern gentlemen and you wouldn’t recognize it at all.

If, however, we could transport ourselves back to, say, 1920, just at the end of the progressive era, you would recognize everything about the place. The social sciences had been invented and installed. There’s the beginning of the physical sciences in academia and it’s no longer just the classics, theology and a little bit of philosophy and mathematics. Part of the story of the rise of reform is the story of this revolution in American higher ed which takes place between 1880 and 1900.

Trevor Burrus: In the book, you discussed how Germany figures into this to some degree, which I thought was kind of interesting because Germany also figured into reforming our public education below higher ed but Germany status in the intellectual world was very influential on Americans in particular.

Thomas Leonard: Yeah, that’s quite right. The German connection is crucial for understanding the first generation of economists and other reformers. In the 1870s and into the 1880s, if you wanted to study cutting-edge political economy, Germany was where you went and all of the founders of American economics and indeed most of the other sort of newly hatching social sciences did their graduate work in Bismarck in Germany. And it’s only sort of beginning in the 1890s that American higher end catches up but, boy, does it catch up quickly. That’s why we use the term revolution.

But the turn of the century, you know, the number of graduate students in the United States getting Ph.D.’s is in the thousands. You know, sort of after the Civil War even as late as 1880, it would have just been a handdful.

Trevor Burrus: So what did these people start thinking about—I mean these illiberal reformers, what did they get in their head partially from Germany, partially from other sources which we can talk about later? But in the sort of general overview when they looked at society, what did they sort of maybe— not suddenly but at that moment, what did they decide they wanted to do with it?

Thomas Leonard: Well, another thing to understand is that most of them, in addition to sort of having this German model of how an economy works and also a German model of how an economy should be regulated, there were also evangelical protestants, most of them grew up in evangelical homes, most of them were sons and daughters of ministers or missionaries and they had, you know, this extraordinary zeal, this desire to set the world to rights. And they looked around them during the industrial revolution and they saw what really was extraordinary, unprecedented, economic and social change which we cannot gather under the banner of the industrial or at least the American industrial revolution.

And when they looked around them, they saw injustice. They saw low wages. There was a newly visible class of the poor in the cities. They saw inefficiency. They saw labor conflict. They saw uneducated men getting rich and this upending of the old social order in their view was not only inefficient, it was also un-Christian and immoral and it needed to be reformed, and they were sort of—it’s important to say unabashed about using evangelical terminology. They referred to— this is the first generation of progressives. They referred to their project as bringing a kingdom of heaven to Earth.

Aaron Powell: Then how did they—so they’ve got this project. They’ve identified these issues that they want to change. How did they go about turning that concern and the expertise that they thought they had into control of the reins of power or influence within government?

Thomas Leonard: Great question. It wasn’t easy. They understood that they had a tall task in front of them. They had to persuade those in power that reform was needed and reform was justified. And it helped that 2 other students, Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson went on too famous as politicians and so did other progressives at lower levels too. Part of the idea of academic economics in this sort of beginning stage was that you didn’t just spend time in the library or do blackboard exercises. Your job was to go out and make the world a better place.

So, I think the best way to think about it was they, along with many other reformers, wrote for the newspapers, went on the lecture circuits, bent the air of politicians first at the state level and then later at the federal level and said it’s a new economic world. The old economic ideas, laissez faire as they called it, are not only is it immoral, it’s economically obsolete and we need to build a new relationship not unlike the model that Germany provided between the state and economic life. And very gradually it happened.

Trevor Burrus: They were talking about also the emergence of the administrative state comes into this too because then they can take over posts in government that are not necessarily elected where their expertise is supposed to be utilized.

Thomas Leonard: That’s exactly right. The crucial point is that we think about the progressive era as a huge expansion in the size and scope of government and indeed it is that. But the progressives didn’t just want bigger government. They also wanted a new kind of government, which they saw as a better form, as a superior form of government. Famously the progressives weren’t just unhappy with economic life which was one thing, they were also unhappy with American political life and with American government which they saw and rightly so as corrupt and inefficient and not doing what it should be doing to improve society and economy. So they wanted to not only to expand state power but also to relocate it, to move government authority away from the courts which traditionally had held quite a bit of regulatory power and away from legislatures and into what they sometimes called a new fourth branch of government, the administrative state.

Trevor Burrus: And you’re right, you’re right in your book which I think this is a very succinct way of pointing it. Progressivism was first and foremost an attitude about the proper relationship of science and its bearer, the scientific expert, to the state and of the state to the economy and polity. And so these experts—I also want to think we should make clear, this was not a fringe group of intellectuals and academic professors. This was—would you say it was the mainstream or at least a kind of who’s who of American intellectuals and all the great Ivy League institutions?

Thomas Leonard: Absolutely. It’s the best and brightest if I can use an anachronistic phrase. Now, we have to be a little careful with Ivy League because the centers of academic reform are at places like Wisconsin and to some extent at Columbia and at Johns Hopkins and to some extent at Penn. But the old colonial colleges like Harvard and Yale were a little late to catch up. It took them a while to catch on to this new German model of graduate seminars and professors as experts and not merely instructors.

Trevor Burrus: So how did they conceptualize the average worker that needed their help? You have this great line in your book which I think says something about modern politics too. “Progressives did not work in factories. They inspected them. Progressives did not drink in salons. They tried to shudder them. The bold women who chose to live among the immigrant poor and city slums called themselves settlers, not neighbors. Even when progressives idealized workers, they tended to patronize them. Romanticizing a brotherhood that they would never consider joining.”

Thomas Leonard: Yeah. I think it’s fair to say and it’s not exactly a revelation that the progressives were not working class, but neither were they, you know, part of the gentry class. They were middle class and from middle class backgrounds, as I say sons and daughters of ministers and missionaries. So, they were unhappy when they looked upward at the new plutocrats who were uneducated and in their view un-Christian and potentially corrupting of the republic, but they also didn’t like what they saw when they looked downward at ordinary people particularly at immigrants. If you don’t mind, I feel like I should circle back to this fourth branch idea—

Trevor Burrus: Please.

Thomas Leonard: —as a conception of the administrative state. I didn’t finish my thought very well. I think that the way that the progressives thought about the fourth branch is very important because the administrative state is as everyone knows has done nothing but grow since its blueprinting and its sort of first construction in Woodrow Wilson’s first term. I think the key thing—sort of these two key components that make this a new kind of government in the progressive mind. The first is that the independent agencies like the Federal Reserve and the Federal Trade Commission and the Permanent Tariff Commission were designed to be independent of Congress and the president. That was by design.

They were supposed to be in some sense above politics. They served for 7 years. They had overlapping terms. Oftentimes, they would be balanced politically and the president could not remove one of these commissioners except for cause and neither could Congress impeach them. So they occupied a kind of a unique place, a new place did these bureaucrats.

The second thing that matters I think for understanding the administrative state is that administrative regulations have the full force of federal law, right? Regulations are laws no different than— you know, Congress had passed one. Moreover, the fourth branch, the administrators are also responsible for executing regulations and third, of course, they’re responsible for adjudicating regulatory disputes. So there’s this combination of statutory and adjudicatory and executive power all rolled up into one, which is why I think the progressives called it the fourth branch. And the growth of administrative government I think is a much better metric for thinking about the success, if you will, or the durability of the progressive vision than simply looking at something like government spending as a share of GDP.

Aaron Powell: Can we decouple at least for purposes of critique the ideology of the progressives from the methods? Because obviously they ended up— once they had the power, ended up doing a lot of really lamentable or awful things with it. But the basic idea of having experts in charge of things—I mean you can see a certain appeal to that especially as, you know, science advances, technology advances, our body of knowledge grows. We understand more about the economy and more about how societies function just like you would want, you know, experts in the medical sciences overseeing your health as opposed to just laymen. Is there anything just inherently wrong or dangerous about the idea of turning over more of government to experts distinct from just the particular ideas of this set of experts?

Thomas Leonard: I don’t think so. I think the question is more a practical one of what we think experts should do whether they’re working in government or in the private sector. And the progressives had what you might call a heroic conception of expertise. They believed that they not only could be experts serve the public good but they could also identify the public good and that’s what I mean by a heroic conception. Not only do we know how to get to a particular outcome, we know also what those outcomes should be.

Now there’s nothing about expertise per se that requires that heroic vision which in retrospect looks both arrogant and naïve. It makes good sense for the state to call upon expertise where expertise can be helpful. So I don’t think it’s an indictment of the very idea of using science for the purposes of state. It’s more about what sort of authority and we want experts to have. Going as we sort of move into the new deal era, which is another great growth spurt in the size of the state, we get a slightly less heroic vision of what experts do. There’s—well, after World War I, that sort of naïve heroic view of expertise is simply outmoded.

Trevor Burrus: So they definitely—they’re pretty arrogant as you mentioned. They have—so I’m going to ask you sort of a few things about the way that they’re looking at society and what they think that they can do with it and what they’re allowed to do with it. So, how did they view individual rights and as a core layer, I guess, how do they think of society as opposed to the individual in terms of the sort of methodology of their science or state craft or whatever you want to—however you want to describe it?

Thomas Leonard: That’s a great question. I think one of the most dramatic changes that we see in sort of American liberal thinking and its transition from 19th century small government liberalism to 20th century liberalism of a more activist expert-guided state is a re-conception of what Dan Rogers calls the moral hole, the idea of a nation or a state or a social organism as an entity that is something greater than the individual people that make it up. And I think this fundamental change is one of the sort of key elements in this progressive inflection point in American history. Up until that point— if you’re willing to call an era a point, forgive me. Up until that moment, I think that’s what we should say.

Trevor Burrus: I think that’s good, yes.

Thomas Leonard: Yeah, right. We would have said the United States are and after the progressive reconceptualization, it’s the United States is. Instead of a collection of states of federation, now the idea is that there’s a nation. Woodrow Wilson’s famous phrase at least famous in these precincts was “Princeton in the nation’s service” and this desire to identify a kind of moral hole, a nation, a state or a social organism. They gave it different names. I think the great impetus to the idea that it was okay to trespass on individual liberties as long as it promoted the interests of the nation or the state or the people or society or the social organism.

Trevor Burrus: So how does—and this is another big factor because it’s kind of interesting. We have a—we talk about them as evangelicals and then progressives, which a lot of people might be surprised, the people who call themselves progressives now. But we also have them as evangelical but with Darwin and evolution having a huge influence on their thinking which also seems to not go with the way we align these things today. How did Darwin and evolution come in to their thinking and what did it make them start to conclude?

Thomas Leonard: Right. Well, remember the quote you had before about progressivism as being essentially a concept that refers to the relationship of science to government and of government to the economy. The science of the day or at least the science that most influenced—the economic reformers was Darwinism. And there’s just no understanding progressive era reform without understanding the influence of Darwinism. It was in the progressive view what made these brand-new social sciences just barely established scientific. That’s one of the reasons we do history. Economics today doesn’t have a whole lot to do with evolution or with Darwinism and has a lot to do with mathematics and statistical approaches. But at the turn of the century and until the end of the First World War, evolutionary thinking was at the heart of the science that underwrote economics and the other new social sciences, which were at least in the progressive view to guide the administrative state in its relationship to economy and polity.

Aaron Powell: What does Darwinian thinking look like in practice for the policy preferences of the progressives? I mean I see we’re not just talking about we need to breed out undesirable traits or something of that sort. How does the specifics of Darwin apply to their broader agenda?

Thomas Leonard: Well, Darwin does many things for the progressives. Darwin by himself is sort of a figure that they admire, sort of he’s a disinterested man of science concerned only with the truth and uninterested in profit like, say, a greedy capitalist, uninterested in power like, say, a greedy politician. I mean Darwin is kind of a synecdoche if you like for the progressive conception of what a scientific expert does.

More than that, I think that, you know, the progressives and—and by the way, many other intellectuals too, socialists and conservatives alike, were able to find whatever they needed in Darwin. Darwin was so influential in the gilded age and in the progressive era that everybody found something useful for their political and intellectual purposes during the gilded age and the progressive era.

Take competition, for example. If you were a so-called social Darwinist, you could say that competition was survival of the fittest, Herbert Spencer’s phrase that Darwin eventually borrowed himself and that, therefore, that those who succeeded in economic life were in some sense fitter. The progressives could use other evolutionary thinkers and say “Wait a second, not so. Fitter doesn’t necessarily mean better. Fitter just means better adapted to a particular environment.” So competition would be an example of Darwinian thinking that was influential in the way that progressives thought about the way an economy works.

Trevor Burrus: But they weren’t particular. I mean they weren’t laissez faire and I know at one point you mentioned that the—I think you said that it was either the American Economic Association or maybe sociology was started partially against William Graham Sumner. Was it sociology? William Graham Sumner was very influential on creating counter-movements to him and he is sort of a proto-libertarian or a libertarian figure who was laissez faire but they were absolutely not.

Thomas Leonard: Yeah. That’s quite right. Sumner is the bête noire of economic reformers. He was of a slightly earlier generation, the generation of 1840, and he was the avatar as you say of free markets and of small government and Sumner was the man Ely—Richard T. Ely, sort of the standard bearer of progressive economics said that he organized the American Economic Association to oppose. Yeah, Sumner was in the end the only economist who is not asked to join the American Economic Association. So much was he sort of personally associated with laissez faire.

Trevor Burrus: Now, of course, they were accused and this is an important historical point because you mentioned the social Darwinism and I think I can almost hear your scare quotes through the line because that idea of Sumner and Herbert Spencer being Darwinists of a sort of wanted to let people die is a little bit overextended. Spencer definitely had some evolutionary ideas about society, but the social Darwinism doesn’t only come in until the ‘50s if I understand correctly.

Thomas Leonard: Yeah. Social Darwinism is really an anachronism applied to the progressive era. I think we can safely, you know, ascribe the influence of that term to Richard Hofstadter who coined it in his dissertation which was published during the Second World War. It is true, of course, that you could find apologists for laissez faire or you could find people who said that, you know, economic success was not a matter of luck or a fraud or of coercion but was deserved, was justified.

There were lots of defenders of laissez faire on various grounds and Spencer and Sumner find they fit that description. But neither of them were particularly Darwinian. Spencer was a rival of Darwin’s. He thought his theory was—well, it was prior. He thought it was better and he coined the term evolution. And Sumner really wasn’t much of a Darwinist at all if you look through his work, it’s only dauded with a few Darwinian references. I think what Hofstadter did, and he was such a graceful writer, is he coined a new term that sounded kind of unpleasant.

And if you look through the entire literature which I’ve done, you will be hard-pressed to find a single person who identifies him or herself as a social Darwinist. You won’t find a journal of social Darwinism. You won’t find laboratories of social Darwinism. You won’t find international societies for the promotion of social Darwinism.

Trevor Burrus: But ironically, eugenics, you will find all of those things.

Thomas Leonard: You will find all of those things.

Trevor Burrus: Actually, could you explain what eugenics is before we jump into the truly distasteful part of this episode?

Thomas Leonard: Well, eugenics is just in the progressive era what it meant, the period of my book, is the social control of human heredity. It’s the idea that human heredity just like anything else guided by good science and overseen by socially-minded experts can improve human heredity just like it can improve government. It can make government good. It can make the economy more efficient and more just and so too can we do the same for human heredity.

Trevor Burrus: And eugenics was—I mean I think big is even an understatement of at least the first two decades of the 20th century and into the third and fourth decade but especially the first two decades.

Thomas Leonard: Yeah, there was an extraordinary intellectual vogue for eugenics all over the world, not just in the United States. Eugenics, it’s very difficult viewed in retrospect that is viewed through the sort of crimes that were committed by Nazi Germany in the middle of the 20th century. It’s very difficult to see how what is a term that is a dirty word could actually be regarded as sort of the height of high-mindedness and social concern. But it was, in fact, at the time.

And across American society, eugenics was popular. It was popular among the new experimental biologists that we now called geneticist. It was certainly popular among the new social scientists, the economists and others who were staffing the bureaus at the administrative state and sitting in chairs in the university. And it was popular among politicians too. There were many journals of eugenics. There were many eugenics societies. They had international and national conferences. Hundreds probably thousands of scholars were happy to call themselves eugenicists and to advocate for eugenic policies of various kinds. There’s a book published in I think around 1924 by Sam Holmes who was a Berkeley zoologist and there’s like 6000 or 7000 titles on eugenics in the bibliography.

Aaron Powell: How did the eugenicists of the time think about what they were doing or think about the people that they were doing it to?

Trevor Burrus: Well, first we should ask what they were doing. We haven’t actually got to that.

Aaron Powell: But I mean in general—like the attitude towards the very notion of this because we can— even setting aside the horrors of what Nazi Germany did from our modern perspective looking back at this with the debates that we have and the struggle we have to allow people to say define the family, the way that they choose and just the overwhelming significance in, you know, the scope of one’s life and the way one lives in that decision to have children and become a parent. And eugenics, no matter—I mean no matter the details of it is ultimately taking that choice away from someone or making that choice for them and it seems just profoundly dehumanizing and did they consciously or unconsciously was there a dehumanizing element to it? Did they think of the people that they were going to practice this on as somehow less and so, therefore, deserving of less autonomy? Or was there a distancing from that element of it?

Thomas Leonard: Well, it’s important to remember—the answer to the question is yes. The professionals, if you will, in the eugenics movement sort of the professionals and the propagandists certainly saw immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, immigrants from Asia, African Americans, the mentally and physically disabled as inferiors as unfit. There’s just no question about it. But what we need—one important caution here again is that there were very few people at the time proposing anything like hurting inferiors into death chambers.

Eugenic policies were much less extreme. So when we encounter it in the context of, say, economic reform, it comes up— In immigration, for example. If you regard immigrants from southern and eastern Europe and from Asia as unfit, as threats to American racial integrity or as economic threats to American working men’s wages, that’s a eugenic argument. You’re saying that when you argue that they will sort of reduce American hereditary vigor, that’s a eugenic argument. It doesn’t have to involve something as ugly as, say, coercive sterilization or worse.

There’s many ways of which I think are, you know, strange to us in retrospect of thinking about the law, be it immigration reform or minimum wages or maximum hours as a device for keeping the inferior out of the labor force or out of the country altogether.

Trevor Burrus: Yeah, let’s go—yeah, the last third of your book kind of goes with this. We have a chapter called Excluding the Unemployable. So can you talk a little bit about what that entailed?

Thomas Leonard: Sure. The unemployable is a kind of buzz phrase that I think was probably coined by Sidney and Beatrice Webb who were Fabian socialists, founders of the London School of Economics and whose work was widely read by American progressives and with whom American progressives had a very kind of fruitful trans-Atlantic interaction with. It’s a misnomer, of course, because the unemployable refers to people who many of whom were actually employed. And the idea here is that a certain category of worker is willing to work for wages below what progressives regarded as a living wage or a fair wage and that these sorts of people who were often called feeble-minded when they were mentally disabled or defectives when they were physically disabled were doing the sort of transgressing in multiple ways.

The first thing was by accepting lower wages, they were undermining the deserving American working men or American really means Anglo-Saxon. The second thing is because they were willing to accept low wages, the American worker was unwilling to do so to accept these low wages and so instead opted to have smaller families. That argument went by the name of race suicide. The undercutting inferior worker because he was racially predisposed to accept or innately predisposed to accept lower wages meant that the Anglo-Saxon “native,” if you will—scare quotes around native—had fewer children and as a result the inferior strains were outbreeding the superior strains and the result was what Edward A. Ross called race suicide.

Trevor Burrus: Now that sounds like the movie Idiocracy. Have you ever seen this movie?

Thomas Leonard: I’m not familiar with it.

Trevor Burrus: Oh, well. So, but I want to clarify something that might shock our listeners that—and you mentioned this briefly a little bit like for the economists, for members of the American Economic Association, at the time some of them thought of the minimum wage as valuable precisely because it unemployed these people. So whereas now we’re actually having this fight about whether or not the minimum wage unemploys anyone. It seems like there were a few doubts that it did unemploy people and the people it unemployed were the unemployable, unproductive workers who shouldn’t be employed in the first place.

Thomas Leonard: That’s right. There’s a very long list of people who at one time or another just almost comically if it weren’t sad, long list of groups that were vilified as being inferior. As I say, physically disabled, mentally disabled coming from Asia or Southern Europe or Eastern Europe, African American, although the progressive weren’t terribly worried about the African Americans, at least outside the south until they started the great migration and became economic competitors in the factories as well. So, this very long list of inferiors creates a kind of regulatory problem which is how are we going to identify them and so you can, if you think for example that a Jew from Russia or an Italian from the mezzogiorno is inferior, how are you going to know that they’re Jewish or that they’re from Southern Italy. Their passport doesn’t specify necessarily.

So one way, of course, is to take out your handbook, the dictionary of the races of America or another more clever way ultimately is to simply set a minimum wage so high that all unskilled labor will be unable to legally come to America because they’ll be priced out.

Trevor Burrus: And that was also true of—it goes a little bit past your book but the migration of African Americans north had some influence on the federal minimum wage of the New Deal if I remember correctly.

Thomas Leonard: Yes, it did, and also Mexican immigrants as well. The idea of inferiors threatening “Americans” or “Native Americans” is a trope that recurs again and again and again, not just in the progressive era but also in the New Deal. And it is I suppose shocking and bizarre to see the minimum wage as hailed for its eugenic virtues. But one very convenient way of solving this problem of how do we identify the inferiors is to simply assume that they’re low-skilled and, therefore, unproductive and a binding minimum wage will ensure that the unproductive are kept out or if they’re already in the labor force, they’ll be idled. And the deserving, that is to say the productive workers who were always assumed, of course, to be Anglo-Saxon will keep their jobs and get a raise. It’s a very appealing notion.

And you’re quite right that today, you know, most of the debate or a good part of the minimum wage debate concerns a question of how much unemployment you get for a given increase in the minimum. But there’s no question that any disemployment from a higher minimum is a social cause that’s undesirable. The progressive era was not seen as a social cause. It was not seen as a bug. It was seen as a desirable feature and this is why progressivism has made a virtue of it precisely because it did exclude so many folks who were regarded as deficient—deficient in their heredity, deficient in their politics, deficient in many other ways as well.

Aaron Powell: What struck me when you were running through the policies that they wanted so the minimum wage in order to exclude these people or the concerns about immigration is how many of them maybe—I mean not in the motives behind them necessarily, not in the stated motives but in the specifics of the policies and some of the concerns look very much like what you hear today, you know. There seem to be conventional wisdom about the need to keep out unskilled immigrants. You hear stuff about, you know, there’s too many of them in the population and that that will ultimately cause problems if they, you know, tip over into a majority or the existing minimum wage, but they don’t seem—they don’t have the what we think of as terrifically ugly motives behind them.

And so is there—like that historic change because it seems odd that if the motives and the desires and the attitudes have shifted, we would have seen the resulting policy shift. So how did that—how do we get that transition from, you know, keeping the desire for the policies of the progressive era but shifting our attitudes, our sense of virtue to something that would see the motives behind the policy of the progressive era as so repugnant?

Thomas Leonard: Well, I think that, you know, we teach freshmen in economics to make this fairly bright distinction between the so-called positive and the normative, right? So the positive question is what are the effects of the minimum wage on employment and what are the effects of the minimum wage on output prices and what are the effects of the minimum wage on the income distribution. And you can sort of think about these questions without sort of tipping over onto the normative side which is—is it a good thing or a bad thing that a particular class of worker namely the very unskilled are likely to be harmed at all? So you can—I think in a way it’s partly a parable about, you know, the capacity of sorting so-called scientific claims from so-called normative or ethical matters.

You know, my own view is one can be a supporter of the minimum wage, of course, without, you know, having repugnant views about the folks who are going to lose their job if we raise the minimum wage too high.

Trevor Burrus: Yeah, of course. That—

Thomas Leonard: Goes with— I think that goes without saying.

Trevor Burrus: Well, that’s an interesting question about what are the lessons—

Thomas Leonard: Yeah.

Trevor Burrus: —from this. But I wanted to ask you about one more thing before we kind of get to that question which is about—because there’s another one that we didn’t touch on which might surprise people, which is excluding women. So we got—we went there—there were some sterilization, which we’ve been talking about much but you mentioned excluding unemployable. We had about immigration and now we also have excluding women and people might be surprised to hear that progressives were actually interested in doing this.

Thomas Leonard: Yeah. This is a—well, all of these accounts are complex. The story of women’s labor legislation is probably the most complex of all and that’s partly because in the progressive era, most labor legislation was directed at women and at women only, not all but sort of the pillars of the welfare state which is to say minimum wages, maximum hours, mother’s pensions which eventually evolved into AFTC and welfare. Those pillars were—those pillars that legislation was women and women only.

Now, there are different ways of thinking about it. I think that the thing to remember is that a lot of these legislation to set a wage floor to set a maximum number of hours to give women payments— women with dependent children payments at home were enacted not so much to protect women from employment, the hazards of employment but rather to protect employment from women.

And when you look at the discourse, you do find a kind of protective paternalistic line where, for example, the famous Brandeis Brief which was used in so many Supreme Court cases in defensive labor legislation just sort of boldly asserts that women are the weaker sex and that’s why women as women need to be protected from the hazards of market work. They didn’t worry so much about the hazards of domestic work.

Trevor Burrus: And Brandeis was a champion of—I mean he’s considered a champion of progressive era, but he did write this unbelievably sexist brief in Muller versus Oregon.

Thomas Leonard: Indeed he did and he collaborated with his sister-in-law, Josephine Goldmark, and it’s regarded as sort of not only the case but the brief itself is regarded as sort of a landmark in legal circles. So there’s also a second class of argument which still lives on today, I might add, which is called the family wage and this is the idea that there’s a kind of natural family structure wherein the father is the breadwinner and the mother stays at home and tends the hearth and raises the kids and that male workers are entitled to a wage sufficient to support a wife and other dependents, and that when women work for wages, they wrongly usurp the wages that rightly belong to the breadwinner. That’s another argument for regulating women’s employment. That’s not really protecting women. That’s protecting men, of course.

And there were a whole host of arguments. Another argument was worried about women’s sexual virtue that if women accepted, you know, low wages at the factory, they’ll be tempted into prostitution. The euphemism of the day was the social vice and John Bates Clark pointed out that if 5 dollars a week tempts a factory girl into vice, then 0 dollars a week will do so more surely.

Trevor Burrus: It’s really hard to decide when you’re going through all this stuff and you include immigration and all these issues whether or not these people are—when we’re talking about progressives, so that’s the name we all call them now. But if we’re going to use modern term, are they liberals or are they conservative? I mean if the immigration thing looks conservative now and the protecting women’s virtue and supporting the family looks conservative and the racism, you know, but the minimum wage wanting that. So there seemed to be a hodgepodge of something that doesn’t really map to anything now.

Thomas Leonard: Yeah, I think that’s right. I think it’s a mistake. I mean one of the problems that we face looking backwards from today is that progressivism today—a progressive today is someone on the left, someone on the left wing of the democratic party and that’s not what progressive meant in the progressive era. There certainly were plenty of folks on the left who were progressives but they were also right progressives too. Men like Theodore Roosevelt would be a canonical sort of right progressive. Roosevelt ran as you know on that progressive ticket in 1912 handing the White House to Woodrow Wilson in so doing.

Yeah, I think—yeah, one of the, you know, the historiographic lessons of the book is be careful projecting contemporary categories backwards in time. You know, the original progressives, they defended human hierarchy. They were Darwinists. They either ignored or justified Jim Crow. They were moralists. They were evangelicals. They promoted the claims of the nation over individuals and they had this, of course, heroic conception of their own roles as experts. That’s very different from what 21st century progressives are about. The 21st century progressives couldn’t be more different in some respects. They’re not evangelicals. They’re very secular. They emphasize racial equality and minority rights. They’re nervous about nationalism but they don’t—they’re not imperialists like the progressives were. They’re unhappy with too much Darwinism in their social science. So, in these respects contemporary progressives are very different from their namesakes.

On the other hand though, having said that and that’s a very important point just because they share a name doesn’t mean they share everything. There are some things about the progressives that I think still carry over to today. One is this sort of this combination of statism and expertise. The idea that our politics should be scientific, not political if you will and that economic life is best governed by the visible hand of an administrative state that investigates and regulates and supervises the economy.

Trevor Burrus: Maybe that’s the lesson we can take from this because that can run amok under certain circumstances.

Thomas Leonard: Yes, it can. I mean one of the lessons I think I learned in writing this book is—and I have to say it was a hard one lesson is that the history of bad ideas like coercive eugenics is just as interesting and is important as a history of good ideas and that’s because bad ideas that were historically important like eugenics were thought— almost by definition were thought by many people to be a good idea at the time. So we need to be wary of scienitism, maybe that’s the right word, particularly in the social sciences like economics. I mean it really is hard as it is to understand viewed from today. Eugenics was seen as the best science of the day. It was something a high-minded person had to get behind, indeed nearly everybody did. So I think that is another lesson for today is particularly in economics and particularly if you’re an advocate of an extensive expert state involvement in the economy is you really better be sure your science is good, and I can guarantee you that 100 years hence, you know, when there’s a podcast looking back at us, there will be some ideas that we think of as not only scientific but profoundly important that they will think of as reprehensible.

Trevor Burrus: Thank you for listening. Free Thoughts is produced by Evan Banks and Mark McDaniel. To learn more, find us on the web at