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

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In Illiberal Reformers, Thomas Leonard reexamines the economic progressives whose ideas and reform agenda underwrote the Progressive Era dismantling of laissez-faire and the creation of the regulatory welfare state, which, they believed, would humanize and rationalize industrial capitalism. But not for all. Academic social scientists such as Richard T. Ely, John R. Commons, and Edward A. Ross, together with their reform allies in social work, charity, journalism, and law, played a pivotal role in establishing minimum-wage and maximum-hours laws, workmen's compensation, antitrust regulation, and other hallmarks of the regulatory welfare state. But even as they offered uplift to some, economic progressives advocated exclusion for others, and did both in the name of progress. Leonard meticulously reconstructs the influence of Darwinism, racial science, and eugenics on scholars and activists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, revealing a reform community deeply ambivalent about America's poor. Illiberal Reformers shows that the intellectual champions of the regulatory welfare state proposed using it not to help those they portrayed as hereditary inferiors but to exclude them.

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"Mythologies that arise around individuals, groups, and ideas of the past tend to mask many warts. Thomas Leonard's excellent book about American economics during the Progressive Era shows how progressives' efforts to champion reform drew on a vision of scientific development that would institutionalize the eugenic creed and, in the process, do great violence to the liberal project that had been at the heart of the American system. Illiberal Reformers provides a powerful lesson in the tensions that surround ideals of social progress, scientific expertise, and the democratic system."--Steven G. Medema, University of Colorado, Denver

"Economists like to think of their ancestors as heroic seekers of truth, each generation, as Newton suggested, standing on the shoulders of the giants who came before. Thomas Leonard demonstrates clearly that the story of economics in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century America was far more complex--and more interesting. He shows how the economists of that era combined their passion for social reform with religion, eugenics, and evolution theory in ways that seem incredible today. This book is an eye-opener."--Craufurd Goodwin, James B. Duke Professor of Economics Emeritus, Duke University

"This untold story of how Progressive Era activists helped construct the extensive role of government in the economy sheds light on today's technocratic dilemmas. Which decisions need to be left to experts, the ‘social engineers,' and which require democratic participation? Thomas Leonard's book demonstrates that during the Progressive Era this question was resolved only by combining democratic reform with the exclusion of women, African Americans, immigrants, and disabled people as full members of society. It underlines the fact that the tension between ‘expert' economic administration and individual liberties remains at the heart of current political debates."--Diane Coyle, author of GDP: A Brief but Affectionate History

"Illiberal Reformers makes a substantial contribution to the much contested history of U.S. progressivism by providing fascinating new evidence of what Leonard terms its ‘dark side.' This book's rich narrative will amply reward readers interested in the discrete histories of social science, science, politics, culture, industrial relations, and general U.S. history, and offers a wealth of new material on discrimination based on gender, race, and class."--Mary O. Furner, University of California, Santa Barbara

About the Author:

Thomas C. Leonard is research scholar in the Council of the Humanities at Princeton University, where he is also lecturer in the Department of Economics.

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