Progressivism’s Parade of Horrors
On the flight out to the recent FreedomFest conference in Las Vegas, I read a horrifying book, Illiberal Reformers: Race, Eugenics, and American Economics in the Progressive Era by Thomas C. Leonard. It’s a bold attempt to restore our national memory, to explain how we strayed from our nation’s classical liberal founding heritage and embarked on building today’s welfare/warfare/regulatory state. Central to the story is the misuse of science. And it carries an important warning for us today.
Leonard meticulously researches and documents the march of the Eugenics movement, from its roots in the German Historical School of political economy during the Bismarck era to its near-universal embrace by American Progressive intellectuals at the end of the 19th century, to its re-importation into Germany, which culminated in the Nazi holocaust.
Eugenicists identified themselves as Progressives—an association their fellow Progressives didn’t deny. Their goal? To “improve” the human species through policies aimed at selecting out the “unfit.”
See where this is going?
You will find this book shocking, not just because so many prominent American scientists, economists, journalists, theologians, statesmen, activists, and trade organizations bought into this poisonous ideology, but by this having been expunged from our national memory, much like the Belgians have blanked out their memory of King Leopold. It’s a story well worth retelling.
The pivotal historical figure in this long and sordid tale is Princeton professor-turned-President Woodrow Wilson, who helped the burgeoning Progressive movement translate philosophy into action. Wilson’s publicly articulated vision for America was to scrap the intricate constitutional checks and balances that limited the power of the federal government and replace it with unbridled rule by technocratic elites.
These elites would be informed not by an ethos steeped in the American tradition of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, manifested in a freewheeling laissez faire economy, but by “settled science” that economists, sociologists, and central planners would use to create an efficient utopia. And the settled science of Wilson’s day was … Eugenics.
Parade of Horrors
The parade of horrors unleashed by Eugenics is long. Forced sterilization of “imbeciles,” “cripples,” and the “morally unfit.” The “separate but equal” segregation enshrined by the Supreme Court’s Plessy v. Ferguson decision. Labor regulations designed to force women out of the workplace. Immigration restrictions targeting Chinese, Southern Italians, Jews, Slavs, and other “undesirables.”
Minimum wage laws intended to push low-skill African-Americans, immigrants, and poor rural whites out of the labor market, making it harder for them to have children. Marriage license laws giving states the power to decide who can reproduce. Ethnically and racially targeted birth control campaigns that laid the groundwork for our modern abortion-on-demand regime.
I thank Jeffrey Tucker for turning me on to this book, which I read preparing to interview him for RealClear Radio Hour. You can listen to a podcast of our conversation here. Jeff has embraced the cause of resurrecting this history as a cautionary tale that needs telling to a generation raised on Progressive nostrums.
My point is not to castigate modern Progressives for the sins of their forebears. I’m sure they find the Eugenics movement just as horrifying. Rather, the point is warn against letting government bureaucrats use coercion to engineer massive social change, justifying it with so-called settled science. Because science can be wrong, especially if, as a matter of policy, it is not allowed to self-correct.
Which brings us to the defining hysteria of today’s Progressive movement—global warming. Regardless of your own views, one fact is undisputed. If all the draconian changes to our energy production and consumption endorsed by global warming alarmists were enacted, it would have a negligible effect on future temperatures. Which should tell you that this is not a debate about climate, but about power—especially when that power is used to censor critics, prosecute climate change “deniers,” and demonize anyone who dares ask blasphemous questions.
That is not how science works. That is how tyrants work.
If freedom and open debate are things you care about, stop what you are doing and go buy this book.
Originally posted to Foundation for Economic Education.