Hit & Run

Eugenics: The Progressive Race Policy

"...malevolent and ungodly social engineering."

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Government imposed eugenics

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was a progressive policy aimed at trying to prevent inferior groups from having children. A new book, Illiberal Reformers: Race, Eugenics & American Economics in the Progressive Era by Princeton scholar Thomas Leonard highlights the history of this morally indefensible progressive policy. From the Princeton University Press:

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. Economic progressives championed labor legislation because it would lift up the deserving poor while excluding immigrants, African Americans, women, and "mental defectives," whom they vilified as low-wage threats to the American workingman and to Anglo-Saxon race integrity.

The progressives were certainly illiberal in the sense that they were opposed to classical liberalism, or what we call libertarianism today.

In any case, a review on the "dark history of liberal reform" over at The New Republic (historically the leading journalistic outlet for progressivism) observes:

It's impossible to understand early twentieth-century progressives without eugenics. Even worker-friendly reforms like the minimum wage were part of a racial hygiene agenda. The progressives believed male Anglo-Saxons were the most productive workers, but immigrants and women were willing to accept lower wages and displaced white men. Capitalism was getting in the way of human improvement, promoting inferior genes for near-term profits. "Competition has no respect for the superior races," Leonard quotes the economist John R. Commons on Jews. "The race with lowest necessities displaces others." Commons found common cause with the xenophobic wing of the organized labor movement.

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The minimum wage, in addition to providing some workers with a better standard of living, would guard white men from competition. Leonard is worth reading at length:

A legal minimum wage, applied to immigrants and those already working in America, ensured that only the productive workers were employed. The economically unproductive, those whose labor was worth less than the legal minimum, would be denied entry, or, if already employed, would be idled. For economic reformers who regarded inferior workers as a threat, the minimum wage provided an invaluable service. It identified inferior workers by idling them. So identified, they could be dealt with. The unemployable would be removed to institutions, or to celibate labor colonies. The inferior immigrant would be removed back to the old country or to retirement. The woman would be removed to the home, where she could meet her obligations to family and race.

If Leonard didn't have the quotes from prominent progressives to back up his claims, this would read like right-wing paranoia: The state's most innocuous protections reframed as malevolent and ungodly social engineering. But his citations are genuine. Charles Cooley, a founding member of American Sociological Association, warned that providing health care and nutrition for black Americans could be "dysgenic" if not accompanied by population control. The eugenicists weren't just dreaming: Between 1900 and the early 1980s, over 60,000 Americans were involuntarily sterilized under the law.

A Reason review of the book is forthcoming. Stay tuned.