Illiberal Reformers: Race, Eugenics & American Economics in the Progressive Era. (2016) Princeton University Press.


History of Economics 

Abstract: The Progressive Era economic reformers we call the progressives permanently changed the relationship of the American state to the economy.  In blueprinting and beginning construction of the regulatory state, the progressives faced a foundational tension: the expert-led administrative state the progressives imagined was at odds with other progressive goals for expanding and promoting democracy. Paradoxically, the progressives proposed to redeem American democracy via the undemocratic substitution of their own judgment for that of the people.

Abstract: Of the several influences on early Progressive Era American political economy, two stand out, evangelical Protestantism and evolutionary science. Scholarly and popular accounts alike have tended to make science and religion antagonists, no more so than with the conflict they find between evangelical Protestantism and evolutionary science, as exemplified by accounts of the 1925 Scopes trial. But evangelical Protestantism and evolutionary science comfortably coexisted in Progressive Era American political economy. Leading progressive economists, not least the evangelicals attached to the Social Gospel movement, readily and routinely assimilated evolutionary science to their religiously motivated project of economic reform.  The progressive economists’ merger of evolutionary science and Protestant belief was made possible by the fact that the Social Gospel was itself already (in part) an accommodation to the implications of post-Darwinian evolutionary thought, and that Progressive Era evolutionary science was protean, fragmented and plural, enabling intellectuals to enlist evolutionary ideas in support of diverse, even opposed positions in political economy. 

Abstract: This essay explores the progressive beliefs other than human hierarchy that inclined Progressive Era economic reform toward eugenics.  It argues that: the progressives believed in a powerful, centralized state, conceiving of national government as the best means for promoting the social good and rejecting the individualism of (classical) liberalism; the progressives venerated social efficiency; the progressives believed in the epistemic and moral authority of science, a belief which comprised their view that biology could explain and control human inheritance and that the still nascent sciences of society could explain and control the causes of economic ills; the progressives believed that intellectuals should guide social and economic progress, a belief erected upon a two subsidiary faiths, a faith the disinterestedness and incorruptibility of the experts who would run the technocracy they envisioned, and a faith that expertise could not only serve the social good, but also identify it; and, while anti-monopoly, the progressives believed that increasing industrial consolidation was inevitable, and desirable, consistent with their faith in planning, organization and command.

Abstract: The term “social Darwinism” owes its currency and its association with free markets to an unresolved tension in Richard Hofstadter’s (1944) influential Social Darwinism in American Thought, 1860-1915 (SDAT). Hofstadter’s New Deal sensibility condemned both free markets and the use of biological ideas in social science; he championed economic reform and a social science purged of biology. But the Progressive Era reformers Hofstadter celebrated in SDAT – men like Lester F. Ward, Edward A. Ross, Thorstein Veblen, Charles Horton Cooley, and John R. Commons – were enthusiastic biologizers who often justified economic reform on biological grounds. Because Hofstadter’s reform-good-biology-bad schema does not map upon Progressive Era reform, there are two different Hofstadters in SDAT. The first Hofstadter disparaged as “social Darwinism” biological justification of free markets, for this was, in his view, doubly wrong. The second Hofstadter acknowledged the biological underside of what he called Darwinian collectivism: racism, eugenics and imperialism. This essay documents and explains Hofstadter’s ambivalence in SDAT, including its connection with the Left’s longstanding mistrust of Darwinism as apology for Malthusian political economy. 

Abstract: Hostility to commerce dates to the very beginnings of market exchange. Students of commerce, economists for short, have also been attacked. “Anti-economics” has a long history, too; indeed, criticism of economics and criticism of commerce have tended to go together. Stephen Marglin carries on both traditions— The Dismal Science: How Thinking Like an Economist Undermines Community discredits the market and economics alike. The Dismal Science belongs also to a third tradition, that of bending the history of economics to the purposes of heterodoxy.

Abstract: Prophet of Innovation manages the Schumpeterian feat of synthesizing history, economics and biography, all of which were needed to produce this fully realized, beautifully drawn portrait of a complex man, and his great subject, capitalism -- its economics, its social institutions, and, first among equals, its historical record.  

  • Leonard, Thomas C. (2008) "Increasing Happiness by Thinning the Herd," review essay of Sandy Peart and David Levy, The Vanity of The Philosopher: From Equality to Hierarchy in Post-Classical Economics, Journal of The History of Economic Thought 30(1): 117-126.

  • Leonard, Thomas C. (2005) Retrospectives: Eugenics and Economics in the Progressive Era. Journal of Economic Perspectives 19(4): 207-224.

    Abstract: Eugenic ideas informed the labor and immigration reform that is the hallmark of the Progressive Era (1890-1920). Many reform-minded American economists promoted exclusionary labor and immigration legislation for its eugenic benefits: removing the biologically inferior from the labor force, went the argument, would reduce "race suicide" and raise the wages of superior, deserving workers. This essay considers the popularity of Progressive Era American eugenics, its appeal to leading progressive economists such as Irving Fisher, Francis A. Walker, Simon N. Patten, Henry W. Farnam, Edward A. Ross, Frank A. Fetter, Henry R. Seager, and John R. Commons (all AEA presidents), and its decline in the late-interwar period.

  • Leonard, Thomas C. (2005) Mistaking Eugenics for Social Darwinism: Why Eugenics is Missing from the History of American Economics. History of Political Economy37 (Suppl.): 200-233.

Abstract: The influence of eugenics upon Progressive Era economics has been neglected in the history of economic thought. Why? Without rejecting other historiographic explanations, this essay argues that an influentual strand of Progressive-Era historiography -- one with its origins in Richard Hofstadter's Social Darwinism in American Thought -- has misled with respect to the influence of  biological thought upon the Progressive-Era sciences of society. It has done so by treating eugenics as social Darwinism and by making "social Darwinism" into a synecdoche for what, in retrospect, progressivism is seen to oppose -- individualism, laissez-faire economics, racism and imperialism. Though neither social Darwinism nor eugenics are quite what this influential strand of historiography makes them out be, and though eugenics and social Darwinism are as different as they are alike, the influence of the Hofstaderian interpretation has, among its several consequences, obscured the influence of eugenics on Progressive Era American economics. 

    Abstract: In the Progressive Era, reform-minded economists argued that the labor force should be rid of unfit workers—whom they labeled “unemployables,” “parasites,” "low-wage races," and the “industrial residuum”—so as to uplift superior, deserving workers. Women were also frequently classified as unemployable. Leading progressives, including women at the forefront of labor reform, justified exclusionary labor legislation for women on grounds that it would (1) protect the biologically weaker sex from the hazards of market work; (2) protect working women from the temptation of prostitution; (3) protect male heads of household from the economic competition of women; and (4) ensure that women could better carry out their eugenic duties as “mothers of the race.” What united these heterogeneous rationales was the reformers’ aim of discouraging women’s labor-force participation.

      Abstract: Distribution concerns who gets what. But does “who” refer to the personal distribution of income among individuals or the functional distribution of income among suppliers of productive factors? For nearly 150 years, Anglophone distribution theory followed the Ricardian emphasis on functional distribution – the income shares of labor, land, and capital. Only beginning in the 1960s, and consolidated by a research outpouring in the early 1970s, does mainstream economics turn to the personal conception of distribution. This essay documents Anglophone (primarily American) economics’ move from functional to personal distribution, and tries to illuminate something of its causes and timing.

      Abstract: John Bates Clark was not a laissez-faire apologist for capital, as his contemporary critics (such as Thorstein Veblen) sometimes claimed, but neither was he a progressive, as some revisionist history has lately claimed. Clark is better regarded as a pioneering neoclassical economist. He rejected laissez-faire, which he believed would sometimes fail to realize competitive prices (including wages), but, as a champion of competition, he also rejected progressive theories of wage- and price-determination, which judged competition to be economically and morally destructive. In labor relations and anti-trust, Clark argued, the state should remedy departures from competitive pricing. Clark’s conception of the state’s role in the economy -- market failure remedy -- is not laissez-faire, for it justifies intervention, but neither is it progressive, for it regards competition as the end rather than as the cause of intervention.

        Abstract: David Card and Alan Krueger’s influential 1995 book, Myth and Measurement: The New Economics of the Minimum Wage, created controversy when it argued, among other claims, that moderate increases in legal minimum wages do not lead to adverse employment outcomes for low-wage workers. An examination of the history of minimum-wage economics suggets that today's controversy is a modern-dress version of two old (and related) methodological quarrels within economics: (1) can a general theory of markets be applied to wage and employment determination, that is, is it the case, as Adam Smith said, that the market for men is like the market for goods, and (2) what should be the role of empirical evidence in testing theories and their implications? The disemployment effects of minimum wages are recognizable at least as early as John Stuart Mill's (1848) text, and the question of how labor-market structure determines the employment effects of wage floors is present in the century-old debate between H.B. Lees Smith and Beatrice & Sidney Webb. The occasion for the mid-20th century methodological dispute known as "marginalist controversy" was Richard Lester's evidence that firms do not profit maximize and that labor markets are not competitive.

        Ethics and Economics

        Abstract: This essay takes issue with critics who claim that the size of a transactor’s choice set is sufficient to show coercion.  It argues, following Wertheimer (1987), that coercion cannot be read off the structural properties of (coercee) B’s choice set alone. Coercion, rather, concerns how B’s choice set comes to be delimited. Second, this essay argues that an overly expansive conception of coercion also works to elide an important distinction, that between coercive exchange, which unambiguously makes B worse off, and non-coercive but unfair exchange, which can make B better off.  The key question here: is it ethically worse for A to neglect B (not trade) or for A to exploit B in mutually beneficial fashion?  Lastly, mistaking unfairness for coercion also begs an important ethical question: on whom should the social burden of remedying unfair background conditions rightly fall?  If there is an argument that justifies making A, who wishes only to trade with B, bear the social burden of remedying the unfairness of B’s pre-trade situation, that argument must be made, not assumed. In the absence of A having market power, it is not clear why the social burden of redistribution should fall upon those who happen to trade with the poor.

          Abstract: Critics of commodification object to sales but not gifts of some goods, such as human blood or human organs, on grounds that such trade wrongly coerces, morally corrupts, and crowds out altruism. This essay takes issue with each of these claims. It disputes Michael Sandel’s claim that voluntary exchange coerces, arguing that he confuses what is unfair with what is unfree. It argues, where trade does create moral costs, that these costs should be weighed against the moral costs of trade bans, such as the loss of human life, and the harms endemic to illegal markets. The essay also quarrels with Richard Titmuss’s The Gift Relationship, arguing that compensation for blood need not crowd out blood donation, that compensation does not preclude a charitable impulse, and that some important gift relationships (e.g., philanthropy) possess elements of both altruism and exchange.

            Abstract: Professor New rightly distinguishes paternalistic policies from policies that remedy market failures, but then argues that paternalism is justified when the state is better placed to know what is in the paternalized person's best interest. We argue that this is a necessary but not sufficient condition for paternalism. In addition, the state should be better placed than alternative interveners. Sophisticated actors (Ulysses) may already have made provisions that enable self-restraint or provide expertise. And, naive actors, those who do not know they will need self-restraint or expertise, will be very difficult to distinguish from others who do not require paternalistic intervention, but whose behavior is identical. As such, the benefits of a paternalistic policy must be weighed against the costs imposed on non-targeted persons, costs imposed on targeted persons, and enforcement costs.

            Philosophy of Economics/Economic Methodology

            • Princeton Report on Knowledge (P-ROK) (2009) 3(2): Interdisciplinary forum on Magic

            • Leonard, Thomas C. (2008) Remarks in the plenary roundtable, “Why Do Historians of Economics Hate The Sociology of Scientific Knowledge?”, held at the History of Economics Society Meetings, York University, Toronto, on June 29, 2008.

            • Abstract: My remarks concern why it might be the case that some historians have been reluctant to embrace with open arms Sociology of Scientific Knowlegde approaches to the history of economics. Broadly speaking, I see four impediments. Call them (1) the what-is-it problem, (2) the bundling problem, (3) the problem of authority, and (4) the anti-realism problem.
            • Leonard, Thomas C. (2004) Making Betty Crocker Assume the Position. Review Essay of Philip Mirowski and Esther-Mirjam Sent (eds.) Science Bought and Sold: Essays in the Economics of ScienceJournal of the History of Economic Thought 26(1): 115-122 (March).

              Abstract: The economics of science treats the process by which scientific knowledge is created as a market process, that is, as one where scientists respond to incentives that promote (or hinder) the creation of scientific knowledge. Science retains its epistemological distinction, but economics depicts the process of producing scientific knowledge as no less partisan, grubby and shallow than the market processes that produce breakfast cereals or broadcast television. The sociology of science, especially Critical Science Studies, denies science its epistemological distinction by denying that empirical evidence plays any substantive role in science. Science-Studies epistemology -- the Position -- asserts that non-evidential considerations determine which among rival theories will prevail. In the history of economics, the radical skepticism of the Position arrived bundled with the wholesome injunction that historical writing in the history of economics should be thicker, richer . . . and creamier -- Betty Crocker historiography. But critical perspectives on the history and organization of science not only don’t require the Position—they cannot go forward when burdened with the Position.

              • Leonard, Thomas C. (2002) Reflection on Rules in Science: An Invisible-Hand PerspectiveJournal of Economic Methodology 9(2): 141-168 (July).

                Abstract: Can successful science accommodate a realistic view of scientific motivation? The Received View in philosophy of science has a theory of scientific success but no theory of scientific motivation. Critical Science Studies has a theory of scientific motivation but denies any prospect for (epistemologically meaningful) scientific success. Arguing from the premise that an adequate theory of science needs both a theory of scientific motivation, and a theory of scientific success, I make a case for seeing science as a kind of invisible-hand process. After distinguishing different and often confused conceptions of invisible-hand processes, I focus on scientific rules, treated as emergent responses to various coordination failures in the production and distribution of reliable knowledge. Scientific rules, and the means for their enforcement, constitute the invisible-hand mechanism, so that scientific rules (sometimes) induce interested scientific actors with worldly goals to make epistemically good choices.

              • Goldfarb, Robert S. and Thomas C. Leonard (2002) Economics at The Millennium. Social Science and Modern Society 40(1): 24-36

              • Goldfarb, Robert S., Thomas C. Leonard and Steven Suranovic (2001) Are Rival Theories of Smoking Underdetermined? Journal of Economic Methodology 8(2): 229 - 251.

              Abstract: Some empirically minded philosophers of science argue that the evidence should choose the best theory from among theoretical rivals. However, the evidence may not speak clearly, a problem of ‘underdetermination of theory by data’. We examine this problem in a concrete setting, rival theories of smoking behavior. We investigate whether several uncontested pieces of empirical evidence allow us to choose between two competing theoretical perspectives on smoking, rational choice and non-rational choice, respectively. Next, we develop a more refined taxonomy of smoking theories, and consider the consequences for theory testing. Finally, we examine some normative aspects of theory choice involving the appropriate scope of government action.

              Abstract:  An economic theory of science accommodates both a realistic conception of scientific motivation and the possibility of genuine scientific success. It offers an intellectual means to address a central question in the theory of science: how do self-interested scientists, who have wordly goals, come to produce the socially beneficial outcome of reliable scientific knowledge.

              • Klamer, Arjo and Thomas C. Leonard (1994) So What's an Economic Metaphor? In Philip Mirowski (ed.), Natural Images in Economics: Markets Read in Tooth and Claw.Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 20-51.

              Foundations of Rational Choice Theory & Addiction

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