The subtitle of Thomas Leonard’s new and excellent book is the apt Race, Eugenics & American Economics in the Progressive Era.
I take it you all know by now this is quite an ugly story, namely that both early progressives and late 19th century American economists were often quite appalling racists and eugenicists, and that such racism was built into the professional structure of economics in a fairly fundamental way, including but not restricted to the American Economics Association.
Kevin Drum had an interesting point in response (and do read his full post, there is more to it than this quick excerpt):
Early 20th century progressives supported eugenics out of a belief that it would improve society. Contemporary liberals support abortion rights and right-to-die laws out of a belief in individual rights that flowered in the 60s.
Most of all Drum is saying that the earlier history is not very illustrative of anything for today.
I view it this way. Go back to Millian liberalism of the mid-19th century. Had American or for that matter British Progressivism been infused with more of this philosophy, the eugenics debacle never would have happened. For instance if you look at the British Parliamentary debates of 1912 over the Mental Deficiency Bill, the anti-eugenics forces drew heavily upon Mill for their inspiration. This was standard stuff, but the Progressives of the time didn’t see much of a pro-liberty reason for being pushed into a Millian position, quite the contrary.
The claim is not that current Progressives are evil or racist, but rather they still don’t have nearly enough Mill in their thought, and not nearly enough emphasis on individual liberty. Their continuing choice of label seems to indicate they are not much bothered by that, or maybe not even fully aware of that. They probably admire Mill’s more practical reform progressivism quite strongly, or would if they gave it more thought, but they don’t seem to relate to the broader philosophy of individual liberty as it surfaced in the philosophy of Mill and others. That’s a big, big drawback and the longer history of Progressivism and eugenics is perhaps the simplest and most vivid way to illuminate the point. This is one reason why the commitment of the current Left to free speech just isn’t very strong.
I don’t mean to pick on Kevin, who is one of my favorite bloggers, but I disagree (and find indicative) another one of his claims, namely:
…eugenics died an unmourned death nearly a century ago.
To give one (not the only) example to the contrary, Swedish “progressive” sterilization persisted through the 1970s, as was true for Canada as well. Eugenicist views toward autistic people, among others, remain common across the political spectrum (no special brickbat for Progressives here, but they are guilty too), and with CRISPR a lot of eugenicist debates are already making a comeback.
Do we really want to identify with a general philosophy which embraced eugenics for so many decades, when so many pro-liberty and also social democratic thinkers were in opposition? I think Mill himself would say no.