Illiberal Reformers is Heartening
By David Henderson
No, using “is” instead of “are” is not a typo. Illiberal Reformers is the title of an excellent book by Princeton University economics lecturer Thomas C. Leonard. The subtitle is “Race, Eugenics & American Economics in the Progressive Era.” Some students of mine from last quarter and I meet weekly to discuss interesting books and articles. On the agenda last week and this week are some chapters from Leonard’s book.
The students are leading the discussion and occasionally I’m adding some historical context, for example, explaining that Richard Ely, who is mentioned numerous times in the book as a major progressive who had eugenicist and racist views, was not some bit player but, rather, the founder of the American Economics Association, which is the largest economics association in the world. I point out that there is a prestigious lecture named after Ely at the AEA’s annual meetings. I also, at our recent meeting, speculated that fewer than 15 percent of the people who attend the meetings know anything about his views.
Yesterday, I ran into one of the students and we started discussing some of the chapters. We both agreed that at first we found the book profoundly upsetting. But now that we have some perspective, we can actually be heartened by where we are today. To realize that some of the most prestigious thinkers during the Progressive Era–President Woodrow Wilson, Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, and famous economist Irving Fisher, to name three–had racist or eugenicist views, that such views were mainstream, and that such views would be soundly rejected today by a huge percent of the population and a huge percent of intellectuals is grounds for optimism rather than the opposite.
I told him that it reminded me of a similar situation I experienced in the late summer of 1968. I was 17 at the time and becoming a libertarian, although I wasn’t sure of the word’s meaning. A friend and I were invited by some slightly older libertarians to meet with them on a Saturday evening. One of the main agenda items, it turned out, was for the two of them who had visited Milton and Rose Friedman at their summer home in Vermont to tell about that experience. The main thing I remember from their “trip report,” other than how gracious Milton and Rose were, was that the two young guys were playing “ain’t it awful” about the intellectual state of the world and that Milton had told them that the intellectual state of the world was so much better in 1968 than it had been 20 years earlier, just after World War II had ended. Socialists and Communists dominated the intellectual debate way more then, said Milton, than now (meaning 1968.)