Race, Eugenics, and the Dark Side of Capitalism
By Amy Willis
This week’s EconTalk may turn out to be one of our most widely listened-to episodes, and it’s easy to see why. While deeply disturbing, it’s nonetheless fascinating. Host Russ Roberts welcomes Princeton’s Thomas Leonard to talk about his book, Illiberal Reformers: Race, Eugenics & American Economics in the Progressive Era. You may also recall Arnold Kling’s review of Leonard’s book from this spring. Kling’s piece spent more time on the early days of the American Economic Association (AEA) and its influence on the profession. While Russ and Leonard spoke about this as well, particularly the notorious leadership of Richard Ely, there were plenty of other moments of interest. Woodrow Wilson, for example, comes under harsh criticism. Russ even takes a stab at defending the Progressives (sort of). He asks, quite rightly, why it’s necessarily a problem that today’s progressives have abhorrent ancestors. Leonard offers a lucid description of what parts of the progressives’ early legacy remains. The specter of the administrative and regulatory state looms large.
Coincidentally, on the same day this week’s episode was released, I came across this piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education, suggesting that the AEA should go back to its early, “radical,” roots. The authors laud the early AEA’s “rebellion against the economic orthodoxy of the Gilded Age,” and heap praise on Ely, its “crusading founder and guiding light.” As startling as this week’s episode was, I confess this piece startled me more.
That said, it’s important for advocates of individual liberty and free markets not to ignore the faults of capitalism, which most agree indeed exist. In his column this month, Pedro Schwartz argues exactly that. He offers an honest discussion of the role of slavery in the history of capitalism. Both the prohibition of slavery and capitalism itself, Schwartz argues, are tremendously dependent on “liberty-rights,” and cannot be judged on their material consequences alone.