Carlyle’s target was not Malthus, but economists such as John Stuart Mill, who argued that it was institutions, not race, that explained why some nations were rich and others poor. Carlyle attacked Mill, not for supporting Malthus’s predictions about the dire consequences of population growth, but for supporting the emancipation of slaves. It was this fact—that economics assumed that people were basically all the same, and thus all entitled to liberty—that led Carlyle to label economics ‘the dismal science.’

—David M. Levy and Sandra J. Peart1

If Thomas Carlyle was disappointed in John Stuart Mill and other British liberal economists of the mid-19th century for their failure to adhere to racist doctrine, then he might have been more pleased with the Progressive economists who were present at the creation of the American Economic Association. Thomas C. Leonard’s recent book, Illiberal Reformers: Race, Eugenics, and American Economics in the Progressive Era,2 shows how closely the American economists of the Progressive period were allied with the eugenics movement.

The American Economic Association [AEA] was formally established in 1885. According to Leonard, this was part of a relatively swift process that took place between 1880 and 1900, by which economists carved out a distinctive niche for themselves within the academy.

The AEA was organized not merely to arrange scholarly meetings and to promote the field. The AEA was formed to exclude other claimants to economic knowledge by making them outsiders and amateurs. (page 20)

Leonard writes,

The progressives’ break with their classically liberal roots was one of the most striking intellectual changes of the late nineteenth century, one with far-reaching consequences. Progressives embraced holism… a nation was an organism, something greater than the sum of the individuals it comprised (page 22)

The Progressive economists claimed the mantle of science, but this was not yet based on the mathematical formalism that economists use today. As Leonard puts it,

American economics became an expert policy discipline in the Progressive Era, long before it became a technical discipline. The mathematical and statistical techniques that are characteristic of modern American economics did not acquire meaningful currency until the Second World War. (page 105)

One of the goals of the AEA was to position its members as the “intelligent social engineers” (in the words of Edward A. Ross, cited by Leonard on page 34) who should direct this process of social control. Indeed, Leonard points out that by 1908 the entire economics faculty of the University of Wisconsin served on state government commissions (page 40).

Leonard writes,

The progressive economists… never entertained the notion that expertise could work through the people. They were frank elitists who applauded the Progressive Era drop in voter participation [partly caused by laws designed to limit the ability of African-Americans to vote] and openly advocated voter quality over voter quantity. Fewer voters among the lower classes was not a cost, it was a benefit of reform. (page 52)

Leonard points out that in the single decade from 1895-1904, 1800 major industrial firms were consolidated into just 170 large enterprises. (p.55) Progressive economists interpreted this as testament to the superiority of deliberate planning over decentralized market forces. From that perspective, it seemed natural to extend the efficiency of planned enterprise to the economy as a whole.

Enamored of Frederick Winslow Taylor’s Principles of Scientific Management, most progressives believed in the efficiency of large, planned enterprises. Leonard points out although Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis was an exception in his preference for small business over large firms, Brandeis was still a champion of Taylorism. Progressives established a number of bureaus and commissions chartered to train public officials in the principles of scientific management.

The goal of efficiency included the management of the nation’s natural and human resources. Gifford Pinchot, the Progressive chief of the U.S. Forest Service, presented President Theodore Roosevelt with three volumes produced by the National Conservation Commission. These included one written by economist Irving Fisher. Leonard writes,

… most important of all, Fisher concluded, was conservation of human heredity, by which he meant eugenic regulation to prevent the prolongation of weak lives and to conserve the racial stock. Fisher did not mince words. If it should prove true, he wrote, that ‘humanitarian impulses betray us into favoring the survival of the unfit and their perpetuation in the next generation, such shortsighted kindness must be checked.’ (page 68)

“Leonard’s thesis is that the issues of race and eugenics were prominent in the period between the appearance of Darwin’s Origin of the Species and the Nazi era. In reading his account, I was struck by several similarities with the current campaign to address climate change.”

Leonard’s thesis is that the issues of race and eugenics were prominent in the period between the appearance of Darwin’s Origin of the Species and the Nazi era. In reading his account, I was struck by several similarities with the current campaign to address climate change. First, there was the widespread belief among the eugenicists that their views were grounded in science. Second, there was a fear that the future of humanity depended on developing the will and the means to intervene to change course.

In 1907… President Roosevelt announced that race suicide was the greatest problem of civilization. (page 149)

Third, the “science” was preached to the public. Leonard writes,

Eugenic thinking reached deep into American popular culture, traveling through women’s magazines, the religious press, movies, and comic strips. The idea of safeguarding American hereditary, with its concomitant fear of degeneracy from within and inundation from abroad, influenced ordinary Americans far removed from the eugenics movement’s professionals and publicists.

… As historian Frank Dikotter observed, eugenic ideas were integral to ‘the political vocabulary of virtually every significant modernizing force between the two world wars.’ (pages 113-114)

The scientific efforts included the measurement of human heads. Leonard writes,

The anthropologists… measured thousands of human heads to calculate a cephalic index, the ratio of head width to head length. In this fashion, they believed they could scientifically demonstrate a permanent race hierarchy. The superior races had longer heads (and thus a lower cephalic index). (page 71)

For more on eugenics, see “The Secret History of the Dismal Science. Part VI. Eugenics and the Amoralization of Economics,” by David Levy and Sandra Peart. Library of Economics and Liberty, May 13, 2002.

Although the methodology later shifted away from the discredited cephalic index, the belief in an inherent racial hierarchy remained widespread. In 1922, Leonard writes, AEA found Richard Ely was an outspoken proponent of eugenics.

Economic progress, he said, unavoidably left behind large numbers of ‘absolutely unfit’ people incapable of meeting the demands of modern life. The absolutely unfit would plague society until society controlled their breeding. (page 74)

Leonard points out that the Progressive Era take on the science of evolution was not identical to that which prevails today. Progressives believed in the ability to inherit acquired traits.

Progressives believed that if one individual could improve his or her biological inheritance by exercising, eating healthy food, avoiding alcohol and social vices, then socially planned improvements could improve the biological inheritance of an entire generation and its descendants. (page 94)

Leonard points out that even prominent evolutionary scientists in the early 20th century denied the significance of natural selection as a driver of evolution. However, Progressives were alarmed at events, such as the First World War in Europe, which they saw as damaging the better races, and they could be pleased with events which they saw as damaging the inferior races. Richard Ely, writes Leonard,

… proposed that famine-relief efforts in India should be suspended. Why not, Ely ventured, ‘let the famine continue for the sake of race improvement?’ (page 135)

The Progressives saw competition as preventing humanity from selecting those most fit to carry on the race.

In Looking Backward (Edward Bellamy’s best-selling utopian novel, published in 1888), the woman of 2000 has been liberated by socialism. No longer obliged to find a husband with the means to support her, she selects her mate based on biological fitness. Reserving themselves only for the fittest men, women collectively serve as ‘judges of the race.’ Socialism enabled sexual selection, which, Bellamy wrote, selected for the better types, while letting ‘the inferior types drop out.’ (page 97)

Leonard points out that although racism and eugenics were part of orthodox thinking among economists, there were exceptions, notably John Bates Clark.

Clark made no attempt to judge markets by their putative consequences for human heredity. When he spoke of the salutary effects of survival of the fittest, he was referring to competition among business firms, not races. Clark argued for the racial equality of African Americans, insisting that black success depended not on heredity but on the opportunity to own land. (page 122)

Leonard also point out that racism was not the exclusive province of Progressives. He notes the Anglo-Saxonism of Senator Henry Cabot Lodge and other conservatives who,

… all embraced the notion that what was good in America was the product of its Anglo-Saxon heredity. Moreover, they all called on the state to protect the Anglo-Saxon nation from the inferior blood being injected into its veins every day of every year. (page 126)

Progressives feared the effects of foreign competition in the labor market.

‘Race suicide’ was a Progressive Era catchphrase, coined by the captious Edward A. Ross to describe the theory that races compete, and racial competition is subject to a kind of Gresham’s Law (that is, bad heredity drives out good). Workers of inferior races, because they are able to live on less than the American workingman, accept lower wages. American workers refuse to reduce their living standards to the immigrant’s low level, so, in the face of lower wages, opt to have fewer children. Thus did the inferior races outbreed their biological betters. (page133)

Progressive economists lent their prestige to the cause of immigration restriction.

In 1888, the AEA offered a prize for the best essay on the evils of unrestricted immigration. A few months after the Statue of Liberty was lit, progressive economist Edward Bemis devised the literacy test as a technique for identifying and ‘rigorously excluding the plainly unfit.’ (page 143)

Leonard points out that the fear that inferior races could live on less than Anglo-Saxon workers led most prominent Progressive economists to support the minimum wage. Leonard writes,

Eugenically minded progressive economists such as [Royal] Meeker preferred the minimum wage to wage subsidies not in spite of the unemployment the minimum wage caused but because of it. (page 163)

Reading Illiberal Reformers, one learns that the American Economic Association was never a bastion of support for free trade, limited government intervention, and the dignity of every individual. On the contrary, it was founded by men who were steeped in doctrines that elevated the collective over the individual, who were convinced that markets were inferior to expert planning, and who believed in racial hierarchy as a scientifically-grounded concept with profound social significance.


The Secret History of the Dismal Science. Part I. Economics, Religion and Race in the 19th Century (Available online at:

Thomas C. Leonard, Illiberal Reformers: Race, Eugenics and American Economics in the Progressive Era. Princeton University Press, 2016.


*Arnold Kling has a Ph.D. in economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is the author of five books, including Crisis of Abundance: Rethinking How We Pay for Health Care; Invisible Wealth: The Hidden Story of How Markets Work; and Unchecked and Unbalanced: How the Discrepancy Between Knowledge and Power Caused the Financial Crisis and Threatens Democracy. He contributed to EconLog from January 2003 through August 2012.

For more articles by Arnold Kling, see the Archive.