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

Paperback | January 2017 | $19.95 | £14.95 | ISBN: 9780691175867
264 pp. | 6 1/8 x 9 1/4
Hardcover | 2016 | $35.00 | £24.95 | ISBN: 9780691169590
264 pp. | 6 x 9
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Praised by the New York Times Book Review as a “vital account of the perils of intellectual arrogance,” a troubling story of liberal economists, race, and eugenics

In Illiberal Reformers, Thomas Leonard reexamines the economic progressives whose ideas and reform agenda underwrote the Progressive Era dismantling of laissez-faire and the creation of the regulatory welfare state, which, they believed, would humanize and rationalize industrial capitalism. But not for all.

Academic social scientists such as Richard T. Ely, John R. Commons, and Edward A. Ross, together with their reform allies in social work, charity, journalism, and law, played a pivotal role in establishing minimum-wage and maximum-hours laws, workmen’s compensation, progressive income taxes, antitrust regulation, and other hallmarks of the regulatory welfare state. But even as they offered uplift to some, economic progressives advocated exclusion for others, and did both in the name of progress.

Leonard meticulously reconstructs the influence of Darwinism, racial science, and eugenics on scholars and activists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, revealing a reform community deeply ambivalent about America’s poor. Economic progressives championed labor legislation because it would lift up the deserving poor while excluding immigrants, African Americans, women, and "mental defectives," whom they vilified as low-wage threats to the American workingman and to Anglo-Saxon race integrity.

Economic progressives rejected property and contract rights as illegitimate barriers to needed reforms. But their disregard for civil liberties extended much further. Illiberal Reformers shows that the intellectual champions of the regulatory welfare state proposed using it not to help those they portrayed as hereditary inferiors, but to exclude them.

Thomas C. Leonard is research scholar in the Council of the Humanities at Princeton University, where he is also lecturer in the Department of Economics.


"Illiberal Reformers is the perfect title for this slim but vital account of the perils of intellectual arrogance in dealing with explosive social issues."--David Oshinksy, New York Times Book Review

"[A] deft analysis. . . . [I]nsightful."--Amity Shlaes, Wall Street Journal

"Particularly timely . . . a superlative narrative about a pivotal era of American history."--American Thinker

"Compelling."--Virginia Postrel, Bloomberg View

"Excellent."--Tyler Cowen, Marginal Revolution

"Explosively brilliant."--Jeffrey Tucker, Foundation for Economic Education

"[A] brief, well written book."--Herbert Hovenkamp, The New Rambler

"Superb."--Damon Root,

"Those puzzled by the ease with which contemporary progressive political movements have turned against liberal values such as free speech will find much material for reflection in Leonard’s lucid intellectual history of early twentieth-century progressivism. . . . Leonard’s commendable book illuminates one phase in the centuries-long American struggle between the quest for liberal values and the impulse to build a godly commonwealth on the back of a strong state."--Walter Russell Mead, Foreign Affairs

"Leonard combines rigorous research with lucid writing, presenting a work that is intellectually sound, relevant, and original."--Joseph Larsen,

"Elegant and persuasive."--Deirdre McCloskey, Reason

"Illiberal Reformers is a great achievement and an important contribution to the revisionist historical literature."--Steven Hayward, National Review

More reviews

Table of Contents:

Acknowledgments vii
Prologue ix
Part I The Progressive Ascendancy
1 Redeeming American Economic Life 3
2 Turning Illiberal 17
3 Becoming Experts 27
4 Efficiency in Business and Public Administration 55
Part II The Progressive Paradox
5 Valuing Labor: What Should Labor Get? 77
6 Darwinism in Economic Reform 89
7 Eugenics and Race in Economic Reform 109
8 Excluding the Unemployable 129
9 Excluding Immigrants and the Unproductive 141
10 Excluding Women 169
Epilogue 187
Notes 193
Index 233

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