Economics & Finance

Illiberal Reformers: Race, Eugenics, and American Economics in the Progressive Era

The pivotal and troubling role of progressive-era economics in the shaping of modern American liberalism


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Jan 12, 2016
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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, 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. 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.

Awards and Recognition

  • Winner of the 2017 Joseph J. Spengler Best Book Prize, History of Economics Society
  • Finalist for the 2017 Hayek Prize, The Manhattan Institute
  • One of Bloomberg View’s Great History Books of 2016