Sunday, February 7, 2016

good people with bad ideas

It's discouraging to discover that people admirable for some reasons had a dark side. It's one thing to re-rank Woodrow Wilson lower on the scale of heroes because of his racism, but even more troubling to recognize how many bad ideas the supposedly great Progressives were.

Thomas Leonard, a historian of economics, teaches valuable lessons in his book, Illiberal Reformers. 
Early 20th century reformers, called Progressives, wanted to make government less corrupt, make government more democratic, and give government, especially the federal government, a larger role in the economy. I still believe that those are noble goals. Politics at the time was terribly corrupt in places and many were even denied the right to vote. Only the federal government had the power to stand up to the big Trusts that dominated the economy.

What Leonard makes embarrassingly clear, however, that the Progressives were elitists, not democrats, and that they had an unjustified faith in administration, provided it was done by one of their own. They accepted Darwinism but wanted to managed heredity and reduce the number of "unfit" people.

They thought they were scientists, but their science was clouded by moralism. [Leonard notes that 23 of the 55 founding members of the American Economic Association in 1885 were clergymen. Economics was based on the social gospel.]

The biggest sin of Progressives, in my view after reading Leonard, was their fondness for eugenics, the scientific racism that so many notables in the Progressive movement shared. Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt, Jane Addams, leading professors of what they called the social sciences, political liberals and conservatives -- large numbers embraced the teachings of eugenics.

So do we burn all their books and take their names off all the university buildings? No. But we can use this as a teaching moment, to remind ourselves and others that good people can have bad ideas. and that we all should be wary of the hubris of certitude.

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