In his superb new book Illiberal Reformers: Race, Eugenics, and American Economics in the Progressive Era, Thomas C. Leonard of Princeton University tells the story of the “progressive scholars and activists who led the Progressive Era crusade to dismantle laissez-faire, remaking American life with a newly created instrument of reform, the administrative state.” It’s a fascinating and frequently depressing story. As Leonard documents, while the progressives did introduce a number of helpful, legitimate reforms, they also threw their weigh behind some of the most destructive government policies of the era, from race-based restrictions on immigration (justified in the name of protecting U.S. workers from degrading competition) to the South’s racist Jim Crow regime (justified on the grounds that state officials should have broad leeway to control economic affairs). The progressives were “so convinced of the righteousness of their crusade to redeem America,” Leonard observes, “that they rarely considered the unintended consequences of ambitious but untried reforms.” I would also add that the progressives didn’t just bestow vast new authority on the government, they also undermined many traditional checks on government power, such as judicial review. It was a foolproof recipe for the state-sanctioned abuses that followed.
Perhaps the most glaring example of this phenomenon is eugenics, a notorious branch of pseudo-science that was championed by most leading progressive politicians and activists and ultimately given the stamp of legal approval by progressive judicial hero Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. Writing for the majority in the 1927 Supreme Court case of Buck v. Bell, Justice Holmes upheld the state of Virginia’s efforts to forcibly sterilize a young woman who had been raped and impregnated by the nephew of her foster mother and sent to a home for the “socially inadequate” by her foster parents. “We have seen more than once that the public welfare may call upon the best citizens for their lives,” Holmes wrote (likely alluding to his own military service in the Civil War). “It would be strange if it could not call upon those who already sap the strength of the State for these lesser sacrifices.” The forced sterilization of Carrie Buck went forward.