The Closed Hand of Exclusion

EconTalk Extra
by Amy Willis
Thomas Leonard on Race, Eugeni... Bruce Bueno de Mesquita on the...

closed fist.jpg In this week's episode, EconTalk host Russ Roberts welcomed Princeton University's Thomas Leonard to talk about his book, Illiberal Reformers: Race, Eugenics, and American Economics in the Progressive Era. Its a tough conversation, exploring as it does the very unsavory roots of the progressive movement--and the discipline of economics--in the United States.

Now we'd like to hear from you. What struck you in this week's episode? Share your thoughts with us, and let's continue the conversation.

1. How did the progressive era change the nature and scope of the state, according to Leonard? What vestiges of this change persist today, and what makes them so persistent?

2. Roberts suggested that early economists such as Irving Fisher were seeking more than additional power for the state, but also additional power for themselves. To what extent do you agree with Roberts's claim, and is such a phenomenon among professional economists more or less egregious today? Listen to this EconTalk episode with Luigi Zingales for a variation on this theme.

3. What were the reasons behind the push for minimum wage legislation in the early progressive era, and how do they compare to the reasons offered today? Does minimum wage legislation really eliminate (or at least reduce) the possibility of "climbing the ladder" of economic success, as Roberts contends?

4. Leonard reminds us, importantly, to keep the historical context of the early progressives in mind. That is, we cannot rightly condemn them of employing "pseudo-science," as we might today. How then does this counsel humility for social scientists today? To what extent is such counsel heeded?

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COMMENTS (17 to date)
Mike Riddiford writes:

"How did the progressive era change the nature and scope of the state, according to Leonard? What vestiges of this change persist today, and what makes them so persistent?"

I think it is easy to over-attribute the role of ideology (e.g. progressivism) in the expansion of the State. I would imagine a lot of it came about because of happenstance i.e. WW1, although once it had occurred, it was seized on (an opportunism any political ideology is likely to exhibit). Does anyone have any figures on the expansion of the US Federal Government say, from 1904 to 1914 versus 1914 to 1924?

Stephen Patten writes:


I really enjoy your podcasts and I've learned so much since I started listening...(wait for it)...BUT. Though I found your discussion with Mr. Leonard very very interesting and I learned a great deal; I must disagree (in the strongest terms) of you and Mr. Leonard's assumption that there is a common racism shared by American citizens of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries and those of us that would have done anything to keep Hillary (another Marxist) out of the White House. The legal immigration that occurred in the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries and the ILLEGAL immigration that is currently taking place are like talking apples and oranges. Our current situation does not initiate feelings of "keeping America Pure" ... it's more of a case of keeping America ... America. I take offense at your accusation that 'we' feel immigrants of "certain kinds" are going to ruin our society'. That is not it, NOT AT ALL. It's the onslaught of ILLEGAL/UNCONTROLLED immigration (refugee settlement as well) that has struck fear in many of us. I don't see a parallel within you and Thomas Leanard's argument on this particular point. There is a legitimate fear today that our country is being colonized--without the labeling of racism.

Thanks for your time ... keep up the great work.


Russ Roberts writes:

Stephen Patten,

Of course there are many people who have legitimate concerns about the country and the level of immigration or illegal immigration who are not racists. I certainly didn't mean to imply otherwise.

At the same time, there are people who oppose immigration, for example, who are racists. These people were very open about their views in this recent election season. I heard and read things from friends and strangers that had a level of virulence and hatred I have not experienced in my lifetime.

Maybe they are a small (but vocal) group. Glad to know you are not one of them.

Amy Willis writes:


Have you read Robert Higgs's "Crisis and Leviathan?" He has some great data of the sort you mention. Thanks for your question, as it reminds me what a great companion Higgs would be to Leonard's book!

Mark Crankshaw writes:

Roberts suggested that early economists such as Irving Fisher were seeking more than additional power for the state, but also additional power for themselves. To what extent do you agree with Roberts's claim, and is such a phenomenon among professional economists more or less egregious today?

Very much agree, it is my contention the overwhelming majority of calls for additional power for the state are almost always calls for additional personal power (and increased pay) for the proponent for more state power. Rothbard, Higgs (see above) and Hayek have written extensively on the incestuous link between the growth of the State and the technocracy that defends, benefits from, and enables that growth. The entire 'General Theory' by Keynes is a vivid and rather explicit example of a direct call for the increased political power for a technocracy to enable a dramatic increase of State power and growth. In fact, it could be argued that without Keynesian debt-financing the tremendous growth of the State, the welfare/warfare economy, may not have even able to occur.

Mike Riddiford writes:


thanks for the recommendation. I did note Rothbard also endorses that work in the article Mark suggested. Two knowledgeable recommendations definitely pushes the book up the 'want to' reading list :)


PS Link to Rothbard's article is here

william abel writes:

Occasional listener like the podcast quite a bit. It would be an error to assume that the trump movement and the american right are propelled by racism. The KKK has under 25k members indeed even the more populist alt-right (which has far more diverse views among them) is under a million votes. Hardly a political powerhouse among the american voting base.

This article by scott alaxander goes over the topic and numeber ditribution quite well

Don Crawford writes:

The abiding fear for the past 100 years is that those who will accept low wages depress wages for existing workers. Back then it was Chinese and Negros. Now it is non-union teachers and illegal immigrants. Of course, if we would remove restrictions on immigration and allow people to come here and work who wanted to--the immigrants from Mexico and Central America wouldn't be illegal.

Free markets in labor and free markets in goods both have the same effect, increasing competition and driving down of wages for labor and prices for goods. How much is an empirical question, but downward pressure must exist. When added to the effect of technology that increases productivity, some jobs will either pay a lot less or be eliminated entirely.

As classical liberals we oppose the state interfering with the market place to protect business and jobs from competition. We know the value of creative destruction inherent in free markets to improve productivity and ultimately our standard of living.

The moral argument has to be made that having the state intervene to provide protection for some businesses or jobs is inherently unfair and leads to constant political strife, corruption and rent-seeking. The only fair way is not to provide protection for anyone or any business. Compassion through charity but not through the state.

If our educational system were freed from the government monopoly and governmental dictates, parents would come to choose high schools on the basis of whether they actually prepared their students for existing jobs and helped get them--or better yet helped them develop businesses during high school that would sustain them as entrepeneurs.

The only fair way to have wages rise is to free the engines of the economy such that the supply of jobs exceeds the supply of available workers. In a global economy that may take another hundred years.

zee zee writes:

[Comment removed for supplying false email address. Email the to request restoring your comment privileges. A valid email address is required to post comments on EconLog and EconTalk.--Econlib Ed.]

Tom writes:

Dr. Roberts,

Fascinating interview. Like Mr. Able, I too was surprised by the notion of race as influence on current politics. Is it not just as likely that that populist preferences are more about protection of culture and nothing to do with race at all? How are we to view the discussion if we were to replace "race suicide" with "culture suicide"?

If we enjoy reduce transactions costs from within a culture we all understand, is it wrong to want to protect those efficiencies from large scale forced influences we may not understand?

Russ Roberts writes:

My comment was misunderstood. I did not say nor did mean to imply that every conservative or Trump supporter is a racist.

What I did mean to say was that the recent election campaign brought out an incredibly ugly set of expressions of racism, xenophobia and antisemitism. They were mainly coming from the right and not the left. That was my point. Of course there is ugliness of all kinds across the political spectrum. But telling Jewish reporters who were seen as critical of Trump that they belong in crematoria or concentration camp clothing (or worse which is quite an achievement) is something I have not noticed in my lifetime. That ugliness is coming from the right and it was associated with people supporting Trump.

Again, there are many decent and good human beings who voted for Trump or who cared about the issues he raised for good reasons. But there are those who did not. That was all I was meant to point out.

The Scott Alexander piece referenced above was indeed, very thoughtful about Trump himself as well as the magnitude of the phenomenon. The size of the so-called alt-right should not be blown out of proportion. But I also don't think it should be dismissed as non-existent.

Amy Willis writes:

@Don Crawford, I want to give your comment re: our education system MANY "thumbs up's!"

jw writes:


Yes, there are some racists in America, of that there is no doubt. And some of them supported Trump even though he disavowed them.

We managed to get by with the past President worshiping for 15 years at the church of a racist, whom he also disavowed (but only after running for the office). The difference is that he was immediately absolved while the Trump meme persists (and by extension, for anyone who voted for him).

Scarlet writes:

"....recent election campaign brought out an incredibly ugly set of expressions of racism, xenophobia and antisemitism......"

all those happened mostly because quite a number of Americans are just fed up with all those terrorists attacks and with people from other countries or of other cultures saying they are mistreated when in fact they aren't...the point is today's politics is about the appeasement...everyone tries to be cautious so that they may not overstep some boundaries...but Trump isn't afraid to speak up, to 'trash' he doesn't like so he spoke up and the rest of the Americans did...well I'm not defending the man...still he may not be the worst thing that happened to fact it may be quite the opposite...

S Kleen

Peter Swinson writes:

I listened to this podcast a few weeks late. I suppose I'm one of the Trump supporters Russ referred to as a racist.

I don't think Russ' comments were misunderstood:
Russ Roberts: Yeah. The Race Suicide idea is really rampant among the American Right today--this idea that America needs to be white, or pure, or somehow our national destiny is going to be contaminated by immigrants of certain kinds because they are not capable of becoming part of a democracy, part of the workforce, whatever it is.

My political position regarding immigration and low wage competition may very well map onto a racial outlook precisely. But this is like your bootlegger/Baptist problem. You can call someone with valid economic interests a racist but it won't persuade many.

As an average Trump supporter I don't particularly care how the left wants to cast my position. Enough of the voters understood the shorthand language.

My position is more lifeboat ethics. There are more poor souls in the water than this lifeboat can handle. The populations of the third world will produce more offspring than I care to feed. I'd be happy to send pamphlets regarding birth control to anyone that would like that.

Regarding the Chinese coolie problem of the 19th century: To the settler with bellies to fill I can understand that he would want the coolies to make China prosper by staying in their land. America doesn't have magic dirt that causes prosperity. Assimilated Americans are the magic dirt.

It's like LePen's remark on homosexuals being like 'salt in the soup'. Too many and its undrinkable.

Jared Szymanski writes:

@Stephen Patten: I often hear the argument that "It's the onslaught of ILLEGAL/UNCONTROLLED immigration (refugee settlement as well) that has struck fear in many of us". But if we drill down, why does this uncontrolled immigration strike fear? My observation is that people fear it because they fear change and competition. Isn't this the same root cause of the racism of the past centuries? We don't have to call it racism if that makes you uncomfortable, but the desire to "control" immigration is essentially another form of rent seeking.

Ralph writes:

Jared: Yes, it is a form a rent seeking. A group of individuals seeks to preserve their hold on a set of advantages using government policy. But that group is a whole nation of diverse individuals called Americans. Most nations don't have our advantages, some would say we are unique. Many say that if Constitutional freedoms die in America, freedom throughout the world dies with it.
Unregulated immigration and illegal aliens (who are NOT immigrants-that's a legal distinction)are a problem because they do not share our CULTURE, not because they are a certain color. We are trying to preserve Constitutional liberties and an American set of common beliefs that have been handed down as a gift of Western civilization. Many races have benefited from that gift; there is no racial exclusion.

Avoiding the rest-seeking you speak of would require the abolition of all borders. It is not a perfect world, good things must be protected and preserved. The best scenario would be spreading the ideas that are our inheritance so the rest of the world could enjoy the same benefits - that's what we used to try to do.

The argument of many in the last few years is that we can't impose our beliefs (Constitutional government & equality under the law) on other nations, so the only alternative is to bring people to America. That's a dangerous fallacy. That is the suicidal process conservatives have been denouncing.

This is not an economic argument. People are not faceless interchangeable labor units. Immigrants are whole individuals with a belief system instilled in a foreign culture, many of which are incompatible with American Constitutional liberties.
If you want an economic explanation, think of culture as a brand. Brands are relatively inelastic. That inelasticity is the key. We are trying to preserve our American brand because we believe that it is superior to the competitor's version. That's what the Cold War was about, remember? We should be selling our brand's advantages to the rest of the world, not limiting it to an elite market within this country and trying to incorporate the competitors' ideas into our product.

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