Russ Roberts

Thomas Leonard on Race, Eugenics, and Illiberal Reformers

EconTalk Episode with Thomas Leonard
Hosted by Russ Roberts
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illiberal%20reformers.jpg Were the first professional economists racists? Thomas Leonard of Princeton University and author of Illiberal Reformers talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about his book--a portrait of the progressive movement and its early advocates at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. The economists of that time were eager to champion the power of the state and its ability to regulate capitalism successfully. Leonard exposes the racist origins of these ideas and the role eugenics played in the early days of professional economics. Woodrow Wilson takes a beating as well.

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0:33

Intro. [Recording date: November 3, 2016.]

Russ Roberts: Today we are talking about his recent book, Illiberal Reformers: Race, Eugenics, and American Economics in the Progressive Era. Tim, welcome to EconTalk.

Thomas Leonard: Thanks, Russ, it's great to be with you.

Russ Roberts: Your book is fascinating. A little bit alarming. Way too educational: I learned a little bit too much about the roots of economists' attitudes in the early part of the 20th century and the late part of the 19th. But let's start with the Progressive Era itself. How would you define the Progressive Movement and the Progressive Era?

Thomas Leonard: Well, one way to think about it, Russ, is a set, a rather motley set of political and social reform movements that are responding to profoundly changed conditions--economic conditions and social conditions--at the end of the 19th century. Particularly the 1890s. The 1890s were kind of--it's hard to recall in historical retrospect--but a profoundly depressing and difficult era. There was a Great Depression--the worst Depression in U.S. history, with the exception of The Great Depression in the 1930s. There was a double-dip depression, triggered, as is so often the case, by a financial crisis. There was, in addition, profoundly rapid, vertiginous[?], even economic growth going on at the same time. Sounds like a paradox. But despite the rather amazing ups and downs of the economy, over a generation or so--post Civil War--the U.S. economy is quintupling in size--1870--to turn of the century. And with that brought some amazing social changes: Lots of immigration; hopes to work in the factories and the shops and the mines. Urbanization. The rise of the American city. And along with all of that, the rise of the United States as single nation rather than a collection of states. And as, eventually, a global power. So it's a time of enormous change. And we can think about the Progressive Era as a collection of reform movements trying to cope, trying to address and remedy those many and profound changes at the end of the 19th century.

Russ Roberts: And part of it involved an increased role for the state--for the government--and a concept, which we still use today: The Administrative State. So, talk about the role that played, as well as the role of expertise--which is, to me an important piece of this story.

Thomas Leonard: Right. Well, everybody knows--at least everyone who has read their high school version of American history--that the Progressive Period--and here we can say roughly the first couple of decades of the 20th century--or if you want to be more precise maybe through the end of the First World War, 1918--it is a moment when the State--and particularly the Federal government, importantly the Federal government, not exclusively but for the first time, the Federal Government, takes a much larger role in economic life, especially. But it's not merely the case, as it's sometimes represented, that the Progressives "brought in the State." They certainly enlarged the State; and they, at all levels, particularly with respect to economic relations. But they also changed the nature of the State. So we sometimes read in popular accounts the idea of, you know, the State being big or small--having big government or limited government. But in fact what the Progressives advocated and ultimately succeeded in obtaining, through their activism and through their intellectual persuasion, was what they called the Administration or the Regulatory State. Which was a new beast in American economic and political life. The Administrative State surveils economic life. It investigates economic life, gathering data. It regulates economic life. And it performs all the functions, the Progressives argued, in a kind of scientific way. It's well to remember that a big part of the Progressive Movement was of course about political reform as well as about economic reform. American politics in the Gilded Age was notoriously venal and corrupt and dominated by parties. So, the Progressives not only wanted to expand government--they wanted to change government altogether. So, the Administrative State serves a very interesting and crucial role in the evolution of government economy relations.

6:24

Russ Roberts: And, that all sounds--I don't happen to agree with it, myself--but that all sounds well-intentioned, and what we would call, today, 'liberal.' Why do you call these reformers, 'illiberal'--meaning, not liberal? What was illiberal about their views and their agenda?

Thomas Leonard: Two ways to think about this, Russ. The first is, the term, 'liberal'--it's an old word in English but it's a relatively new word in the political lexicon. So, after the American Civil War, say in the 1870s, if you described a person as liberal, what that meant is the person would be committed to individual freedom and to those institutions that were thought necessary for maintaining individual rights against the State. So, for example, a relatively free-market economy; and laws that protect individual rights against the State. Today we use the term 'classical liberal' to describe that view because the Progressives gave the term, at least in the United States, an entirely different meaning. The Progressives viewed this 19th century classical liberalism as inefficient, as wasteful, as corrupt. And so they certainly were reformers. But they weren't liberals. And in fact what they were trying to do was to dismantle 19th century classical liberalism in the name of health, welfare, and mores. They basically saw individual liberties--which in the American context are sort of very expressly and famously enshrined in the Constitution and Bill of Rights--they thought of those liberties as basically archaic impediments to their reform project of making, you know, the United States healthier and improving welfare and morals, too. So that's the first sense in which they are illiberal--is that there's not a lot of respect for individual rights. Particularly, in the economic context. The second sense, the additional sense in which I'd say the Progressives were illiberal, is, where first--the original sense of the term, Russ. So, when we said someone was 'liberal,' before it became a political term, what we meant is that they were open-minded or tolerant, free from prejudice and bigotry. And as you know, it turns out that a very--a shockingly high percentage of the Progressives, including the progressive economists--were anything but liberal in that traditional sense. They were closed-minded. They were intolerant. And they were bigoted. In fact they--

Russ Roberts: They were racist in ways that even--I'm a fairly cynical person from time to time--and I was shocked by the attitudes of the economists of the day, by Woodrow Wilson--a famous Progressive; Eugene Debs, a famous Socialist. And I'm going to read some quotes later, because saying that they were racist or intolerant doesn't really do justice to their attitudes without quoting their own words, which I will do later. It's kind of shocking.

Thomas Leonard: It is shocking. And it shocked me when I first came across these passages piecemeal, working on a related but smaller project many years ago. I sort of was working many years ago on a history of minimum wages, and I saw these absolutely appalling, hateful discussions of workers from Asia or who were immigrants from southern and eastern Europe. African Americans, the disabled. And filed that away, thinking, 'Hmmm. There may be a story here.' And it turns out there is a story. Of the things that's most shocking is not just sort of the hateful views that they had of immigrants and what they called 'defectives,' and African Americans; but the scope of that sort of racism and bigotry. Almost no one, including even white Anglo-Saxon Protestant men, was immune from being characterized as hereditary inferiors.

11:15

Russ Roberts: And part of this is what is known as eugenics. So, talk about what eugenics are, how it got tangled up with Darwinism, and then filtered through those lenses got into public policy and among economists.

Thomas Leonard: Sure. Well, we have to be a little careful, as ever, Russ, because eugenics is and remains today a dirty word--precisely because of the horrors in Central Europe in the middle of the 20th century. But the Progressive Era is roughly a generation before and it had a very different meaning then than it does now. Eugenics, at the time, was the social control of human heredity. And many progressive economists and their reform allies saw eugenics as among the most fundamental of reforms that the state could carry out. In some sense, what's more important than what we would today call the human genome? So, in their view, eugenics, which comes in two flavors--negative eugenics, which is preventing children from the unfit; and positive eugenics, which is promoting more children from the fit--was at the core of any sensible social and economic policy. It's relation to Darwinism is very complicated, Russ, as you know. Each one requires a chapter in the book to sort some of these things out. A Darwinian is someone who looks at outcomes, and, in the jargon of social Darwinism says that those who survive are fittest in some sense. The eugenicist is making the opposite claim. The eugenicist is worried that those who are surviving who are outbreeding their hereditary betters need to be controlled. So, in some sense, though they both are species if you like of evolutionary thought applied to social and economic problems, eugenics starts with a very different premise--which is: The fittest are not surviving. Eugenics judges the races that are fitter ex ante, and that therefore the state must intervene to ensure that that is stopped--that the hereditary inferiors--immigrants, Catholics, and Jews from Southern and Eastern Europe, Asians, African-Americans, and the disabled--not be permitted to perpetuate their kind, or at least not be able to outbreed their biological betters.

14:02

Russ Roberts: Now, I want to talk about the concept of the state that got promoted at this time. And it's a little bit frightening to me, because it's the exact same discussion that we have today. It's come up many times on this program, and when I critique what turns out--I didn't realize this--to be the progressive attitude, people get very mad at me and write angry things. But I want to quote a little passage here. You say,

The progressives developed elaborate, often anthropomorphic depictions of society as an organism.... Henry Carter Adams said the social organism had a "conscious purpose." Political journalist Herbert Croly conceived of the American nation as "an enlarged individual." Ross described society as "a living thing, actuated, like all the higher creatures, by the instinct for self-preservation." The state, Richard T. Ely declared, was "a moral person."
These are all very well-respected economists, sociologists of the day. And they saw the state as a distinct thing from the people who made it up. Society, as a distinct thing. And of course government and politics were just the vehicle by which that entity acted, somehow in our interest. This--I call it a 'romance.' It's, I think, a dangerous romance. And many of my listeners--I apologize to you out there--I know you've liked that idea. What I'd like hear from you, Tim, is: Where did that idea come from? It was not in American discourse, I don't think, or other discourse, until then. It seems like it was created around then.

Thomas Leonard: Well, it's a really deep question, Russ, in intellectual history. And let me break it down as best I can in short scope in our conversation. Several things are going on at the same time. I will say that you are right to identify this as a very kind of crucial watershed in American intellectual thought. It's a striking intellectual change that happens beginning in the late 19th century, this rejection of the classically liberal tradition which makes the individual prior to the state--the individual, for example, the Social Contract tradition which says that individuals pre-exist the state and they create it for their purposes and presumably can disband it if it doesn't do what those individuals want. The progressives, of course, as you suggest rightly come at it from the other end of the telescope. They think of the state as prior to the individual. And they do use it, as you said in the quote, a very biological and sometimes anthropomorphic characterization of the state. Ely, for one--and by the way, those names may not be familiar to your economist or other listeners--these are the leading lights of American Social Science.

Russ Roberts: There's still a prize, I think, named after Ely--

Thomas Leonard: There is.

Russ Roberts: The American Economic Association.

Thomas Leonard: There are. And if you go to any university where progressives were part of the founding, like Wisconsin or Michigan or Columbia or Wharton, you'll find buildings and programs and prizes named after all these men. And they're not just leaders of the profession, the founders of American social science; they were also influential public intellectuals. Part of the progressive creed, of course, is not merely to hole up in the library and write treatises. They were all public intellectuals. They were all writing op-ed pieces for the newspapers and the religious periodicals. Ely was on the Chautauqua summer lecture circuit--they were public intellectuals as well as leading social scientists. So, back to this idea of the social organism. A bunch of things are going on at the same time. The first is that all of the progressives, all of the leading progressive economists and many of their activist confreres did their graduate work in Germany. In the late 1870s and early 1880s you really couldn't get a Ph.D. in the United States. You had to go to Germany. And they studied at the feet of their historicist German professors, who they greatly admired. And this idea of the state as an organic thing, as a whole distinct from its component parts, and indeed, you know, in some sense superior to its component parts, was partly the product of their graduate training in the kind of German historical school of view. And it also dovetails nicely with evolution as well. Right? If the nation is an organism, it's greater than the sum of the individuals that it comprises. A second influence, Russ, is Darwinism. Darwinism, with its kind of material explanation for evolution, for human evolution, seems to imply that the idea of having inalienable natural rights invested in you by a Creator--the language that you find in the Declaration of Independence--Darwin seems to suggest that's just kind of a nice fiction. A third influence on this crucial change in the way that Americans see the relationship between individuals and the state which we haven't touched on yet is that many of these progressives, and certainly the intellectual leaders among them, were Evangelicals. They grew up in Evangelical homes. They were the sons, and daughters, of ministers and missionaries. And they preached what was known at the time as a Social Gospel. This is a move of American Protestantism away from the idea that the individual must be saved to the idea of a more collective project of redeeming the entire country. Of redeeming America. Which the chapter title of one of my early chapters. And lastly, I would say, fourth, there is a kind of American native discourse of Pragmatism--capital-P Pragmatism--which we associate with John Dewey and others, Charles Pierce [pronounced 'perce'--Econlib Ed.]--which seems to suggest that, you know, just about any departure from previous absolutes is okay provided it proves useful for promoting good things--like welfare and health and higher wages and [?] and all the rest of it.

Russ Roberts: Well, I'm always excited when someone other than me mentions Charles Pierce on EconTalk. I think this is the first time.

Thomas Leonard: Excellent.

Russ Roberts: I've mentioned in the past, I think, that I had a philosophy professor, Richard Smyth, who was a Pierce specialist, and after I studied it at his feet at the U. of North Carolina was able to, years later, talk to him about the relationship between Pierce's and Hayek's ideas, where Hayek was very interested in the evolutionary, practical ideas that proved their worth should be respected even if you didn't understand why they made sense. There's a certain skepticism about the power of human reason in Pierce's work, and in Hayek's, that I'm very fond of.

22:30

Russ Roberts: But I want to quote another short passage related to this point about the organism. You write,

Progressive economists, notably Edwin R. A. Seligman, played a pivotal role in laying the intellectual foundations for the US income tax. Taxes, they said, were not payment for government services. Seligman argued that we pay taxes "simply because the state is a part of us." The taxpayer's duty to the state was no different than the duty to oneself and one's family. By implication, taxes should vary with ability to pay.
And I think that attitude, again, is still very common among many Americans today, and elsewhere around the world--that somehow, supporting the state is just like supporting yourself: this idea that we, through the state do things; there are things the state does that benefits us. And I find that difficult, because in fact, almost everything the state does benefits some of us and hurts some of us. And I feel that many people take advantage of that romance to push things for their own self-interest, claiming they are good for all of us when in fact they are good for them and not for the rest of us. So, I was just very struck by how common that attitude was then.

Thomas Leonard: Well, it's a great example, Russ, of the sort of organicist view of the state put into concrete economic action. When the Constitution was amended in 1913 to pass the income tax, economists were absolutely--today we'd call them 'public finance economists'--were at the forefront of that movement to move the United States government away from funding itself with tariff revenues and with taxes on tobacco and alcohol. And to, instead, tax income. It is a watershed moment, because if you are going to have an administrative state, it needs to be funded. And an income tax is a much better, much more reliable way of funding a large institution of the sort that the progressives imagined when they were drawing up the blueprints for the administrative state.

Russ Roberts: Well, I'm going to quote Irving Fisher, who I used to like until I read your book. I used to think Irving Fisher was just--I mean, he's a wonderful writer; he had a lot of good ideas about interest rates and their relationship to inflation which I found useful thinking about these things. He wrote--again, early part of the 20th century and famously lost money during the Great Depression, unprepared for that event; always entertaining for non-economists to point those things out. But, his social attitudes were rather unpleasant. Again, a quote from the book:

... social science experts gave elitism a new form and rationale in the Progressive Era, one expanded on by Irving Fisher. The United States had abandoned laissez-faire, Fisher said, out of recognition that "the world consisted of two classes--the educated and the ignorant--and it is essential for progress that the former should be allowed to dominate the latter."
And that--there are many other things Fisher said that were worse than that. But I wanted to use that example--I mean, it's a perfect example of the justification for why experts should be in charge to run other people's lives. And I want to ask you: that attitude of course remains today in many forms among economists and others in power. How much do you attribute simply to the economists' desire to have more power? So, there are many, many quotes in the book from economists justifying an expanded role for the state. But it's an expanded role for themselves. So, it's a kind of awkward form of public intellectualism. And it remains so to me to this day.

Thomas Leonard: I think that's well-put, Russ. Sometimes if you step back from the scholarly trees and look at the whole forest, one of the things that's most shocking, or at least striking a hundred years on, is that in proposing to fundamentally change the U.S. state and its politics and to fundamentally remake its economic life, the progressive economists--and their reform allies, in other institutions; it's not just a bunch of academics; it's also progressives who are working in settlement houses and who are investigatory journalists or who are working in other community groups, or in government--their best idea for spearheading all those reforms is, 'Well, why don't we install me and my friends?' To put it baldly. And, it is this--I don't think progressives today are quite as egregious, because, you know, experience has taught that this kind of heroic view of expertise, simultaneous heroic and self-serving, is sometimes misplaced. There is this very quintessentially American combination of naivete on the one hand--you know, Fisher was brilliant, but the economists really didn't know what they claimed to know in arguing that they should be running an administrative state.

Russ Roberts: Huh.

Thomas Leonard: And it was also incredibly arrogant, at the same time. Right? Naive and arrogant.

Russ Roberts: I don't think things have changed at all. I'm serious. I'm not trying to be cute here.

Thomas Leonard: Yup.

Russ Roberts: I think the general thrust of welfare economics--which means something very specific in economic theory; it's not the study of payments to poor people: it's the study of wellbeing, human wellbeing--I find depressingly narrow, for starters. Overly confident. And I think incredibly self-serving: to place us as the engineers of the betterment of those who don't understand the world as well as we do, is the claim. And I find it depressing.

Thomas Leonard: Well, there's essentially a moment, Russ, that happens at the end of the First World War. And it's a very awkward moment for the Progressives, and for the progressive economists in particular. And it's this: That the economics that they'd been preaching since their graduate school days, for a generation, was a German-style economics. One modified to American conditions, but German in spirit. And so, two[too?], was their model of the administrative state: how economic policy would be put into practice, and so, too, the idea of the expert economist as the keystone, the key figure in the administrative state. All of these ideas, they borrowed from Germany. And of course Germany became a dirty word in American discourse at all levels during WWI. Even beer was vilified for its German connections. So, having a German economics and a German view of expertise; and the Germans, Germany as the model for the world in designing a scientific, rational, expert administrative state was politically completely untenable. But what happened--and you can see this in Fisher's Presidential Address, just a month or so after hostilities have ended. His Presidential Address to the AEA (American Economic Association) meetings, 'Economists in the Service of the State,' he says 'Yes, well, we were wrong about Germany, but we're not wrong about the administrative state. We're not wrong about the necessity of having the experts in charge.' What did change, I think--one important change that takes place after the [?] period in the 1920s--economics becomes a little more technocratic: So we evolve towards the view where experts given a goal, a set of goals by some political process, and then decide the best route to get to that goal. Which is a bit different from the more heroic Progressive Era concept, which is experts not only tell you how to get from A to B, they tell you what your goals should be in the first place. Like preachers.

31:54

Russ Roberts: So, I can't help--this is not in your book, but I can't help but remark--and I am going to defend the Progressives now, which is not easy for me, but I'm going to make a go. So, there is this disillusionment or a little bit of soul-searching after WWI, because Germany was blamed, correctly or not, for the conflict. And of course Germany--it's always important to remember that Germany, this militaristic, authoritarian state, was the first state to have serious welfare, traditional welfare activity such as social security--

Thomas Leonard: That's right--

Russ Roberts: And other things. So, okay. So, they realized--oops, we've got to get rid of part--we have to concede that part of this was tainted. Then, of course, WWII and the Holocaust ends any use of eugenics and race-based thinking among liberals, for the next 75 years. And, can't one argue that, 'Okay, so progressivism has these hideous, racist'--and I'm going to give you some more quotes in a little bit; we're not exaggerating here--hideous racist origins. 'They had an intolerant and horrible set of attitudes toward women, certain nationalities, Jews, certain, again, races; and yet they also had their good stuff. So, okay, they had some bad ideas. They get rid of those and now they just have the good part.' What do you say to that? And more importantly, why should we care? I mean, this is a fascinating book, but, okay, so modern progressives have bad ancestors. Is that a big deal?

Thomas Leonard: I have to say, Russ, I'm always skeptical of the argument, 'This time it's different.' As you know from reading the book, one of the main arguments argued in support of minimum wages during the 'teens, a campaign led by progressive activists and progressive economists, was that if you fixed what we today call a binding minimum wage, you would disemploy idle, inferior workers. The idea was that productivity, we'd say today, was connected with some metric of biological inferiority. So if you set a minimum wage high enough you'd make sure that the Jews and Catholics and Orthodox Christians from Southern and Eastern Europe were kept out; that the Asians, who were vilified as coolies were kept out; and those parasites already in the labor force who couldn't be productive enough to justify a properly-set minimum would be idled and could be dealt with appropriately. So that's an example of the way that progressives harnessed eugenic thinking in defense of something as anodyne as a minimum wage. The idea it was not merely raising wages but it was also performing this incredibly important and valuable eugenic social service.

Russ Roberts: 'But now no one puts forward a minimum wage now as a racist. They are just trying to help poor people.'

Thomas Leonard: Well, that's certainly how the rhetoric goes. There's two parts to this. If we were giving the textbook version, Russ, we'd talk about the scientific or positive claims; and then the normative claims. What's interesting in retrospect is that the original progressives, unlike their namesakes today, saw potential job loss as a feature, not as a bug, right? Whereas today it's the other way around: Folks who are honest about, say, a $15 minimum will acknowledge that, at least at that level we start to lose jobs and/or hours. And the irony, of course, is we see this, if we see it correctly today, as a cost of minimum wage set too high rather than a benefit, which is how the original progressives saw it. And I must say: I'm very sympathetic to your position at least as you sketched it. It's entirely possible to be a proponent of the minimum wage in the 21st century without subscribing to the hateful views of your namesake's ancestors. That's quite right. But I think what we need to do, though, is to step back from the sensational aspects of eugenics and racism and look at the very idea of an administrative state and expertise in the first place. So, I quite agree that 21st century progressives, those who call themselves progressive in the American political context today, do not, and thank goodness, share the views of their intellectual namesakes. And that's all for the good. But I do think, though, that a couple of notions--and we're not talking here about racism or eugenics--have carried over from a century ago. And here's what they are. One we've touched on, and that's this idea that, I think if you really sat down over a glass of wine with a thoughtful progressive, you'd find that they still hold to progressivism's core faith, is that: If smart, well-intended people are put in charge, the best and the brightest, then progress--economic progress, social progress--will inevitably follow. I think that attitude is not nearly as arrogant or heroic necessarily, but that fundamental faith remains. And the second thing I think that remains connecting 21st century progressives to their namesakes of a century ago is this idea the free markets are intrinsically--intrinsically, not in practice but in their very design, their nature--unjust and wasteful. And that means that free markets require--goes the argument--the visible hand of a vigorous, activist state that's empowered to investigate and regulate.

Russ Roberts: Yeah, and I think you're right. And nowhere in the book do you claim that there's something wrong with being in favor of the minimum wage today because it has racist roots or whatever. That's not the theme of your book at all. And I think you're exactly right that what has remained which sounds benign, I find dangerous. Which is this idea that certain people know better about how to live or how other people should live. We certainly see that in the Behavioral Economics sphere to some extent, and we see it elsewhere.

39:19

Russ Roberts: I want to come back to the minimum wage. I'm going to talk about that in some length, and not just the minimum wage but the labor force and how policy should be toward it. But I don't want to miss a chance to discuss Woodrow Wilson for a minute. And then we'll use him as our segue to the minimum wage. Woodrow Wilson--I thought the U.S. intervention in WWI earlier on was a terrible mistake. And certainly the Versailles Treaty which Wilson championed and influenced, it appears, was also a terrible mistake. But my perception of Wilson was--he had been a professor at Princeton, and he was an idealist. That's my view of him, until I read your book--which is: 'The road to hell is paved with good intentions; he meant well; he tried to do well; and in entering WWI he tried to do well, and in emphasizing self-determination, and the Versailles Treaty's different components.' But I get a different perspective on him after reading your book. And here's a quote from the book: "Professor Woodrow Wilson"--this is before he was President; he was at Princeton, I assume--

Professor Woodrow Wilson told his Atlantic Monthly readers that the freed slaves and their descendants were unprepared for freedom. The freedmen were "unpracticed in liberty, unschooled in self control, never sobered by the discipline of self support, never established in any habit of prudence... insolent and aggressive, sick of work, [and] covetous of pleasure." Jim Crow was needed, Wilson said, because without it, black Americans "were a danger to themselves as well as to those whom they had once served." When President Wilson arrived in Washington, his administration resegregated the federal government, hounding from office large numbers of black federal employees.
It's fascinating to me that this aspect of Wilson, which is absolutely horrific, is not widely known. I don't think it is. America I wrong? And why isn't it widely known, if I'm right?

Thomas Leonard: Well, it's known among scholars, Russ, but I don't think it's widely known among the public. It is true. You may know that there was a controversy here--I'm sitting in Princeton University--there was a kerfuffle last year when some student activists occupied the President's office and made a set of demands for change. One of those was that Wilson's name be removed from the School of Public and International Affairs, which is where I'm sitting right now. And that his name also be removed from Wilson College, which is one of the residential colleges here, because he was a racist. And, Princeton is a university, so it responded by convening a committee of scholars, and it's elicited opinions from various scholars outside the university; and made a decision. And the upshot is nothing is happening, though they are going to, perhaps as a token, take down a mural of Woodrow Wilson in Wilson College. But the name will remain.

Russ Roberts: Maybe people think it's the sporting goods company. You know, if they take down the mural.

Thomas Leonard: Maybe so. He is, in fact, holding a baseball, throwing out the opening day pitch. So, I have to say, you know, part of me was proud of those students, in a sense that they had learned some of their history and they knew that Wilson's past, his record on racism as a defender of Jim Crow--and Jim Crow in this context means effectively annulling the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments . He advocated that. But I would want to--I would have gone further. And that's what this passage is so important about, Russ. It's not merely the fact that Wilson was a racist. Lots of people had race prejudice at that time. That was widespread. I think what we want to draw--it's helpful. History helps us to draw distinction between people who had arguably unpleasant views--and racism is certainly unpleasant--and those who acted upon those views in a way that harmed others. And third, those who acted upon those views using the coercive power of the state to harm others. Remember--you know, Wilson is elected in 1912. Okay? This is more--this is 50 years later after Appomattox. The Federal workforce is--the beating economic heart of the black bourgeoisie in Washington, D.C. It's a source of pride. It's a source of income. It's a source of social standing. It's the only place in America where a black man can give orders to a white man and have them carried out without any sort of retaliation or violence. And Wilson--who won the election mostly by accident, let's remember--he won the election because Teddy Roosevelt ran as a Progressive, capital "P"-Progressive, splitting the Republican vote--Wilson got majorities, popular majorities, only in the states of the Confederacy. And his henchmen, McAdoo and others proceeded to desegregate--or rather to resegregate--the federal workforce. It was a devastating blow. That's not just racism. That's racism acted upon. That's racism enacted using the coercive power of the state. Which is most sinister of all.

45:32

Russ Roberts: So, I'm going to read another long passage. I apologize to listeners who don't like to be read to. If all goes as planned, I interviewed Doug Lemov in last week's episode. So we talked about reading out loud to folks. So, I notice some people don't like it. But I want to read this passage because I think it is a great example of what we've been talking about. And I think some listeners might think I've been exaggerating about the attitudes of the day among economists and leading social scientists. And this will lead us into a conversation of what you call 'the menace of the unemployable'--this idea that immigrants and non-Anglo Saxon, non-white workers were bad for the country. And it has a lot of echoes of today's world where we're talking about how to deal with the fact that some workers may not be employable, may be put out of work by technology. So, this is, again, a very long excerpt; but I think it's important and I want to give people a flavor of the book; and then we'll talk about it.

Thomas Leonard: Let's hear it.

Russ Roberts: Yeah, I know as an author, when people say, 'Do you mind if I read you a passage from your book?' Music to my ears.

Thomas Leonard: Yeah.

Russ Roberts: Here we go:

The term "unemployable," popularized by Sydney and Beatrice Webb, was a misnomer, for many of the unemployable were in fact employed and others desperately wanted to be. The Webbs used the term to describe people incapable of work, as well as those who could work but who accepted wages below a standard reformers judged acceptable. The latter group posed the threat.

University of Chicago Sociologist Charles Henderson put it plainly: the unemployable were those who "bid low against competent and self-supporting men who were trying to maintain or raise their standard of living. And they can do this just because they are irresponsible and partly parasitic." By "parasite," Henderson meant that the unemployable worker earned less than was required to support him- or herself, creating a shortfall that had to be met by other members of the worker's household or by private or public charity.

Henderson borrowed "parasite" from Sydney and Beatrice Webb's Industrial Democracy, which was influential among American labor reformers. The Webbs affixed the term to sweatshop industries that paid wages below a living wage, and to the workers who accepted these wages....

... Since "parasites," by assumption, could not pay their own way, their economic competition served only to drag down the wages of their betters. Letting the unemployable work was thus socially destructive, so, went the argument, they should be removed from the workforce, kept at home, segregated in rural labor colonies, or placed in institutions.
And you go on to write, and I'm going to now indict, with your words, Woodrow Wilson again and Richard Ely, prominent economists of the day:
The low-standard or undercutting-of-wages part of the theory, got its start with the violent activism of white Americans against Chinese immigrant workers. The title of a pamphlet published by the American Federation of Labor trenchantly captured the heart of the claim: Meat versus Rice: American Manhood against Asiatic Coolieism, Which Shall Survive? If wages were determined by living standards rather than by productivity, then the meat-eating Anglo-Saxon could not compete with the Chinese worker accustomed to eating rice.

Professor Woodrow Wilson, in his popular History of the American People, preferred the same theory of low-standard races undercutting American wages, adding a fillip of racism to cement the notion that race explained the low standards. White laborers, unable to "live upon a handful of rice for a pittance," could not compete with the Chinese, "who with their yellow skin and strange debasing habits of life seemed to them hardly fellow men at all but evil spirits, rather."
And now I'm going to quote where you talk about Richard Ely, and this is so depressing:
The fullest unfolding of our national faculties, Ely asserted, required the "exclusion of discordant elements--like, for example, the Chinese." Ely assumed that a unified American nation required racial homogeneity. As for South Asians, Ely proposed that famine-relief efforts in India should be suspended. Why not, Ely ventured, "let the famine continue for the sake of race improvement?"
And the quote goes on to talk about anti-Semitism, from John Commons--is it John Commons, is that correct?

Thomas Leonard: John R. Commons.

Russ Roberts: Who was--who was John R. Commons?

Thomas Leonard: John R. Commons was the leading labor historian and economist of the day. There's a building named for him still at Wisconsin. He was a colleague of Richard T. Ely's and Edward A. Ross's, founders of Wisconsin Social Science and also key leaders in what's known as the Wisconsin idea--the sort of prototype of the administrative state, first built in Wisconsin.

50:40

Russ Roberts: So, this idea, that certain races, nationalities, etc., would drag down the wages of native-born Americans, is tragically still in our discourse today. But in its day, in the Progressive Era, this idea that somehow a Chinese worker, because of his desire for rice, would be willing to work for a lower wage than a meat-eating Anglo-Saxon--I can't tell you how disturbing that idea is to me. And again, I'm not naive--like you said, we understand that people of that era didn't have the same attitudes we have. But to use that as a justification for keeping them out of the workforce is so sad.

Thomas Leonard: Yeah. Viewed from today, it's pretty ugly stuff, Russ. Some of these passages that you've read aloud were hard for me to write. But for the most part, these quotes are, if you like, letting the men who said them hang themselves. It doesn't require any further sorts of indictment than to see what sorts of arguments that they made. One thing that--it turns that the Chinese play a really key role in the American anti-immigration movement. The Chinese were the first race--using the terminology of the day--to be legally excluded from the United States on racial grounds because they were Chinese. The Chinese Exclusion Act dates to 1882, and it follows a decade or more of [?] mob violence against Chinese immigrants and Chinese workers in California. And if you think about it, it's ugly of course, but it's also a little bit odd. Because the Chinese worker who they are vilifying as coolies--that's a very important and particular usage--the Chinese worker is basically being accused of being hard-working, of being law-abiding, of being frugal and resourceful. And these are quintessentially American virtues, aren't they? At least in the small-'r' republican tradition. So, if you are going to try to demonize someone as a threat, as a hereditary threat, as a political threat, and of course as an economic threat to Anglo-Saxon American workers, you have to come up with someone else. And so, what they came up with--the progressives, activists, the economists, and some of the labor unions--was that they had this sort of supernatural ability to subsist on nothing. And that was in fact linked to their race. Today we might give it a cultural explanation, but at the time it was deemed an innate quality. And furthermore, that living standard, this ability to live at subsistence, was not only determined by race but it also somehow led them to accept unusually substandard low wages. Of course, that doesn't follow at all if you think about it. Just because you live frugally doesn't mean that you are willing to accept low wages. If there's any competition in the market, you won't. It just means you are saving your money so that maybe you can bring some more of your family to safety, or maybe start a small business. So the actual economics of it are a little bit puzzling. And we could talk about that if you want, but I don't want to get too far in the weeds. This is the moment where Labor Economics, which it was not yet called--that's anachronistic--still hadn't fully adopted marginal productivity as a theory of how wages are determined. It's sort of a mishmash, say: there's still an idea that wages are partly determined by living standards and if you can say that living standard is a function of race or indeed of gender, then you are off to the races. And, just to finish the thought, Russ, this model of demonizing the Chinese as under-living--that was sort of the term of the art; that's what made them a threat--was later adapted and applied to immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe, and so-called defectives--people with physical and mental disabilities. And ultimately to women, too, using the same sort of argument.

Russ Roberts: Just the parallel where today people say that 'We need a minimum wage because people can't live on the wages they are earning'--I'm always--that phrase always strikes me as bizarre. I mean, everybody would like to earn more. And certainly many of us would like to see poorer people earn more. But the idea that they are not living somehow because they foolishly accepted these wages and we should effectively stop this legal transaction, make it illegal, by a minimum wage. And then, when you ask people, 'Well, what if there are people who are going to be put out of work?', first they argue, 'Well, they probably won't be. But if they are, that's why we need, say, universal basic income, or expanded welfare state.' And this steering of--there's no possibility of people climbing the ladder, no possibility of people getting work experience to improve themselves, no recognition of the importance of work for human wellbeing and a sense of pride and dignity--again, I feel like a lot of what we hear today in the debate is--it's the same argument, just not quite as racist.

Thomas Leonard: That's right. I think that's exactly right. And I should say that this notion that these various inferior peoples, races and genders and the disabled are wrongfully usurping the jobs that rightly belong to white, male Anglo-Saxon workers, has a second component, too. That's where the term 'Race Suicide' comes from. The fear--and this is where eugenics adds meat to the argument--it's not just, 'It's unfair economic competition.' The idea is that the American working man will not lower his standard to the coolie level, and will instead have fewer children. And because of that, the inferior, the hereditary inferiors, will outbreed their biological betters. That's what Race Suicide means. That's what Edward A. Ross named the process. And the idea--

Russ Roberts: He was a Sociologist, correct? Or was he an Economist?

Thomas Leonard: He was a Sociologist, and probably the most prominent intellectual among Sociologists of the day. If you'd asked an American, 'Name a Sociologist,' they probably would have named Ross, a pioneer in the field. And 'Race Suicide' is what President Theodore Roosevelt called the greatest problem of civilization. It's not just a bunch of academics discoursing on theories of wage determination. This was viewed by Roosevelt and many other progressives as a profoundly important economic problem. And, you know, I think, one of the things we might want to say, Russ, since I see we're running out of time, is that the original progressives--and this I hope will connect with your last point--were deeply ambivalent about the poor. It's really, I say in the book, the Great Contradiction at the heart of the Progressive Era reform movement. I think they felt genuine compassion for "the people," right? Which is to say those groups they judged worthy of American citizenship and employment. And they were offered the helping hand, the deserving poor, of state uplift. But simultaneously, they scorned millions of ordinary people who happened to be disabled or belonging to a "inferior race," or female. And they were offered the closed hand of exclusion. And I think that's what connects to today's discourse. There's still--you kind of can't believe it, but if you haven't been living under a rock for the past few months, there is still a view at large that certain classes--indeed, entire races--are not worthy of American citizenship, much less employment.

59:39

Russ Roberts: I'm glad you mentioned that, because I wanted to make it clear that although I've been critical of progressives' views towards, say, minimum wage or other issues, it's now the case that the Right in America has taken up a big chunk of the kind of argument progressives were making, and making the same kind of arguments--just not from the Left, from the Right--about the need to keep America pure. An implicit form of eugenic thinking without the worst pieces of it. But not really that much different in its intellectual roots.

Thomas Leonard: That's quite right. The kind of right-wing populism you are hearing from, the Trump campaign, is just eerily similar to the arguments that were sketched in my book of a period a hundred years ago. When I set out to write this book, it never occurred to me that these sort of ugly sentiments would again become an important part of our national political discourse. But here they are again.

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. And again, those attitudes are all over your book, which were common in the 1880s, 1890s, 1910, and about immigrants whether they were from Eastern Europe as Jews, the Chinese, Italians, Irish, or African-Americans. It's just very depressing.

Thomas Leonard: And I would also say, Russ, something we really want to avoid doing, in retrospect, looking backward a century, is: We want to make sure we don't make the tempting mistake of condemning all that's eugenics and race science as pseudoscience. That would be our view of it, today. But at the time, it was nothing of the sort. It was the best science of the day. And Progressivism is nothing if not scientific in the way it conceives of the relationship of the expert to the administrative state and the relationship of the administrative state to the economy. It's really hard to appreciate in retrospect. But these people were not cranks. They were not proto-fascists or any such thing. They were the leading lights, intellectually and politically of their time. And they thought they had it right. They thought that they were simply taking the best science of the day and applying to important economic and social problems. I think, if nothing else, it should counsel humility for economists and others who do policy today.

1:02:38

Russ Roberts: Let's close with going back to this Richard Ely quote--I always pronounced it e-lai, but it's evidently e-lee. Is that correct?

Thomas Leonard: Mmm-hmmm. Yeah, I think so.

Russ Roberts: That famine efforts in India should be suspended because "let the famine continue for the sake of race improvement". I've always been proud of the role economists played in the slavery argument, in England and in the United States. So, we go back to John Stuart Mill and Adam Smith and others. And we have a wonderful essay here at the Library of Economics and Liberty by David Levy and Sandra Peart on the origins of racism. And the slavery movement, the justifications for slavery ties in to a recent episode we had with Mike Munger on this issue.

Thomas Leonard: Fantastic work. Fantastic.

Russ Roberts: But in some ways--thanks. Not my work. But yeah. But in some ways it's sort of the predecessor of the Progressive philosophy, this idea that the betters need to take care of the inferiors. Or at least keep them away, if you can't help them. And I think about how Mill and Smith saw--had so much respect for the dignity of human beings, regardless of their race, regardless of their nationality: that Smith was disdainful of people who said that the Irish couldn't take care of themselves. Or that all kinds of people deserved respect as individuals. And we went, somehow from that attitude to the attitudes you talk about in the book--Richard Ely, who would say, it's better to let people in India die because they are racial inferiors. How did that come to pass? I know that's a--that's a tough question to end with, on one foot, so to speak. But you have any thoughts on that? It's very sad to me.

Thomas Leonard: Well, I think that--there obviously is a connection to the, you know, mid-19th century abolitionist movement, the anti-slavery movement. And I guess, one caution I would make is that, I'm happy to claim Smith and Mill as economists. But the idea of an economist as a vocation--as a job, as a profession, is something that really only emerges in the late 19th, early 20th century. So, people who wrote brilliantly about economic matters, like Smith and like Mill, I'm happy to claim them, but you know, Mill was a civil servant; and Smith was a professor of moral philosophy. And you know, Marx was an agitator and a journalist. And all the economists that we read in a History of Economic Thought course were not professionals until this moment. That's an important part, actually, in the United States, of what the Progressives did, is they professionalized economics. They made it academic and they made it expert. And, so, I wouldn't want to claim that there's some sort of, you know, incredible phase change that happens. I would make one important point, though, I think, in trying to respond to the question. And that's this, is that: One thing about eugenics, about using the state to improve human heredity, is: You can't do it without a regulatory state, really. In any meaningful way. That's not to say that today, in the era[aura?] of genetic testing and screening, there isn't a form of eugenics going on. There is. The difference, though, is: Who gets to decide who is fittest? Is it parents in consultation with their doctors? Or as it was a hundred years ago, is it the state as being directed by experts? So, at least in terms of the Progressive Era, there's no eugenics without the advent of the administrative state. Of course there's eugenic ideas. There's a few places--if you like, the Oneida Community, where it's being practiced. But you do need, if you are going to do a serious wholesale revision of human heredity in the name of improving it, you need a powerful state to carry that out. So, actual eugenic policy, as opposed to eugenic thought, had to await the arrival of an administrative state with the power to carry it out.

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COMMENTS (96 to date)
Greg G writes:

Thanks to both guest and host for a superb podcast. Every political movement tends to romanticize and sanitize its history and progressivism is certainly guilty of that.

It's worth remembering though that pervasive racism and a casual acceptance of Eugenics wasn't the thing that separated the American progressives of this era from conservatives. It was the thing that united them.

They fought bitterly over economic issues but racial prejudice and Eugenics, not so much. Carrie Buck lost the most famous Supreme Court Eugenics case 8-1. The tone of that decision indicated that almost everyone understood that common sense dictated the decision.

It was eventually understood that Social Darwinists had their Darwinism exactly backwards. Selection is reliable and relentless. If nature needs help, it is with variation. It is lack of genetic diversity that causes species to go extinct. Nature can't select for a needed trait that isn't there. There is no one genetic type that succeeds best in all possible environments. Genetically diverse populations are the most evolutionarily robust. Genetically similar populations are evolutionarily fragile.

It was only later that Eugenics went out of style. First, the Nazis showed the horrific lengths that such logic can be taken to. Next, it was discovered that Carrie Buck wasn't even feeble minded. This cast much needed doubt on the trustworthiness of bureaucrats to make such decisions.

And just in case anybody thinks that the cautionary tale here ends with warnings about too much government power, let's remember the biggest terrorist movement of the Progressive Era was anarchism.

Phil S writes:

A thought-provoking podcast.

Roberts and Leonard draw parallels between historical and contemporary positions on issues such as the minimum wage. Although my own sensibilities can probably be best described as "classical liberal", I am wary of using interpretations of the history of ideas to argue contemporary politics.

First, although there is no doubt that some of these progressive intellectuals were racist, they should be judged against the background of their time. The quotations mentioned are shocking to our modern ears, but it is easy to find equally shocking statements from across the political spectrum. Denouncing these people as particularly racist requires a more thorough examination of historical context than just a few quotations, if any denouncing is appropriate at all.

Second, I am skeptical of intellectual constructions that argue that some historical ideas necessarily lead to certain outcomes one disagrees with. For example, in most of Western Europe unlike in the United States, the conservative intellectual tradition is favorable to a strong state. Ideas that Americans would call communitarian are strongly intertwined with nationalism in Europe, putting the "national community" above the individual. Read conservative European philosophers of ideas or historians, and you will find accounts, just as persuasive as Leonard's, that "progressive" ideas are the necessary consequence of economic liberalism run amok, and that all the ills of the modern world go back to 19th century classical liberals substituting the markets and individual whims for political will.

Historical context is interesting and important to study, but I think in reality things are much muddled, people are willing to hold contradictory and to some extent incoherent views. Simply exhibiting some logical chain of argument leading from a historically significant thinker to some idea does not tell us much about either the value of the idea today, or how people today arrived at that idea and why they embraced it.

Madeleine writes:

THANK YOU so much for your distinction between Darwinism and Eugenics, Professor Leonard. They are indeed the opposite: Darwinism is "survival of the fittest", Eugenics is "picking winners and losers because so-and-so thinks they have a better idea of what is fittest."

Also, Professor Leonard is correct to point out that these men were going off of the top science of the day, not fringe cranks, and that this should make us all more cautious.

Unfortunately, I think there still is a lot of racist and sexist pseudoscience floating around. It might not be as obvious as stuff like eugenics, telegony, and phrenology, but like they say: hindsight is 20/20.

Nonlin_org writes:

I don't see any conflict between Darwinism and eugenics. Both assume the struggle between the weak and the strong with the strong eliminating the weak - it's pure Nazism and pure Stalinism. Here is your confused quote:

"A Darwinian is someone who looks at outcomes, and, in the jargon of social Darwinism says that those who survive are fittest in some sense. The eugenicist is making the opposite claim. The eugenicist is worried that those who are surviving who are outbreeding their hereditary betters need to be controlled".

Care to explain?

In fact, Darwinism never made any sense whatsoever. It’s time to retire:
a. "Natural" in natural selection - everything is natural
b. "Unguided" as in unguided natural selection – all known selection is guided and “unguided” is just unknowable
c. "Fit" as in survival of the fittest – we cannot measure “fit” except as “survival”
d. "Arising" as in Arising of Everything and Life vs. Entropy
e. Recognize that Selection and Survival are one and the same - the selected survive and the surviving have been selected
f. "Randomness" as in random mutations
g. “Natura non facit saltum” (gradualism) is contrary to Quantum Mechanics as well as contrary to sexual reproduction
h. "Benefit" and "optimization" – these are anthropic concepts that make no sense in a mechanistic universe.

Nonlin_org writes:

Somewhere towards the end you both agree that the current U.S. right is racist.

That was totally out of the blue and without any support. I cannot believe you're falling pray to the leftist propaganda machine. It seems the American people outfoxed you on this one.

Of course there will be individual racists on both sides but to generalize from there it's ludicrous.

The most egregious racism - if you ask me - it's happening in Detroit and Baltimore and Chicago where the likes of Clinton keep the people impoverished while milking them for votes once every two or four years.

Greg G writes:

Nonlin,

You say that you don't see the conflict between Darwinism and eugenics. And you have proven that you don't see it.

First of all, go ahead and dispense with the "natural" in natural selection. Darwinism certainly does not depend on distinguishing natural from unnatural. It works just as well if we regard everything as natural. You are right about that.

Variation and selection are the two key concepts in Darwinism. It doesn't even matter what causes the variation. As long as you have variation, the different varieties will survive in unequal numbers and that will drive evolution.

To say that mutations are "random" is just another way of saying we don't know much about what causes them. Some people like to think this makes room for God to direct the mutations. Others think this just substitutes two things we don't understand for one thing we don't understand. Either way, whatever causes variation will result in evolution.

Fitness is measured as successful reproduction, not mere survival. An organism with a long life but no descendants is an evolutionary dead end.

Selection is not random. What is selected for is reproductive success in the existing environment. The environment is specific, not random. This has a ratcheting effect of tailoring successive generations of organisms for specific environments.

Eugenics is in conflict with Darwinism because it assumes that, without human intervention, evolution is in danger of selecting for the organisms least adapted to the current environment. There is no such danger for Darwinists.

But the current environment may not be the future environment. That is why genetic diversity makes populations evolutionarily robust and genetic similarity makes populations evolutionarily fragile. Eugenicists were attempting to make populations more genetically similar.

Bob writes:

I support voluntary eugenics. That's part of why I'm not having kids. You're all welcome, BTW. :)

It's interesting to think about demographics and incentives. I suspect most people on this page are economically-minded or at least economically-interested. Would it be shocking if the average intelligence of people on welfare was lower than MIT graduates, for example? Probably not. In fact it wouldn't really be that shocking if we looked at aggregate measures of people on welfare vs. not and the welfare pool was at least slightly less well off on many measures, including average intelligence, compared to the not-on-welfare pool. I'm not making any moral judgement about this, just describing possible demographic realities about people on welfare vs. not.

If this is so, there's a certain sense in which welfare programs, especially involuntarily funded ones which permit long-term dependency, or function to subsidize bad choices (having kids you can't afford or lack the skill to raise well) might well be dysgenic. If true, wouldn't that mean various federal welfare programs are form of eugenics in reverse (i.e. dysgenics)?

One might also think about how family-planning education and services (birth control, abortion) might also have a dysgenic effect because family-planning is most prevalent among the better educated. It's common knowledge that number of children per family has an inverse relationship to education level.

If true, that would mean current-day progressives who favor government efforts on family-planning (ACA birth control policy, funding Planned Parenthood, etc) and also favor a larger welfare state, are still advocating a kind of eugenics (actually dysgenics). Though surely not on purpose -- just as a side effect of well-intentioned policies to help people in need.

What do you think? Are family-planning, welfare dependency, and subsidies for single mothers likely to have a dysgenic effect? Are current-day progressives still advocating eugenics (though on accident this time)?

Ian writes:

There's a sense in which every government action or inaction is de facto eugenics in that it will affect people's reproductive decisions at some level. Of course, having this as the stated intention is now taboo.

Adam writes:

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Maz writes:

It was eventually understood that Social Darwinists had their Darwinism exactly backwards. Selection is reliable and relentless. If nature needs help, it is with variation. It is lack of genetic diversity that causes species to go extinct. Nature can't select for a needed trait that isn't there. There is no one genetic type that succeeds best in all possible environments. Genetically diverse populations are the most evolutionarily robust. Genetically similar populations are evolutionarily fragile.

One of the great misconceptions is that eugenics was somehow refuted intellectually and scientifically. It wasn't. It went out of style simply because it became to be associated with Nazi atrocities. It wasn't refuted.

On the contrary, our current knowledge of behavior genetics indicates that genetics is even more ubiquitously important and the environment even less important than the eugenicists of a 100 years ago thought. Moreover, there's plenty of genetic variation to go around in any given population and there's certainly no risk of running out of genetic variation because of any feasible selection schemes.

With better and better genomic prediction equations becoming available and embryo selection and genetic engineering advancing, eugenics is bound to make a comeback in a big way. If parents rather than governments make the choices there'll be less risk for abuses, but, on the other hand, it will exacerbate inequality because the best eugenic methods will be available to those who can afford them.

Mauricio writes:

Greg had it right. The podcast was incredibly thought provoking but I fear that a lot of what was said can be taken out of context and was lacking a more balanced argument.

I wonder how many associations with racism you are able to find when you dig deep into the conservative wardrobe. Smith and Mill, who weren't racists and are now considered conservative economists can absolve any conservative from racism.

The point is not to defend or absolve one ideology or another, but my fear is that this type of explanation can be used to defend conservatism from a moral grounds perspective.

"Pervasive racism and a casual acceptance of Eugenics wasn't the thing that separated the American progressives of this era from conservatives. It was the thing that united them."

Mark Crankshaw writes:

@GregG

And just in case anybody thinks that the cautionary tale here ends with warnings about too much government power, let's remember the biggest terrorist movement of the Progressive Era was anarchism.

I've got to push back on this point. No, the biggest terrorist threat in the Progressive Era was socialism and communism. Marx called for his "inevitable" revolution in 1848, Bismarck created the Prussian Welfare State to stave off a socialism revolution shortly thereafter. Socialism and Communism threatened to destroy the existing order by violently seizing control of the State. Lenin carried this violent threat to fruition in 1917. Eventually this hyper-statist philosophical cancer spread around the globe, sentencing hundreds of millions to a brutal and violent end. "Too much government power" has led to endless war, famine, and economic depredation on a gargantuan scale since Marx first penned his vile screed.

In contrast, the "anarchist" movement remained in the fringes, a few politicians were killed, perhaps. However, the "anarchist" movement never claimed the head of a single state. Millions have never been sent to their graves due to "too little government power". A ruling elite has governed every country in the world, no matter of the right or left, for millennia.

It is my understanding that you believe that is so because society "wants" the government power exercised over them. Of course, I disagree, every instance of government power has been imposed on a subject class exclusively by force and ceaseless mental manipulation (propaganda and the indoctrination of "education"). Government power brings unearned riches and the ability to "make the rules" (in their favor, of course) to the ruling elite, be that the elite that surrounded Ceasar, Genghis Khan, or Barrack Obama. That's why they impose their rule, that's why there is the withering indoctrination, and why they get very violent to any that resist their rule.

In my eyes, your argument is the same as arguing that prisoners "need" and "want" a warden, prison guards, and thick prison walls for their "protection" and to provide "order" and "prosperity" for the inmates. I disagree. In my view, the State is nothing more than a mental prison into which we are born. We are told, from earliest childhood, that this is where we "belong" and ceaselessly told of the merits of prison life and all of the wonderful "services" and "protection" the prison staff "provides" for us. We are taught to fear "freedom", our own and especially that of their fellow "inmates".

Most of those born in this self-constructed mental prison are scarcely aware that any alternative can exist, and deeply fear that lack of 'order', 'leadership', and 'protection' provided by their mental prison were they ever to "be set free". They fear a world without prison walls, without the warden, and without well-armed guards. I don't approve of violent revolution of any kind. However, the "anarchists" at least could see a world exists outside of the mental prisons we have had built in our minds over the centuries.


Mark Crankshaw writes:

I fully agree with Professor Leonard's trenchant critique of the Progressive movement. I am a little surprised, however, that the unseemly philosophical and religious underpinnings should come as a surprise to anyone. Rothbard, von Mises, and Hayek have written extensively about these same loathsome attributes of progressives and socialist "intellectuals" and quite some time ago. Leonard has correctly pointed out that racism is, however, only one minor aspect in these elitist mindsets.

With all of the political philosophies I despise, of which "progressivism" is but one, I vehemently disagree with their characterization of the relationship between the individual and "the collective". In the progressive view, as Dr. Leonard has pointed out, the "collective" exists outside and above the individuals that comprise it. Individuals, in the left-wing view, exist merely to serve the interest of the collective. I disagree, "collectives" should exist, as a mere tool, to further the interests of the individuals that choose to create it as a concept. Should it fail to do so, it is the collective, as a concept, that needs to be remorselessly dispatched.

Left-wing intellectuals (be they economists, philosophers or politicians) simply substitute their own individual will for that of the collective. The final invariable philosophical result: the leftist "intellectual" insists that all individuals must obey and serve the leftist "intellectual". Hundreds of millions, perhaps billions if we count the needless wars, were murdered in this "service", especially those who resisted the "intellectuals". Self-serving doesn't fully capture the full flavor of this malady, narcissism is much closer.

Mark Crankshaw writes:

@Bob

Are current-day progressives still advocating eugenics (though on accident this time)?

Clearly yes. However, I am not at all convinced that it is accidental. While "racism" may be the currently PC "thought-crime" to be most vilified at this time, I believe that the dark under-currents that infuses modern "progressive" thought goes far beyond mere racism. I find the "progressive" movement repellent not only because of the "soft-racism" of low expectations they often exhibit, but more so by the elitist "class" mindset they exhibit as well.

I've long considered much of the Welfare State as an admission of failure in the modern semi-socialist state. The economic "dead-weight" of a bloated military, bloated and retrograde education system, and bloated regulatory bureaucracy, the "socialist" aspects of modern Western economies, precludes providing jobs and opportunities for a large portion of the population. The slow growth and lack of jobs and opportunity has been chronic in Western Europe since WW II. The US has long ago imported this disease (though our Welfare State is augmented by a swollen prison population). The Welfare State is the "cost" we pay to support all these anti-market endeavors-- it's a bug not a feature.

Most political attacks on political opponents conducted by "progressives" today are filled with innuendos about the mental or moral "deficiencies" of those political opponents (even if they studiously avoid terms like "redneck"). The Left portray themselves as the superior class. More "scientific", more "enlightened", more "rational", the very paragons of political virtue. The "progressives" ceaselessly esteem themselves as intellectuals (even Hollywood actresses with room-temperature IQs!) and moral crusaders. Anyone who speaks against their theories or question their morality are quickly labeled by many on the Left as irrational (hateful, racist), retrograde and/or monstrous (Nazi).

I disagree with "progressives" specifically because I disagree with many of the basic underlying philosophical and economic assumptions of "progressivism" or socialism and because I do not share many economic and political interests with many leftists. I do not despise the Left because they are irrational or monstrous (they are not). They act against my interest, and I will support acting against theirs if our interest conflict (which they often do). However, it appears to me, that the bulk of the Left will not concede that there can be serious problems found with their ideas, policies, morality and reasoning and so reflexively resort to name-calling and casting aspersions.

Nonlin_org writes:

@ Greg G

“Variation and selection are the two key concepts in Darwinism … As long as you have variation, the different varieties will survive in unequal numbers and that will drive evolution”
– so why insist on randomness? See, this is the problem with “evolution” – nothing about this concept is scientific. Or like Tom Wolfe puts it: the theory fails all five tests for scientific hypothesis: Observed? Replicated? Falsifiable? Predictive power? Illuminates other areas of science? “In the case of Evolution…well…no…no…no…no…and no”.

“Fitness is measured as successful reproduction, not mere survival”
– my comment was about survival of the species (whatever “species” means), not survival of the individual. The point is that you only measure survival and never fitness. Hence, there’s no such thing as fitness. Example: is the tall or the short guy fittest (for mankind)? And what about the other myriad differences between those two guys? You can never forecast fitness, hence there’s no such thing as fitness.

“Selection is not random”
– not only is selection non-random but it’s always done by intelligent beings (if you’re a lion, gazelle, a bug or bacteria) and it’s always purposeful. So “unguided”, “blind” selection makes no sense.

“Eugenics is in conflict with Darwinism because it assumes that, without human intervention, evolution is in danger of selecting for the organisms least adapted to the current environment … Eugenicists were attempting to make populations more genetically similar.”
– Danger to whom? Who cares about “danger to evolution”. No, this is a classic ‘us versus them’ story in which Eugenicists care about “us” (meaning them) not some nonsensical “danger to evolution”. Forget their declared goal of “improving the human population” – many people would say whatever to reach their actual goals. And why would you care about “robust evolution”? You’re not God, your lifetime is limited, and Earth will be just fine with or without you.

Madeleine writes:

@Nonlin_org

Eugenics is exactly to Darwinism what crony capitalism is to the free market: it involves a central power disrupting the formation of an emergent order to pick an outcome which is politically preferable. It is inherently corrupt because the central planners will quite literally have "skin in the game" (pun intended).

I think it should be of no surprise that central planners prefer Eugenics to natural selection. It's central planning, after all! The podcast explored that quite well.

As for why we should care? Well, corruption sucks, first of all. Secondly, nothing says "nanny state" more than interfering in that sort of ultra-intimate role. Thirdly, who does not recoil in horror at the Chinese forced abortions? The mass sterilization of Africans against their will? I am going to go against the prevailing moral relativism that seems to have infected my age group (I'm 25) and I will say that I believe in moral absolutes, a concrete right and a wrong. And there is very little that strikes me as more clearly wrong than eugenics programs. I believe I would say that even if I had never heard of the Nazis.

Seth writes:

@Nonlin_org

"I don't see any conflict between Darwinism and eugenics. Both assume the struggle between the weak and the strong with the strong eliminating the weak..."

That's not Darwinism.

'Survival of the fittest' is not the struggle between weak and strong, though it is often interpreted that way.

It's that things that are best adapted to the conditions present in an environment are more likely to reproduce and carry on.

Think less about lions eating gazelles (even though that has happened for a long time, gazelles are still around) and more buggy whip (which was a successful product for a good amount of time in modern history, but wasn't well adapted to maintain its sales levels when the conditions of the market for transportation shifted away from horse drawn buggies).

Eugenics is loosely based on the same misunderstanding of 'survival of the fittest'-Darwinism that you have.

Michael Byrnes writes:

Maz wrote:

One of the great misconceptions is that eugenics was somehow refuted intellectually and scientifically. It wasn't. It went out of style simply because it became to be associated with Nazi atrocities. It wasn't refuted.

On the contrary, our current knowledge of behavior genetics indicates that genetics is even more ubiquitously important and the environment even less important than the eugenicists of a 100 years ago thought. Moreover, there's plenty of genetic variation to go around in any given population and there's certainly no risk of running out of genetic variation because of any feasible selection schemes.

With better and better genomic prediction equations becoming available and embryo selection and genetic engineering advancing, eugenics is bound to make a comeback in a big way. If parents rather than governments make the choices there'll be less risk for abuses, but, on the other hand, it will exacerbate inequality because the best eugenic methods will be available to those who can afford them.

I think that one of the lessons we will learn when better and better genetic engineering technologies become available, is one economists could have told us a long time ago:

There's no such thing as a free lunch.
I'm surprised at how many people tend to view genetics as one of those.

[spelling of Maz's nick corrected--Econlib Ed.]

Bpb writes:

@Mark Crankshaw

I agree with you completely, the upper crust progressive elite is a supremacy class. Though from my experience it seems the bulk of progressives aren't that way. I think most people who grow up with easy lives have left-leaning impulses unless it's actively discouraged. Though as people age a lot of them grow conservative as youthful arrogance is replaced by a slightly more enlightened, older arrogance. :)

There is a confrontational attitude and strange aversion to knowledge that dominates our culture. We're so eager to be outraged or to feel superior that we make rash judgements and violate the Charity Principle. We accuse and insult rather than teach and learn from each other and consider new ideas. There's a pervasive overconfidence and lack of curiosity -- near epistemically-closed minds on many subjects, while at the same time priding ourselves on being open-minded and rational people. I know I'm guilty of it. Especially online, where hostility is almost the norm.

Greg G writes:

Maz,

You are certainly right to say that eugenics went out of style because of Nazi atrocities. But it was ALSO later shown to be based on a misunderstanding of Darwinism. The two are NOT mutually exclusive.

Nothing I wrote minimizes the importance of genetics which is indeed very important. And I agree that some form of eugenics is likely to make a comeback eventually. Everything comes back into style if you wait long enough.


Mark,

Yes, there are places in the world where left wing terror caused many more deaths than anarchism. The United States is not one of those places. This podcast and and my comment were about American politics and history.

What is it that makes you think I think of society as "wanting" things? I think of people as wanting things. And I think a lot more people want governments than want anarchy.

It doesn't seem that you had any trouble escaping the "mental prison" of the state. Others can escape just as easily. Most simply disagree with you. Thinking that people disagree with you only because they have been brainwashed is just a different type of mental prison.

Mike Riddiford writes:

Great broadcast - congrats to both of you. Particularly interesting (and alarming) was the resegregation of Federal Government employment undertaken by Wilson - not a widely known fact, I would suggest.

I was also particularly interested in Professor Leonard's comment on the link between evangelical religion and progressivist politics. I have heard a similar argument about Jews and progressive politics (specifically 'tikkum olam' and how that has been interpreted by some Jews) but had not heard the same argument about Protestantism. (I may well have been blind-sided by the contemporary political stance of many evangelicals today in the US). Is there any definitive treatment of this theme that anyone can recommend? ( I will get Prof. Leonard's book as well)

Another point is that eugenics is not mere history, and has been routinized in many ways (e.g. genetic screening for pregnant women and their babies, sometimes leading to abortions; birth incentives etc). (These are all policies on which reasonable people can disagree - my point is simply that these and other eugenics-related policies are widely practiced. To nitpick Prof. Leonard's closing point - I don't think a regulatory state is necessary for widespread eugenics measures, as 'consumer demand' may well drive many eugenics-related measures (assuming a persmissive regulatory environment)

Garnet writes:

This was one of my very favourite episodes, Russ, and I've been listening for years. I thank you and Prof. Leonard for the history lesson, no matter how glum.

However: I think the progressives' argument about immigrants' effect on wages wasn't addressed as fairly as it should have been. The argument was that the newly arrived Chinese eroded the earning power of working-class established Americans; the tone of your conversation suggests that you and Prof. Leonard feel that because racism inspired the argument, it need not be examined or tested.

I fear this is because people who believe in easy immigration (including me, some of the time) don't want to admit that open borders hurt a significant number of people inside their country. Free-market economists could honourably argue that "yes, some native-born Americans will be made poorer by mass immigration, but in general we'll be richer." But this argument was not quite made. Early in EconTalk's run, Russ, you were confident, as I recall, that people displaced by such changes would simply get different jobs and end up at least as well off; more recently, you are significantly more circumspect. But you were hardly alone in your initial confidence; so much of the economics profession got behind global free trade, sure it would do no lasting harm to much of anyone. The profession now has little to say to the Rust Belt beyond "oops."

America has absorbed wave after wave of immigrant labour and survived; examining exactly who has been gaining and losing as a result should not be taboo. And thoughtful people's horror of tribalism need not go so far as to drive them to prefer people from abroad over their neighbours.

Maz writes:

Greg,

the scientific mistakes of early 20th century eugenicists, such as their misunderstanding of the mechanisms behind certain genetic diseases, were those of genetics and Darwinism of that day in general, not specific to eugenicists. In fact, all the leading geneticists were also eugenicists in those days.

Eugenics, or selective breeding, is possible when the trait under consideration has additive genetic variance in the population. As it happens, just about all variable human traits have plenty of additive genetic variance. This means that eugenics is feasible. Like I said, the notion that eugenics is somehow conceptually flawed and wrongheaded is unfounded.

Maz writes:

Michael Byrnes,

what are the downsides to, say, greater intelligence and better health?

Michael Byrnes writes:

Maz asks:

what are the downsides to, say, greater intelligence and better health?

Wrong question. The more important question is:

What is the cost (in genetic terms, not financial ones) of such improvements? For all we know, the cost of greater intelligence may be worse health. Or embryonic lethality.

Human genetics is nothing if not complex. The norm in biology is for a single gene to be involved in a plethora of roles and for a single characteristic (such as intelligence) to involve many genes. ( Height, for example, is a far less complex trait than intelligence that turns out to involve at least 700 genes, virtually all of which play other roles, many of which remain uncharacterized.)

I think genetic engineering holds great promise for treating/curing deadly diseases (e.g., cystic fibrosis). But I'm highly skeptical about its potential to provide higher intelligence (for example) with no tradeoffs.

Maz writes:

Michael,

Actually, the evidence strongly indicates that greater intelligence is associated with better health, both physical and mental. The phenotypic correlates of greater intelligence are almost uniformly positive (myopia is the only exception that comes to mind), making intelligence an excellent target for selection. In fact, many of the positive correlates of intelligence are known to be genetic (pleiotropic) correlates.

Unlike what you claim, selecting for greater intelligence or health or whatever doesn't necessarily have negative tradeoffs. This is easy to understand when you consider the fact that there are people who are smart AND healthy AND good-looking while simultaneously there are people who are stupid AND sickly AND ugly.

William Foster writes:

Wasn't some (in fact much) of this covered in Jonah Goldberg's Liberal Fascism? Or is Goldberg too uncredentialed and provocative to rate a mention?

Anyway, Goldberg would be an interesting interview.

Mark Crankshaw writes:

@ GregG

Yes, there are places in the world where left wing terror caused many more deaths than anarchism. The United States is not one of those places. This podcast and and my comment were about American politics and history.

You may very well be right that this podcast was meant to be about "America", I myself didn't see it so constrained. Most of the ideas discussed in this podcast (Eugenics, Social Darwinism. Classical Liberalism) were developed in Western Europe, had a profound impact on the intellectual landscape there, and only later were imported into the States. The US, during the "progressive" era, was a relative intellectual backwater. For me, speaking only about America regarding important historical issues such as political philosophy is like talking only about Cleveland when discussing important historical trends about 'America'. Unnecessarily narrow. But you may be very well correct about the extreme narrowness of the scope of the podcast and the scope of your comment.

I have a political discussion group in which one of my protagonists is apt to make sweeping generalizations about the nature of government that, in my view, appeared to be absurd. Turns out, his unstated scope is only the United States and only right now. He has now, very grudgingly, been made aware that his 'sweeping' generalizations about government are actually extremely narrow and quite an inappropriate scope for discussing an institution that is global and many, many millennia old.

Thinking that people disagree with you only because they have been brainwashed is just a different type of mental prison.

Perhaps you are right (your assertion appears to me to be complete balderdash, but I won't rule your assertion out completely). Again, my viewpoint is that all 'culture' is transmitted through a method of brainwashing (a process of indoctrination). The concept of the 'State' is just one common cultural construct that has been successfully transmitted over time in human societies. There are many, many others: religion, social norms, the social hierarchy, even language, art and music. Perhaps I don't see the term 'brainwashing' quite as pejoratively as most--call it socialization, if you like. To me the term is merely 'descriptive'; it is what we, as a species, have done and continue to do to our young.

So, do I think that people 'disagree' with my desire for less government as a result of the socialization, the social conditioning, the 'brain-washing' of many people received as susceptible children? Yes I do, and quite emphatically so. The same goes for my desire for 'less religion' being opposed by those who were indoctrinated into their "faith' as a child.

As an aside, the choice needn't be binary: a massive intrusive regulatory state or complete 'anarchy'. There are many conceptions of the State in which the State has less impact on the day-to-day life of its citizens than the current Western 'democratic' conception. It is probably no coincidence that a feeling of political 'division' will grow as the 'winner-takes-all' stakes in the regulatory state grows.

I not only have endured this socialization process as a child, I now have school aged children and can see the same process at work quite transparently. I think this is well-intentioned by the overwhelming bulk of the people involved (though not all, for this mental 'foot-binding' is a very useful political tool for the ruling class-- even Karl Marx could see that).

Part of 'growing-up' in an intellectual sense is understanding that one has gone through this process of cultural transmission and indoctrination, understanding the tremendous impact this process has had on ones intellectual development, and then slowly unraveling the cultural wheat from the cultural chaff.

Do I think that this social conditioning has a limiting function on those it has effected? I most certainly do. The effects of social conditioning are typically a narrowing of the mind, not the expansion of intellectual frontiers. Part of the appeal of this process for the ruling elite is that it predisposes children to acceptance of the status-quo, to make them feel consigned or resigned to whatever cultural/political/social "reality" they have been born into.

While I have no doubt that there are many who "disagree" with me about the scope of government (and I do see these Lefty types as a product of social conditioning, indoctrination, and left-of-center 'brain-washing' at the hands of previous generations with a particular left-of-center political preference), there are a great deal more who are merely resigned to the present political status-quo. If less government were conducive the improved living conditions for them, then I think those passively resigned can be convinced that a less regulatory, more circumscribed form of government may "work".

There are, of course, a great deal of people who do agree with me, that is, that the current conception of the 'State' in the West is too unwieldy, too corrupt, too intrusive, too expensive, too friendly to the ruling class and the economically and politically entrenched and that the narrowing of the political sphere may, in fact, help rectify those defects, to promote more 'equality' of opportunity, and to raise living standards of the entire community.

The dominant political trend in the early 20th century was towards an all-encompassing conception of the State. Socialism, communism, state-ownership, the 'war-economy', and industrial central-planning were supposedly the new and shiny 'wave of the future'.

Today, those conceptions appear now battered, tired, and retrograde. They stand, to most, as mere pathetic 'never-weres' consigned to the intellectual trash-heap of History. Unimaginable prosperity has risen only where those centralizing impulses were successfully checked. In the 21st century, the remaining vestiges of those tired statist ideas still lumber on like a zombie, but perhaps they too can be sent to the intellectual trash-heap. I, for one, am hoping so. We'll see how this intellectual battle pans out in the coming decades...

Mark Crankshaw writes:

@ Mike Riddiford

Is there any definitive treatment of this theme that anyone can recommend? ( I will get Prof. Leonard's book as well)

While perhaps not definitive, this piece by Murray Rothbard entitled "World War I as Fulfullnebt: Power and the Intellectuals (which can be found here) goes into some depth into the background between the link between "Pietist" Evangelical Protestantism and the Progressive Movement. In addition, Mises.org has an audio series of lectures given by Rothbard in 1986 that detail many aspects of the "progressive" movement in the US. The series is entitled 'The American Economy and the End of Laissez-Faire: 1870 to World War II'. It's probably 20+ very fascinating hours of lectures that touches upon the link between peitists and progressives among many, many other things. You'll have to hunt around Mises.org to find the whole series, but I would highly recommend to anyone having a listen to Rothbard.

Seth writes:

@Maz

what are the downsides to, say, greater intelligence and better health?

One downside might be less genetic diversity, which lowers ability for the human race to adapt to changing conditions. For example, if everyone is more genetically similar, maybe nobody survives something as simple as a flu epidemic or superbug.

Ak Mike writes:

Mark Crankshaw - although I probably agree with you more than with Greg G in general, you were dead wrong yesterday in stating that anarchism did not claim any heads of state. I don't want to get into the semantics of who was a terrorist versus who was a revolutionary, but:

1894 - President of France assassinated by an anarchist

1897 - Spanish prime minister assassinated by an anarchist

1898 - Empress of Austria assassinated by an anarchist

1900 - King of Italy assassinated by an anarchist

1901 - President of the United States (McKinley) assassinated by an anarchist

1911 - Prime Minister of Russia assassinated by an anarchist

1921 - Prime Minister of Spain assassinated by anarchists

There were of course numerous other bombings, shootings, and stabbings by anarchists killing hundreds. Many of these occurred in the United States.

People in the United States in the early 20th century were not terrified of socialism. There was a well-established socialist party with a respected leader, Eugene Debs [jailed by Wilson], which received 6% of the popular vote in 1912. Socialism was not mainstream in the U.S., but it was the bomb-throwing anarchists that scared the daylights out of the general populace.

Mike Riddiford writes:

@Mark Crankshaw

Thank you for the link - great stuff. From the article"

"Evangelical pietism held that requisite to any man's salvation is that he do his best to see to it that everyone else is saved, and doing one's best inevitably meant that the State must become a crucial instrument in maximizing people's chances for salvation. In particular, the State plays a pivotal role in stamping out sin, and in "making America holy."

A couple of comments.

First, this idea is a long way from traditional Calvinism (with its doctrine of predestination) so it must be an interesting historical story about how it came to be widely accepted.

Second, although the definitions of sin have surely changed, the belief in social engineering - and presumably collective salvation of a kind - has certainly endured. In that sense, the pietism ROthbard is highlighting seems very familiar!

Greg G writes:

Mark,

When I made a sweeping comment about an entire era of American politics and history it never once occurred to me that that anyone might object that my claim suffered from "extreme narrowness." I guess we will just have to disagree about that.

I like your point about remembering that the choice between overbearing government control and anarchy is not binary. Can we look forward to you remembering that the next time someone wants more government action than you do on some issue? I often see in your comments issues posed as choices between what THE left wants and what Mark thinks is right. Everyone want just as much government action as they think is justified and not a bit more. You are not different in this way.

I also like your idea about using the less inflammatory word "socialization" rather than the more pejorative term "brainwashing." But I couldn't help noticing how quickly you reverted to the term "brainwashing" when talking about "the" left.

Whether you are talking about "the" left or "these Lefty types," or "left-of-center brainwashing" you never fail to talk about those to your left as interchangeable members of some collective stereotype.

For example, you said "It is my understanding that you believe that is so because society "wants" the government power exercised over them."

In fact, I have no such belief that "society" has any desires apart from the individuals within it. I never said that. I never thought that. But you saw me as an interchangeable part of some leftist collective that believes that. The individuals who you take to comprise "the" left actually hold a quite spectacular variety of different views.

You seeing them as individuals would be a great start to the project you propose of seeing people as individuals rather than representatives of a collective. I rarely see a comment from you where you are not telling us all about the beliefs and traits and motives shared by everyone on your political left (which just happens to be the overwhelming majority of people).

Greg G writes:

Maz,

Your definition of eugenics is so expansive as to apply to any successful selective breeding for a particular trait. That is a different definition than everyone else in this conversation is using.

We are referring to eugenics as a movement that believes that a correct understanding of Darwinian theory leads to an understanding that we can and should design humans to be more evolutionarily robust.

Darwin was interested in a species level understanding of evolution. That's why he titled his book "Origin of Species" not " Origin of Traits." Even if we do know exactly which traits make a person more evolutionarily fit for THIS environment (a dubious idea in my opinion) we surely can't know what mix of traits will make the species more robust in some unknown future environment.

The big brains necessary for more intelligence are very costly in terms of nutrition, resources and danger to mother and child in live births. There are obvious trade offs. An economics comment board is the last place you should want to find yourself arguing that there are no trade offs.

"Better" health for lots of old people might very well result in us devoting a lot of the resources to them that would otherwise be going to younger reproducing people. It's not obvious that that would be good for the future of the survival of the species.

And by the way, in an era of nuclear proliferation, mass extinction and environmental degradation, it's not entirely obvious that the growth of man's intelligence hasn't already exceeded its survival value for the species.

jw writes:

An excellent podcast. Thoughts:

- I am somewhat surprised at Russ not previously being aware of the racist history of progressive thought, although I am not at all surprised at the general public not understanding it and therefore the need for this book. The old meme says, “History is written only by the victors” should be replaced by “The only history is that taught by the teachers.” Like German and Japanese teaching of WWII history, which downplays or eliminates their horrors, if people are never taught unpleasant history, they will never learn it (and may be destined to repeat it). This goes double for Sanders’ young, college educated supporters.

- I find it amusing that those on the left have dropped the self-description of “liberals” and tried to redefine themselves now as “progressives” without understanding the history of the movement - or maybe they do?

Maybe they understand that Trump states are out-reproducing the Clinton states (like voting, by county this effect might be even greater) and are reacting to this potential loss of power by opening the borders to improve their political base. Natural selection is not working for them, so they need an alternative.

- The Progressive/Administrative/Hegelian State is at its peak, not its nadir. If it can be defined as elitist administrators dictating human behavior from on high, the hundreds of thousands of new regulations, with probably the majority coming in the last eight years, and each just one more limitation on liberty (and cost to prosperity), then they are flourishing. (It turns out that it has become almost impossible to define the scope of the state. If someone can point me to a link to a chart or table of cumulative federal regulations over the years, I would appreciate it.)

- I strongly disagree with the stated opinions that there is a burgeoning conservative racism around immigration. I discuss immigration with a lot of conservatives and not once have I heard the theory that immigration policies should be changed due to any racial factor. The concern about immigration is due to uncontrolled illegal immigration and the lack of assimilation. Conservatives generally favor legal immigration. Please don’t fall for the liberal trick of not distinguishing between the two.

- That being said, Trump has made a handful of stupid remarks over the years. None of them comes close to the reality of the origins of progressivism discussed here or the liberal plantation or soft bigotry of current progressives. They are not even close to moral equivalency.

- Bob, Your post reminded me of a topic left out of the discussion but may be in the book, the abject racism of Sanger and the birth of the Planned Parenthood movement. (BTW, thank you for having kids, they will be paying for my Social Security… )

- Bob, you also may want to check out Charles Murray's books. Although he was crucified by the left, his data stands. His later book goes into the family, education and religious factors as well, and even delves into modern self-selection of reproduction.

- A small factoid on eugenics: although there were great early successes, even with the tens of millions spent every year, the winning times in the Kentucky Derby haven’t improved in over 50 years. A more intense exercise in genetics would be hard to imagine.

- Greg G, Forced (sorry “enlightened”) progressive eugenics policies are no different than current forced progressive diversity policies. It displays exactly the same hubris. As in trade, the freedom to choose will eventually win out, it doesn’t need any government help. If a lack of whatever diversity that you want to define has a negative long term impact, the environmental or economic ecosystem will adjust.

Maz writes:

Greg,

All societal arrangements genetically select for something. For example, there is currently selection for lower intelligence and high time preference in many developed countries. This selection does not in any way prepare people for any unknown future environments; what is selected for is just something that the current environment favors. "Survival of the fittest" does not mean fittest in any absolute sense; it just means fit in a particular environment.

You seem to think that humans don't have any more capacity for anticipating which traits will lead to the flourishing of the species than, say, ants have, and that therefore we should not try to guide the evolution of our traits. I obviously disagree, and as it's going to happen anyway, the point is moot.

Greg G writes:

Maz,

>---"You seem to think that humans don't have any more capacity for anticipating which traits will lead to the flourishing of the species than, say, ants have..."

This is a perfect example to illustrate my point.

Ants have been around for over 100 million years. Homo sapiens have been around for considerably less than half a million years.

The next evolutionary biologist you can find who believes that ants will go extinct before humans will be the first. The ants are doing fine without the purported advantage of eugenics.

SaveyourSelf writes:

I enjoyed this podcast. Both Russ Roberts and Thomas Leonard clearly did a lot of homework prior to the interview. However, much of the interview focused on racism and elitism in academics, which are, in and of themselves, uninteresting from a systems perspective given that fear-of-others and, therefore, fear of competition is universal. Fears and emotions present in all people cannot explain differences between people. What is interesting is the mechanisms that allow for the systematic expression of those fears, since such expression will almost certainly take the form of coercion harmful to the whole society—even the people doing the coercing. To that end, this comment around 23:00 bears particular attention: "When the Constitution was amended in 1913 to pass the income tax, economists were absolutely--today we'd call them 'public finance economists'--were at the forefront of that movement to move the United States government away from funding itself with tariff revenues and with taxes on tobacco and alcohol."

Government is unequivocally an instrument of coercion. Providing greater funding to the Government is, by definition therefore, an expansion of coercion. Democracy does not prevent coercion. Democracy is simply the tool that determines who will have the privilege of guiding the coercive force and who will be its target.

Last week I wrote up a model to try to understand, explain, and predict why “progressive” ideas persist and how they function. The argument is too long to post as a comment so I must instead attach a link: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1J_1s5NBlPEFGTtoyfguY02ro-HZEtDc9V5v7y-QV300/edit?usp=sharing, A Model of Information in Society: Consensus vs Market; Collective vs Individual.

I think many of you will find the above model interesting and, I hope, helpful—in particular Greg G, since this new model advances meaningfully a discussion he and I had about an older model three years ago.

Maz writes:

Ants have been the same for millions of years. In a much shorter time, humans have evolved from cave dwelling brutes to astronauts. I don't see any point for mere ant-like survival for humans.

Mark Crankshaw writes:

@ Az Mike

I concur that what I wrote was factually incorrect-- very poor choice of words on my part. What I meant was that no anarchist movement ever toppled a regime and took over a government, forcing the populace to face "anarchism" as was the case with "socialism" and "communism". I am very well aware that quite a number of individual prominent politicians were killed and that hundreds were killed over the course of a few decades. My bad.

That said, the distinction between progressive era "anarchism" and radical elements on the political Left were somewhat vague. Was Mikhail Bakhunin an "anarchist" or a leftist revolutionary? Maybe one could say that he oscillated between the two sets of ideas and he was influential to both "anarchists" and leftist revolutionaries. Czar Alexander II was assassinated in 1881 by members of the 'Norodnaya Volya' or The People's Will, and this organization had significant anarchist as well as Leftist undertones.

While many people may have "feared" the violence associated with a few political assassinations, that fear pales into insignificance compared to the fear of wide scale, personal death to oneself and ones family, millions and hundreds of millions of deaths, widespread torture and labor camps, the complete annihilation of their entire economic apparatus and ones livelihood, and the confiscation of all ones' property that was rather routine with successful revolutionary leftist movements.

If the people of the United States weren't terrified with respect to socialism at the turn of the 20th century, with historical hindsight, they should have been.

Mark Crankshaw writes:

@ GregG

There is much of what you wrote that I agree with:

Everyone want just as much government action as they think is justified and not a bit more. You are not different in this way.

Agreed. That is the nature of political conflict, we all have political aspirations and the desire not to suffer from the political aspirations of others. However, some political aspirations are mutually exclusive. For instance, a violent leftist revolutionary politically aspires to completely destroy the current 'capitalist' system and alter all socially significant relationship. I wish to be left alone and not to be disturbed by their, what appears to me, lunatic ideology. We both can't politically "win". If those on the Left could propose "win-win" aspirations, I would have no trouble with them. In my view, what characterizes those on the Left, is that they are unwilling or unable to do so.

In fact, I have no such belief that "society" has any desires apart from the individuals within it. I never said that. I never thought that. But you saw me as an interchangeable part of some leftist collective that believes that. The individuals who you take to comprise "the" left actually hold a quite spectacular variety of different views.

Agreed. I readily agree that "society" has no ability to desire, only the individuals that form a mental construct called 'society' can 'desire'-- though many collectivists do think this way--and that's why we call them collectivists. I've never considered you, GregG, as part of a left or a member of a "collective". To paraphrase you, I never said you were part of the leftist collective, and I never thought that. I am well aware that leftists are individuals, not an interchangeable monolith, that hold a 'spectacular variety of different views'.

However, the fact remains that there are some level of philosophical, ideological, and ethical agreement at some level among those who are on the Left. Why, do you suppose, that millions of people around the world self-identify as being on "the Left"? Is that because the term has no absolutely no meaning to anyone but me?

Christianity is likewise filled with individuals that hold a 'spectacular variety of different views' on what it means to be a "Christian". Is there nothing, no set of beliefs, that binds them all together? If there is nothing, then the term has absolutely no meaning.

To me, this is rather beside the point. Christians, no matter their level of doctrinal heterogeneity, were they to impose by political force a theocratic form of government, no matter what form that might take, in my view, must be fiercely politically resisted and with full force. See the first point, to the extent that these Christians are political successful in imposing a theocracy of any kind, I must lose politically. Should I therefore be politically silent because they only want what they feel is in their political interest just like me? If they insist on using political force, can I not question their motives, challenge their beliefs, frankly accuse them of using political force and violence to benefit only themselves? If not, why not?

I resist the political Left, irrespective of their ideological heterogeneity, because, like a theocrat, they wish to impose their view, by force, politically. To those Leftist that are apolitical and want to practice voluntary socialism in their family, with their friends, then fine, they can do so in peace. However, once the political threshold has been crossed, I feel it is quite reasonable to politically resist whatever they wish to politically impose in whatever peaceful manner presents itself.

To me, it makes no difference whether these are individuals, with a 'spectacular variety of different views', what binds them all together is the willingness to impose their political will upon millions of others who vehemently and repeatedly state that they wish to resist that will. Again, for any Leftist that isn't willing to use the political process to do that, I have no problem with them. To the Leftist I do not like, that you have said that I constantly vilify and stereotype, I would gladly stop attacking their motives and ideas as soon as they stop using the political process to impose their political will upon millions of people who expressly do not concur with their political opinion.

I often see in your comments issues posed as choices between what THE left wants and what Mark thinks is right.

Agreed. Though I think the desire to be insulated from political force is not just something "Mark thinks is right". I think everyone opposes political force, on the Left and everyone else, that's something everyone wants. My problem with those on the Left (it needn't be THE Left) is that they tend to squeal like stuck-pigs when they are on the receiving end of political force, but they don't really mind dishing out tons of political force onto others. That's their very 'political signature'. Anyone on the Left who relinquishes using the political process to forcibly "change" society I'll applaud--I don't mean you when I say "those on the Left". Anyone on the Left, however, who wants to continue to do so (even if, in their "imagination", the change they want to impose is "for the better") is fair game for heated political resistance and a severe questioning of their beliefs, ideas, morality and motives. That's the nature of political conflict.

Greg G writes:

Maz,

I was not suggesting that humans should, or even could, share the same purposes for their survival that ants do.

I WAS pointing out that the study of Darwinian evolution is concerned with results, not intentions about what the "point" of survival is. And that the survival of the species just is the main result or "point" studied in Darwinian evolution. There are lots of other disciplines where figuring out the point of human life is more relevant.

Greg G writes:

SaveyourSelf,

I enjoyed reading your model and I'm flattered you devoted so much effort to answering a question I asked years ago.

I liked your Hayekian emphasis on the importance of the transmission of information. My own inclination is to prefer discussing these issues in the context of specific cases rather than general principles. Discussions of general principles typically can't shed adequate light on disagreements about things like which acts of coercion are "defensive," what would qualify as a a"pure market society," and which are the "cases that are clear cut."

In any event I am impressed with how hard you work to think clearly and argue fairly about these things. Thanks for the link.

Greg G writes:

Mark,

So then what coercive action do you think is legitimate for government to take? Providing through taxes for a common military defense in a nuclear age? Requiring participation in public water and sewer systems in large cities? Policing and a judicial system?

And whatever they are, what do you say to those who complain that requiring participation in these systems is too collectivist and coercive and makes you too much of a leftist?

Mark Crankshaw writes:

@ Saveyourself

Very thought provoking model, thanks for sharing.

You wrote in your summary: "Roughly speaking, the major difference between a market and a consensus society is that the former abhors coercion and the latter, at times, adores it."

Why do I single out those on the Left for particular scorn? Well, because what ideologically unites this group is its' oft-stated distrust and dislike of the market economy and its' strident desire to replace the market economy with a consensus society (a 'consensus' they favor and which I don't) and their tendency, at times, to adore coercion to enforce this 'consensus' on those of us who they feel need to be coerced into their faux 'consensus'.

Those on the Left who favor the market society and abhor coercion at all times I can tolerate, we can 'live at peace'. However, what makes the bulk of the Left the Left, by any coherent definition, is that it is the ideological Left that doesn't favor a market society and it is the ideological Left that is quite eager to use political coercion to change the polity towards a more 'consensus' societal framework (one that really isn't consensual, of course). From Marx, Lenin, Che Guevara, Stalin, Mao to all those Marxist college professors and their green-haired SJW campus acolytes, to 'mainstream' Democrats like Barrack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Warren. That is the political la raison d'être for all of lot.

The Left may not be the only guilty party in this respect, but I find their well-chronicled and relentless willingness to intimidate, demagogue, bully and impugn their political adversaries so particularly egregious and offensive that I can't resist poking them every chance I get. Further, no other political group has ever directed their 'dirty-tactics' towards me personally but the Left, so for me it is personal --and I don't mean you, GregG! because a) I don't see you as on the Left--although you like to defend those that are quite zealously for some reason--you don't seem near as zealous in the defense of libertarians or anyone else, at least as I see it, and b) your arguments are always cogent, reasonable and well-presented even if I may not occasionally agree with them.

GregG will no doubt respond that not everyone on the Left engages in such 'dirty-tactics', to which I'll respond by saying that my ire is solely directed to those individuals on the Left that do--and I've found that there are plenty of them in this world.

Mark Crankshaw writes:
So then what coercive action do you think is legitimate for government to take?

None. I think that government is not a 'legitimate' institution, in my most humble opinion. It is simply politicized coercion through the threat of violence. I am against all forms of political coercion. If these goals (protection, safety, policing, etc.) are desirable enough then a non-coercive approach to achieving those goals exists, and that approach is infinitely better than using coercion.

Easy? No. Possible? Yes. However, the system we have is not what we have because it is better than any other or because everything else has been carefully examined and found wanting. We have this system because it is so much easier (like a frustrated parent beating their children rather than reasoning with them) and because it's what those people, willing and able to harness political violence against their fellow man, want. Rape is so much easier than seduction especially when one has a gun and one is ostensibly 'the law'.

I understand that I may be in a small majority in that opinion, but the fact that 'most people' disagree with me is hardly disconcerting. Throughout the history of mankind, 'most people' were wrong about most things, most of the time. Even if everyone disagreed with me about the legitimacy of government, or of the existence of god, or about the meaning of life, I wouldn't budge one milometer. The legitimacy of government or the existence of god or the meaning of life is just an opinion. My opinion is as good as any other. Government is just an opinion at the point of a gun.

Government is the 'easy button' solution to 'getting things done'. However, I am convinced that human beings can survive and even flourish more than we do today without that particular political 'crutch'.

After all, government is merely an 'idea' in the heads of people. It is the actual individual people who must do the protecting, promote the safety, do the policing. Government is just some 'mental architecture' to get that done in a coercive way. Could these things be done without that coercive 'mental architecture', without hitting the magic 'easy button' of resorting to the threat of violence? Here we must disagree. However, consider this, what is more important, the actual people doing the actual stuff, of the 'mental architecture' they use to do it? Is this 'mental architecture' the only possible 'mental software' that can work? Me thinks not. Getting rid of the concept of government doesn't mean that people, time, or resources simply vanish along with it.

And whatever they are, what do you say to those who complain that requiring participation in these systems is too collectivist and coercive and makes you too much of a leftist?

N/A. Even if I did want to 'require participation' in a political system, which I don't, I would hope they would complain and use every peaceable means in their possession to resist such coercion.

Greg G writes:

>----"After all, government is merely an 'idea' in the heads of people."

Sorry Mark, it's time for a reality check. Governments are real and have very real effects. It is your version of anarchism that is merely the pie-in-the-sky fantasy that the world has never seen.

If you point out to a dedicated Marxist that history has disproved his ideas, he will cheerfully reply that Marxism was never tried. That thing with Lenin and Stalin and Mao didn't count as real Communism. They didn't do it right.

If you point out to an anarchist that there have been many times in history when people lived with very little government - and that these times were almost always violent, dangerous and routinely filed with coercion of various types - the anarchist will cheerfully assure you that the type of anarchism he has in mind has never been tried.

Well, why haven't things evolved towards anarchism if it has so many advantages? Anarchists are the first to tell us things are evolving towards more, not less government.

Why have all the most free and prosperous places in world history been places with relatively strong and competent central government? Why never those places with the least government?

And yes, I'm aware of the many cases where too much government power ended very badly. I agree we need to worry about too much government power. Why don't you agree we should worry that none might be too little?

I agree that minimizing coercion is a worthy goal. I think anarchy would substitute a lot of private violence and coercion for a little government violence and coercion. In anarchism everyone one is either a pacifist or a vigilante. And who can keep track of which vigilantes play by which rules?

Mark Crankshaw writes:

@ GregG

Sorry Mark, it's time for a reality check. Governments are real and have very real effects.

No, GregG, just as "society" can not act or think, only people can act or think, it is only people that produce the "very real effects". The idea of 'government' may animate and direct those people, but 'government', like 'society', is just an idea, a conception, that is, "mental architecture".

If you point out to a dedicated Marxist that history has disproved his ideas, he will cheerfully reply that Marxism was never tried.

No doubt, but this only illustrates why I usually disagree with "dedicated Marxists" on just about everything.

If you point out to an anarchist that there have been many times in history when people lived with very little government - and that these times were almost always violent, dangerous and routinely filled with coercion of various types

Actually, a wide sweep of human history might indicate that no matter the political setup inflicted on a populace in human history, whether little or lots of 'government', there were produced times that were "almost always violent, dangerous and routinely filled with coercion of various types". Only in very recent times did any governments bother to pretend that the State was anything but the personal coercive instrument of some chieftain, king, emperor, Sultan, Ceasar, or what not, to be exploited at their personal pleasure. Occasionally, they may have justified their plunder by stating that "God wants me to rob you and He instructed me to kill anyone who disobeyed His will", but usually the heads on pikes of any who dared say otherwise was all that really mattered.

Over 99% of governments that have ever existed on this planet were conceptualized exactly as Louis XVI conceived it in the 17th century: L'Etat, c'est moi. The pretense that the apparatus of the State was meant to serve the bulk of the populace is a very, very recent contrivance, a pretense adopted only here or there in a few parts of the World even to this very day.

The lot of the vast majority of people throughout history has been abysmally deplorable--famine, disease, violence were rife for most of the past 15,000 years (and probably much, much worse before that). While there may have been places with little to no government in various parts of the World at certain times, the gap in living standards between those societies and the
bulk of the population with more government was actually quite negligible.

Well, why haven't things evolved towards anarchism if it has so many advantages? Anarchists are the first to tell us things are evolving towards more, not less government.

Not this anarchist. I see history much differently. The world of 5,000 years ago, 500 years ago, or even 50 years was no libertarian paradise. The State, as alluded to above, throughout most of human history was absolute in its scope. The historical trend over the past 400 years (if we take the Glorious Revolution of 1648 as a turning point) has been towards diminishing the absolute authority of government, of checking the power of government, to broaden the number of people given political voice--precisely to constrain the ruling elites.

The sphere of government is narrowing-- religious toleration, freedom of speech, sexual freedom, freedom to write what I am writing right now-- all unimaginable til very recently. I see the "evolution towards anarchism" as an attempt to diminish the power of the State by diminishing the sphere of the State. The intellectual push-back against unwarranted State power, control, and authority is at its height, not its' nadir. The very questioning of political authority, question the very necessity of its' existence, has been steadily growing, from basically nil for millennia, to quite a sizable, though minority faction. This trend is running parallel with the questioning of religious authority, the questioning the existence of God, the necessity of a "god" or "Church". I see the trend for both going upwards, not downwards.

Even in the realm of Economic freedoms, that is, economic 'anarchism', the trend is away from economic State control, central planning, away from Marxist ideas and towards the repudiation of the welfare State, towards more economic freedom and a lesser role for the State. Everything the State does economically has being increasingly brought into question: the Welfare State, taxation, regulation, Keynesianism, mercantilism, you name it, there are more detractors, not less. The Left was winning 'the battle of ideas' as little as 40 years ago, not anymore. Like weeds in a garden, these horrible ideas keep sprouting back up constantly, but the intellectual anti-Statist 'garden' is a healthy as it has ever been.

Why have all the most free and prosperous places in world history been places with relatively strong and competent central government? Why never those places with the least government?

Now we are getting down to brass tacks. I think you are conflating two very different things: a healthy, "high-trust" and sound social community and "strong" government. Freedom and prosperity can indeed occur when the social norms of a community are healthy and where social trust and desire for social cooperation is at high levels. A 'strong' government can be tolerated best also by just such a community, the 'defects' that can be accompanied by 'strong' government are most mitigated and constrained in such communities. If we consider the social environment the 'soil' in which to grow the plant of the 'State', then the healthiest soils can nourish even the 'State'.

However, when the social 'soil' isn't healthy, the 'strong' government plant starts to exhibit all of its' undesirable traits. Corruption, incompetence, and dysfunction bloom. Detroit has had plenty of 'strong' government in recent decades, but owing to its poor social 'soil' prosperity has not followed, just the opposite, in fact.

By that same token, the places with the best social 'soil' would also be the best places to sustain increasing levels of 'anarchism', and I think that's where I think that the anarchist plant will first blossom. (My timeline isn't next March, Greg, I'm looking many decades, perhaps centuries down the road). The places you would consider 'those places with the least government', places like, let me guess, Somalia, have very bad social soil. They have poor enough social soil that all their governments have been completely dysfunctional, leading to bouts of civil war as various factions vie to become the next plunderer, all with disastrous economic and social results. 'Anarchism' in Somalia was not a coherent policy choice, but merely a result of dysfunctional government and a rather dysfunctional society.

Why don't you agree we should worry that none might be too little?

In a society with healthy social soil, and they do exist and there may be more of them in the future, I really don't think that's a real problem. If the social soil is poor, sure, anarchism isn't going to work. But neither does government there...

I think anarchy would substitute a lot of private violence and coercion for a little government violence and coercion.

I disagree. In places with healthy social soil, I think anarchy would substitute a little private violence and coercion for a lot more government violence and coercion. I guess I'm an optimist here and you are not: we have clawed back the State from unchecked absolute tyranny to, in places, a more restrained form of coercion. I say, let's keep on going...


Greg G writes:

Mark,

When people talk about "governments" or "families" or "companies" as having various intentions and taking various actions, that is almost always (regardless of political philosophy) simply a reference to the people that comprise those groups doing various things as representatives of those groups. It is almost never a kind of magical thinking that views those groups as some kind of formerly inanimate entity now come to life. To talk about it otherwise is to engage a straw man. If you look hard enough maybe you can find someone who thinks that way but I haven't met one yet and I am not at all young.

>----"The places you would consider 'those places with the least government', places like, let me guess, Somalia..."

Sorry, your guess is wrong. I was thinking of the area currently known as the United States of America but before Europeans arrived. Much further south in the western hemisphere the Incas and the Mayans had introduced big government.

But in the area now known as the USA there were lots of different native peoples and virtually no central government as we think of it today. These people were free to trade with each other and did trade with each other. But for some reason they were constantly fighting with each other, raiding and stealing from each other.

There were many of these groups and precisely none of them evolved towards growing anarchistic societies based on the benefits of free trade. They remained anarchistic societies with pervasive violence and coercion and little economic progress.

Now I think you are really onto something, and we share some common ground, when you point out that having a "high-trust community" is essential for the kind of increasing freedom and prosperity that we both agree is desirable. (I am struggling to suppress the urge to make a snarky comment about only people and not communities being capable of trust.)

You simply cannot get that kind of high trust when every man gets to decide what the law is for himself. THAT is the barrier that anarchy cannot possibly get across. THAT creates far too much uncertainty for high trust. You need a mandatory common legal and judicial system for that kind of trust.

How do you know what the other guy thinks a crime is in an anarchist society? How do you know what penalty he will decide to impose if he judges you guilty of some crime or contract violation? All disputes are more likely to lead to violence without a disinterested third party to judge them.

Despite many opportunities for it to be otherwise, history has never seen the evolution of capitalism and much freer markets without the co-evolution of larger and more competent central governments. I am well aware that you think this is because government is parasitic on capitalism and a bigger host can support a bigger parasite.

I maintain the relationship is symbiotic. Government certainly has the potential for extraordinary and nightmarish violence and coercion but so does the absence of government. Only government has the potential to establish the kind of rules and predictability that you need for a high trust society.

jw writes:

Greg G, Mark Crankshaw,

I just wanted to say how much I appreciate the above discussion. You have both laid out compelling arguments and made thoughtful rebuttals. I have always thought that "dash"-ed economic schools of thought were all just various theoretical dead ends branching off between the two destinations of Hayek's "Road". Mark has provided one of the best explanations and defenses of anarcho-capitalism that I have ever read.

However (and I can't believe that I am saying this), I find myself agreeing with our more liberal colleague.

I just don't see human nature changing enough, even in the long game, where providing for the common defense will not be a fundamental organizing principle of future governments. And once that is established, human weaknesses, including the lust for power and envy of others' riches, will inevitably lead to more shenanigans.

As far as I know, when it comes to the level of discourse in a comments section, Econtalk has no equal.

Mark Crankshaw writes:
Sorry, your guess is wrong. I was thinking of the area currently known as the United States of America but before Europeans arrived. Much further south in the western hemisphere the Incas and the Mayans had introduced big government.

That's fine, but again the contrast isn't all that clear to me. The Incas and Mayan societies "for some reason they were constantly fighting with each other, raiding and stealing from each other." Both eventually collapsed due to the overtly parasitic natures of their relatively "big governments"--the Mayan communities specifically collapsed well before the arrival of Europeans due to the pervasive violence and coercion and little economic progress they experienced as their governments grew (and the warfare that big government facilitates became more destructive).

You simply cannot get that kind of high trust when every man gets to decide what the law is for himself.

Agreed.

THAT is the barrier that anarchy cannot possibly get across. THAT creates far too much uncertainty for high trust. You need a mandatory common legal and judicial system for that kind of trust.

Disagreed. I would argue that to obtain a high trust society that it is neither necessary nor sufficient to impose 'government'. The argument against 'sufficient' is quite straight forward. The United States, for example, has a 'mandatory common legal and judicial system' and yet many parts of the country (Detroit, South Chicago, Baltimore, DC etc.) are extremely low trust with all of the maladies that accompany that low trust typology (high crime, economic stagnation, familial dysfunction, bad schools, worse local government). There are many countries that have a 'mandatory common legal and judicial system' yet are extremely low trust. The case that government is sufficient to produce 'high trust' is obviously incorrect.

Is government even necessary? It could be argued that the correlation between a high trust and 'a common legal and judicial system' isn't causative in any way. The lack of sufficiency certainly points in that direction. Why do some parts of the USA, sharing a "mandatory common legal and judicial system' with all the other parts, exhibit high trust and low levels of social pathology, while others, under the very same legal regime, exhibit very low trust and high levels of social pathology?

Could it be that there is a confounding factor at play? I believe that there is. Why are some populations high trust, low social pathology and others low trust, high social pathology? One confounding factor could be differences in the quality of parenting between the two groups. You say "Only government has the potential to establish the kind of rules and predictability that you need for a high trust society". Again, is there a confounding factor? Clearly government is not sufficient 'to establish rules and predictability' as many government have failed to do so. Is it even necessary?

Perhaps, if the elemental grouping within a polity (the family) is high trust and low pathology, then the polity will tend to be high trust and low pathology, and will be the very communities that 'succeed' under any common legal regime, whether enforced through government or not. Conversely, if the elemental group (the family) is low trust and high pathology, then the polity will tend to be low trust and high pathology, and will be the very communities that chronically 'fail' under any common legal regime. Could it be that the elemental unit (the family) is paramount in inculcating children into following rules, providing predictability, preference to cooperation and following social norms?

And could it be that if the parental regime is heavily authoritarian, a 'might-makes-right' approach, where 'rules' are haphazardly followed, where predictability is lacking, where no preference for cooperation is exhibited, where social norms are not followed, that no amount of 'government' can fix that? Our bulging prison complexes might suggest that is so. Government is like putting a band-aid on a cancer patient in that case.

On this, the link between the role of family and methods of child-rearing to social outcomes, I must admit the parts of the Left, to their credit, have done some very good research. This research seems to indicate, and I fully agree, that there is a strong causal link between how children are raised and the type of society (and therefore government or need for 'external enforcement') that eventually those children will adopt when they reach adulthood.

Here's another reason why I am optimistic about the future. As a species, we have made major improvements in recent years, at least in the West, in our approach to parenting. I espouse no romantic notions about the 'parenting' of the past-- the tragic reality was that for the overwhelming number of children that have lived on this planet over the course of history, the level of parenting has been abysmally low. Children were routinely treated as chattel whose labor was to be exploited, sex toys to be bought and sold, or cannon fodder to be recklessly expended.

Only recently in human history has any culture made any attempt to treat children as equals, with a life, mind and goals of their own, with all the respect and dignity we should afford to these future adults. I am quite sure that the correlation between the prevalence between a more humane parental style versus an authoritarian, abusive and dysfunctional parental style and high trust, low pathology and low trust, high pathology outcome is orders of magnitude higher than the presence of a 'mandatory common legal and judicial system'.

Here's why the dedicated Marxists you referred to in your previous post were incorrect. Marxism has been tried, and the results were quite predictable. What Marx essentially proposed was akin to a extremely severe and disciplinarian parental style: use violence, terror, ruthless control and mass executions to cow humanity into unthinking obedience to the ruling elite. That's how you form 'the new socialist man'. Marx's 'happily ever after' end game never materialized because this 'might-makes-right' philosophy has a flaw: might-makes-right doesn't teach one to be a better person, it only teaches that, if you have enough 'might' anything you do can be made 'right'. Stalin, Mao, Hitler, Pol Pot-- they only followed the 'might-makes-right' philosophy to its' natural conclusion.

Consequently, I don't see the transition to anarchism as a 'light-switch' process (unlike transition envisioned by the Marxists). The lingering effects of abusive parenting and the might-makes-right philosophical under-girding of the State is akin to a person whose legs have atrophied from lack of use. We, as a species, have relied upon the Statist "crutch" or "wheelchair" for so long, that it wouldn't be appropriate to throw the afflicted society of out the wheelchair and bark at them "to walk for yourself"! If it's going to happen, this transition is going to take time, it's going to take continued improvements in parenting ability and commitment for improvement there (which would conflict with the Left's very conservative 'preserve the Welfare State and public education monopoly at all cost for political gain' objectives), it will be piecemeal, and I suspect very gradual. Boiling the frog, so to speak. Slowly narrowing the scope of government, first by increasing the level of social trust and lowering the levels of pathology in large parts of society, little by little, until there is no longer any scope for government necessary...


Mark Crankshaw writes:

@ jw

I just don't see human nature changing enough, even in the long game, where providing for the common defense will not be a fundamental organizing principle of future governments. And once that is established, human weaknesses, including the lust for power and envy of others' riches, will inevitably lead to more shenanigans.

That's a shame. Do you believe that children are naturally inclined to human 'weakness', naturally inclined towards a lust for power, towards envy and that they are irredeemably so? Or are these inclinations sustained by being 'learned', particularly by observing habitual tendencies from those they see as an authority?
Granted, children must be taught the benefits of 'sharing' and not 'envying', of cooperating for mutual benefit. It is readily observable that teaching this positive behavior is quite possible in the overwhelming number of cases.

If you think that human nature is forever fixed, how has any changes in human culture ever occurred? Have there never been improvements in the social and moral condition of mankind? I think there has been, and I see no reason for this trend to slow, especially in 'the long game'.

In every mall in America, we already provide for a 'common defense' to shoppers and shopkeepers alike without the recourse to 'government'. Is it impossible to scale-up this arrangement? How so?

Government is by nature 'might-makes-right', a 'do as I say not as I do' construct. Could this philosophical underpinning actually be driving many towards human weakness? If you adopted a 'might-makes-right' and 'do as I say not as I do' parental style, might this dampen your children's ability to achieve any kind of moral clarity or self-direction, and "inevitably lead to more shenanigans" when they mature as adults?

Again, I don't think the changes in cultural mindset necessary to change humanity for the better is just a stroll in the park. The improvements we have, as a species, enjoyed, came through a lot of effort, and overcame a lot of obstacles. However, are no further improvements in 'the nature of man' ever forthcoming? I am confident that you are being unduly pessimistic about that.

Greg G writes:

Mark,

Did you think I was citing the Inca and Maya as high trust societies? I wasn't. I was just indicating that I knew there were some large central government societies in the Americas before Columbus got there.

I am arguing that competent central government is necessary, but not sufficient for maximum human flourishing. Did you think I was arguing it was sufficient? If so, what did I write to leave that impression? If not, let's get on to the stuff we disagree about.

I think there is one other crucial thing that has to be combined with competent central government and you have described that beautifully as a high trust society. I can't improve on that phrase. Of course culture and family matter a lot. Did you think I was arguing they didn't? If so, what did I write that left that impression? If not, let's get on to things we disagree about.

When a high trust society is combined with competent central government then human flourishing peaks. When either is missing, it's ugly.

Bob writes:

@Mark Crankshaw

I appreciate your comments very much. Do you have a blog / podcast / YouTube channel?

Greg G writes:

jw,

Thanks for the kind words towards me and we certainly agree on the quality of EconTalk and the forum Russ sponsors here. I found my way here after seeing Russ's rap videos. I was blown a way both by how good they were and how fair Russ was to Keynes despite passionately disagreeing with him. I have found that same kind of fairness here at EconTalk.

Unlike most commenters I get bored with talking to people I agree with. I never learn anything that way. So I expect to soon redouble my efforts to find something to disagree with you about which should be easy from what I have seen. No one wants this to get any more maudlin than it already is.

Giving up anarchy really wasn't much of a concession was it? It only hurts for a minute. You gain so much on the common sense front for he considerable concessions you make on the consistency front. Excellent choice there.

I always want to focus these discussions on what separates anarchists from minarchists but few commenters want to go there. Present company excepted of course.

Peter Conrad writes:

Toward the end of the recent episode with Thomas Leonard on Race, Eugenics, and Illiberal Reformers, which I found generally very interesting, you remarked that you found the “idea that we need a minimum wage because people can’t live on the wage they’re earning” bizarre. You went on to imply that, if these workers were not able to get by, it was because they “foolishly accepted these low wages,” making it not the responsibility of the state to get involved in the wages transaction.

Whether or not a minimum wage is the solution to the problem of low wages, I think that it must be recognized that these workers generally can’t be characterized as “foolish” for accepting low wages, just desperate enough to do so. So they get by in many cases by working multiple jobs at meager salary. At least at this end of the scale, a “free” market is not in operation. A power disparity is reflected in the compensation disparity between people living close to the edge and those higher up the “ladder.” They must accept the wages that are being offered or go without a job; they can’t negotiate a higher wage because they have no bargaining power. Of course, if no workers can be found to work for a dollar and hour, the wage will creep up, but it will remain at the lowest possible number. That of course is why unions were formed, to magnify the power of the individual worker.

Part of the idea of a minimum wage is to recognize that there is, as you suggest, pride and dignity in work, and that even the woman who puts fresh towels in your hotel room of the kid who flips your burger is worthy of at least some minimum share of it.

I think that the minimum wage might or might not be the correct solution, but the idea behind it is certainly not bizarre. By characterizing it in this way, I think you run the risk of whisking it too quickly off the table and into the wastebasket.

Mark Crankshaw writes:

@ GregG

Did you think I was arguing it was sufficient?

No.

Of course culture and family matter a lot. Did you think I was arguing they didn't?

No. Agreed, let's move on to things we disagree about.

When a high trust society is combined with competent central government then human flourishing peaks. When either is missing, it's ugly.

It's precisely that last statement that we disagree about. Please point out to me a single example of a high trust society that wasn't burdened with a central government that got ugly. So far, all the examples you have cited, where things got ugly, were examples of low trust societies with high levels of social dysfunction and an observed inability to form an effective central government due to that low level of trust and high level of dysfunction.

Perhaps, if I approach it this way: consider "a high trust society is combined with [allegedly] competent central government" a primitive form of embryonic anarchism. This type of society still retains vestiges of the coercive and exploitative elements that, unfortunately, accompany the State, that is its' very nature. That's Stage One in the 'development' of that society. In later stages of development, these vestiges may 'wither away' when they are no longer needed, when they have served their function. You have conceded that the State has some negative attributes, that there is a price to be paid for having one, or have you not?

Perhaps it may be helpful if you can identify one of these "high trust society [that is] combined with competent central government [where] human flourishing peaks". Certainly this doesn't apply to, say, the United States. A militaristic country that has murdered millions of Vietnamese, Iraqis, and Afghans in recent years, haphazardly deposed of foreign regime after foreign regime--spreading low trust everywhere it has gone-- all while having a multitude of pockets of extreme low trust and high levels of social dysfunction, being low-trust overall, and where human flourishing is wildly unequal, now would it? Perhaps we could have had the same level of flourishing without all of the extremely negative baggage that US State has brought with it?

You are absolutely correct that I "think this is because government is parasitic on capitalism and a bigger host can support a bigger parasite." However, your 'symbiotic argument' sounds to me like special pleading. The same type of special pleading religious adherents have about 'their religion': "well, of course all the other religions are man-made, but mine in the divine word of God". Well, of course the overwhelming examples of government are parasitic, but in this narrow case this particular form of parasitism is 'symbiotic'.

A State seems to have arisen in just about every place it could have, which in my view is due to the fact that the State most effectively serves an exploitative ruling class, and the ruling class can impose it's interests onto its' subjects against their will (which is why they are called the ruling class). This we definitely disagree on.

All human societies have a tendency to be captured by a ruling class, eagerly bent on economically exploiting their fellow man , chomping on the bit to control the legal regime for personal social, political and economic advantage (hardly "a disinterested third party")-- "it's good to be the King" as Mel Brooks famously once put it.

That I see this tendency is a bug where you see it as an advantage is where we disagree. If this parasitic, exploitative tendency could be eliminated and the State preserved, I wouldn't really be that interested in anarchy. However, the State is how this tendency is manifested. It is actually, in my view, a very high price to be paid (especially since War is a prerogative of the State) to maintain an unnecessary parasite.

Greg G writes:

Mark,

Look, I get it. None of the governments or nations that all of human history has provided have even come close to meeting your lofty moral standards.

Well, none of the anarchies history has provided have met mine.

I am much more inclined to compromise with reality and grade on a curve. Surely you think some governments are a lot better than others. I am inclined to call those among the best in history competent for lack of a better word. I really don't think that's too effusive for the best in human history no matter how much they still disappoint you.

And by the way, biologists will tell you that most, if not all, symbiotic relationships in nature evolved from parasitic ones. This is a feature, not a bug when it comes to my analogy about a symbiotic growth of government along with freer markets and higher trust.

I don't see human nature as a bug or an advantage. I see it as a brute fact that messes up a lot of theories about how things ought to be.

Greg G writes:

Mark,

>---"If you think that human nature is forever fixed, how has any changes in human culture ever occurred? Have there never been improvements in the social and moral condition of mankind? I think there has been, and I see no reason for this trend to slow, especially in 'the long game."

I don't see anyone arguing that improvement isn't possible. Human nature changes very slowly. Human culture can occasionally change very fast but usually doesn't.

This isn't an argument about whether or not further progress is possible. It is an argument about whether anarchism gets us closer to that or farther from it.

You know many Marxists thought that when the worker's paradise was established it would change human nature for the better.

That part about human nature changing... and then things getting better...that part worries me. Utopian systems aren the most dangerous because the fantastic benefits they predict can be used to justify a fantastic cost.

Mark Crankshaw writes:

@ GregG

I am much more inclined to compromise...

That I can see. The boys in the Pentagon, and the crowd on Capitol Hill and their friends on Wall Street, are, no doubt, sure glad to hear of that. I understand. They've got lots of bills to pay, lots of votes to buy, lots more "pay to play" regulatory capture to conduct, more wars to wage, women and children to kill. We couldn't possibly get by without all that.

This is a feature, not a bug when it comes to my analogy about a symbiotic growth of government along with freer markets and higher trust.

It certainly does remain your analogy and not one I agree with. According to you there are no confounding factors whatever. How about the role technology? Do you suppose that if there were no technological progress over the past 500 years, but only a growth in the size and scope government, that we would be where we are today? I'm not buying it...

Or do you contend that increases in the size and scope of government necessarily implies technological progress? I suspect that without the technological progress in agriculture. medicine and transportation that the West experienced since the Industrial Revolution (which was not State directed, btw), the growth of government would not have been forthcoming, or if it had, poverty would have shot up tremendously as the increase in parasites outstripping the meager growth of the host as it had done prior to that. Would freer markets and higher trust occurred without the Protestant Reformation? The Industrial Revolution? Without the Enlightenment? All movements resisted by the State, btw...

Human culture can occasionally change very fast but usually doesn't...That part about human nature changing... and then things getting better...that part worries me.

Let's just say the human civilization is 10,000 years old. How long has it been that we have treated children as equals? How about women? How about toleration for different religious and political views, sexual orientations, free speech? A couple decades? Don't worry, Greg, sometimes this change in human culture, slight alterations in human nature, can be for the best...

Mark Crankshaw writes:

@ Bob

Thanks! Sorry, I don't have anything like that. I write here, from time to time (like when GregG get's me going) but that's about it.

Mark Crankshaw writes:

@ GregG

None of the governments or nations that all of human history has provided have even come close to meeting your lofty moral standards.

In the end, this argument must eventually boil down to a difference in taste and temperament. I find your certitude that anarchy cannot better mankind unpersuasive and the argument that just because something has not happened before, then it can never happen unconvincing. After all, GregG had never happened until your Mom met your Dad, a lot of things will happen that have never happened before in the due course of time. In any event, I won't live long enough to see how this argument plays out, so we'll both never know...

Much as two people can watch the same movie and come away with very different impressions, so it is that two people can survey our current political culture and conclude these are "among the best in history!", while others can turn in disgust and conclude "is this the best we can do? How pathetic...".

I always want to focus these discussions on what separates anarchists from minarchists but few commenters want to go there.

While you may think me a doctrinaire anarchist, or anarcho-capitalist, I myself do not describe myself that way. I consider myself a pragmatist of sorts. While I hold out the possibility that anarcho-capitalism could advance the welfare of mankind (I'm not of the opinion it will or must), it is that end of which I have most interest. While I'm certain that you are right, nothing is going to change much in my lifetime, I hope that we can improve the lot of humanity in the future. If anarcho-capitalism isn't conducive to that end and minarchism is, then by all means, let's have minarchism. If minarchism isn't conducive to that end and, god forbid, the status-quo is the best we can manage, then let's maintain the status-quo (being dead, it won't bother me that much).

However, for the love my children, I still hope the world can offer them something better than the sordid Boss Tweed buffoonery, the stale half-wit platitudes and bumbling incompetence offered up by our self-anointed political 'experts',the endless and dreary demagoguery, the unending wars, the destructive economic recklessness that passes for politics and governance in this country and in the rest of the world today. In the end, one can only hope...

Greg G writes:

Mark,

>----" I find your certitude that anarchy cannot better mankind unpersuasive and the argument that JUST BECAUSE (emphasis added) something has not happened before, then it can never happen unconvincing."

I didn't make that argument. I don't agree with that argument. The words "just because" are doing a lot of straw man building there.

Of course things happen in history that haven't "happened before." History as we know it wouldn't even exist if that wasn't possible.

I am not presenting the facts about anarchy's miserable history as some kind of logical proof about future events.

I AM insisting that that history puts the burden of proof on anyone expecting unprecedented future events based on a future change in human nature.

So far, humans have done terribly in anarchies where each man had to figure out for himself what the law should be and who should enforce it with what penalties.

So far, humans have done best in constitutional democracies where both the law, and the process for participating in changing it were well known.

We are at the point in this argument where further debate is likely to be unproductive and everyone will have to rely on their own strongest intuitions about human nature.

It's been fun. Thanks Mark.

Mark Crankshaw writes:

@GregG

It's been fun. Thanks Mark.

Same to you GregG, take care...

jw writes:

Mark,

That's a shame. Do you believe that children are naturally inclined to human 'weakness'

Unfortunately, I am sufficiently pessimistic to believe that some subset of man is inherently evil and that government will continue to be necessary. Remember, we are not talking about the majority here. The majority of North Koreans may well be born good, but all it took was a small minority with the inclination and will to be evil to subjugate the rest. And yes, it is a shame, but that wouldn’t make it untrue.

If you think that human nature is forever fixed, how has any changes in human culture ever occurred?

Nature and culture are different, just as governing and parenting are different. We do learn, but that learning is not unavailable to Kim Jong Un, he chooses to subjugate. When I look at thousands of years of human history, the cultures and mores change, but I don’t see human nature changing. Maybe this nature was naturally selected in the hundred thousand years or so of H. Sapiens evolution (back on topic!), but it hasn't changed much in the 7,000 years or so of civilization. So I don't see it changing much in the next few thousand. After that, it becomes harder to predict...

And while I agree with you that conservative thought is progressing, and that free market capitalism is becoming much more accepted, I just look at the last eight years and this year’s election and see that not only do we have a long way to go, but we are still as a country devolving with respect to liberty (based on the sheer number of regulations per year and the growing size of government). We will reach our nadir when these metrics have reversed and maybe then we will be able to progress again.

Mark Crankshaw writes:
Unfortunately, I am sufficiently pessimistic to believe that some subset of man is inherently evil and that government will continue to be necessary.

Please keep in mind that I am not coming from a 'You are wrong and I am right" perspective, that I am trying to 'think this through' much as I believe that you are. But my thinking leads me to the opposite conclusion.

True, there is a subset of men who are morally suspect, and because the reins of government are typically seized almost exclusively by those least constrained by morality, by those that exhibit the highest levels of psychopathology, drawn almost exclusively from that very subset of men, then the existence of this 'subset' is why government is not only not necessary, but on the contrary, those most likely to form a ruling class could be arguably the foremost threat to the person and property of whatever hapless populace they can lay their little psychopathic hands on.

I also do not see the likes of Kim Jong Un (or Stalin or Hitler) as born inherently evil. I am inclined to believe that Kim Jong Un is a product of his environment. Were he born in another time and place, he could have been the chubby little guy delivering your next pizza, living a life of complete anonymity, no more 'evil' than any other pizza deliverer.

I am not exactly an optimist in every way, and I do very much believe that psychopathology is a very real malady that afflicts a rather large percentage of humanity (some studies have indicated as much as perhaps 1 in 20). The study of these defective personalities does seemingly support the idea that there is a high correlation between abusive or emotionally distant parenting and the later emergence of psychopathology.

I've read quite a deal about the childhood of both Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin. I find it hard to believe that the extremely abusive relationship they had with their fathers had no impact on their later 'life choices' and political views. Those same studies also seem to indicate that only positive parenting techniques helps to mitigate the personality defects exhibited by psychopaths. By the time the State attempts to address these maladies it is far, far too late.

but I don’t see human nature changing. ... it hasn't changed much in the 7,000 years or so of civilization. So I don't see it changing much in the next few thousand.

I can understand. My optimism is based on my conception of a steady progression of events leading to the eventual consensus around a renunciation in the alleged 'need' of a government, that is, need for a ruling class. Common rules and social norms are indispensable for society to function, a ruling class is not. Every stage in this progression is important and without any stage in the progression, this result will not be forthcoming. For almost all of those 7,000 years, several of the most vital steps have been completely lacking: namely, good parenting and the equal social and economic treatment of the women that invariably play a major role in that parenting, and a sufficient level of technological progress. There has been a significant 'break in series' with respect to the treatment of women and children and an increase in technological progress that has occurred only very, very recently...

My optimism stems from the idea that there may be a 'positive feedback loop' coming into play that may significantly alter the 'social trajectory' of the past 7,000 years. Increased levels of parental ability, leading to better treatment for children and women, leading to lower levels of social pathology and mitigating the effects of psychopathology, which will lead to higher levels of social trust and thus less justification for 'government', all of which leading to increased levels of parental ability...thus creating a positive feedback loop.

I just look at the last eight years and this year’s election and see that not only do we have a long way to go, but we are still as a country devolving with respect to liberty (based on the sheer number of regulations per year and the growing size of government). We will reach our nadir when these metrics have reversed and maybe then we will be able to progress again.

These past eight years has been pretty bleak in my view as well. I agree we have a long way to go. Compared to the 1930's or 1960's however, the era of the New Deal and the Great Society, I see dramatic improvement. I think the dead weight cost of the Welfare State combined with the diminishing ability of Western governments to painlessly finance it will eventually lead to the system toppling under its own weight. Places like Greece and Italy will go first, but the rest will eventually follow. Eventually Ponzi-schemes bust, and the post-WW II ponzi-schemes adopted by Western governments will be no exception. This post-war political and economic consensus is headed to the same place as the baby-boomers who tend to cling to it. It won't be with us for much longer.

Russ Roberts writes:

Peter Conrad,

I think you misunderstood my remark about the "foolishness" of accepting the minimum wage. I don't workers are "foolish" for accepting low wages. I was criticizing the supporters of the minimum wage who see workers as foolishly accepting a wage they cannot live on. I certainly don't see anything foolish about working when you can at the wage that your skills command.

I don't agree with your point about "bargaining power." Most of us earn the wage we do because of our skills and the alternatives those skills provide. It has nothing to do with negotiation or bargaining power. I pay my cleaning lady more than the minimum wage because if I do not pay her what I do, she will not show up. She has alternatives that pay well.

It is sad that some workers struggle to be employed at the minimum wage--that means their skills--the value they provide to others and the alternatives where those skills can be employed--are not worth very much in the market place. Requiring that they can only be hired at even higher amounts than that, reduces their chances of finding any work at all. I don't see that as the dignified solution to the challenges they face.

Margaret writes:

Want to second nonlin_org. This was an excellent discussion right up until you both seemed to agree that today's right is racist. I confess my jaw dropped a bit that you should have bought this leftist propaganda.

Nothing racist about having enforceable borders. Nothing racist about thinking Muslim immigrants should be carefully vetted. Nothing racist about thinking the inner cities have been victimized by liberal policies for decades.

Greg G writes:

Margaret,

It is true that there is nothing the least bit racist about any of those things you listed. It's the things you ignored that are the problem.

There is something racist about telling lies for the purpose of ginning up racial hatred. Lies like the claim that thousands of Muslims cheered in crowds from New Jersey as the towers came down. Strange isn't it, how no one got any video of that?

Lies like the claim that black people murder whites at many hundreds of percent greater rates than they do.

Or things like the claim that a judge from Indiana couldn't be impartial because he had Mexican ancestry and that Mexicans immigrants are more likely to be criminals and rapists.

Or things like claiming he didn't know who David Duke was when he was already on record as knowing who he was.

Lots of people who voted for Trump weren't racists. But none of the people who voted for Trump saw his racism as a deal breaker.

Mark Crankshaw writes:

@ GregG

But none of the people who voted for Trump saw his racism as a deal breaker.

Could it be that the Left has been trying to carry this issue too far? That some on the Left attempt to characterize every political disagreement with them as an indication of the racism? That the charge of racism has been extended far beyond issues of race, and that there has been a concerted effort on the Left to conflate issues such as religion and nationalism with race so they can 'play the race card'?

Your examples are telling. Muslims do not represent a race, they are adherents to a religion. Being 'Mexican' tells one nothing about the race of the individuals who describe themselves as such, it merely is a declaration of 'nationalist' loyalty, it is a political act.

Even if these allegations are completely 'lies', as you characterize them, that doesn't make them racist lies. One could charge that they are examples of 'religious bigotry' or 'national bigotry', but not 'racist' bigotry. One definition of bigotry would be "having or revealing an obstinate belief in the superiority of one's own opinions and a prejudiced intolerance of the opinions of others". Stating that you know that "lies" are being told for "the purpose of ginning up racial hatred" when you have no insight into the mind of other people sounds suspiciously like bigotry to me.

I believe that the Left is trying play a political game of 'guilt by association'. I also believe that, for the overwhelming majority of people, regardless of political affiliation, that being called a 'racist' is highly offensive and bigoted values do not, in any way, define those individuals. This is precisely why 'guilt by association' is the weapon of choice selected by the Left, people tend to feel guilty when they are labelled 'wife-beaters'.

This particular vile bigotry is on prominent display in this clip from BBC Newsnight in a debate on Election Night between Anne Coulter--my fellow Cornell alum-- and Martin Amis (here). Why the opinion on America of Martin Amis, a British novelist who probably has never been West of Manhattan in his life, should matter to anyone is a mystery to me. He sneeringly makes sweeping generalization after ignorant sweeping generalization about people of which he knows absolutely nothing (save perhaps watching some stilted Hollywood movies and echo-chamber conversations with his fellow insulated jet-set intellectuals). Amis fits the definition of bigotry above to a tee.

This is why the Left zealously tracks down David Duke and breathlessly implore him to 'endorse' whatever Republican candidate they wish to smear. Of course, they aren't quite so eager to ask the Communist Party of the United States whom they are endorsing (that was, of course, Hillary), are they?

I don't see the world as some happy-clappy love fest. Bigotry rears its ugly head in many, many, many ways: race, religion, ethnicity, language, gender, class, culture, age, even looks. Bigotry affects people of every race, creed, and political orientation in equal measure. Only a emotionally mature person, a self-aware individual, a person humble enough to admit that they too are bigoted in some way, can overcome this tendency. Some of us aren't there, some of us never will be there, but let's not pretend that bigotry is the exclusive prerogative of this group or of that group. That sadly isn't true...

jw writes:

Greg G,

I have never heard of some of your strawmen arguments.

Thousands of Muslims DID cheer 9/11, but in Muslim countries (and there is video). NJ though? Please cite.

The blacks murder whites error came from a picture that he Tweeted from another source that merely had two numbers transposed. Had they been in the right place, they would have been correct. We both agree that Trump Tweets far too much and needs fact checkers (or to count to ten) before doing so, but who knows, raw Tweets may have gotten him elected.

On the other hand, why hasn't a president who promised to reduce inner city violence had no effect on black on black homicide rates in eight years? Or a Chicago mayor closely aligned with the President? In fact, homicides have been growing in the last two years. Is it because the some politicians use race when it is convenient but then don't actually do anything?

The judge comment was indeed one of Trump's more unfortunate. But there are many more confounding factors to the "Trump is a racist" meme. He not only insists that ALL of his properties be integrated and non-restricted, but fought for other segregated clubs to do the same. He is also accused of antisemitism and yet his son-in-law and major confidant is Jewish. Trump will certainly be a much, much stronger ally of Israel than they have had for the last eight years. And the "Bannon is anti-Semitic" meme has also been debunked.

Trump took less than an entire 24 hour newscycle to disavow Duke and then did so repeatedly throughout his campaign, but somehow this is proof of racism?

Greg G writes:

Mark,

Away skiing now. Will organize a proper response later this week.

SaveyourSelf writes:

Garnet wrote in the comments section, “I fear this is because people who believe in easy immigration (including me, some of the time) don't want to admit that open borders hurt a significant number of people inside their country.”

Garnet, I would like to know more about what you mean by this statement, since it is not obviously true on any grounds I can imagine. Assuming an immigrant is non-violent, how could his crossing a border “hurt a significant number of people?”
Trent writes:

Thank you for putting so much effort into this podcast - interesting, disturbing, thought-provoking throughout.

I'd read multiple accounts that Wilson was the most racist President that we've ever had, and I'd read several of his comments - most from when he led Princeton. But I never realized the extent to which Wilson acted on his beliefs in his purging of minority federal employees. Very disturbing, but am thankful for Prof. Leonard for bringing this to light.

I've been fortunate to hear about what life was like under Wilson from my great-aunt, who lived to the ripe old age of 104. She was politically minded her whole life, and she told me what it was like growing up on an Iowa farm, and how 'the Progressive thugs showed up before the 1916 election' and told her father that he was going to be voting for Wilson.

Throw WWI into the mix, and it's easier to see why Harding ended up winning in 1920 on his 'Return To Normalcy' campaign - still by the largest popular vote percentage margin ever. And as an aside, I'd like to hear a future podcast that looks into Harding's economics - cutting taxes, regulation, and federal spending - that ended a recession in one year and ushered in the 'Roaring Twenties' economy. I don't think it's any accident that historians (Progressives?) have done all they can to tarnish Harding's economic accomplishments by only focusing on his alleged affair and the Teapot Dome scandal. They couldn't let free market policies look like the solution to economic ills, could they???

Again, thanks for tackling a tough, sensitive issue.

Halvard writes:

This has little to do with history.
Actually, this is a good example of how to write history out of the writer's political view.

Sad to listen to two educated guys acting surprised that people were racist 100 years ago. I guess they should read up on history. USA was racist, that is common knowledge.
A good example, the Hoover Institution is named after an awful racist. But many have no problem with that. Are everybody that work there racist??

Following the logic in this podcast, that is true.

Also, when will free market economist start understanding what Darwin said, what evolution is and how science works. No, it is not just a theory....

Robert Swan writes:

Quite a comment stream on this talk. The cut and thrust of Mark Crankshaw vs. Greg G has been good reading.

My leanings are closer to Mark's, but his anarchic ideal is a bit ultraist for me. In a previous comment conversation with him, I suggested that some form of government would always emerge in order to formalise and enforce property rights. Still seems inevitable to me.

On the broader sweep of the talk, I'd not be too eager to climb into the seat of judgment. The words were racist, but were those views sincerely held? As the old saw goes, "the past is a foreign country". Picture a foreign country where ruthless commerce is revered, and religions are derided as irrational. In such a country would a Baptist not find it occasionally useful to pretend he's a bootlegger?

So, just maybe, those people were not much more racist than Mr Obama affecting a "black" accent when talking to predominantly black crowds.

I read SaveyourSelf's article with interest, but I don't think ranking societies along a theoretical "information" axis gets us all that far. Does more information actually mean happier people? I suppose the Buddhists do equate the state of Nirvana to great enlightenment. In any case, information isn't really fungible as the model seems to assume. Person A (a Londoner) knows all swans are white. Person B (a Perthling) knows all swans are black. Adding their knowledge gets the more accurate but less helpful conclusion: all swans are swans.

It was disappointing to hear Thomas Leonard use one of my "trigger" words: populism. Since Brexit, it and populist have risen to prominence in the media. Aren't the people using these words openly siding with the elitists?

jw writes:

Perthling.

I learn something new every day on Econtalk.

Bogwood writes:

On the narrower issue of Wilson's legacy I voted with the dissent but not so much on the racist issue. His racism could be explained if not condoned by the culture of the time, mental child abuse. But instituting the draft, suppression of free press and imprisoning Debs cannot be forgiven.

Positive feedback in physical systems is destabilizing. Positive feedback in political systems, adulation of historical figures can also be destabilizing. But it sounds like the new podcast for this week may get into this area. By putting his finger on the scale of history he "caused" World War II. Take his name off the building. (Class of '61)

SaveyourSelf writes:

Robert Swan wrote, “In any case, information isn't really fungible as the model seems to assume. Person A (a Londoner) knows all swans are white. Person B (a Perthling) knows all swans are black. Adding their knowledge gets the more accurate but less helpful conclusion: all swans are swans.”

  • Thank you, Robert Swan, for reading my article and commenting on it.
  • I’m not sure if it will affect your ultimate conclusion, but you added wrong. All swans known by Person A are white + All swans known by Person B are black = Swans located near person A are white and swans located near Person B are black. “All swans are swans” does not accurately represent those two pools of information added together. In fact, most of the information is lost in that summary, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Summaries, by their very nature, lose information in exchange for greater generalizability. Information loss through summarization—like you described—is a phenomenon of averaging; not adding. I’m tempted to say subtraction could cause information loss too but something tells me that is incorrect. In any case, your statement would be more accurate if you’d said, “Averaging their knowledge gets the…” instead of “Adding their knowledge gets the…” but even then I would argue “averaging” is overly generous since your description of the problem specifies color, personal identifiers, and country of habitation yet your conclusion contains no reference—of any kind—to any of those details.
  • I picked up the idea of using information for modeling economic systems from FA Hayek. I’ve only recently started reading his works. I have been thoroughly impressed by his grasp of the world—past, present, and future. His understanding, even when dumbed down for mass consumption, contained far more insight than I’ve been able to accumulate. So I tried to adopt his practices to see if it could help me understand economics better. I cannot overstate how pleased I am with the result. Again, I want to thank you, Greg G, and Mark Crankshaw for reading the argument. It takes a special kind of person to sit still long enough to read 10 pages of problem solving and an even rarer bird to comprehend the technical details.
Robert Swan writes:

jw: I'm not sure how people from Perth (or most cities; Dallas, Denver) refer to themselves, but "Perthlings" appeals to my rather childish sense of humour. Checking now, Google tells me I'm not alone.

SaveyourSelf: My apologies; the black and white swan example was glib and I was aware even as I posted it that it would have been fairer to conclude all swans are black or white.

You have thanked several people for reading your article, but it was far less effort to read than to write and I should have not pretended to refute your work in a short paragraph.

I was aware of the echo of Hayek. I believe his relevant thesis is that an item's free market price will settle at a value reflecting the myriad relevant pieces of knowledge scattered around the marketplace. This bumps into my ongoing theme: in the process of reducing umpteen dimensions to a single number, information simply has to be lost. There is no way back from the price to the relevant information. I'm always amused, in a gently irritated way, when the finance pundit on TV gives the reason why a particular stock's price dropped today (I think Russ has occasionally complained about this same thing).

This gets towards what I was really meaning about fungibility -- the value of a piece of knowledge depends on context. In the stock market, that an interest rate is going up is valuable information for some stocks, and has no clear bearing on others. Your article assumes that more knowledge is always better, but you can't simply count facts; how are you to add (say) Newton's Theory of Gravity, to my favourite colour?

Bear in mind that markets reached a price before Hayek had his insight, and that they didn't reach the price any more efficiently afterwards. His insight is important but descriptive, not predictive. Its most useful lesson is a negative one: that nobody should presume to predict the market.

In your article you are, in effect, trying to place different societal arrangements on a scale: worse to better. Perhaps the parallel of the market price in this instance would be population flows to/from such societies. Is your model not flying in the face of Hayek's idea and trying to predict this market?

I hope that's a more reasoned response to your article. While I enjoy trying, it's quite tricky to convert half a dozen strands of thought into a single stream of words. Hope you find it of interest, and thanks for posting the link.

Russ Roberts writes:

A number of commenters have apparently misunderstood what this episode and Leonard's book are about.

Yes, people long ago on all sides of the political and ideological spectrum were racist and had attitudes that would be unacceptable today. That alone is not interesting or new.

What is new and interesting about this book is the role eugenics played in the early days of the economics profession and among reformers who wanted to repair what they saw as the flaws in society and the economic system. In particular, they used what they saw as the best science of the day as a way to design public policy for improving the racial stock of America. That is not the same thing as being prejudiced against blacks, women, and Jew or thinking that they are inferior. More to the point, some of the reform legislation of the day was not motivated by a desire to help the less fortunate. Some of it was designed explicitly to exclude the less fortunate from the economic system or from life itself. The ugly consequences of some policies were intended, not unintended. That is interesting, surprising, and until I read Leonard's book, I was unaware of it.

That Richard Ely, an illustrious economist, the founder of the American Economic Association and whose name still graces a lecture series today, believed that we shouldn't help people in a famine because it would be better for the world's genetic endowment to let them die, is news to me. He wasn't simply a prejudiced person. He used the best science of his day to justify policies that he believed were good for the world.

What you make of that is up to you. I concede that it plays to my prejudices in believing that economists overestimate the reliability of their empirical estimates in designing social programs. I certainly don't believe that modern proponents of the minimum wage are racist. And I also realize that some of my intellectual ancestors had ugly views, too.

Greg G writes:

Mark,

>----"Could it be that the Left has been trying to carry this issue too far? That some on the Left attempt to characterize every political disagreement with them as an indication of the racism? "

Because you are so reliable in answering all my questions for you, I will answer these. But first, let me tell you why these are the wrong questions for you to ask me.

I am not a spokesman for "the left." Not an official spokesman. Not an unofficial spokesman. Not any kind of spokesman.

I see as many people I disagree with on my political left as on my political right. I see myself as a centrist, not a leftist or progressive. Yes, I know many readers and commenters here will want to insist those labels really do apply to me. I don't care. They will do whatever they need to do to understand the world with the tools they have.

I am also very comfortable with the label "liberal." This is just another way of saying centrist since both right and left in American politics have rejected the term. And yes, I know that nothing could be less fashionable today than being a centrist. I guess I'm just old enough and stubborn enough not to care. As Grandpa Simpson said: "I used to be cool. Then they changed what cool was."

So then, in the very first sentence of your reply to me you began to conflate my views with the views of various leftists named and unnamed, real and imagined. I had hoped we were past that point in our discussions.

You say it is a mystery to you why the opinions of Martin Amis should matter to anyone. I believe I can shed some light on this big mystery. They care mostly because people like you raise the issue and post links to his interviews instead of ignoring him. Before reading your comment and watching your link, I did not know what he thought about these matters. I still don't care, but now I know. I am confident no one else I know either knows or cares how Martin Amis feels about these things. If you want people to pay less attention to him why not try modeling the behavior you are preaching? The irony here is deep.

>----"let's not pretend that bigotry is the exclusive prerogative of this group or of that group.

OK. Let's not. Are you saying that's what I was doing or just arguing with someone not in this conversation again? I can't tell which it is.

Now back to your original question: I am not aware of anyone on the left or anywhere else who attempts to characterize "every" political disagreement as an indication of racism. In my opinion, some on the left are much too quick to cry racism and some on the right wouldn't acknowledge it if the topic was the Grand Wizard himself. Every point on the political spectrum has its own form of political correctness.

As for myself, after five years of regular commenting on EconTalk, this is the first time i have ever called anyone a racist. And at this point, I have called a grand total of two (2) people racists. Those people are David Duke and Donald Trump. That still leaves me a bit short of resorting to this in "every political disagreement."

Now, as far as your points about the way race gets mixed with issues of religion and nationality, that is an important and interesting question. I'm too tired to give that the attention it deserves tonight so I'll get back to you soon on that.

Greg G writes:

Mark,

So then, why do issues of religion and nationality so often get mixed in with issues of race?

Because the whole concept of race has very little relevance for any serious biologist or geneticist seeking to understand individual differences. All humans are one interbreeding species Homo Sapiens and individual characteristics and ancestry tend to be mixed in ways that make cultural and political concepts of race extraordinarily unreliable in predicting individual behavior.

Race is a cultural and political classification much more than it is a genetic one. Nationality, culture and religion are about as useful as any other heuristic for predicting how cultural and political ideas about race will shake out in the real world.

There is a reason why so many Sikhs have been targeted in bias attacks committed by Americans purportedly defending the homeland against Islam. Racists tend not to appreciate the finer distinctions about religion, culture and nationality. One marker is often enough for them.

I couldn't help noticing that, while you had a lot to say about what race and racism aren't, you had nothing to say about what they are.

I would define racism as the belief that you know something significantly useful about the character and personality of an individual based solely on what you perceive to be their race. What's your definition or is the word too political incorrect for you to use at all?

You say you suspect me of bigotry because I allege an intent for Trump but "have no insight into the mind of other people." You have got to be kidding. This is yet another case where the irony is getting deep. You are the last person who ought to object to anyone claiming insight into the minds of others.

About half of all your lengthy screeds in this comment section involve your various ramblings about what is going on in the minds of the many people you disagree with. In your very first response to me above you told me about some insight you had into a belief I had that I never actually held.

The whole purpose of a Presidential campaign is to try and give voters some insight into the minds of the candidates. The whole purpose of a discussion like this one is to give participants some insight into each other's minds. So enough already with your special pleading on this point.

Trump went up in popularity every time some terrorist attack increased resentment of Muslims. That gave him a clear motive to tell the lie he told about crowds of thousands of Muslims cheering from New Jersey as the towers came down. He refused to correct this preposterous lie even when challenged on it.

As for guilt by association, let's not pretend that it is "the exclusive prerogative of this or that group." If you think I am doing it, take that up with me. If you think someone else is doing it, take that up with them.

So carry on all you like with your insights into the minds of various leftists real and imagined. But please be a lot clearer about what you are charging me with...especially in light of your occasional passionate vigilance about guilt by association.

Greg G writes:

jw,

>----"“Hey, I watched when the World Trade Center came tumbling down. And I watched in Jersey City, New Jersey, where thousands and thousands of people were cheering as that building was coming down. Thousands of people were cheering. So something’s going on. We’ve got to find out what it is.”

That is Trump speaking at an 11/21/15 rally in Birmingham, Alabama. This was covered by most major media outlets. The quote was later defended by Trump. You could have found all this in seconds with a Google search.

Your ignorance of something does not make it a straw man argument. Few things are more tiresome than internet commenters who learn the names of logical fallacies without learning what those names mean.

The black murder rate "error" was indeed a retweet from "another source." That "other source" was a neo-Nazi site. Who could know they might not be reliable? That's probably too much to expect of a president.

I wasn't aware that Obama had promised that he could personally reduce inner city violence. I'll remain skeptical till I see better sourcing on that. In any event I urge you to be skeptical if ANY president claims to be able to do that. Inner city policing is not a federal responsibility.

So then, if someone was to identify himself as "the law and order candidate" and claim "I alone can fix it." I would urge you to remain skeptical about that.

The judge comment was "unfortunate" but not racist"? What would a racist description of the limitations on his abilities due to his ancestry look like in your world?

Trump stopped discriminating in his rentals when he was caught and forced to do so and not before.

It is entirely possible that Trump is not anti-Semitic even though many of his supporters clearly are as Russ has detailed (see Russ's second comment at http://www.econtalk.org/archives/2016/12/post_8.html). Nobody said that racists hate ALL other races. They usually have quite elaborate rankings and some clear preferences among what they perceive to be other races.

The fact that it took Trump 24 hours to disavow David Duke is precisely the point. It was a clear signal he was reluctant to do it. Do you really believe he didn't know who David Duke was? He was on record talking about him long before that awkward interview.

Political correctness comes in many forms. Each political point of view has its own. One is the inability to call out racism no matter how obvious.

jw writes:

Greg G,

Trump went up in popularity every time some terrorist attack increased resentment of Muslims.

I am pretty sure that:

Wilson went up in popularity when the Lusitania attack increased resentment of Germans.

FDR went up in popularity when the Pearl Harbor attack increased resentment of Japanese.

Interestingly, Obama's popularity went down after the Paris attacks. Perhaps he was perceived as weak on terrorism and Trump stronger on terrorism and that the race, religion or nationality of the attacker is not important at all, but people's perception that a leader will defend them is?

Greg G writes:

jw

>----"Interestingly, Obama's popularity went down after the Paris attacks. Perhaps he was perceived as weak on terrorism and Trump stronger on terrorism and that the race, religion or nationality of the attacker is not important at all, but people's perception that a leader will defend them is?"

Well, since I've already been accused of bigotry for claiming insight into the minds of others let me leave that to you for the moment. Regardless of their perceptions voters are sometimes wrong especially in regard to what they are in danger from.

More Americans have been killed by lightening and by mass shooters who happened to be Christian than have been killed by Islamic terrorists during the Obama administration.

jw writes:

Greg G,

More Americans have been killed by lightening and by mass shooters who happened to be Christian than have been killed by Islamic terrorists during the Obama administration.

I am not sure what this has to do with my post, but I did notice that you had to do a lot of parsing to get to your factoid.

If you didn't specify "terrorists", you would be very far off as over 2,500 Americans died at the hands of Muslims in Afghanistan and Iraq during Obama.

If you didn't specify Obama and included Bush II, thousands more Americans were killed by Islamic terrorists than your metrics.

So one has to wonder, why all of the parsing?

Greg G writes:

jw,

I specified Obama because I meant Obama. You raised the issue of how well Obama was protecting Americans.

I specified terrorists because I meant terrorists. You raised the issue of protecting against terrorism as the issue you thought Obama was weak on.

This parsing is as simple as I can make it.

Alan Clift writes:

I though this was the key point.....

Thomas Leonard: "They thought that they were simply taking the best science of the day and applying to important economic and social problems. I think, if nothing else, it should counsel humility for economists and others who do policy today.”

SaveyourSelf writes:
I think the emotional baggage of racism is interfering with understanding, both by the author and in the discussions about his work.

Russ Roberts wrote, “What is new and interesting about this book is the role eugenics played in the early days of the economics profession and among reformers who wanted to repair what they saw as the flaws in society and the economic system.”

Nothing concerning in that statement. Who doesn’t want to change the world for the better?
“In particular, they used what they saw as the best science of the day as a way to design public policy for improving the racial stock of America.”
This, on the other hand, is a problem. Not racism. Not eugenics. Public policy. Because "public policy" = coercion. The economists in this story—and everyone else—used science to justify coercion. THAT is a problem.
“That is not the same thing as being prejudiced against blacks, women, and Jew or thinking that they are inferior.”
Exactly. Coercion is different than racism. One is a form of ignorance, the other a synonym for evil.
“More to the point, some of the reform legislation of the day was not motivated by a desire to help the less fortunate.”
The question of how to handle coercion is buried in this sentence. When—if ever—is coercion a good idea? Is coercion a good idea when the motivation for its use is to help the less fortunate? Alternately, is coercion a bad idea when the motivation for its use is to help the already fortunate?
“Some of it [legislation] was designed explicitly to exclude the less fortunate from the economic system or from life itself.”
Yes. That’s coercion. That is the ONLY THING the government is capable of doing. That is what it means to be a government. That is what it means to craft legislation.
“The ugly consequences of some policies were intended, not unintended.”
I have a hard time with this. Their actions had ugly consequences. Does it make a difference if they hoped to do good but instead did evil or meant to do evil all long? The outcomes are the same either way. The truth is that the outcome is not the crime, the action itself is the evil. I think this is what Hayek meant when he said, "No longer the end pursued but the rules observed make the action good or bad. (The Fatal Conceit, Ch5)"
“That Richard Ely, an illustrious economist, the founder of the American Economic Association and whose name still graces a lecture series today, believed that we shouldn't help people in a famine because it would be better for the world's genetic endowment to let them die, is news to me.”
Who cares what he believed, so long as what he believed is not forced on others, he alone must bear the consequences of his personal actions.
“I concede that it plays to my prejudices in believing that economists overestimate the reliability of their empirical estimates in designing social programs.”
Economists, like everyone else it seems, do not recognize that outcomes produced by voluntary methods and those produced by coercion are not the same even when they appear the same.

Alan Clift wrote, “I thought this was the key point.....[when] Thomas Leonard [said]: ‘They thought that they were simply taking the best science of the day and applying to important economic and social problems. I think, if nothing else, it should counsel humility for economists and others who do policy today.’”

The problem was not the science, nor the application of economics to social problems. It was, and is, the acceptance, even embrace, of coercion in service to mans’ hopes and against his fears. It is, over and over and over again, the temptation of Christ. Where the devil offers a tool that can create anything you can imagine—heaven on earth even. What good person would not accept any cost to bring such good to the world. Except it’s the devil we’re talking about! The good we can imagine is a shallow thing. He knows this. We, still, do not.

Bob writes:

@Mark Crankshaw

I encourage you to start a blog or a mailing list and share your writing more broadly -- I'm sure I'm not the only one that would enjoy seeing more.

@SaveyourSelf

I enjoyed your write-up, if you have a blog or similar please share.

@Greg G

That part about human nature changing... and then things getting better...that part worries me.

I too am skeptical about ideas that involve changing human nature. Though it's not clear a change in human nature is really required. You could start a libertarian society by convincing people who already share the same beliefs to move into the same region, if only you could convince the state that currently manages the area to allow secession. :)

A small society that is homogeneous in terms of core ethical beliefs should be able to work at least as well as the countless existing societies we see all around the world. Think of the Amish, for example. Or Zomia. Or Liechtenstein. Or the Vatican. Or Native American tribes. Or Tibet. Or Cuba. There's quite an amazing variety of societal structures that "work" at least to some degree.

The challenges a society will face is likely to vary not only along ideological lines, but also with population size, density, geography, demographics, etc. There are probably many societal arrangements that work plenty well enough for small rich decentralized rural societies that might not work as well with large urban poor societies. Average intelligence and size of initial capital stock also seem like factors that are probably important in determining the success or failure of a new society.

I don't see any great reason to be skeptical that some kind of libertarian society is possible. It's more a question of how well it works compared to other systems, especially as the society gets larger and so is confronted with more challenges that are increasingly complex and for which governments have been the primary technical mechanism throughout recorded history.

To me government is primarily a technology. It's a technology most people are familiar with for addressing certain needs, especially related to law and order. Though it's not the only technology available to solve many problems. Looking around the world you can see a wide variety of approaches to the issues confronting different societies. Is a coercive top-down monopoly the only reliable way to address issues A, B, and C once a society is X size, with Y diversity, and Z wealth? Maybe. Maybe a libertarian society is only possible within certain boundary conditions. Maybe it could only work for the people who are essentially born libertarian.

Though I'm more optimistic than that. I don't think we have to change human nature, either. I think it's primarily a question of learning new technologies for solving problems. Government is just a technology. Or maybe none of what I said is right. :) It's interesting to think about in any case.

SaveyourSelf writes:

@ Robert Swan

Good critique. My response:
Robert Swan wrote, “in the process of reducing umpteen dimensions to a single number, information simply has to be lost.”
Yes. Summarization sacrifices specificity for generalizability. This is one of the major functions of currency and is helpful for making tremendously complex systems somewhat understandable some of the time. Information loss is unavoidable when modeling and is, in fact, the major point of modeling. The universe is too complicated to understand in total. We have no choice but to summarize it. How best to summarize it is the open question.
“There is no way back from the price to the relevant information.”
Not true…or at least not entirely true. You can follow a price back to large amounts of information. Researching a purchase is a fundamental skill for participating in a market. What’s the price? What’s the product? What are its specs? Where was it produced? What’s its star rating? How durable has it proved to previous buyers? What are its competitors? How are they different? Who are the sellers? How are the sellers different?

Price is like a string that you can follow. It leads to enormous amounts of “relevant information,” but—I agree—it’s not possible to get to all the information that goes in a price. For one thing, much of a price is made of subjective value judgments made by other market participants. Subjective information is reflected in a price but cannot be fully discovered. For another, markets are complicated. Complicated systems have a lot of information--more information than anything outside of a market can process. A person trying to gather and process all the information in a market is doomed to fail.
“The value of a piece of knowledge depends on context.”
That’s a truism, like the Law of relativity. But it does not undermine the assumption of my model because more information, regardless of context, is--almost--never detrimental. It might or might not be helpful, but it is unlikely to harm. Thus I feel comfortable assuming that more information is always better than less. It's rather like money. Having $1000 may not be better for a given person at a given time than having $100, but it's certainly not worse.
“Bear in mind that markets reached a price before Hayek had his insight, and that they didn't reach the price any more efficiently afterwards.”
That’s not necessarily true. I can think of several dozen ways to throw a wrench in a market to make it less efficient. Knowing how markets fail and setting up institutions to guard against those known causes of failure can make markets more efficient precisely by preventing problems that cause them to be less efficient. Defense is a generally underappreciated side of the sport. I think Hayek was a defensive coordinator.
“His insight is important but descriptive, not predictive.”
The test of a model is whether it is predictive. If Hayek had useful insights, they must be predictive of something.
“Its most useful lesson is a negative one: that nobody should presume to predict the market.”
Ok. Let’s say that is true. Does that mean there is no value in trying to understand it? No. And besides, the value of that lesson may depend on what you are trying to predict. If you are trying to predict a specific price then prepare to fail. But if you are trying to predict something simpler like whether some coercive policy will make the market less efficient by raising transaction costs [minimum wage laws, quotas, tariffs, price controls, taxes, regulatory hurdles, etc., the list is endless] then it should be possible to predict the direction of change, if not the absolute size of the change.
“Is your model not flying in the face of Hayek's idea and trying to predict this market?”
I don’t think so. Consider randomization in statistics. The universe is so complicated that it is very difficult, if not impossible, to control for all possible relevant variables when designing models. If you can’t control all the variables, then you can’t know if the observations are caused by the variable of interest or some other unknown factors. Randomization, though, takes care of this problem by setting two equal populations against one another excepting one variable. In practice, all the similar variables cancel out even if they are unknown, leaving only the factor of interest and "randomness" to explain differences. Something similar happens in markets where every man is out for his own self interest but, when placed in competition with others whose goals are identical, all the selfish motivations seem to cancel out so that everyone ends up serving the interests of the customers. Anyway, good models can build on this phenomenon of similarities canceling out through competition. Thus it is possible to make, and test, some types of predictions even for systems as complicated as markets.

So we agree that no model can predict the price or price change perfectly. But I maintain that a good theory can provide the direction of a relative price change and that prediction is testable. Furthermore, I maintain that assuming "more information is better than less" is a reasonable general, generalizable assumption.

Thank you for taking the time to compete.

Robert Swan writes:

SaveyourSelf,

A few comments on your response (though we're rather a long way from race and eugenics).

You said: "you can follow a price back to large amounts of information". Perhaps a change in price (or the fact it didn't change) makes you curious to go looking elsewhere; there is still no information in the price beyond the number itself.

In any case, the beauty of Hayek's explanation of price is that it spares people the bother of gathering together the information and deciding what it all means. The price being pulled this way and that by the buyers and sellers integrates their collective knowledge without anyone needing access to all the underlying facts.

Having deeper knowledge can certainly help, but sometimes it can be pretty sketchy. I suspect the post-Brexit stock market swings were largely driven by people guessing what other people were guessing that still other people would make of the decision.

You said: "If Hayek had useful insights, they must be predictive of something". There are various mathematical theorems that tell you a problem can't be solved. E.g. that there is no general algebraic solution to polynomials > 4th degree. If your manipulations yield one of these, you've reached a dead end. Hayek's insight is similar, it says that if you need to predict the price, you're doomed to failure.

I've heard Russ complain a couple of times about having given media interviews after various financial excitements where they ask him (more or less) "What is the market reaction going to be?". Russ naturally answers "I don't know", at which point he gets a demotion in the pundit rankings and the interviewers go looking for someone less attached to Hayek's lesson.

You said: "...if you are trying to predict something simpler like whether some coercive policy will make the market less efficient... it should be possible to predict the direction of change if not the absolute size of the change". Change in what? Some index of "market efficiency" I guess, but I don't believe Hayek devised any such index.

Alternatively, if you're saying the market price tells you something about market efficiency, I'd say you're mistaken. On its own, the price cannot tell you whether it is holding up because it's in a "sticky" market, or because there's a real buyer in a "free" market.

Gandydancer writes:

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."

The idea that it benefits the bulk of the inhabitants of this country not at all to permit the migration here of great masses of Mexican peasantry, or any Muslims, is simple common sense. You may think your indignation is an adequate substitute for argument, but all that does is demonstrate your unpreparedness for open debate.

SaveyourSelf writes:

@ Gandydancer

No offense, but if your best argument against immigration is that opposing it is "...simple common sense," then you really have no chance against Russ Roberts in any debate, open or otherwise. Just sayin.

Frank Howland writes:

In my view Eugene Debs is unfairly treated by Russ Roberts in this podcast. As noted by Leonard himself, the source cited by Leonard argues that Debs abandoned his racism and nativism by 1900. Debs supported blacks' and immigrants' rights--see for example his letter to the International Socialist Review in 1910: "The plea that certain races are to be excluded because of expediency would be entirely consistent in a bourgeois convention of self-seekers, but should have no place in a proletarian gathering under the auspices of an international movement that is calling on the oppressed and exploited workers of all the world to unite for their emancipation."

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