The Closed Hand of Exclusion
By Amy Willis
In this week’s episode, EconTalk host Russ Roberts welcomed Princeton University’s Thomas Leonard to talk about his book, Illiberal Reformers: Race, Eugenics, and American Economics in the Progressive Era. Its a tough conversation, exploring as it does the very unsavory roots of the progressive movement–and the discipline of economics–in the United States.
1. How did the progressive era change the nature and scope of the state, according to Leonard? What vestiges of this change persist today, and what makes them so persistent?2. Roberts suggested that early economists such as Irving Fisher were seeking more than additional power for the state, but also additional power for themselves. To what extent do you agree with Roberts’s claim, and is such a phenomenon among professional economists more or less egregious today? Listen to this EconTalk episode with Luigi Zingales for a variation on this theme.
3. What were the reasons behind the push for minimum wage legislation in the early progressive era, and how do they compare to the reasons offered today? Does minimum wage legislation really eliminate (or at least reduce) the possibility of “climbing the ladder” of economic success, as Roberts contends?
4. Leonard reminds us, importantly, to keep the historical context of the early progressives in mind. That is, we cannot rightly condemn them of employing “pseudo-science,” as we might today. How then does this counsel humility for social scientists today? To what extent is such counsel heeded?