Journal of Economic Perspective
Eugenic ideas were not new in the Progressive Era, but they acquired new impetus with the Progressive Era advent of a more expansive government. In effect, the expansion of state power meant that it became possible to have not only eugenic thought, but also eugenic practice.
As eugenics historian Diane Paul (1995, p. 6) writes, eugenics legislation had to await “the rise of the welfare state.”
Progressives were drawn to eugenics by the same set of intellectual commitments that drew them to reform legislation. Paramount was the reform idea that laissez-faire was bankrupt.
Sidney Webb (1910–1911, p. 237) said flatly, “[N]o consistent eugenicist can be a ‘Laisser Faire’ individualist unless he throws up the game in despair. He must interfere, interfere, interfere!” Similarly, Frank Fetter (1907, pp. 92–93) pronounced at the AEA meetings: “Unless effective means are found to check the degeneration of the race, the noontide of humanity’s greatness is nigh, if not already passed. Our optimism must be based not upon laissez-faire,” said Fetter, “but upon vigorous application of science, humanity, and legislative art to the solution of the problem.”
Progressive opposition to laissez faire was motivated by a set of deep intellectual commitments regarding the relationship between social science, social scientific expertise and right governance.
The progressives were committed to 1) the explanatory power of scientific (especially statistical) social inquiry to get at the root causes of social and economic problems; 2) the legitimacy of social control, which derives from a holist conception of society as prior to and greater than the sum of its constituent individuals; 3) the efficacy of social control via expert management of public administration; where 4) expertise is both sufficient and necessary for the task of wise public administration.
It is no accident that so many notable eugenicists were pioneers in statistics. Francis Galton, Karl Pearson and Ronald A. Fisher were all founders of modern statistics and were, in addition, leading lights in the eugenics movement. Many proponents of eugenics in economics were also statistically oriented. Francis Amasa Walker, Richmond Mayo-Smith, Irving Fisher and Walter Wilcox were all statisticians, by training and/or by inclination. They regarded statistical measurement and inference as the method that put the “science” in social science.
Karl Pearson’s (1909, pp. 19–20) “bricks for the foundations” of eugenics emphasized statistical methods as the guarantor of better social science: “[first] we depart from the old sociology, in that we desert verbal discussion for statistical facts, and [second] we apply new methods of statistics which form practically a new calculus.” American progressives also saw statistics as providing a scientific foundation for their legislative reforms. Said reformer Lester Ward (1915, p. 46): “if laws of social events could be statistically formulated, they could be used for scientific lawmaking
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American eugenics went into decline in the 1930s, increasingly burdened by its political, demographic and scientific liabilities. Politically, the close association of eugenic ideas with the Nazi regime increasingly discredited American eugenic policies, and the newly powerful Catholic Church also opposed eugenics, both because Church doctrine forbade interference with conception and because many American Catholics belonged to groups the eugenicists considered unfit.
But the Progressive Era vogue for eugenics was also undone by demographic and scientific developments.