Leaders in academia and media have long pressed upon us a fable about the nature of progress: “Progressives” are on the side of the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to be free, and “conservatives” front the reactionary forces mainly interested in protecting their privilege and suppressing the weak. The abortion battle over the past four decades has certainly shown up that thinking, but thoughtful historians are doing the same.
One 2016 example: Thomas Leonard’s Illiberal Reformers, published by a mainstream outfit, the Princeton University Press. Leonard shows how the early progressive founders of the American Economic Association (AEA) in 1885 argued that the needs of the state trumped individual liberty, and the progress they sought included running over the poor and anyone else in their way.
Leonard provides fascinating information on proposals for a minimum wage a century ago. The big idea from big-time economists: “The minimum wage would throw the least productive employees out of work or prevent their employment in the first place. … Removal of the less productive [was not] a cost of the minimum wage but ... a positive benefit to society.” They could be “brought under the surveillance of the state—institutionalized, segregated in rural colonies, or even sexually sterilized.”
The progressives wanted progress, and they feared that caring for the least and the lost would slow human evolution. After all, Charles Darwin had written in the decade before the AEA’s founding: “With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated. … We civilized men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination; we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed, and the sick; we institute poor-laws; and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of every one to the last moment. There is reason to believe that vaccination has preserved thousands who from a weak constitution would formerly have succumbed to small-pox. Thus the weak members of civilized societies propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man.”
AEA presidents were forthright in their Darwinian emphasis on survival of the fittest. Harvard economics professor Frank Taussig, AEA president in 1904 and then Woodrow Wilson’s economic adviser, thought the minimum wage would weed out “the feebleminded … those saturated with alcohol or tainted with hereditary disease … [and] the irretrievable criminals and tramps. … We have not reached the stage where we can proceed to chloroform them once and for all; but at least they can be segregated, shut up in refuges and asylums, and prevented from propagating their kind.”