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History and ideology

Upsetting conventional wisdom

Members of the 1923 American Economic Association at the White House in Washington D.C. after being received by President Calvin Coolidge. Handout

History and ideology
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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.”

William Ripley, elected AEA president in 1913, was one of the many eugenicists with plans to constrain immigration. He had contempt for Jewish immigrants from Europe who were part of the “great Polish swamp of miserable human beings” and too stupid to be useful. Psychologists had developed the first IQ tests: They showed that 54 percent of Army draftees were “morons” with the intelligence of 8- to 12-year-olds. Immigrants from Eastern Europe were particularly below par.

Columbia University’s Henry Rogers Seager, AEA president in 1922, said “we must courageously cut off lines of heredity that have been proved to be undesirable by isolation or sterilization.” Another AEA president, A.B. Wolfe, called elimination of the inefficient consistent “with the spirit and trend of modern social economics.” University of Chicago pastor and sociologist Charles R. Henderson also proposed forcible sterilization of the obviously unfit to “deprive them of liberty and so prevent their propagation of defects and thus the perpetuation of their ­misery in their offspring.”

Book of the year

ILLIBERAL REFORMERS Thomas C. Leonard (Princeton University Press)

Although “social justice” Christians see themselves walking in the footsteps of Social Gospelers like Washington Gladden and Walter Rauschenbusch, they should check their shoe sizes. Thomas Leonard quotes Gladden’s contention that a respect for individual liberty was “a radical defect in the thinking of the average American.” Rauschenbusch said unfit workers whom ­capitalists could manipulate made possible the “murderous” free market system, so those workers should be eliminated: It was time to direct human evolution, to “make history make us.”

Leonard’s conclusion: “The original progressives’ illiberal turn did not stop at property and contract rights. They assaulted political and civil liberties, too, trampling on individual rights to person, to free movement, to free expression, to marriage and to reproduction. The progressives denied millions these basic freedoms, on grounds that their inferiority threatened America’s economic and hereditary security. They were wrong on both counts. That did not stop them, nor has it stopped those who, unaware of the history, repeat the same false claims today.” —Marvin Olasky


HEYDAY Ben Wilson (Basic)

As the debate about free trade vs. Trump protectionism intensifies, Wilson’s fact-filled but fluidly written history of the 1850s—“Dawn of the Global Age,” as the subtitle argues—is worth reading. Wilson shows how the 1850s in Europe and America were years of economic advance via international trade and tells how the decade’s cotton boom enriched Southern plantation owners and hurt slaves. He connects technological developments with wars and rumors of war in China, Japan, India, Australia, and Nicaragua, largely omitting religious influences and showing in the process that capitalism without Christianity makes us go fast but not straight. —M.O.


In one volume, Australian historian Peter McPhee tells the story of the French Revolution, showing how France’s involvement in the New World—including the French and Indian War and our Revolutionary War—drained France’s treasury and fed popular discontent with the monarchy. The book’s scope means that some aspects of the Revolution get less attention than others. For instance, McPhee mentions the support that Protestant clergy gave to the radicals but doesn’t give an adequate explanation of how they squared their support with Scripture. What we do get is a well-written account of a period that bears some resemblance to our present unhappy time—including occasional bad language. —Susan Olasky


The loss of 6 million Jewish lives is, of course, the main tragedy of the Holocaust. A secondary one: Many non-Jews, even those who called themselves Christians, were passive—but not all. In brisk, frills-free prose with helpful historical context, Gragg details the extraordinary courage of 30 ordinary people who believed Jewish lives mattered and did extraordinary things to preserve them. Among the heroes: a London stockbroker, a 13-year-old Austrian girl, a Scottish schoolteacher, and a French farming couple. Some were former Hitler supporters who became disillusioned and disgusted with his regime. For most, their Christian faith was the propelling force behind their sacrifice. —Sophia Lee


When a German submarine in 1915 sank the Lusitania, a British luxury liner, almost 1,200 civilians, including 128 Americans, died. British journalists saw the act as proof of German perfidy, and the United States started its slow movement toward entry into world war. Historians, though, have often overlooked the effect on Germany. Citizens there could have reared back in horror, but the effect was the opposite: One German newspaper “regard[ed] with a wry smile the general howls of anger and screams of indignation. … No sentimentality: just a fight to the finish with this nation of vulgar shopkeepers.” German professor Jasper shows how his people tried to justify becoming their brothers’ killers, and even enlisted the writings of Goethe to their side. —M.O

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Marvin Olasky

Marvin is the former editor in chief of WORLD, having retired in January 2022, and former dean of World Journalism Institute. He joined WORLD in 1992 and has been a university professor and provost. He has written more than 20 books, including Reforming Journalism.



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