Sunday, November 28, 2010


The inclination to force people to behave in ways that will be good for them is hardly limited to any one point on the ideological spectrum and, indeed, the argument about where to draw the line is inevitable in any society governed by law. George Santayana observed a century ago that the only thing liberalism has liberated people from is their marriage vows. Now, as then, those most inclined — in every aspect of life apart from sex — to regulate, prohibit, censor, and mandate how we live, seem to be liberals or, as they once again tend to style themselves, "progressives." George Will wrote today that "Progressivism is a faith-based program. The progressives' agenda for improving everyone else varies but invariably involves the cult of expertise — an unflagging faith in the application of science to social reform." There can be problems with applying "science" to social reform. Wilfred McClay recounts an example from an era when scientific expertise supported ideas today's progressives properly abjure.
With a few honorable exceptions, our historians have tended to gloss over the Progressive Era’s affinity for many of the 20th century’s most troubling ideas. Few Americans know, for example, about the magnetic appeal Italian fascism held in the 1920s for many of the most prominent American liberals and pragmatists. They openly praised Mussolini’s achievement in transforming a chronically disordered nation into “the cleanest, neatest, most efficiently operating piece of social machinery I’ve ever seen,” as FDR Brains Trust adviser Rexford G. Tugwell enthused.

An even more interesting omission is our neglect of the then-widespread popularity and respectability of eugenics. This new “science” for the systematic practice of selective human breeding for the supposed improvement of society led to the sterilization and segregation of the “feeble-minded” and other “undesirable” individuals and groups in American society. It sounds like a preoccupation of the exotic fringe to most of us now, but nine decades ago eugenics was openly advocated as a mainstream Progressive idea. Indeed, the most certifiably advanced minds of the day promoted and celebrated it. In 1923, former President Charles W. Eliot of Harvard, U.S. Senator Royal Copeland of New York, former President David Starr Jordan of Indiana and Stanford Universities, President Livingston Farrand of Cornell University, and a host of other educational, medical and social-welfare luminaries making up the Eugenics Committee of the United States came forth with a program calling for “selective immigration, sterilization of defectives and control of everything having to do with the reproduction of human beings.” In 1932, Margaret Sanger, founder of the organization that would eventually become Planned Parenthood, advocated “a stern and rigid policy of sterilization and segregation to that grade of population whose progeny is already tainted or whose inheritance is such that objectionable traits may be transmitted to offspring.” ....

Nor was eugenics merely a utopian idea. It formed the basis of concrete policies. For one thing, it lent its strong support to the immigration-restriction statutes of the 1920s. But there were more direct and telling effects. Thirty-three American states passed laws that allowed for the involuntary sterilization of those deemed “unfit.” The famous words of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. in the 1927 Buck v. Bell case—”three generations of imbeciles are enough”—expressed the Supreme Court’s upholding of a Virginia law, thereby signaling the general acceptability of eugenic involuntary-sterilization laws. Such activity was hardly restricted to Southern states. California, well-known to be one of the most Progressive-influenced states in the nation, led all others in performing some 20,000 forced sterilizations and did not cease the practice until the 1960s. .... [more behind a subscription wall]
George F. Will - Our puritanical progressives, Chesterton's Warning - Wilfred M. McClay - The American Interest Magazine