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The administrative state and the academic world

June 27, 2017

During the just concluded meeting of the North American society of historians of economic thought I made a major effort to find at least one other attendee who would be willing to make a single positive statement about the election of Donald Trump as president. They may all have been academics and therefore hopelessly lost, but even so, some were from the reddest of red states, some were from universities with a reputation for being on the right, some were from counties directly threatened by mortal enemies who Trump has promised to defend them against, but not a single one was willing even to murmur, even with just the two of us huddled together, speaking quietly and with no one else within earshot, that a case for Trump as president could be made. As an example of how far from the centre these students of history are, who are no doubt representative of the academic world in general, I offer you this citation that came with the awarding of the prize for the best book published in HET during the previous year. The rot is very deep. There is no evident clue in this that there is the slightest inkling of what is wrong with what they believe.

At the just concluded History of Economics Society meetings in Toronto, the 2017 Joseph J. Spengler Prize for the best book in the history of economics was awarded to Thomas “Tim” Leonard for his book Illiberal Reformers: Race, Eugenics and American Economics in the Progressive Era. The following testimonial was read at the Society Banquet.

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Leonard tells the story of how a band of academics and their reform allies, many inspired by the social gospel and on a mission to redeem America, went on to remake both American social science and its relation to the state. They transformed economics from a species of public discourse into an expert scientific field housed in recently formed research universities, where they could use their newly won positions and authority not only to advocate for new policies, but to refashion the role of the state itself. Their target, a laissez faire capitalism that they viewed as both wasteful and unjust, was to be undone by a new entity, the administrative state, which when guided by objective social scientists like themselves, would exercise the social control that was necessary to produce a better society. The myriad social problems wrought by urbanization, industrialization, and in the American case, massive immigration, gave impetus to their reforming zeal.

To be sure, the stories of the rise of the administrative state and the attendant professionalization of economics have been told before, sometimes by those who praised the new sorts of policies that the progressive reformers and their allies put into place, and sometimes by others who criticized what they saw as their scientistic hubris and overreach. Leonard’s unique contribution is to document in grim, indeed harrowing, detail the “scientific” arguments that were used by many progressives to bolster certain of their policy recommendations. For if the desire was to raise up the poor, to assist the downtrodden to be better able to help themselves, the definition of those who were deemed worthy of such assistance was limited. It did not include members of many immigrants groups, African Americans, women, and the disabled. Indeed, for members of these groups, the American dream of hard work leading to material success was grotesquely inverted by policies that helped guarantee that they could not compete successfully against the preferred group, namely, White Anglo Saxon Protestant males.

As a result parts of this book are, to put it mildly, unpleasant to read. Given the controversial nature of his material, Leonard wisely often simply lets his protagonists speak for themselves. And given the resurgence of nativist, nationalist, and xenophobic elements in the political discourse and policies of many countries today, it is, sad to say, a timely read.

We started out with over 20 books, but soon narrowed it down to a more manageable set to consider seriously. It turned out to be an incredibly easy process. It took just one e-mail to come to a decision, for Leonard’s book was rated first by all three of us.

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