[UPDATE: One of the CAP authors, John Halpin, showed up in comments to complain – very reasonably – that I linked to the wrong part of their three part series, and failed to make clear it was part of a series. (I copied it from Goldberg, in composing the post! Why would I assume that anything he does is right?) Anyway, here is Halprin’s response to my post, with links. Halprin also argues that he and his co-author handled some of the stuff I wanted included in part 3. I admit that I had only read parts 1 & 2 before writing the post – I though part 3 was still forthcoming – but it doesn’t seem to me that the material from part 3 he quotes is quite forceful or extensive enough to do the job, even given that it must be done briefly.]
Jonah Goldberg links, approvingly, to a Damon Root post at Reason, complaining about a new Center For American Progress paper entitled “The Progressive Intellectual Tradition In America” (PDF). Root’s complaint is fair, but only up to a point. Here’s the fair bit: the CAP paper is a feel-good affair. Nothing about uglier aspects or excesses of American Progressivism: specifically, racism and sexism, hence eugenics. (And imperialism, but let’s just stick with eugenics for this post.) Of course the obvious objection to that is that there was nothing distinctively Progressive about racism and sexism. It’s just that we are talking about the late 19th/early 20th Centuries here. Still, if you combine eugenics – even if it’s only average for the era – with political philosophy and policy you sure can get bad results. There’s no reason whatsoever to paste this ugly history on every single contemporary formulation of progressive political philosophy. If Barack Obama is giving a stump speech, and he delivers some applause line about progressive ideals, there is no reason for him to pause and add a pedantic footnote about eugenics and how some Progressives, and some people some Progressives admired as scientific authorities, believed ugly stuff a hundred years ago. But if you are writing a history, the presumption is that you want people to learn from history, and some of the major lessons of the Progressive Era are cautionary ones, philosophically and in terms of policy. I doubt the authors of these papers would deny this, so including a ‘cautionary lessons’ subsection would have been a better scheme. (If I had to guess, they’re thinking tactically. ‘If we mention this stuff, being careful to get all the necessary nuance in, someone like Jonah Goldberg will find it and quote it, carving out the nuance, and it will sound like even CAP admits that Progressivism = Eugenics.’ Still, if you are damned if you do, damned if you don’t, you should do the right thing and be damned.)
Now we get to the unfair bit. Root and Goldberg seem to think that if you are advocating progressivism today – rather than writing history – there is some vital need to self-lacerate, early and often, over the whole eugenics-a-hundred-years-ago business. The Goldberg rule seems to be this: if some Progressive believed in eugenics – or if some really major, central figure of the Progressive movement admired someone who was a major proponent of eugenics – then Progressives have to “own up” to this. Goldberg (from the post linked above):
As anyone who has read my book knows, I’m all for today’s Progressives owning up to their intellectual founders, but even I don’t claim that today’s Progressives believe the same things as their forebears. If they did, they would be rightly pelted from the public stage as statist, racist, imperialist, eugenicist warmongers.
It’s unclear what ‘owning up’ to beliefs you don’t own – i.e. believe – amounts to, but Goldberg is very clear that he doesn’t think conservatives are in the same boat. He’s sure that progressives have a dark past. But conservatives? “Of course, there’s no evidence provided [by those who protest that eugenics is as much conservative as progressive] that any conservatives supported eugenics.” Well, here goes …
I have recently developed a minor interest in Irving Fisher, on account of his Terry Pratchett-worthy pioneering of Gloopernomics. But besides that, as his Wikipedia page states, he was an early proponent of what came to be neoclassical economics. (I guess he was a paleoneoclassicist.) Milton Friedman called him “the greatest economist the United States has ever produced.” Mostly because he anticipated Friedman’s monetarism. And if you read William F. Buckley’s God & Man at Yale – the introduction to the 1977 edition, anyway – there’s a note explaining that, by ‘individualism’, he means ‘monetarism. (that’s why the chapter on ‘individualism’ reads so funny). So: there is a sense in which Irving Fisher is the Godfather of modern American conservatism and modern American libertarianism, insofar as the latter is inspired by, or deeply infused by, Friedmanian ideas about markets.
Oh, and Irving Fisher was a major figure in American eugenics. And he wanted to ban booze, too! And remove your bowels, noseriously. From Wikipedia:
The lay public perhaps knew Fisher best as a health campaigner and eugenicist. In 1898 he found that he had tuberculosis, the disease that killed his father. After three years in sanatoria, Fisher returned to work with even greater energy and with a second vocation as a health campaigner. He advocated vegetarianism, avoiding red meat, and exercise, writing How to Live: Rules for Healthful Living Based on Modern Science, a USA best seller.
In 1912 he also became a member of the scientific advisory to the Eugenics Record Office and served as the secretary of the American Eugenics Society.
Fisher was also a strong believer in the now-ridiculed “focal sepsis” theory of physician Henry Cotton, who believed that mental illness was attributable to infectious material residing in the roots of the teeth, recesses in the bowels, and other places in the human body, and that surgical removal of this infectious material would cure the patient’s mental disorder. Fisher believed in these theories so thoroughly that when his daughter Margaret Fisher was diagnosed with schizophrenia, Fisher had numerous sections of her bowel and colon removed at Dr. Cotton’s hospital, eventually resulting in his daughter’s death.
Fisher was also an ardent supporter of the Prohibition of alcohol in the United States, and wrote three short books arguing that Prohibition was justified on the grounds of both public health and hygiene, as well as economic productivity and efficiency, and should therefore be strictly enforced by the United States government.
Now, if contemporary Progressives have to ‘own up’ to eugenics because their ancestors believed it, I think it hardly makes sense for writers at National Review and Reason not to ‘own up’ to precisely the same degree. (Obviously they don’t believe any of this crazy stuff, but if they think people who have only one or two degrees of separation from it are obliged to tar themselves with it, lavishly – then go to!) Or maybe Jonah Goldberg can do one of his ‘we are all fascists’ pirouettes: we are all eugenicists now!
But seriously. What’s going on here? It doesn’t make sense to say economic monetarism is a eugenic doctrine, or that belief in laissez faire economics will lead to a resurgence of prohibitionism, or more weakly that believers in monetarism and markets have to ‘own up’ to these doctrines, because it isn’t that hard to separate them out, intellectually. And spiritually! By the same token, it doesn’t make sense to say that political progressivism is a eugenic doctrine. Why shouldn’t it be possible to believe what political progressives believe without believing in eugenics? Why should progressives have to ‘own up’ to stuff from 100 years ago any more so than writers at Reason have to own up to advocacy of prohibition? or wanting to pull your teeth and extract your bowels, for your own good?
In other news, I’ve been researching what practical, policy implications of Obamacare are likely to be. It’s pretty exciting, progressive stuff – very modern and scientific, Frankensteinish, up-to-the-minute, likely to make America more like Europe. All the good stuff. (I think it’s a damn shame that Republicans have been threatening to filibuster Baron von Evilstein’s nomination.) Here are some scans: