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Illiberal Reformers: Race, Eugenics and American Economics in the Progressive Era

Author(s):Leonard, Thomas C.
Reviewer(s):Hammond, J. Daniel

Published by EH.Net (July 2016)

Thomas C. Leonard, Illiberal Reformers: Race, Eugenics and American Economics in the Progressive Era. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016. xiv + 250 pp. $35 (cloth), ISBN: 978-0-691-16959-0.

Reviewed for EH.Net by J. Daniel Hammond, Department of Economics, Wake Forest University.

With Illiberal Reformers, Thomas C. (Tim) Leonard of Princeton University opens the door of a closet containing family artifacts of American economists from the half century that straddled 1900. An hour or two or three spent in the family closet via Leonard’s fine book is sobering to any economist who has promoted our discipline as the “queen of social sciences.” These artifacts of our immediate family (economics), near-extended family (social sciences), and more distant family (science) are not pretty. Imagine learning that your great grandfather or grandmother whose name you bear was a member of the mafia or the Klan or perhaps a slave trader. You might be tempted to extinguish the closet light and close the door as you depart. But we should not turn away from this history, because it is revealing of ourselves as well as our forebears. As American Economic Association founder Richard T. Ely (1936, p. 141) wrote in a reflection on the Association’s founding, “Great oaks from little acorns grow.”

With a focus on economics, the book is broadly about educated beliefs and presumptions in the Progressive era. A generation of American scholars returning from graduate study in Germany in the late nineteenth century brought science to bear on what they understood to be the social problems of the day. Many of the problems were products of the transformation of the American economy from agriculture to industry and the growth of cities.  Preeminent among the problems were unmanaged and dysgenic biological and social evolution. Progressives paired biological and social science with social and legal activism to answer the author of Ecclesiastes (“Consider the work of God: for who can make that straight, which he has made crooked?” 7:13) with “we can and we will!”

Illiberal Reformers is in two parts. The three chapters in Part I, “The Progressive Ascendency,” cover the pairing of science and religion in the Social Gospel that was the foundation of the American Economic Association’s establishment in 1885; the turn by economists away from Classical Liberalism and so-called laissez-faire; the rise of the expert and the administrative state in the Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson presidencies; and the application of the new science of administration to achieve efficiency across the gamut of social activities and institutions. Part II, “The Progressive Paradox,” concerns a paradox that Leonard identifies running through the Progressive reform movement, that people who received a bad draw in the lottery of genetic or social circumstances were viewed both as subjects to be assisted and as threats to be managed, excluded, or if necessary destroyed. This section includes chapters on theories of labor markets and wages; the various strands of Darwinism that informed the reformers; the perceived crisis of dysgenic human breeding; and the eugenic basis for labor reforms that remain key parts of our political economy today.  The chapters brim over with facts, quotations, and references to the Progressives’ writings and activities.

It is easy, perhaps too easy, from our place in history to condemn the Progressives for ignorant intellectual commitments that justified cruel and unjust policies and practices. Many of the statements of leading lights of economics and sociology, religion, politics, jurisprudence, social work, and reform activism are offensive to our sensibilities. We encounter AEA founder Richard T. Ely, who is honored by the AEA each year with the Richard T. Ely Lecture, referring to the poor as a “human rubbish heap” (p. 53) and writing that “the morally incurable” and those “who will not work and will not obey should not be allowed to propagate their kind” (pp. 131-32).  AEA President and monetary theorist Irving Fisher wrote in his Elementary Principles of Economics that “if the vitality or vital capital is impaired by a breeding of the worst and a cessation of the breeding of the best, no greater calamity could be imagined.”  This calamity, however, could be forestalled “by isolation in public institutions and in some cases by surgical operation” (p. 227). Preeminent international trade theorist, AEA President, and long-time editor of the Quarterly Journal of Economics Frank Taussig wrote in his Principles of Economics that those who would be chronically unemployable with a minimum wage “should simply be stamped out. . . . 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” (p. 165).

Nor by current standards do Progressive women reformers fare well. Florence Kelley, settlement worker at Hull House in Chicago and the first woman to hold statewide office in Illinois, held views on immigration and women in the workforce that would be considered by today’s sophisticates beyond the pale. On immigration, Kelley wrote to a correspondent that “I am convinced that the Pacific Coast people are right about the Mongolians; and I am sure that we are utter fools to endure the ruin of the Atlantic Coast by the invasion of Asia Minor and South Eastern Europe” (p. 153). She supported a family wage for men in order to keep wives and mothers in the home. “Family life in the home is sapped in its foundations when mothers of young children work for wages.” A problem with immigrants was that wives of immigrant men were more likely than American natives to be employed outside the home. “The American tradition is that men support their families, their wives throughout life, and the children at least until the fourteenth birthday” (p. 173).

Leonard draws from the history of Progressivism a warning of the dangers of scientific hubris for contemporary intellectuals who concern themselves with public policy. The Progressives wanted to do good, but out of impatience and pride fell prey to various evils. Leonard insists that we should not turn away from the ugliness in the foundations of twenty-first century disciplines of genetics, economics, sociology, demography, medicine and public health (p.189), presuming under the sway of our own progressive presumptions, that time and research funding and effort have over the past century turned pseudosciences into genuine science.

Leonard’s preferred alternative to the Progressives’ intellectual and ethical commitments is classical liberalism with its emphasis on the primacy of the individual and protection of political, economic and civil liberties. Thus the criticism imbedded in the title, Illiberal Reformers. But liberalism carries its own dangers of antinomian individualism and social isolation if it is not secured by sound ethics and understanding of human nature. How can we know that a return to classical liberalism is progress?

Are there grounds for confidence that a hundred years hence scholars will look back with pride and not shame at the records of what we have presumed to know? How will future scholars view papers presented, for example, in recent (2016) AEA conference sessions on Culture, Prosocial Behavior and Ethnicity; Health, Education and Families; Applications of Behavioral Science; and Behavioral Interventions and Environmental Sustainability? Since the Progressive era, economics has become increasingly specialized and identified with mathematical and statistical technique. Absent grounding in universal and timeless principles of who humans are and their right relationships with each other and with nature we will remain at risk of being technicians in service to whatever are the prevailing fashions. We need sound standards by which to judge our current beliefs and practices along with those of past generations.


Richard T. Ely (1936), “The Founding and Early History of the American Economic Association,” American Economic Review, 26 (1, supplement): 141-50.

J. Daniel Hammond is co-editor with Robert A. Cord of Milton Friedman: Contributions to Economics and Public Policy, Oxford University Press, 2016.

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Subject(s):History of Economic Thought; Methodology
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII

Liberal Reform in an Illiberal Regime: The Creation of Private Property in Russia, 1906-1915

Author(s):Williams, Stephen F.
Reviewer(s):Nafziger, Steven

Published by EH.NET (July 2007)

Stephen F. Williams, Liberal Reform in an Illiberal Regime: The Creation of Private Property in Russia, 1906-1915. Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 2006. xiv + 320 pp. $15 (paperback), ISBN: 0-8179-4722-1.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Steven Nafziger, Department of Economics, Williams College.

Liberal Reform in an Illiberal Regime, by Stephen F. Williams, is an interesting, interdisciplinary study of one of the largest property rights reforms in European history ? the famed Stolypin reforms of late-Tsarist Russia. Initiated in the wake of the first Russian revolution of 1905-6, the Stolypin reforms (named for their guiding personality and then presiding Prime Minister, Petr Stolypin) aimed to help alleviate the backwardness and inefficiency of peasant agriculture through land titling and the consolidation of scattered plots into unified farms. Williams, a retired Federal Appeals court judge (DC Circuit) and former law professor at the University of Colorado, offers an interpretation of the reforms that draws heavily on political science, law and economics, and the economics of institutions.

Liberal Reform argues that the measures taken under Stolypin failed to truly modernize Russia’s economy because they were undertaken by a fundamentally illiberal regime that did not guarantee the enforcement of property rights or allow markets (especially in land) to freely function. Broadly comparative, especially to property rights issues in the modern developing world, the book implicitly and explicitly compares the Stolypin reforms under Tsar Nicholas II to recent reform efforts (or the lack thereof) in Russia under Vladimir Putin. As such, Williams’s analysis will appeal to scholars interested in property rights, land reforms, and the political implications of both, especially in authoritarian states. However, economic historians with an interest in Russian development are unlikely to be persuaded by the structure of the argument or the evidence brought to bear.

After 1905, Stolypin and his allies in the administration and the Duma passed a series of decrees and statutes aimed at transforming the prevailing regime of peasant property rights, thereby improving production incentives and the allocation of resources. This effort was motivated by the perceived inefficiencies of open-field agriculture and the communal organization of rural society. Since the reforms of the 1860s, which emancipated the peasants and endowed them with collective property rights (typically at the village level), Russian peasant agriculture appeared increasingly backward in comparison to the best practices in Western Europe and North America. The reforms were meant to spark technological modernization by enabling peasant households to shift from communal property rights and practices towards individualized farming and land tenure. This meant the establishment of individual title to land that was previously under collective community control and consolidations of scattered, open-field holdings into unified farms. The reforms set forth administrative and financial support for the millions of farmers and thousands of entire villages that undertook one of a menu of possible changes: from full enclosures of villages under individualized titles, to exchanges of intermingled fields among neighboring villages, to the resettlement of interested households in Siberia.[1] Alongside these changes in land-holdings and property rights, the reforms ended collective responsibility for tax and land obligations, forgave arrears on existing obligations, and officially did away with many other juridical limitations on peasant civil rights.

Given the epic scale of the reforms, historians have long argued over whether Stolypin’s efforts mattered (or would have, if not for World War I and the Bolsheviks) for Russian economic development. To Alexander Gerschenkron (1965), establishing private property rights and ending the commune’s hold on peasant initiative enabled Tsarist Russia’s belated turn towards modern economic growth.[2] In contrast, Williams argues that any productivity benefits, as well as peasant “freedoms” (Chapter 1) more generally, were undermined and ultimately failed to take root because they were enacted by a non-democratic, non-liberal state. He builds his study around a thematic question: is it possible for fundamental grass-roots reforms (enabling “freedom” and “liberal democracy” in his view) to take place under a centralized and “illiberal” regime such as Tsarist Russia. Williams eventually answers this potentially interesting query, recently investigated by economists such as Acemoglu and Robinson (2006), in the negative, but he bases his conclusions on theoretical musings and secondary sources, rather than any detailed analysis of available documents or official statistics.

After introducing the reforms and instrumental concepts such as “liberalism” in Chapter 1, Williams describes the agricultural and social context of pre-1905 Russia in Chapters 2 and 3. Overall, his review of a vast literature is well-done, but problems do emerge here that spill over the rest of the study. In several places, the book exhibits small but significant lapses when either describing historical developments or applying economic theory to explain them. For example, in Chapter 3 (pp. 104-06), a puzzling discussion of the positive correlation between grain and land prices puts much of the blame for high land prices on the Peasant Land Bank ? a fairly limited institution that definitely did not have market power when it came to credit or land. Moreover, although Williams acknowledges that practices of collective fiscal responsibility and land management were fairly flexible, he eventually accepts Gerschenkron’s association of the commune with agricultural backwardness and labor immobility. In contrast, recent studies (see Nafziger, 2006) have drawn on archival and statistical evidence to question these interpretations by econometrically testing for linkages between communal practices and economic inefficiencies. Finally, Williams refrains from discussing or analyzing his sources ? both secondary and primary ? in much depth. This allows him to either brush aside contradictory evidence or to qualify his conclusions to such a degree that the argument of the book becomes difficult to maintain and, eventually, to prove.

In Chapter 4, Williams describes the political context of the efforts by Stolypin and his supporters to enact property rights reforms. This chapter usefully outlines the views of the main political groups at the time (the nobility, the various parties of the left, the liberal Kadets, etc.) regarding land reforms, but these synopses exist in something of a vacuum, without much historical context to help the reader. Moreover, this chapter, along with Chapter 1, focuses almost exclusively on politics at the highest levels, often through the allusions to the personality and decisions of Stolypin, himself. The resulting depiction of events is rife with many quasi-counterfactual statements regarding what the reformers might have done differently, but little documentary evidence is analyzed beyond public speeches and memoirs to explain exactly how and why various choices were made.

This birds-eye focus on the mechanics of reform continues in Chapter 5, where Williams describes the particulars of the statutes and decrees and the take-up of different options by peasants and villages. The account is complemented by data at the provincial level, but the micro-level process of the reform process is left as a black box. In Chapter 6, which returns to the issues of reform design, the exclusive focus on legislation and decrees contrasts sharply with Pallot’s (1999) impressive study of the enactment of the Stolypin reforms. In her work, Pallot puts the emphasis squarely on how peasants encountered the reform through their interaction with surveyors, administrators, and each other. Unlike Williams, she views the failures of the Stolypin reforms to revolutionize rural society and economy as the outcome of peasants rationally choosing to retain communal practices and to resist certain aspects of the reforms. At the end of the day, this reviewer is much more convinced by Pallot’s careful study of the reform process based on archival and primary evidence, than by Williams’s analysis.

In Chapter 7, Williams concludes by studying the effects of the reforms, both immediate and long-term. Likening the Stolypin reforms to the English enclosure movement (although misinterpreting the state of the literature regarding productivity benefits of enclosure), Williams jumps from noting the lack of evidence on positive productivity gains to asserting that the reforms must have not gone far enough in liberalizing land markets or privatizing land holdings.[3] Besides this logical leap, Williams puzzlingly points to state support of the cooperative movement in the 1900s and 1910s as additional evidence that the regime was not really committed to becoming a liberal capitalist democracy (really now?). This leads him to conclude that although the intent of the reforms was very much “liberal” (p. 250), the “illiberalism” of the Tsarist state undermined Stolypin’s laudatory goals. The book ends with a consideration of property rights and liberal reforms in Putin’s Russia that is overly brief and highly conjectural. As a result, the book ends rather abruptly, without adequately summarizing what the reader should take away.

Overall, Liberal Reform in an Illiberal Regime is a significant contribution to our understanding of a critical moment in Russian economic and social history. Stephen Williams offers an impressive distillation of a large amount of secondary literature on the Stolypin reforms. He sheds deserved attention on the political context of what ended up being the last chance for the Tsarist regime to effect modernization in rural Russia before the October Revolution. Unfortunately, the limited use of original sources, several conceptual difficulties arising from not delving deep enough into the reforms’ context or process, and the polemical undertones of the study (published by Hoover Press) detract from this book’s usefulness as either an introduction to the Stolypin reforms or as a specialized study of the political implications of enclosing and privatizing communal land-holdings.


1. The “take-up” of the reforms did involve millions of households and a large number of villages. However, these totals still only included a minority of the vast Russian peasant population. Pallot (1999, pp. 190-192) and Williams (2006, Chapter 5) review the relevant numbers. 2. This “Gerscheknronian” view has recently been questioned by Gregory (1994) and Nafziger (2006), based on aggregate and micro-evidence, respectively. 3. Surprisingly, Williams does not mention the only work this reviewer is aware of which “tests” for positive agricultural productivity effects of the Stolpyin reforms. The empirical work in Toumanoff (1984) is limited by significant identification problems, but it could have usefully served as a starting point for Williams’s research.


Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson. Economic Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Alexander Gerschenkron. “Agrarian Policies and Industrialization, Russia 1861-1917.” The Cambridge Economic History of Europe. Vol. VI, Part II. Ed. H. J. Habakkuk and M. Postan. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1965. 706-800.

Paul R. Gregory. Before Command: An Economic History of Russia from Emancipation to the First Five-Year Plan. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994.

Steven Nafziger. “Communal Institutions, Resource Allocation, and Russian Economic Development: 1861-1905.” Ph.D. dissertation, Yale University. 2006.

Judith Pallot. Land Reform in Russia 1906-1917: Peasant Responses to Stolypin’s Project of Rural Transformation. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999.

Peter Toumanoff. “Some Effects of Land Tenure Reforms on Russian Agricultural Productivity, 1901-1913.” Economic Development and Cultural Change 32, 4 (1984): 861-72.

Steven Nafziger is an Assistant Professor of Economics at Williams College. His research focuses on institutions and economic development in Imperial Russia before 1917.

Subject(s):Markets and Institutions
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII