Friday, November 03, 2006


Some liberals have taken to calling themselves "progressives." In doing so, they are deliberately hearkening back to the "progressive" label from the early 20th century.

I find this very puzzling. If you look at what the original "progressives" stood for, there were some good things (opposition to child labor, for example) mixed in with a lot of positions that are not good. Woodrow Wilson was famously racist, while other Progressives eagerly promoted eugenics and sterilization so as to get rid of the "unfit" (indeed, the Nazis based their own sterilization law on a model law written by an American eugenicist). Some Progressives also took a very non-liberal view of allowing women to work:
American economics came of age during the Progressive Era, a time when biological approaches to economic reform were at heir high-water mark. Reform-minded economists argue that the labor force should be rid of unfit workers—whom they labeled “unemployables,” “parasites,” and the “industrial residuum” — so as to uplift superior, deserving workers. Women were also frequently classified as unemployable. Leading progressives, including women at the forefront of labor reform, justified exclusionary labor legislation for women on grounds that it would (1) protect the biologically weaker sex from the hazards of market work; (2) protect working women from the temptation of prostitution; (3) protect male heads of household from the economic competition of women; and (4) ensure that women could better carry out their eugenic duties as “mothers of the race.”
It's also eye-opening to read why some original Progressives supported minimum wage legislation:
What is more surprising is that these leading progressives campaigned for labor reform while also maintaining that restrictive labor laws, such as legal minimum wages, would disemploy poor workers. Moreover, these progressives argued that minimum-wage-induced disemployment was a social benefit. Legal minimum wages and other statutory means of inducing undesirable groups to leave the labor force were, in the progressive view, a eugenic benefit. A legal minimum helped the deserving poor by removing from employment the undeserving poor, who, by virtue of their hereditary infirmities, were wrongly dragging down the wages of the better class of worker (Leonard 2003a). Sidney and Beatrice Webb put it plainly: “With regard to certain sections of the population [the ‘unemployables’], this unemployment is not a mark of social disease, but actually of social health” (Webb and Webb [1897] 1920: 785).
A side note here: When modern liberals criticize Bush's judicial nominees for supposedly endangering the New Deal precedents that allowed minimum wage legislation, keep in mind that the minimum wage laws at issue in those cases applied only to women.

* * *

So my question is, why are some modern liberals reclaiming the "progressive" label? If some conservatives today started talking not about "federalism" or "subsidiarity," but about "state's rights," someone might ask why they had switched to a name that, however good in theory, inevitably had associations with a racist political movement from decades past.


Blogger Al Maviva said...

So my question is, why are some modern liberals reclaiming the "progressive" label?

Historical illiteracy. It's a common problem among the NuLeft. And much of the Olde Left, come to think of it.

12:01 PM  
Blogger Bill Baar said...

It's Henry Wallace's Progressivism of 1948 that they have in mind.

11:13 AM  

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