10.12.15

THE CASE FOR GOOD SHEPHERDS IS THE CASE FOR OBEDIENT SHEEP.

In remarks on Thomas C. Leonard's Illiberal Reformers, Virginia Postrel details the academy's tainted alliance with the self-styled progressives of the early twentieth century.
The progressives believed, first and foremost, in the importance of science and scientific experts in guiding the economy, government, and society. Against the selfishness, disorder, corruption, ignorance, conflict and wastefulness of free markets or mass democracy, they advanced the ideal of disinterested, public-spirited social control by well-educated elites. The progressives were technocrats who, Leonard observes, “agreed that expert public administrators do not merely serve the common good, they also identify the common good.” Schools of public administration, including the one that since 1948 has borne Woodrow Wilson’s name, still enshrine that conviction.

Leonard also brings to light an embarrassing truth: In the early 20th century, the progressive definition of the common good was thoroughly infused with scientific racism.
We now know a lot more about emergent systems than we did a century ago, and there have been enough blunders in theoretical and applied social science in the intervening years that the prudent academician understands why an explanation for a phenomenon is not the same as a justification for a policy. Hold that thought for future reference.

The self-styled progressives of a century ago were not yet that modest. In order that the Wise Experts have the authority to identify the common good, it must be the case that anyone not a Wise Expert is unqualified to so identify.  Then only the Wise Experts can Fix Things.

See those benighted poor people. They have primitive institutions. (Might work as an explanation.) It is Our Duty to rule them. (No longer defensible leap to justification.)
In the early 20th century, most progressives viewed as cutting-edge science what today looks like simple bigotry. “Eugenics and race science were not pseudosciences in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era,” Leonard emphasizes. “They were sciences,” supported by research laboratories and scholarly journals and promoted by professors at the country’s most prestigious universities.

While some socialists and conservatives also embraced them, Leonard argues, eugenics and scientific racism fit particularly well with progressive thought: “Eugenics was anti-individualistic; it promised efficiency; it required expertise, and it was founded on the authority of science.” Equally important, “biological ideas,” Leonard writes, gave progressive reformers “a conceptual scheme capable of accommodating the great contradiction at the heart of Progressive Era reform -- its view of the poor as victims deserving state uplift and as threats requiring state restraint.” They could feel sorry for impoverished Americans while trying to restrict their influence and limit their numbers.
These experts were more upfront about rendering people unemployable by the minimum wage, and their thinking endured at least to the passage of the Davis-Bacon Act in the depths of the Depression.
Advocates similarly didn’t deny that imposing a minimum wage might throw some people out of work. That wasn’t a bug; it was a feature -- a way to deter undesirable workers and keep them out of the marketplace and ideally out of the country. Progressives feared that, faced with competition from blacks, Jews, Chinese, or other immigrants, native-stock workingmen would try to keep up living standards by having fewer kids and sending their wives to work. VoilĂ : “race suicide.” Better to let a minimum wage identify inferior workers, who might be shunted into institutions and sterilized, thereby improving the breed in future generations.
In some ways, we can credit the current crop of Wise Experts with having thought again, or perhaps recognizing that a larger cohort of people dependent in a different way on government institutions was a ticket to re-election.  The extension to the failure of Hope and Change and the Trump phenomenon is left as an exercise.

It is to the role of proper research in improve the thinking that Ms Postrel and I wish to speak.
One progressive economist did offer an alternative view.  John Bates Clark, whose work avoided the racist assumptions of his peers, argued that a job’s wage would -- and, he believed, should -- equal the productivity of the marginal, or incremental, worker in that position. Rather than facing an inevitable race to the bottom, more productive workers in more productive enterprises could therefore command higher wages, a position compatible with labor leader Samuel Gompers’s preference for collective bargaining over technocratic wage arbitration.
And careful professors of economics will caution their students, after introducing the marginal productivity theory of factor payment, that it's a theory that works well as an explanation, and it is a useful starting point in Nash bargaining, but under no circumstances does the theory justify the factor payment schedules that emerge.

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