Scholarly Comments on Academic Economics

The Progressive Legacy Rolls On: A Critique of Steinbaum and Weisberger on Illiberal Reformers

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Abstract

This essay evaluates the harsh criticism directed at Thomas Leonard’s book Illiberal Reformers by Marshall Steinbaum and Bernard Weisberger, primarily as manifest in their review published in the Journal of Economic Literature. Steinbaum and Weisberger first fail to do justice to Leonard’s extensive and original scholarship, and then, by reburying progressive eugenics in euphemism, they aim directly at undoing Leonard’s substantive contributions to the history of economics. Steinbaum and Weisberger are motivated to offer progressive economists a redemptive escape from association with eugenics, and they attempt to deliver such escape by parsing the motivations of progressives and those of progressives’ ideological opponents. But, absurdly, Steinbaum and Weisberger’s parsing rests on an ascription to the progressives’ opponents of a particular “racist typology” regarding labor markets, even though the book they were ostensibly reviewing documents that leading progressives deployed that “typology.” The JEL review of Illiberal Reformers thus offers little but leftist declamation—and even to that end Steinbaum and Weisberger largely traffic in avoidance and euphemism, notably so in their treatment of the progressive economist Edward Ross.