This is an article published by Princeton professor Thomas Leonard in "Journal of Economic Perspectives." He later went on to write a book that expands on this article titled "Illiberal Reformers."
The Eugenic Effects of Minimum Wage Laws
For progressives, a legal minimum wage had the useful property of sorting the unfit, who would lose their jobs, from the deserving workers, who would retain their jobs. Royal Meeker, a Princeton economist who served as Woodrow Wilson’s U.S.Commissioner of Labor, opposed a proposal to subsidize the wages of poor workers for this reason. Meeker preferred a wage floor because it would disemploy unfit workers and thereby enable their culling from the work force. “It is much better to enact a minimum-wage law even if it deprives these unfortunates of work,” argued Meeker (1910, p. 554). “Better that the state should support the inefficient wholly and prevent the multiplication of the breed than subsidize incompetence and unthrift, enabling them to bring forth more of their kind.” A. B. Wolfe (1917,p. 278), an American progressive economist who would later become president of the AEA in 1943, also argued for the eugenic virtues of removing from employment those who “are a burden on society.”
For these progressives, race determined the standard of living, and the standard of living determined the wage. Thus were immigration restriction and labor legislation, especially minimum wages, justified for their eugenic effects.
Why Did Eugenics Appeal to the Progressives?
Eugenic ideas were not new in the Progressive Era, but they acquired new impetus with the Progressive Era advent of a more expansive government... As eugenics historian Diane Paul (1995,p. 6) writes, eugenics legislation had to await “the rise of the welfare state.”
Progressives were drawn to eugenics by the same set of intellectual commitments that drew them to reform legislation. Paramount was the reform idea that laissez-faire was bankrupt. Sidney Webb (1910–1911, p. 237) said flatly, “[N]oconsistent eugenicist can be a ‘Laisser Faire’ individualist”... Similarly, Frank Fetter(1907, pp. 92–93) pronounced at the AEA meetings: “Unless effective means are found to check the degeneration of the race, the noontide of humanity’s greatness is nigh, if not already passed. Our optimism must be based not upon laissez-faire,”said Fetter, “but upon vigorous application of science, humanity, and legislative art to the solution of the problem.”
The progressives also believed strongly in the legitimacy of “social control,” a catch phrase of Progressive Era reformers, as it was for their successors, the Institutionalists. “Social control” did not refer narrowly to state regulation of markets. Edward A. Ross (1901b), who popularized the term, employed it in a broader sociological sense, to describe the various ways in which society “can mold the individual to the necessity of the group,” which, in the context of his eugenics, meant a “program for survival” of the Anglo-Saxon race
The legitimacy of social control meant, in practice, the legitimacy of state control. For progressives, the legitimacy of state control derived from their conception of the state as an entity prior to and greater than the sum of its constituent individuals, a conception that opposed the traditional liberal emphasis on individual freedom and the liberal view that the state’s legitimacy derives solely from the consent of its individual creators.
In the latter half of the Progressive Era, race-suicide and proposed eugenicsolutions had enough currency to appear in leading textbooks. In his Elementary Principles, Irving Fisher (1907, p. 715) declared 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.” Fortunately, said Fisher, eugenics offered a means, “by isolation in public institutions and in some cases by surgical operation,”to prevent the calamity of “inheritable taint.”
Immigration and “Race Suicide”
Reform-minded economists ofthe Progressive Era defended exclusionary labor and immigration legislation on grounds that the labor force should be rid of unfit workers, whom they labeled“parasites,” “the unemployable,” “low-wage races” and the “industrial residuum.”
leading professional economists were among the first to provide scientific respectability for immigration restriction on racial grounds.2 They justified race based immigration restriction as a remedy for “race suicide,” a Progressive Era term for the process by which racially superior stock (“natives”) is outbred by a more prolific, but racially inferior stock (immigrants). The term “race suicide” is often attributed to Edward A. Ross... Ross was no outlier. He was a founding member of the American Economic Association, a pioneering sociologist and a leading public intellectual who boasted that his books sold in the hundreds of thousands.3 Ross’s coinage gained enough currency to be used by Theodore Roosevelt (1907, p. 550), who called race suicide the “greatest problem of civilization.”
Demographically, American eugenics lost impetus from its own handiwork—the race-based immigration quotas of the 1920s—and from the subsequent Depression-Era decline in fertility. Already stalled by World War I, the immigration of the eastern and southern European peoples eugenicists deemed racially inferior was effectively terminated by eugenics-inspired immigration restrictions, notably the Emergency Quota Act of 1921 and the Immigration Act of 1924.