Quotation of the Day…

by Don Boudreaux on July 16, 2016

in History, Hubris and humility, Immigration, Man of System, Work

… is from page 159 of Thomas Leonard’s important 2016 book, Illiberal Reformers (footnotes excluded; link added); the “Ely” is Richard T. Ely (1854-1943), a “Progressive” American economist who co-founded the American Economic Association, and the “Ross” is Edward Alsworth Ross (1866-1951), a “Progressive” American sociologist and prominent eugenicist:

Paul Kellogg also strongly supported restriction [on immigration], and he proposed a novel alternative: a tariff on immigrant labor.  Ely had broached the idea of taxing immigrant labor to protect domestic workers as early as the late 1880s.  Ross had complained in 1900 that the tariff “kept out pauper-made goods, but let in the pauper.”  Kellogg’s idea was not new, but perhaps the time was now right.

Kellogg’s proposal – compel all immigrants to earn at least $2.50 per day or else be denied entry – was not a tariff; it was a minimum wage.  But calling it a tariff was a brilliant rhetorical stroke.  The United States protected American industry with a tariff on imported goods.  By the same logic, Kellogg argued, it should protect American workers by taxing imported labor.

Although their ethics were appalling, “Progressive” eugenicists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries at least got their economic analysis correct: they understood that forcibly raising employers’ cost of employing certain kinds of labor would reduce the quantity of that labor that is employed.  This correct economic understanding was at the foundation of these “Progressives'” support for minimum wages; these “Progressives” explicitly wanted to keep people that they regarded as ‘undesirable’ from working.

I say (and believe) that these “Progressives'” ethics were appalling.  Yet I’m quite sure that they did not see themselves as monsters.  They surely believed themselves to be enlightened, humane, and highly ethical.  They believed that they worked for a larger cause – “social reform” – and saw eugenics, minimum wages, and other uses of state force as progressive means of improving humankind through social engineering.  One lesson here is that people convinced that they have a mission to improve society by helping forcibly to re-arrange that society so that it conforms to some pre-conceived image are dangerous brutes (if ones that wear suits) whose brutality is hidden from them by their consciously held good intentions and masked from their contemporaries, ironically, by the grand scale (‘society’) upon which they propose to implement their schemes.  (If Bill pokes a gun at his neighbor Betty and threatens to shoot Betty if she pays any of her workers less than $7.25 per hour, Bill is rightly recognized as a brute who belongs in prison.  Yet if Bill persuades a uniformed and well-armed gang to threaten to shoot, not just Betty, but everyone in the state who employs workers at wages lower than $7.25 per hour, Bill is celebrated as a humane social reformer who belongs in public office.  It’s damn bizarre.)


On the relationship between 19th-century American protectionism and immigration, see this excellent paper by Cecil Bohanon and T. Norman Van Cott.


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