Thomas Leonard awarded 2017 Joseph J. Spengler Prize

July 5, 2017

At the History of Economics Society meetings in Toronto in June, the 2017 Joseph J. Spengler Prize for the best book in the history of economics was awarded to research scholar Thomas Leonard, for his book Illiberal Reformers: Race, Eugenics and American Economics in the Progressive Era.

At the Society Banquet on June 25, Bruce Caldwell, Chair of the Spengler Prize committee and Director of the Center for the History of Political Economy at Duke University, gave the following testimonial:

“Leonard tells the story of how a band of academics and their reform allies, many inspired by the social gospel and on a mission to redeem America, went on to remake both American social science and its relation to the state. They transformed economics from a species of public discourse into an expert scientific field housed in recently formed research universities, where they could use their newly won positions and authority not only to advocate for new policies, but to refashion the role of the state itself. Their target, a laissez faire capitalism that they viewed as both wasteful and unjust, was to be undone by a new entity, the administrative state, which when guided by objective social scientists like themselves, would exercise the social control that was necessary to produce a better society.  The myriad social problems wrought by urbanization, industrialization, and in the American case, massive immigration, gave impetus to their reforming zeal.

To be sure, the stories of the rise of the administrative state and the attendant professionalization of economics have been told before, sometimes by those who praised the new sorts of policies that the progressive reformers and their allies put into place, and sometimes by others who criticized what they saw as their scientistic hubris and overreach.  Leonard’s unique contribution is to document in grim, indeed harrowing, detail the “scientific” arguments that were used by many progressives to bolster certain of their policy recommendations. For if the desire was to raise up the poor, to assist the downtrodden to be better able to help themselves, the definition of those who were deemed worthy of such assistance was limited.  It did not include members of many immigrants groups, African Americans, women, and the disabled. Indeed, for members of these groups, the American dream of hard work leading to material success was grotesquely inverted by policies that helped guarantee that they could not compete successfully against the preferred group, namely, White Anglo-Saxon Protestant males.

As a result, parts of this book are, to put it mildly, unpleasant to read. Given the controversial nature of his material, Leonard wisely often simply lets his protagonists speak for themselves. And given the resurgence of nativist, nationalist, and xenophobic elements in the political discourse and policies of many countries today, it is, sad to say, a timely read.”

The 2017 Spengler Prize committee read over 20 nominated books.

Established in 1974, the History of Economics Society is an international organization committed to encouraging interest, fostering scholarship, and promoting discussion among scholars and professionals in the field of the history of economics and related disciplines. It established the Spengler Best Book Prize in 2004.  A list of all previous award recipients can be found at



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