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Home | Blog | Margaret Sanger vs. Ludwig von Mises on the Poor

Margaret Sanger vs. Ludwig von Mises on the Poor

October 15, 2006

In Margaret Sanger's Eugenic Legacy: The Control of Female Fertility feminist scholar Angela Franks presents the evidence that should revolutionize our view of the founder of Planned Parenthood. Far from being motivated by the liberation of women she was in fact a lifelong devotee of that dark 20th century phenomenon: eugenics. A review in Touchstone by Anne Barbeua Gardiner explains:

In this eye-opening and thoroughly documented book (there are a hundred pages of notes), Franks persuades the reader that it is a mistake to describe Sanger as a feminist, since from 1917 to the end of her life [1966], she was utterly devoted to eugenics, and her vision of the "free woman" was in fact that of an "engineered and infertile woman" serving the end of the medical, pharmaceutical, and political establishments.

Sanger railed against the "wickedness of large families" out of fear that the poor would flood the world with "cheap" human beings. She blamed the poor for "creating slums" and filling institutions with dependents.

Such people, she wrote in 1925 in an essay titled "The Need of Birth Control in America," "have done absolutely nothing to advance the race one iota. Their lives are hopeless repetitions. All that they have said has been said before; all that they have done has been done better before. Such human weeds clog up the path, drain up the energies and the resources of this little earth. We must clear the way for a better world; we must cultivate our garden."

If this doesn't make Sanger's agenda clear, try these words from her 1922 The Pivot of Civilization: "[Birth control] is nothing more or less than the facilitation of the process of weeding out the unfit, of preventing the birth of defectives or of those who will become defectives."

What is the connection to Mises? First, Mises condemned eugenics in no uncertain terms (thanks to David Gordon for pointing this out):

It is vain for the champions of eugenics to protest that they did not mean what the Nazis executed. Eugenics aims at placing some men, backed by the police power, in complete control of human reproduction. It suggests that the methods applied to domestic animals be applied to men. This is precisely what the Nazis tried to do. The only objection which a consistent eugenist can raise is that his own plan differs from that of the Nazi scholars and that he wants to rear another type of men than the Nazis. As every supporter of economic planning aims at the execution of his own plan only, so every advocate of eugenic planning aims at the execution of his own plan and wants himself to act as the breeder of human stock.

Second, and I think more importantly, Mises had an opposite view of the poor and their relation to the rich. Sanger was influenced by her chief mentor Havelock Ellis who "wanted the 'lowest social stratum' — the poor and those receiving public assistance — to use birth control or be sterilized in a program that would be carried out by the 'very best classes.'" This vision of a dominant and destructive role for the rich was not just theory for Sanger. She was funded by the Rockefeller family beginning in the 1920s who "knew that eugenics and birth control were a package deal." Franks goes on in her book to describe ultra-rich men devoting their wealth to eugenics, later re-dubbed "population control" to avoid the Nazi association.

Mises, in stark contrast, saw that there was hope for the poor in the market. For example in a section on Poverty in Human Action he writes:

As far as there is unhampered capitalism, there is no longer any question of poverty in the sense in which this term is applied to the conditions of a noncapitalistic society. The increase in population figures does not create supernumerary mouths, but additional hands whose employment produces additional wealth. There are no ablebodied paupers.

Furthermore, Mises's vision of the unhampered market turns the relation between rich and poor upside down. In their role as the vast majority of consumers, it is the (relatively) poor that are the bosses of the rich:

The direction of all economic affairs is in the market society a task of the entrepreneurs. Theirs is the control of production. They are at the helm and steer the ship. A superficial observer would believe that they are supreme. But they are not. They are bound to obey unconditionally the captain's orders. The captain is the consumer.

...[consumers] make poor people rich and rich people poor. They determine precisely what should be produced, in what quality, and in what quantities. They are merciless bosses, full of whims and fancies, changeable and unpredictable.

Mises, a contemporary of the socialist Margaret Sanger's, rejected population control as the "solution" to poverty. He instead laid forth a bright and hopeful vision of how the poor could be "eliminated" by making them no longer poor. His vision is, I dare say, the more progressive one.

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