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The Economic Evil of Eugenics

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Eugenics has haunted the social sciences for the better part of two centuries. Historically, as a social movement, its most ardent advocates were the progressives, while in economics its most famous champion was John Maynard Keynes. Recently, the history of the eugenics movement has been studied in detail in Thomas Leonard’s masterpiece, Illiberal Reformers: Race, Eugenics, and American Economics in the Progressive Era (you can read a review here, and Leonard’s own survey of the topic here). Yet although the rhetoric of public policy has changed since the heyday of eugenics a century ago, economic policies with eugenic implications persist almost unnoticed in the 21st century.

It’s no surprise that Mises, an expert on the economics of socialism and interventionism, perceived the evils of this movement, especially its close connection with authoritarianism. In the early 1920s, for example, when Mises was beginning to outline his critique of socialist economic planning, he observed that total state control of the economy also requires control over reproduction:

Without coercive regulation of the growth of population, a socialist community is inconceivable. A socialist community must be in a position to prevent the size of the population from mounting above or falling below certain definite limits… And since in it those motives, which in a society based on private ownership of the means of production harmonize the number of births with the limitations of the means of subsistence, would not exist, it will be obliged to regulate the matter itself. (1951, p. 198)

This regulation manifests as political rule of the private lives of citizens, against their own wishes:

He who would make man the material of a purposeful system of breeding and feeding would arrogate to himself despotic powers and would use his felIow citizens as means for the attainment of his own ends, which differ from those they themselves are aiming at. (1949, p. 244)

Historically, such total reproductive control was a feature of several socialist regimes, including China and Romania. Yet it was not the communists but the fascists who brought the logic of eugenics to its ultimate conclusion:

The Nazi plan was more comprehensive and therefore more pernicious than that of the Marxians. It aimed at abolishing laisser-faire not only in the production of material goods, but no less in the production of men. The Führer was not only the general manager of all industries; he was also the general manager of the breeding-farm intent upon rearing superior men and eliminating inferior stock. A grandiose scheme of eugenics was to be put into effect according to ‘scientific’ principles.

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. (1951, p. 581)

Race is a common theme in historical discussions of eugenics. Then as now, supporters of eugenics claim to rest their case on scientific results. As Mises puts it, “The mass slaughters perpetrated in the Nazi horror camps are too horrible to be adequately described by words. But they were the logical and consistent application of doctrines and policies parading as applied science” (1951, pp. 581-582). He repeatedly pointed out the failure of such pseudoscience to distinguish mental and moral characteristics based on race or social status (1944, pp. 170, 1721951, p. 3241957, p. 336).

Rather than science, eugenics is instead based on the unscientific values of eugenicists themselves, which inevitably imply the need to impose their plans on others:

Such judgments are reasonable if one looks at mankind with the eyes of a breeder intent upon raising a race of men equipped with certain qualities. But society is not a stud-farm operated for the production of a definite type of men. There is no “natural” standard to establish what is desirable and what is undesirable in the biological evolution of man. Any standard chosen is arbitrary, purely subjective... The terms racial improvement and racial degeneration are meaningless when not based on definite plans for the future of mankind. (1949, p. 165)

In others words, central planning implies eugenics, and eugenics in turn is a kind of central planning. And like all central planning, it cannot ultimately succeed, but it can lead society to ruin by removing free choice and the free, innovative minds that go with it: “It is impossible to rear geniuses by eugenics, to train them by schooling, or to organize their activities. But, of course, one can organize society in such a way that no room is left for pioneers and their path-breaking” (1949, p. 140).

Of course, eugenics supporters also claim their plans will improve society by eliminating criminal or other undesirable elements, which they often associate with race and ethnicity. This too is an arbitrary and vain effort to improve the “quality” of humanity:

The eugenists pretend that they want to eliminate criminal individuals. But the qualification of a man as a criminal depends upon the prevailing laws of the country and varies with the change in social and political ideologies… Whom do the eugenists want to eliminate, Brutus or Caesar? Both violated the laws of their country. If eighteenth-century eugenists had prevented alcohol addicts from generating children, their planning would have eliminated Beethoven. (1951, p. 581)

Today, policies are rarely labelled as eugenics-based. Nevertheless, eugenic effects are among the many terrible consequences of interventionist policies. The minimum wage is a useful example. Historically, it was a favorite policy of progressives, who freely admitted that its purpose was to prevent immigrants and other “unemployables” from competing in the job market, the better to manage their reproduction (Leonard, 2005, pp. 212-215). Even though today many of its advocates are unaware of this history, these laws still selectively victimize groups based on factors like race and ethnicity.

Importantly, eugenics is only one consequence of illiberal ideology. Throughout his career, Mises explained that other weapons of illiberalism, including racism, nationalism, protectionism, and war are all related, and mutually reinforce each other. Eugenics is simply one implication of these ideas, especially inasmuch as it fuels and results from economic intervention.

Given the implications for liberty and economy, it’s astonishing that anyone associated with the ideas of liberty could embrace eugenics, or treat eugenicists as legitimate scholars worthy of attention and debate. It’s doubly unfortunate that there is a need to point out that eugenicists, racists, nationalists, and protectionists are no friends of Mises or his ideas, the liberal tradition, or the Austrian school.



Matthew McCaffrey

Matt McCaffrey, former Mises Research Fellow, is assistant professor of enterprise at the University of Manchester.

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