Keynes on Eugenics, Race, and Population Control
The literature on John Maynard Keynes’s life and ideas is enormous. However, his defenders have neglected his views on population. Why? His ideas in this area are highly problematic. This article provides documentation that shows Keynes advocated extensive government controls on the size and quality of the population.
Keynes was interested in eugenics from the very beginning of his academic career. His first major academic project was his fellowship dissertation, submitted in December 1907. In the dissertation, he refers to Sir Francis Galton’s essay Probability: The Foundation of Eugenics. This shows that Keynes was already interested in eugenics by 1907.1
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The famous British economist Alfred Marshall was extremely close to the Keynes family. Keynes’s biographers note that he and Marshall debated Karl Pearson in 1910, but they suppressed the debate’s relation to eugenics.2 Marshall wrote to Keynes on July 14, 1910, “I am keeping as clear as I can of your ground & urging every one interested in Eugenics to read your paper. It is splendid.”3 In 1911, Keynes became treasurer of the Cambridge University Eugenics Society. On May 18, Marshall sent Keynes payment for lifetime membership in the society.4
On May 2, 1914, Keynes gave a speech called “Population.” This is perhaps his most important work on population. Unfortunately, this inaccessible speech was not included in The Collected Writings of John Maynard Keynes. A full transcript of the speech is included in the appendix below. After praising Malthus, he declares,
That degree of populousness in the world, which is most to be desired, is not to be expected from the working of natural order. … The natural degree of populousness is likely to exceed the ideal. … In most places the material condition of mankind is inferior to what it might be if their populousness were to be diminished. … In many, if not in most, parts of the world there actually exists at the present time a denser population than is compatible with a high level of economic wellbeing.5
To Keynes’s mind, “there would be more happiness in the world if the population of it were to be diminished.”6 Thus, he advocated government violence to restrict the size of the population. He wanted government to “mould law and custom deliberately to bring about that density of population which there ought to be.”7
Keynes was especially concerned about overpopulation in the East: “India, Egypt and China are gravely overpopulated.”8 He thought his race was facing a “race struggle.”9 He advocated the use of imperialistic government violence against Eastern races to protect the “white population.”
Almost any measures seem to me to be justified in order to protect our standard of life from injury at the hands of more prolific races. Some definite parceling out of the world may well become necessary; and I suppose that this may not improbably provoke racial wars. At any rate such wars will be about a substantial issue.10
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In the early 1920s, Keynes wrote an outline for a book called Essays on the Economic Future of the World. The fourth essay was on “Population” and the tenth essay was on “Education, Eugenics.” Interestingly, the eighth essay was on Keynes’s “Theoretical socialist framework.”
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On January 4, 1923, Keynes wrote an article in the press called “The Underlying Principles.” He advocates restricting the number of births with government violence. But this may be insufficient. He imagines “positive policy” to reduce the population.
In the light of present knowledge I am unable to see any possible method of materially improving the average human lot which does not include a plan for restricting the increase in numbers [of population]. … It may prove sufficient to render the restriction of offspring safe and easy. … Perhaps a more positive policy may be required. … [I] would like to substitute [government] schemes conceived by the mind in place of the undesigned outcome of instinct and individual advantage playing within the pattern of existing institutions.11
On June 8, 1924, Keynes wrote an outline for a book called Prolegomena to a New Socialism. As shown below, he lists “Eugenics, Population” as “Chief Preoccupations of the State.” Clearly, government control over the quantity and quality of the population was key to his new socialism, or “rightly conceived socialism of the future.”12
In July 1924, Keynes was a founding vice president of the Society for Cultural Relations with the USSR (SCR for short). This socialist society was financed and controlled by VOKS, the Soviet government’s international propaganda agency. In September 1925, he traveled with the SCR to the Soviet Union and he lectured to the Soviet Politburo. He said, “There is no more important object of deliberate state policy than to secure a balanced budget of population.”13 He exclaimed,
I believe that there are many other matters, left hitherto to individuals or to chance, which must become in future the subject of deliberate state policy and centralised state control. Let me mention two — (1) the size and quality of the population and (2) the magnitude and direction of employment of the new national savings year by year [that is, socialization of investment].14
Leon Trotsky attended Keynes’s speech, and he observed: “Even the most progressive economist Keynes told us only the other day that the salvation of the British economy lies in Malthusianism! And for England, too, the road of overcoming the contradiction between city and country leads through Socialism."15
Keynes was the chairman of the Malthusian League. He declared in his 1927 address to the league: “We of this society are neo-Malthusians,” and “I believe that for the future the problem of population will emerge in the much greater problem of Hereditary and Eugenics. Quality must become the preoccupation.”
Keynes was vice president of the British Eugenics Society from 1937 to 1944. Just 66 days before his death in 1946, he endorsed “the most important, significant and, I would add, genuine branch of sociology which exists, namely eugenics.”16
Keynes’s views on population are central to his politico-economic vision. No doubt, he viewed population as one of the most important problems facing humankind: “The question of population is the first and perhaps the most urgent and important of the problems facing those who seek to improve the material condition of mankind.”17 Keynes’s ideas on population must serve as a warning about Keynesian theory and policy. His Malthusianism indicates that he had a defective understanding of the division of labor and the law of returns. Beyond that, his population policies reveal the totalitarianism inherent in the Keynesian vision.
Appendix: "Population" by John Maynard Kenyes (1914)
Robert Malthus, the first of the Cambridge economists, came up to Jesus [College at Cambridge University] in 1784. He is said to have been fond of cricket and skating, obtained prizes for Latin and English Declamations, graduated as ninth wrangler in 1788 and was admitted Fellow of Jesus in 1793. He resided irregularly up to his marriage in 1804, and had the pleasure of signing an order to cut Coleridge off the kitchens for non-payment of his college bill, an indignity not unavenged afterwards by various members of the Lake School. The grandfather or great-grandfather, in his intellectual associations, of some of our own, Malthus was an original member of that Political Economy Club whose dinners still enliven the first Wednesday of every month, and of the Royal Statistical Society whose teas depress the first Tuesday.
In later life Malthus engaged in the controversy with Ricardo, out of which was hatched the Ricardian law of Rent; and the loss of his fellowship through marriage was the occasion of his becoming the first occupant of the first chair of Political Economy established in this country, the Professorship of History and Political Economy in the East-India College at Haileybury.
What we know of Malthus’s father Daniel must be added to these few details relating to Jesus and Haileybury, to complete a picture of ease, reflection, and gentleness. Daniel Malthus had been a friend and correspondent of Rousseau, and, it is alleged, one of his executors. He spent his life at the Rookery, ‘a small but beautiful estate’ between Guildford and Dorking, and is described as ‘a gentleman of good family and independent fortune attached to a country life, but much occupied in classical and philosophic pursuits, and with a strong bias towards foreign literature.’ Diffidence or idleness had prevented his bringing his powers to fruition; he was conscious of this; and anxious that his son should not suffer a like fate. He spent, therefore, peculiar pains on his son’s education, choosing for one of his instructors Gilbert Wakefield, and kept him under his own immediate supervision, until the time came for him to go to Wakefield’s college Jesus; — a course of action commented on thus by Malthus’s biographer Otter — ‘From some peculiar opinions which his father seems to have entertained respecting education, he was never sent to any public school; and in this respect, is one, amongst many other remarkable instances in the present time, of men who have risen into eminence under the disadvantage of an irregular and desultory education.’
A few letters, which have been preserved, written by Daniel Malthus to his son, when the latter was an undergraduate at Jesus, present the father’s character in a strong and amiable light. I will quote from a letter written by his father to Robert Malthus on his election to a fellowship: —
I heartily congratulate you upon your success; it gives me a sort of pleasure which arises from my own regrets. The things which I have missed in life, I should the more sensibly wish for you. Alas! my dear Bob, I have no right to talk to you of idleness, but when I wrote that letter to you with which you were displeased, I was deeply impressed with my own broken purposes and imperfect pursuits; I thought I foresaw in you, from the memory of my own youth, the same tendency to lose the steps you had gained, with the same disposition to self-reproach, and I wished to make my unfortunate experience of some use to you. It was, indeed, but little that you wanted it, which made me the more eager to give it you, and I wrote to you with more tenderness of heart than I would in general pretend to, and committed myself in a certain manner which made your answer a rough disappointment to me, and it drove me back into myself. You have, as you say, worn out that impression, and you have a good right to have done it; for I have seen in you the most unexceptionable character, the sweetest manners, the most sensible and the kindest conduct, always above throwing little stones into my garden, which you know I don’t easily forgive, and uniformly making everybody easy and amused about you. Nothing can have been wanting to what, if I were the most fretful and fastidious, I could have required in a companion; and nothing even to my wishes for your happiness, but where they were either whimsical, or unreasonable, or most likely mistaken. I have often been on the point of taking hold of your hand and bursting into tears at the time that I was refusing you my affections: my approbation I was precipitate to give you.
Write to me, if I could do anything about your church, and you want any thing to be done for you, such as I am, believe me, dear Bob, yours most affectionately,
Malthus’s first essay in authorship, The Crisis, a View of the Recent Interesting State of Great Britain by a Friend to the Constitution, written in 1796, in his thirtieth year, in criticism of Pitt’s administration, failed to find a publisher. Extracts quoted by Otter and by Empson indicate that his interest was already aroused in the social problems of political economy, and even in the question of population itself:
On the subject of population [he wrote] I cannot agree with Archdeacon Paley; who says, that the quantity of happiness in any country is best measured by the number of people. Increasing population is the most certain possible sign of the happiness and prosperity of a state; but the actual population may be only a sign of the happiness that is past.
In 1798, when Malthus was thirty-two years old, there was published anonymously An Essay on the Principle of Population, as it affects the future improvement of Society: with remarks on the speculations of Mr Godwin, M. Condorcet, and other writers.
It was in conversation with Daniel Malthus that there occurred to Robert Malthus the generalization which has made him famous. The story is well known on the authority of Bishop Otter who had it from Malthus himself. In 1793 Godwin’s Political Justice had appeared. In frequent discussion the father defended, and the son attacked, the doctrine of a future age of perfect equality and happiness.
And when the question had been often the subject of animated discussion between them, and the son had rested his cause, principally upon the obstacles which the tendency of population, to increase faster than the means of subsistence, would always throw in the way; he was desired to put down in writing, for maturer consideration, the substance of his argument, the consequence of which was the Essay on Population. Whether the father was converted or not we do not know, but certain it is that he was strongly impressed with the importance of the views and the ingenuity of the argument contained in the MS., and recommended his son to submit his labours to the public.
The first edition, an octavo volume of about 50,000 words, is an almost completely different, and for posterity a superior book, to the second edition of five years later in quarto, which by the fifth edition had swollen to some 250,000 words in three volumes. 250,000 by an elaboration of proof and historical research, without any substantial improvement in the author’s clear and striking statement of the fundamental principles involved. Just as the fruitfulness and originality of Cambridge is largely preserved by the deficiencies of the University library, so the first edition of this book is not really the worse from having been written, as Malthus explains in the preface to the second edition, ‘on the impulse of the occasion, and from the few materials which were then within my reach in a country situation.’
Malthus’s Essay is a very great book. The author was deeply conscious of the bigness of the ideas he was elaborating. It is no case of a man of second-rate powers hitting, more by good fortune than desert, on an unexpectedly important generalisation. Indeed his leading idea had been largely anticipated in a clumsier way by other eighteenth century writers without attracting attention.
The high-spirited rhetoric of a young man writing in the last years of the Directory disappears from the late editions, which are quieter, more businesslike, more strictly attentive to the duties of a scientific pioneer in the study of sociological history.
This is how he begins —
whose store of facts and range of illustration had been immensely extended by a tour in 1799 ‘through Sweden, Norway, Finland, and a part of Russia, these being the only countries at the time open to English travellers’ and another in France and Switzerland during the short peace of 1802.
The book can claim a place amongst those which have had the a very greatest influence on the progress of thought. It is, tremendously, in the English tradition of humane science — in that tradition of Scotch and English thought, in which there has been, I think, a quite extraordinary continuity of feeling, if I may so express it, from the eighteenth century to the present time, — the tradition which is suggested, not to mention contemporaries, by the names of Locke, Hume, Adam Smith, Darwin and Mill — a tradition pre-eminently marked by a certain noble clarity, by a love of truth, by a sanity, free from sentiment or metaphysic, and by an immense disinterestedness and public spirit. There is a continuity in these writings, not only of feeling, but of actual matter. It is in this company, although not quite in the first rank of it, that Malthus belongs.
The direct influence of Malthus’s book is easily pointed out. He was proudest himself of having converted Pitt and Paley. Pitt attended Commem. at Trinity on the 16th December, 1801. At a supper at Jesus Lodge he met Dr. Malthus and, Bishop Otter records, ‘was induced to unbend in a very easy conversation respecting Sir Sidney Smith, the massacre at Jaffa, the Pasha of Acre, Clarke, Carlisle, etc.’ A year before Pitt, in dropping his new Poor Bill, had stated in the House of Comm. that he did so in deference to the objections of ‘those whose opinions he was bound to respect,’ meaning, it is said, Bentham and Malthus.
The book, as is well known, had a part in the mental development of Darwin, who tells us in his Autobiography how happening to read ‘Malthus on Population’ for amusement he came upon the idea which was the starting point of his theory.
The doctrine of population had a profound effect on the economic writers of the first half of the nineteenth century. It hung over them like a cloud; it involved them in a dogmatic pessimism out of which no ultimate escape seemed possible. Nations might become populous and empires powerful, but for the great mass of the subjects there was never to be any escape from a miserable condition.
‘The Vicar of Wakefield’ was ever of opinion that the honest man who married and brought up a large family did more service than he who continued single and only talked of population.’ Adam Smith said ‘the most decisive mark of the prosperity of any country is the increase of the number of its inhabitants.’ As late as 1796, Pitt thought that a man had ‘enriched his country’ by producing a number of children, even if the whole family were paupers. Paley argued that ‘the decay of population is the greatest evil a state can suffer; and the improvement of it the object which ought in all countries to be aimed at, in preference to every other political purpose whatsoever.’ Then came Malthus. The increasing population of a state may be the result of its prosperity. But it is a cause of its distress. ‘The actual population may be only a sign of the happiness that is past.’ And under this influence the Classical Economists lived, and, as prophets of pessimism, were hated.
Nevertheless, as an American economist has lately put it, it was Malthus who brought in the era of democratic philanthropy. ‘Before Malthus this criterion was the prosperity of the sovereign and of the ruling classes; thereafter it becomes the welfare of the increasing masses ... Malthus set before the eyes of men a new picture of the humble unit of population…. Before Malthus population was a question either of political or of commercial economy; with him it began to be a question of social economy.’
But in the last half of the 19th century an extraordinary thing happened. Malthus was forgotten or disbelieved. The cloud was lifted, the Classical Economists dethroned; and the opinions of Paley and the Vicar of Wakefield gradually reasserted themselves, — until, at the present day, so far as one can judge from the utterances of English bishops, French politicians, and German economists, public opinion does not differ very much from what it was in 1790. In the three principal states of Europe an enormous literature is growing up, to demonstrate and lament the fall of the birthrate, and to call on all patriotic citizens to procreate.
There is of course a good deal in Malthus’s book which subsequent writers have rightly discarded. His reminiscences of the Mathematical Tripos led him to use the analogy of geometrical and arithmetical ratio to describe the rates of growth of population and subsistence in a manner for which there was no just foundation. Nor did he see explicitly in what way his generalisation depended on the tendency towards diminishing returns in agriculture. Most important of all, experience has disproved his supposition that any increase in economic well-being tends to bring about a corresponding increase in the rate of propagation. For a failure to anticipate the great increase in the sources of food supply which have actually occurred he can scarcely be blamed.
But his main thesis is simple, clear, and irrefutable. There is a limit to the available supply of subsistence of quite a different kind from any limit that there may be to the tendency of the human race to propagate. In general the rate of propagation has actually been so great that equilibrium has only been brought about by the influence of various kinds of checks, most of them destructive of happiness. From such considerations two principal conclusions emerge, — first, the point with which Malthus was most immediately concerned, that all political projectors and setters forth of a Utopia have here presented to them a problem which they often avoid and for which they can seldom offer a satisfactory solution, and second, that the production of that degree of populousness in the world, which is most to be desired, is not to be expected from the working of natural order, that the natural degree of populousness is likely to exceed the ideal, and that the question of population is the first and perhaps the most urgent and important of the problems facing those who seek to improve the material condition of mankind. All these conclusions were true in Malthus’s time and are true now. It is not in accordance with Malthus’s position to suppose that a day will actually arrive either in the near future or at any time when population will have become so dense that all the inhabitants of the world will live on the margin of starvation. Before that happens, some check is likely or certain to intervene. But such an admission does not affect two judgements of pessimism, — that, even as it is, the maintenance of a proper equilibrium generally involves misery; and that in most places the material condition of mankind is inferior to what it might be if their populousness were to be diminished.
I shall maintain then, having reached at last what was, when I sat down to write, to have been the central topic of my paper that in many, if not in most, parts of the world there actually exists at the present time a denser population than is compatible with a high level of economic wellbeing. I regard the tendency of the birthrate to decline in countries inhabited by the races of Western Europe as one of the most hopeful signs of the times, — as presaging a possible escape in the future from the toils of Malthusian pessimism. In thinking in this way I am in agreement with an older tradition. But at present I probably stand in a small minority. What is the explanation of this astonishing reversal of opinion? and can it be justified?
The causes of this change of opinion are, I think, mainly four: —
1. the opening up of food supplies from parts of the world hitherto uncultivated
2. allied to this, the dependence of countries not on their own food supply but on the world’s food supply
3. the actual decline of the birthrate in European countries mainly due to economic causes and to the widespread use of artificial methods for the prevention of conception
4. the opportunity, given by the first three causes, for the forces of superstition in regard to these matters to reassert themselves.
Let me take these in order and consider how far they justify the change of opinion.
First, the opening up of new sources of food supply.
It must be plain to the meanest intelligence that this factor is temporary. The opening up of the world did, so far as the nations of Europe were concerned, to some extent postpone the problem. Improvements in the science of agriculture and in methods of transport may postpone its full urgency a few years more. But they can only postpone it. We have been living for the last fifty years in a period of economic transition, probably unexampled in the history of the world; and there is hardly a single feature of our economic life the long continuance of which we are justified in anticipating.
Moreover, as I have already said, although we are still some way off the time when the average individual amongst the more prosperous nations of the west will be on the margin of subsistence, we are already faced by the problem in the sense that there would be more happiness in the world if the population of it were to be diminished. The world can be overpopulated, in the sense that every addition to this population is so much to the bad, long before the starvation point is reached. Up to about the year 1900 the law of diminishing return was to this extent suspended that every year a given quantity of manufactured product tended to be exchanged for a larger quantity of agricultural product. Since 1900 there has been a tendency for this to be reversed; and a given quantity of manufactured product tends to be exchanged for a smaller and smaller quantity of agricultural product.
Besides this, there are other indications which ought not to be overlooked. From 1850 to 1900 the rate of real wages was rising in the principal western nations at a peak rate. Since 1900 there has been an unprecedented addition to the wealth of the wealthy largely due to the exploitation of the unearned increment of new countries; but real wages have been stationary or have risen but slowly.
Moreover the United States have now reached the point of consuming all the food they produce. They no longer export it.
It is very doubtful, therefore, even in the case of the West, much further postponement will be possible. If we turn to the East, I believe that the Malthusian doctrine has never ceased to be applicable there to its fullest extent. It seems to me to be certain that India, Egypt and China are gravely overpopulated. In the two former, I believe that the advantages of settled, humane and intelligent government have been very nearly counterbalanced by the tendency of population to increase. It would not be true to say that the material condition of the ryot and the fellah has not been somewhat improved by the British occupation of their countries; but this improvement has not been very great and certainly not so great as it would have been if the population had not so much increased. Since 1881 the population of India has increased by more than 60 million persons or about 25%.
The moral is pointed more precisely by reference to conditions in the Punjab. This is the one province of India in which in quite recent years the rise of real wages and of the standard of living is marked and certain. The change is not due to a single cause, — the British Government’s irrigation works must have played a part. But I believe that the chief part of this explanation is to be found in the vital statistics of the Punjab. In this province the population actually fell between 1901 and 1911 and stood in the latter year about where it had been twenty years earlier. The reason for this decline is certain. Within the decade in question 10 per cent of the population was swept away by plague. Without the assistance of this beneficent visitation, twenty years of humane and settled government, the building of railways, and an expenditure of £12,000,000 in irrigation in that province alone would have availed, as we can judge from experience elsewhere, very little. Mr Haffkine’s prophylactic against plague may be expected to destroy in the next decade the benefits of a generation of engineers and administrators.
The density of population in Egypt, excluding the desert (nearly 1000 to the square mile) is about two and a half times as great as in the United Kingdom. The governments of these countries, India and Egypt, deliberately ignore, so far as I have observed, all Malthusian considerations. It is a point of honour with the Government of India to keep skeletons just alive. When I was in Egypt last year, I found Lord Kitchener engaged in a great scheme for the drainage of parts of lower Egypt and in a new Midwives bill for the diminution of infantile mortality. The two measures will about cancel one another, and leave the material prosperity of the individual where it is.
The present huge population of China is not, as is commonly believed, a matter of immemorial antiquity; but is of quite modern growth. Great density of population is as recent a thing in China as it is in England. Statistics are naturally untrustworthy; but it is probably true that, whereas before the year 1700 the population of China proper did not exceed 100,000,000, it has been for the last century, and is now, somewhere between 300,000,000 and 400,000,000. I believe that the decay of civilisation in China is to be attributed more to this enormous growth of population than to any other single cause. The Golden Age of China, the age of her philosophers and poets and of discoveries in the arts of government and of life, was not an age of teeming and overcrowded population. It is difficult to believe that this Age can be recovered so long as those to enjoy it are so many. In Asia, at any rate, civilisation has always tended to throttle itself in a surfeit of population, — to be overlain by its own babies. It has been revived from time to time only by the various agencies of sudden death. So much for the first influence. Three quarters of the world have never ceased to live under Malthusian conditions. And the period of postponement for the rest may possibly be coming to an end.
The second influence is the dependence of western countries not on their own food supply but on the world’s. This has vastly changed the nature of the problem by internationalizing it. Formerly each country could settle the question for itself. So long as a country lived on the produce of its own soil, the real cost of food chiefly depended on the relation of a country’s own population to its methods and opportunities of production. Now the real cost of food to the Englishman depends on the growth of population, not of England, but of all those countries which buy food in the same market in which she buys it. A country hardly bears a greater part of the burden of its own growth of population than it bears of the burden of the growth of population elsewhere. Thus for England to reduce her birthrate is of little use to herself; while in the race struggle as to what type shall chiefly populate the world it may possibly weaken her. The advantage of a fall in the birthrate in any country is shared by the whole world, while there may be a racial or military disadvantage to the country where it occurs. Racial and military feeling now runs high, and every patriot urges his country forward on a course of action in the widest sense anti-social. And the patriot has something on his side. What is the use of weakening internationally the stock which we think is the best, by a course of action which, if it is isolated action, will have but a negligible effect on the material prosperity of the world. It would have no more sense in it than for everyone, who has the intelligence and the imagination to appreciate the terrors of Malthusianism, to remain a bachelor. Kant’s criterion of moral action does not break down least in a case like this.
The problem, therefore, is made much worse and far harder of solution by having become, since Malthus’s time, cosmopolitan. It is no longer possible to have a national policy for the population question.
The third influence I mentioned is the actual decline of the birthrate in European countries.
In the first place the extent of this decline must not be exaggerated. From the Norman Conquest until the time of the Stuarts the population of England varied from about 2 to 4m. When Malthus wrote it was about 9m. It has now increased, fourfold in four generations, to 36m. In the same period the increase in USA has been from 5m to 92m.; it has doubled, that is to say, in almost exact accordance with Malthus’s anticipation, every generation.
If the population of the world were to increase so fast as no faster than that of Europe during the last 25 years, we should at the end of 1000 years be standing shoulder to shoulder over the whole habitable globe. And if we were to take the American rate ... Even to-day, Saturday May 2, nearly twice as many people have been born as have died in such countries as Germany and England.
The decline in the rates of increase is nevertheless very significant. The birthrate has not consistently advanced; as according to Malthus it should, when economic pressure is removed. On the whole it has declined; and a fall in the death rate, a fact which cannot possibly continue much further, has had, lately, a good deal to do with the increase of population. Also the more we see of human beings in the mass in conditions somewhat removed from those of extreme economic pressure, the more doubtful does Malthus’s psychological assumption seem as to the unlimited propensity of the human race to procreate.
I do not think there is much evidence to show that increased material prosperity brings with it a great diminution in the physical capacity to bear children, though many of the circumstances of modern life no doubt make childbirth more dangerous. I should attribute the decline mainly to three causes.
The first affects the desire to produce offspring. The economic disadvantageousness of children is very much greater in industrial than in primitive or agricultural communities. In Egypt I should Judge that a child begins to earn something substantial towards its keep at about the age of four. The transition comes when, by the change from agriculture to industry, a large family instead of being an advantage, begins to occasion great expense.
The raising of the school leaving age and strict regulation against the industrial employment of children may thus exercise a profound influence over the birth rate.
The second cause, which affects the opportunity to produce offspring, is much less important because it concerns only the upper and middle classes. It is the tendency towards the postponement of the date of marriage. This is to be explained partly by the advanced age at which a man in these classes now reaches his maximum earning power, partly by the increasing expense of social requirements, partly by the altered position of women and the greater demands which the educated classes now make of marriage, so that men and I women desirous of marriage may spend many years before an opportunity, which they are willing to take, occurs to them.
The third cause, which affects the ability to avoid offspring, namely the use of artificial checks, is of enormous importance. This solution, while plainly repudiated by Malthus himself, was not absent from the minds of all of his followers. Artificial checks had a place, I believe, in the ideal commonwealth of Condorcet. Owen’s attitude towards them was ambiguous. James Mill, whose life was embittered by the financial burden of 9 children, covertly supported them. The precocious John Stuart Mill got into trouble with the police, at the age of 17, for distributing street-pamphlets which explained the nature of their use. In the countries of Europe their use and sale is open, and a considerable literature has grown up to discuss their social consequences.
In England, after characteristic fashion, the whole problem has been driven underground. The present position appears to be that a practice actually followed by enormous numbers of the most respectable persons is publicly branded as the height of immorality, and that a question of immense social significance is barely regarded as a proper subject for candid discussion. The law itself interferes half heartedly. But attempts might be made at any moment to strengthen it. These might even be successful; — for public spirit with the courage to ignore quite footling prejudices within the sphere of morals is in this country extraordinarily rare, — especially among members of
Parliament. I do not know enough about this subject, it is difficult for any Englishman to know enough, to discuss it adequately. This much, however, is certain, that to put difficulties in the way of the use of checks increases the proportion of the population born from those who from drunkenness or ignorance or extreme lack of prudence, are, not only incapable of virtue, but incapable also of that degree of prudence which is involved in the use of checks.
The last influence for discussion is the strength of superstition in these matters. For thousands of generations survival has been the fortune not only of the fittest but also of the most prolific; and those races have tended to persist whose superstitions have favoured a very numerous offspring. But under modern conditions, these superstitions, while they still aid the persistence of a race, powerfully diminish its happiness. I do not see what hope there is of much improvement, moral or material, for the races of India and China, so long as the popular religions of these countries attach so great an importance to early marriage and numerous offspring. Christian doctrine on this matter is less extreme, and, partly because religion is not so influential in western countries, has not had consequences so evidently disadvantageous.
Nevertheless progress must greatly depend in modern conditions on freeing the settlement of this question from superstitious influences. Present orthodox doctrine on these matters affords no permanent or consistent line of policy. It is certainly incompatible with 19th century humanitarianism. It is also more and more out of touch with the current practice of decent people. The Church may declare that it deliberately prefers overcrowding, ignorance, poverty and disease to the employment of artificial preventives of conception; and it may bring to an end its nineteenth century flirtation with ideas of progress. Some such choice is being presented to us. Anyhow let it be agreed that the matter deserves fuller and more open debate, free from prejudice and distasteful abuse, than it has yet received in England.
I have left myself no time in which to sum up. I do not think we ought to be frightened by the fear of what is called race-suicide. I have seen no evidence of its probability. The love of children is powerful, and most normal persons will continue to desire to have children, so long as they can afford to support them. The view, that the birth of children is mainly due at present to the inadvertent consequences of sensuality, is, for England at any rate, quite unfounded.
Further we ought not to be unduly influenced by so-called patriotic or militarist arguments. While large parts of the world fit for a white population were waiting to be filled up by European emigration racial arguments rightly carried considerable weight. This temporary state of affairs is rapidly coming to an end. In the future we can act with our attention chiefly directed towards the economic wellbeing of the population of our own country; with but secondary regard to the numerical position of our race in the world as a whole. National and military advantages are at least as likely to be diminished as increased by the evils of over-population. On the other hand cosmopolitan humanitarianism must be indulged in but very moderately if evil consequences are to be avoided. Almost any measures seem to me to be justified in order to protect our standard of life from injury at the hands of more prolific races. Some definite parcelling out of the world may well become necessary; and I suppose that this may not improbably provoke racial wars. At any rate such wars will be about a substantial issue. Countries in the position of British Columbia are entirely justified in protecting themselves from the fecundity of the East by very rigorous immigration laws and other restrictive measures. I can imagine a time when it may be the right policy even to regulate the international trade in food supplies, though there are economic reasons, which I cannot go into now, for thinking this improbable.
Though awkward dilemmas confront in every direction those who would influence action, for progress in the West one can feel some hope. If custom and practice are encouraged to develop along their present lines, it is just possible that western nations may reach of their own accord a state more or less of equilibrium. Eventually they may be in a position to mould law and custom deliberately to bring about that density of population which is the best.
- 1. This reference was included in A Treatise on Probability. See The Collected Writings of John Maynard Keynes, Vol. 8 (London: Macmillan and Cambridge University Press for the Royal Economic Society, 1971–89), p. 354
- 2. For example, see Roy Harrod, The Life of John Maynard Keynes (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1951), p. 151; Robert Skidelsky, John Maynard Keynes: Hopes Betrayed (New York: Viking, 1983), pp. 223–24; Donald Moggridge, Maynard Keynes: An Economist’s Biography (London: Routledge, 1992), pp. 205–7.
- 3. The Correspondence of Alfred Marshall, Economist, Vol. 3. (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1996), p. 254.
- 4. Ibid, p. 284.
- 5. “Population,” The John Maynard Keynes Papers, SS/1/1–37 (Cambridge, UK: King’s College), p. 16.
- 6. Ibid, p. 20.
- 7. Ibid, p. 36.
- 8. Ibid, p. 22. Keynes could not have been more incorrect on the issue of overpopulation in India and China. The Indian and Chinese populations have risen dramatically since Keynes delivered his speech in 1914, and overall living standards have improved.
- 9. Ibid, p. 26.
- 10. Ibid, p. 35
- 11. The Collected Writings of John Maynard Keynes , Vol. 17, p. 453.
- 12. The Collected Writings of John Maynard Keynes, Vol. 21, p. 137. On Keynes’s socialism, see Edward W. Fuller, “Was Keynes a Socialist?” The Cambridge Journal of Economics (2019, Advanced Access). Available at: https://academic.oup.com/cje/advance-article-abstract/doi/10.1093/cje/bez039/5557796
- 13. The Collected Writings of John Maynard Keynes , Vol. 19, p. 437.
- 14. Ibid, p. 441.
- 15. “Dialectical Materialism and Science.” The New International (February 1940), p. 31. Available at: https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/newspape/ni/vol06/no01/v06n01-feb-1940-SWP.pdf
- 16. “The Galton Lecture, 1946: Presentation of the Society’s Gold Medal.” The Eugenics Review 38 (1), p. 40. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2986310/pdf/eugenrev00247-0048.pdf
- 17. “Population.” The John Maynard Keynes Papers, SS/1/1–37 (Cambridge, UK: King’s College), p. 16.