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eugenics certificate

Why condemn today’s progressives for their movement’s early endorsement of eugenics? Kevin Drum at Mother Jones thinks this old association is now irrelevant. He furthermore believes that eugenics is not an important issue in the modern world. Drum’s remarks were prompted by Jonah Goldberg’s review of Illiberal Reformers, a book by Thomas Leonard on racism and eugenicism in the American economics profession in the late 19th century. Tyler Cowen begs to differ with Drum on both counts, but for reasons that might not have been obvious to Drum. Eugenics is not a bygone, and its association with progressivism is a reflection of the movement’s broader philosophy of individual subservience to the state and, I might add, the scientism that continues to run rampant among progressives.

Cowen cites John Stewart Mill, one of the great social thinkers of the 19th century, who was an advocate for individual liberty and a harsh critic of eugenics. Here is a great paragraph from Cowen:

The claim is not that current Progressives are evil or racist, but rather they still don’t have nearly enough Mill in their thought, and not nearly enough emphasis on individual liberty. Their continuing choice of label seems to indicate they are not much bothered by that, or maybe not even fully aware of that. They probably admire Mill’s more practical reform progressivism quite strongly, or would if they gave it more thought, but they don’t seem to relate to the broader philosophy of individual liberty as it surfaced in the philosophy of Mill and others. That’s a big, big drawback and the longer history of Progressivism and eugenics is perhaps the simplest and most vivid way to illuminate the point. This is one reason why the commitment of the current Left to free speech just isn’t very strong.

Eugenics is not confined to the distant past, as Cowen notes, citing more recent “progressive” sterilization programs in Sweden and Canada, as well as the potential use of DNA technologies like CRISPR in “designing” offspring. That’s eugenics. So is the child quota system practiced in China, sex-selective abortion, and the easy acceptance of aborting fetuses with congenital disorders. Arguably, Obamacare “effectiveness research” guidelines cut close to eugenicism by proscribing certain treatments to individuals based upon insufficient “average benefit”, which depends upon age, disability, and stage of illness. Obamacare authorizes that the guidelines may ultimately depend on gender, race and ethnicity. All of these examples illustrate the potential for eugenics to be practiced on a broader scale and in ways that could trample individual rights.

Jonah Goldberg also responded to Drum in “On Eugenics and White Privilege“. (You have to scroll way down at the link to find the section with that title.) Goldberg’s most interesting points relate to the racism inherent in the minimum wage and the Davis-Bacon Act, two sacred cows of progressivism with the same original intent as eugenics: to weed out “undesirables”, either from the population or from competing in labor markets. It speaks volumes that today’s progressives deny the ugly economic effects of these policies on low-skilled workers, yet their forebears were counting on those effects.

Scientism is a term invoked by Friedrich Hayek to describe the progressive fallacy that science and planning can be used by the state to optimize the course of human affairs. However, the state can never command all the information necessary to do so, particularly in light of the dynamism of information relating to scarcity and preferences; government has trouble enough carrying out plans that merely match the static preferences of certain authorities. Historically, such attempts at planning have created multiple layers of tragedy, as individual freedoms and material well-being were eroded. Someone should tell Bernie Sanders!

Eugenics fit nicely into the early progressive view, flattering its theorists with the notion that the human race could be made… well, more like them! Fortunately, eugenics earned its deservedly bad name, but it continues to exist in somewhat more subtle forms today, and it could take more horrific forms in the future.

Two earlier posts on Sacred Cow Chips dealt at least in part with eugenics: “Child Quotas: Family as a Grant of Privilege“, and “Would Heterosexuals Select For Gay Genes?“.