Bryan Caplan  

The Demented Pacifism of Irving Fisher

PRINT
Return to "What Could Presiden... Capitalism Without Capital...
On July 15, 1915, the New York Times ran an interview with legendary economist Irving Fisher.  His response to the Great War was staunchly pacifist:
After this war is over, of course, Europe will find herself prostrated economically, by the destruction of property and workers, and not only that - the survivors will lack the strength and vital power which the aggregate had before the war.  So far as the strongest still survive, they will be crippled largely in body, mind, and estate.  Europe will be a vast hospital full of invalids, a vast almshouse full of paupers, a vast cemetery full of graves.

This will leave the United States the one great nation, physically and otherwise fit to carry onward the torch of civilization. We, alone, of the world's great peoples, will remain endowed with both the economic and vital power necessary for the prosecution of that mission.  Therefore, it seems to me that it must be clear to every thinking man that Europe should serve to us as a warning and not as an example.

The tragedy there should stir us on to reduce, not to increase our militaristic ideas.  While Europe is spending life we should set ourselves determinedly at the task of saving life.
Music to my ears.  But if you read the whole interview, you'll learn the Fisher's argument for pacifism is nothing short of demented.  According to Fisher, war isn't bad because it's mass murder; it's bad because it's dysgenic mass murder!
It is the quality rather than the quantity of human life that should be held precious...

If war would weed out only the criminal, the vicious, the feeble-minded, the insane, the habitual paupers, and others of the defective classes, it might lay claim, with some show of justice, to the beneficent virtues sometimes ascribed to it.

But the truth is that its effects are diametrically opposite.  It eliminates the young men, who should be the fathers of the next generation - men medically selected as the largest, strongest, most alert, and best endowed in every way...

Their less endowed fellows, medically rejected from military service, because of defects in stature, eyesight, hearing, mentality, &c, are left at home to reproduce the race.
The NYT never challenges Fisher; indeed, the format strongly suggests that Fisher is both great and wise.  A handful of questions the NYT neglected to ask:

1. Shouldn't we hold both the quality and the quantity of human life precious?  If equal fractions of every "quality level" suddenly died, wouldn't that be bad?

2. Your list of low-quality people is both long and diverse - everyone from criminals to short people.  Should we hope for the sudden death of every one of these groups?  Just some of the groups?  Where's your breakeven point - i.e., the lowest-quality people better living than dead?

3. In the interview, you mention that we should "segregate, and even, perhaps, sterilize those among us who are unfit to become parents."  Why stop there?  It seems like you should favor mass murder, too.  If we hold only quality, not quantity, precious, isn't mass murder a moral duty?

4. Are you really being fair to the Great War?  Countries could rearrange their recruitment and deployment strategies to make the whole process eugenic.  For example, they could exempt the best specimens from military service - or give them desk jobs.

5. Comparative advantage question for you: A doctor is the world's best surgeon and the world's fastest typist.  Would he be better off if he hired a secretary - or murdered one?

We've learned so much from human genetic research.  But when I read Fisher, I understand why the subject terrifies so many people.  Hereditarianism combined with inane, half-baked moral philosophy does indeed logically imply Nazi-style homicidal mania.  But don't blame the facts of human genetics.  Blame the inane, half-baked moral philosophy.
   


COMMENTS (12 to date)
Mark Michael writes:

If you read Jonah Goldberg's book, "Liberal Fascism," Irving's kind of thinking was widespread among a cadre of leftists ("Progressives") from maybe the early 1900s until almost World War II. In fact, I think lots of countries including the US adopted some eugenic type laws: sterilizing people whom they deemed unfit to reproduce. It wasn't until the horrors of the Nazis became known did that kind of thinking fall into disrepute among the leftist intelligentsia. It was never accepted by the devoutly Christian thinkers ("God judges man by how we treat the least of His children").

Pandaemoni writes:

@ Mark Michael:

While there is some truth in that, it's not quite as one sided as you suggest. Take for example this article rightly criticizing the eugenicist beliefs of Margaret Sanger, where the author says:

In an age when upstanding Congregationalists and Unitarians were urging Americans to produce Fewer and Better Babies (Eugenics Publishing House, 35th edition, 1929), Sanger was in step with the times. By mid-century, most mainstream Protestant leaders agreed that the nation needed to calibrate carefully the number and type of babies—and immigrants—allowed.

http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2006/september/35.40.html

david writes:

@Mark Michael - many evangelicals, particularly those of the same white well-educated social strata that the Progressives sprang form, similarly embraced eugenics.

Even today there are many rejectors of the comparative-advantage argument - that certain races have a "net negative" or somesuch. Occasionally such particularly odious thinkers comment in EconLog.

Gian writes:

Fisher is at par for pacifists. Gandhi included, they tend to have most repulsive beliefs.

anon writes:
Hereditarianism combined with inane, half-baked moral philosophy does indeed logically imply Nazi-style homicidal mania.

Nazi racial ideology was religious, creationist and opposed to Darwinism

Bill writes:

The notion that scientific advancement included the ability (if not the responsibility) to control or manipulate natural human reproduction in order to improve the species was widely held among intellectuals at that time. What the Nazis did with that kind of thinking ended it (among moral people at least).

Still, the first three paragraphs you quoted sound prophetic.

Brian writes:

The Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory has an entire web domain set aside to document the American Eugenics Movement:

http://www.eugenicsarchive.org/eugenics/

Ignacio writes:

This led to an interesting thought: If WWI and WWII killed the best and the brightest in Europe, would not that (partially) explain the decrease of inequality in such continent for a generation? Are we not seeing such trend reverse as the best of the new generations (which are now proportionately more than before) start having greater success than the rest?

I am not saying I believe this, but it would be consistent with the previous statements.

kevin writes:

He was right Eugenics should have been used after the civil war look how many great cities would have been save such as Detroit,Cleveland,Memphis,New Orleans and many more where the black undertow or The visible black hand of economics rules today.

Mike Rulle writes:

What is with "Kevin's" comment? Is he saying what it seems like he is saying? How should "eugenics" have been used after the Civil War and how would that have saved northern cities? What is the "black undertow" and the visible "black hand" of economics which rules today?

Fisher's eugenics were not off the charts for his time---although it is off the charts for now as it should be. I think Kevin's comment is more than inappropriate.

Evan writes:

@Bryan

Shouldn't we hold both the quality and the quantity of human life precious? If equal fractions of every "quality level" suddenly died, wouldn't that be bad?
This is a really great point. I'm frustrated by moral philosophers who either "accept the repugnant conclusion" and claim we should maximize the quantity of people with no regard for quality, or who claim the exact opposite. Leave it to an economist to recognize that people have many values and that we should try to reach a happy medium between conflicting values, rather than pursue one at the expense of all the others. I hope you talk to Robin Hanson about this before he goes even further off the deep end with his em revolution posts.

david writes:

Even today there are many rejectors of the comparative-advantage argument - that certain races have a "net negative" or somesuch. Occasionally such particularly odious thinkers comment in EconLog.

Barely 8 hours later kevin writes:

He was right Eugenics should have been used after the civil war look how many great cities would have been save such as Detroit,Cleveland,Memphis,New Orleans and many more where the black undertow or The visible black hand of economics rules today.

Wow david, you can really call it.

@anon

Nazi racial ideology was religious, creationist and opposed to Darwinism
That's probably true to some extent. But there were probably people who were influenced to support Nazi ideology because of the sorts of beliefs Bryan listed, even though the ideological core of the Nazis held somewhat different beliefs. People who believe in the same goals for different reasons make alliances all the time.

Miguel Madeira writes:

"If WWI and WWII killed the best and the brightest in Europe, would not that (partially) explain the decrease of inequality in such continent for a generation?"

No. If you reduce the number of "best and the brightest" you increase (not decrease) unequality. Compare:

Case A - 10 people earning 100$ and 90 people earning 10$

Case B - 1 person earning 100$ and 90 people earning 10$

Most measures of unequality will consider case B more unequal (more - if you supply of "best and the brightest", their "price" will rise and perhaps you will end up with Case C - 1 person earning 400$ and 90 people earning 10$)

Yes, if you kill ALL the "elite", you will have a more equal society, but the result is the opposite if you kill ALMOST ALL the elite

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top