Bryan Caplan  

Eugenics, Malthusianism, and Trepidation

Group Affiliation Bias... Brad Plumer, meet Bill McBride...
The Nazis were eugenicists and Malthusians (see Mein Kampf, chapter 4).  They wanted to murder "the inferior" because they were convinced there wasn't enough food to go around.  The Malthusianism told them that millions had to die; the eugenics told them who the victims ought to be.

Strangely, though, the Nazis' crimes discredited only eugenics, not Malthus.  After the Holocaust, you'd think that anyone muttering, "There are too many people running around," would be an instant pariah.  But that's not how things worked out. 

This is especially strange because there's nothing intrinsically misanthropic about eugenics.  As I've explained before, eugenics plus the Law of Comparative Advantage leads to trade, not barbarity:

Suppose we have an isolated society in which everyone is a genius. Let's call them the Brains. Who takes out the garbage? A Brain, obviously. Who does the farming? Again, Brains.

Now what happens if the geniuses come into contact with a society where everyone is of average intelligence at best? Let's call them the Brawns. If the Brains allow the Brawns to join their society, the average genetic quality of the Brains' society plummets. But everyone is better off as a result! Now the Brains can specialize in jobs that require high intelligence, and the Brawns can take over the menial labor. Total production goes up.

Malthusianism, in contrast, is intrinsically misanthropic.  By hook or by crook, population has to go down.  Sure, they'd prefer voluntary sub-replacement fertility.  But if that's not in the cards, the next steps are government pressure to discourage fertility, then caps on family size, followed by forced sterilization, mandatory abortion, and finally mass murder. 

An hysterical straw man?  Hardly.  Malthusianism was Hitler's official argument for his greatest crimes.  Germany's problem, in Hitler's own words:
The annual increase of population in Germany amounts to almost 900,000 souls. The difficulties of providing for this army of new citizens must grow from year to year and must finally lead to a catastrophe, unless ways and means are found which will forestall the danger of misery and hunger.
After considering all the viable solutions within a Malthusian framework, Hitler picks his favorite: Seizing more land in Europe.
Of course people will not voluntarily make that accommodation. At this point the right of self-preservation comes into effect. And when attempts to settle the difficulty in an amicable way are rejected the clenched hand must take by force that which was refused to the open hand of friendship. If in the past our ancestors had based their political decisions on similar pacifist nonsense as our present generation does, we should not possess more than one-third of the national territory that we possess to-day and probably there would be no German nation to worry about its future in Europe.
As I sum up:
When someone says "There are too many Jews," we suspect that he wants to kill Jews. Similarly, it turns out that at the root of Hitler's propensity to kill people was his belief that there are too many people.
My claim is not that, "Malthusianism is false because Hitler believed it."  Hitler presumably believed that the sky is blue.  My claim, rather, is that Malthusianism is a more dangerous doctrine than eugenics.  If the whiff of eugenics leads you to say, "We should be very careful here, because these ideas can easily lead to terrible things," the whiff of Malthusianism should inspire even greater trepidation.

COMMENTS (25 to date)
James A. Donald writes:

> If the Brains allow the Brawns to join their society, the average genetic quality of the Brains' society plummets. But everyone is better off as a result!

Let us suppose, however, one man one vote. Let us suppose the brains are the Zimbabwean or Congo whites, and the brawns are the Zimbawean or Congo blacks.

Then everyone is worse off as a result.

Steve Sailer writes:

The notion that eugenics caused the Holocaust and WWII would have baffled most people at the time. This storyline was basically retconned into conventional wisdom during the 1970s and 1980s.

I could easily make up equally valid arguments about why WWII was the fault of such fashionable brands today as the Volkswagen Beetle (Hitler wanted American-sized lebensraum for Germans to drive their Hitler-inspired Beetles around in) or Hugo Boss (those Nazi uniforms Boss designed for Hitler were so cool-looking that they made the difference in the rise of the Nazis).

@bawld writes:

Malthusianism never took on the bad name of eugenics because eugenics was much more specific about types of people than Malthusianism was.

Eugenics was the modifier to Malthusianism. We didn't see Hitler killing people indiscriminately, as an indifferent Malthusian would seek to do; we saw Hitler seeking to kill specific people. Eugenics is seen as the catalyst to the otherwise inert idea of Malthusianism.

I don't think we can really separate the two, as Hitler practiced them.

David C writes:

If the Malthusians are followed and ultimately turn out to be wrong, several million people will be prevented from bearing children unnecessarily. If your beliefs are followed and ultimately turn out to be wrong, several million people will unnecessarily starve to death.

You might argue that at least they got to live in the first place. But preventing births now doesn't prevent future births from taking place to catch up. It's simply a matter of when those births occur and who gets to enjoy them, not if.

Steve Sailer hints at what I think is the correct answer. Hitler and eugenics didn't become widely discussed until several decades later, the 70's. Eugenics is despised because of its relationship with Jim Crow, I think, and its relationship to the Holocaust is just an incidental footnote used to further disparage it.

Gian writes:

bawld is right. Believers in eugenics necessarily have a judgment about superiority and inferiority and
'life not worth living'.

Even voluntary eugenics is problematic. By what criteria a IQ of 105 to be preferred to IQ of 95?.
What gives one a justification for choosing IQ as a criterion?.

One one is living in a society, one's actions MUST be oriented to the Common Good. There exists no right for private juggling with the gene pool. The gene pool belongs to the People as a whole.

stephen writes:

Were the early 20th century commies eugenicists? I have always assumed that they were not, else the term would never have become so pejorative.

stephen writes:

It seems to me what Malthus got wrong (oh brother not another one of these..) is that wealth per capita is only a function (primarily a function of?) of population. None the less, the partial derivative with respect to population is still negative. So, yeah, whatever

Robinson writes:
None the less, the partial derivative with respect to population is still negative. So, yeah, whatever

Evidence? See Julian Simon.

stephen writes:


Maybe its the 2nd partial, or the 3rd...certainly the nth. My evidence? There is a finite amount of energy and matter in the universe.

jb writes:

David C - your argument is too simplistic:

If the Malthusians are followed and ultimately turn out to be wrong, several million people will be prevented from bearing children unnecessarily. If your beliefs are followed and ultimately turn out to be wrong, several million people will unnecessarily starve to death.

Because those millions of unborn children are not bricks, they are thinking human beings. Many will contribute to the public good. At least some of them will produce new ideas, inventions, etc.

Venture Capitalists place a lot of bets, knowing that most of them will fail, because they also know that some of the bets will pay off spectacularly. Yes, that ends up wasting more money than being able to pick only the winners, but none of us are smart enough to know in advance who is going to be a positive contributor and who isn't.

Andrew writes:

Stephen --

Perhaps you need to read this post regarding resources.

Collin writes:

In discussing eugenics it is a very much of a reality that most philosophers in the first half of the twentieth century had a variety of eugenics views. Even Mises wrote about the working class males after so many children should control their urges. (I assumed this so they could have their wages more easily cut in depressions.) In the US there was a lot Protestants who disliked the number of babies the Catholics were having. That said I do have a simple question.
In the last 30+ years, the biggest economic miracle has been China. As part of the growth, the Chinese government would say their mild eugenics policy, (they would call a different name...1 Child) has help contribute to this growth. How do you respond? Also has there been a nation (outside of petrodollars) in the last forty years, that has had significant economic growth without a drop in the birth rate?

Slim934 writes:


"My evidence? There is a finite amount of energy and matter in the universe."

.....which is irrelevant to the discussion. Energy and resources are irrelevant concepts unless you can actually use them. This requires knowledge, which grows to higher levels and faster rates when there are more human beings. There was certainly much more coal, oil, natural gas 100,000 years ago. But so what? Grok didn't know how to use them except in the most inefficient of ways (by just burning them as fire and using them as a radiant heat source).

stephen writes:

Andrew, Slim934 (thanks for the rebuttals..)

Perhaps we are too far afield which is my fault, but...

I made an argument about the partial derivative of living standards with respect to population. That living standards are dependant on technology is understood and orthogonal.

BTW, not only is there a finite amount of stuff, there is also a finite amount of things we can do with that stuff


Tim M writes:

Under a socialist system each additional person is a liability, so from more socialistic to less - the Nazi's killed millions, the Chinese government's one child policy, and our Progressive/Liberals small families and government supplied free contraceptives. In contrast, a free market capitalist system considers each additional person a resource.

Yancey Ward writes:

Show me a Malthusian who thinks he should not be allowed to reproduce.

It is currently unknown if the universe is finite. It might also be possible to create "basement universes." We don't know yet.

Even if the universe is finite and unique, judging by the decline in birth rates we have the ability to adjust to perceived finiteness.

Glen Smith writes:

My understanding is that Malthusianism is more of a framework while Eugenics is more an application based on a framework. While Eugenics may fall out of a Malthusian framework, I don't think Eugenics only falls out of a Malthusian framework nor is it the only system that could be used to implement that conclusions of Malthusianism. Even if I follow a more Whiggish framework, I could see coming to a Eugenics conclusion because people still must live through the discovery process and/or may believe that certain combinations make for a more efficient/effective discovery process.

Richard writes:
Even voluntary eugenics is problematic. By what criteria a IQ of 105 to be preferred to IQ of 95?. What gives one a justification for choosing IQ as a criterion?.
So if you take a drug that, unbeknownst to you, drops your IQ by ten points, you're not filing a law suit because who is to say an IQ of 105 is better than an IQ of 95?
Steve Sailer writes:

"Eugenics is despised because of its relationship with Jim Crow, I think ..."

That's a different flavor of retconning -- eugenics was unpopular in Bible Belt parts of the country because it was an outgrowth of Darwinism (the word was coined by Darwin's cousin, after all) and thus clashed with Biblical inerrancy. Eugenics was most popular in northern Progressive Protestant states. The intellectual capital of eugenics in America was likely Northern California, especially Stanford U. The two men most frequently called the founder of Silicon Valley -- Bill Shockley and Fred Terman -- were eugenicists.

Steve Sailer writes:

The reason such a huge intellectual war was mounted from the 1970s onward to delegitimize the reputations of old time eugenicists, who in the U.S. and Britain had comprised the outstanding Progressive intellectual of the age -- Galton, Keynes, Fisher, Wells, Holmes, Shaw, etc. etc. -- was to benefit the new intellectuals in Anglo-American universities.

Jeff writes:

Mein Kampf was a political tract, much like Dreams From My Father (haha, sorry but I couldn't resist; you know what I mean, though: they belong to the same genre of books), so perhaps the views it expresses are not to be taken at face value. Nonetheless, if he just wanted to purge Germany of supposedly inferior Jewish genetic stock and/or influence, why not just forcibly expulse them? Why take the time and trouble to build death camps when you can just put them all on the next slow boat to Spain or whatever? Maybe he just hated them and wanted to punish them collectively for their role in Germany's defeat in WWI? His public statements suggest as much. But how much of his rhetoric was just the cheap, cynical politics of racial resentment and how much was genuine animus?

I don't know the answers, I just want to point out that Hitler was a politician, so the things he wrote for public consumption, like Mein Kampf, need to be viewed in a larger context and not simply taken at face value.

Jeff writes:

One other quick points: it's not entirely shocking that a German (well, Austrian, but close enough) would worry about there not being enough food to go around at that time. Germany was already heavily dependent on imports of food in the early 20th century, and during the first World War, three quarters of a million German civilians starved to death as a result of the British Naval blockade. That's got to leave an impression on someone who lives through such a thing.

And it's not as though that was a 20th century phenomenon, either. The German beer purity laws, which had been around since the 1500's and lasted for 300-odd years, were enacted specifically to prevent wheat from being used to make beer. The volatility in the supply of wheat at the time often led to shortages of bread, which obviously was a staple of the German diet at that time. Divert some fraction of what wheat there is to making beer, and the problem is compounded.

My point isn't to excuse Hitler's Malthusian bloodlust, just to point out that worrying about food supplies in a place like Germany probably was nothing new, not entirely unreasonable given what occurred during WWI, and was likely shared by quite a few of his fellow countrymen.

yet another david writes:

Another excellent post Bryan.

Malthusianism is a more dangerous doctrine than eugenics.

And what is Malthusianism but a zero-sum perspective on the economy and resources?

And what is a zero-sum perspective on the economy and resources but socialism and its equally evil twin, environmentalism?

Substituting in, we have (in revised form):

Socialism/environmentalism are more dangerous doctrines than eugenics.
DavidB writes:

Malthus gets a bad press, mainly from people who have never read him.

The essence of Malthus, in a very general form, can be put as follows:

a) in the absence of any 'checks' (including voluntary self-restraint) the natural rate of population increase is above zero, and has no tendency to diminish;

b) if continued indefinitely, the population, growing at its natural unrestrained rate of increase, will eventually outstrip its supplies of food and other essential resources.

In this form it is difficult to see how anyone can refute Malthusianism. It follows from point (a), if accepted, that the population will not only grow, but grow exponentially, and must therefore eventually outgrow any finite limit. But essential resources such as land and energy have a finite limit; therefore (b) follows from (a).

It would be possible to challenge (a) by arguing that as population increases fertility naturally falls, and some 19th century thinkers did argue along these lines, but it is pretty clear that they were underestimating the extent of self-restraint (i.e. deliberate family limitation) already taking place.

It is sometimes suggested that Malthus has been 'refuted' by the use of effective contraception, but it is quite clear that Malthus himself would have classified contraception as a form of 'vice', which he recognised as one of the existing 'checks' on reproduction.

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