David R. Henderson  

Bryson on Eugenics

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In his book One Summer, about America in 1927, Bill Bryson writes:

Remarkably, the Ku Klux Klan was not the most dangerous outpost of bigotry in America in the period. That distinction belonged, extraordinary though it is to state, to a coalition of academics and scientists. Since early in the century, a large number of prominent and learned Americans had been preoccupied, often to the point of obsessiveness, with the belief that the country was filling up with dangerously inferior people and that something urgent must be done about it.

One of the leaders in the fledgling eugenics movement was Madison Grant, a New York lawyer who never practiced law and a naturalist who practiced but was not trained. His preferred race: the Nordics. Bryson explains that by this term Grant meant all northern Europeans except the Irish.

Among those whom Bryson lists as supporters of Grant's views were the great Yale economist Irving Fisher, Harvard neuropathologist E.E. Southard, Harvard's president A. Lawrence Lowell, birth control activist Margaret Sanger, and politician Herbert Hoover.

One of the people who thought in terms of eugenics, unfortunately, was Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. He wrote the majority opinion in the Court's 8-1 decision that backed forcing Carrie Buck to be sterilized. In that decision Holmes coined the famous line "Three generations of imbeciles is enough." I'm not sure whether he had grandchildren.

Eugenics believer Harry H. Laughlin, whom the House Committee on Immigration and Naturalization appointed as "its expert adviser" and "assigned him the task of determining the comparative degeneracy of various ethnic groups." He pushed for sweeping immigration restrictions. He succeeded. Bryson writes:

Congress could not resist the authority of the committee or Laughlin's horrifying propaganda, and it quickly pushed through the 1921 Gillingham Immigration Restriction Act followed by the 1924 National Origins Act. Together these ended America's open-door immigration policy. By 1927, more people were being deported from Ellis Island than were coming through it.

What happened to Carrie Buck? In October 1927, she was sterilized. So was her sister, who "was told she was being treated for appendicitis."




COMMENTS (10 to date)
John Goodman writes:

You forgot to mention that most of these people were "progressives."

Steve Horwitz writes:

It's interesting to see how the SC justices came down on family issues given that several of that era did not have kids. Justice McReynolds of that same era had no children (as well as being just a reprehensible human being - bigot, anti-Semite, sexist) but wrote two of the most important decisions defending the rights of parents to raise their kids as they see fit. He also donated a good deal of money to kid-related charities.

NZ writes:

It seems like "eugenics" is a loaded term that really could represent a spectrum of concepts, ranging from "choose a mate based at least in part on subconscious signals that the mate would produce strong, healthy children" (something basically everybody does) to "systematically eliminate the genetic material of unwanted individuals from a population, usually by means of coercion and violence" (e.g. Nazi-style death camps).

My understanding of the Eugenics movement of the early 20th century is that it was well between these two extremes.

Sam Haysom writes:

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R Richard Schweitzer writes:

the sweep of that "appeal" reached into expressions of serious thinkers such as Walter Lippmann: "The Good Society."

drobviousso writes:

Though not very popular, CS Lewis wrote an excellent book called "That Hideous Strength" in which eugenicists play the part of major antagonist. Lewis, like he did in The Screwtape Letters, saves his sharpest barbs for the intelligent, highly educated, and morally bankrupt intellectuals that can't see the evil they advocate for.

Moebius Street writes:

To Mr. Goodman's point...

Eugenics was indeed a progressive program. I don't think you'll find many progressives today still willing to endorse it in any way, but...

Eugenics and Socialism are very similar in the way the believe that they can engineer a complex, emergent system to meet their goals, without running into significant unintended consequences.

Changing values in the last century has shown them that in the case of engineering humans, the program is folly. It's a shame that they haven't learned the same lesson about economics. It's surprising, too, because Hayek's work shows objectively that the same kinds of problems will fall out of it.

NZ writes:
Eugenics and Socialism are very similar in the way the believe that they can engineer a complex, emergent system to meet their goals, without running into significant unintended consequences.
Depends how you define "significant" doesn't it?

In a very short amount of time we engineered hundreds of dog breeds specialized for all kinds of tasks or traits. Yes, some of the breeds wound up with higher rates of hip dysplasia and things like that, but a lot of those problems were from too much inbreeding and pushing things to the extreme for non-functional aesthetic purposes.

It doesn't seem farfetched that we could engineer a race of people who are much taller, faster, smarter, kinder, etc. on average within a millennium without big negative physical consequences to the engineered.

Instead, this is an issue because of the wider social implications. In other words, the big complex system we can't engineer is our civilization, not our reproduction.

anonymous writes:

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AS writes:

NZ-The unintended consequence is not that eugenics itself would fail, but it would destroy humanity and liberty. You mentioned kindness-there is nothing kind about sterilizing another human against their will. And when does it end? Today it may be the mental insane, tomorrow it may be political enemies, much like the IRS targetting political enemies of the president. It's a pandora's box you do not want opened.

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