My previous post was triggered by Tyler Cowen’s evident attachment to the negative freedom criterion beloved by libertarians; that’s why he recommended Mill, who was hardly free of the national and racial stereotypes typical of his age and social station. But I should say a word about his actual argument.
It appears to be true that there was an affinity between early 20th century Progressives and eugenics, but there was hardly a one-to-one mapping between these groups. Some Progressives, apparently including Dewey, were skeptical, and many eugenics enthusiasts, like Irving Fisher, were resolutely anti-Progressive. Something else was going on.
I think it helps to step back from this one issue for a moment and consider the larger terrain. Over the past few centuries there have been repeated waves of intellectual and political fervor stemming from crude biological visions of human life. It comes in a blinding flash: we are animals! We are subject to the same laws that govern all other species! Politics and culture are just biology in disguise!
And so simplistic assumptions about population growth and environmental carrying capacity have been with us since Malthus (and even earlier as Cohen showed). Social Darwinism identified economic competition with phenotypic selection. The eugenics crowd thought we could improve the human race the same way corn and cattle are selectively bred. First generation sociobiologists carried similar baggage. The core inspiration is neither left nor right, but biologically determinist at the level of crude analogy.
If you’ve ever tried to reason with a population growth fundamentalist you’ll recognize what I’m talking about. Forget about demographic transitions or distinctions between the cost and feasibility of sustaining populations of various sizes. It all comes down to petri dishes and exponential growth. There’s something about the simplistic biological vision that captivates the mind and crowds out subtler forms of reasoning.
Just to be clear, I’m not arguing that biology doesn’t matter. Of course people are organisms. Of course population matters, and human traits have continued to evolve through the past two million years of our existence. No doubt our emotional proclivities at some level have a genetic component. But all of these things are complex and multiply caused. The starting point is evidence and an open mind, not to mention real biology in all its intricacies, and not simplistic stereotypes.
So eugenics was one expression of a continuing thread in modern, “scientific” culture. You could spin it to fit with progressivism or conservatism, but its real source lies elsewhere.