Academic journal article Journal of Markets & Morality

The Economic Eugenicism of John Maynard Keynes

Academic journal article Journal of Markets & Morality

The Economic Eugenicism of John Maynard Keynes

Article excerpt


On February 14, 1946, two months before his death, John Maynard Keynes offered his endorsement of "the most important, significant and, I would add, genuine branch of sociology which exists, namely eugenics." (1) His remarks occurred at an award dinner of the British Eugenics Society (BES), where Keynes had recently served as vice president for seven years. The occasion was the presentation of a medal to Sir Alexander Carr-Saunders, director of the London School of Economics and a prominent eugenicist in his own right.

Keynes's enthusiasm for the future of eugenics was mistaken. Already faltering in 1946, the study of this peculiar "science" of planned heredity succumbed to ethical repudiation by later scholars. Yet Keynes's interest was far from unique. In the early twentieth century, enthusiasm for eugenics swept up a generation of academics--often those of a progressive political bent. Thomas C. Leonard has recently documented the grip of eugenic thinking upon American economists at the time, with figures such as Richard T. Ely, John R. Commons, Simon Patten, and Irving Fisher coming under scrutiny. As Leonard notes, hereditary planning was a natural extension of their "outsized confidence in their own wisdom and objectivity" and a feature of their affinity for technocratic, scientifically driven policy. Lawrence A. White echoes, noting that eugenics was a conscious feature of the claimed "scientific" assault on laissez-faire in the early part of the century. A combination of the eugenics movement's horrific twentieth-century outgrowths and academia's subsequent repudiation of the field has nonetheless made modern economists and others "reluctant to look too closely at their respective disciplines' formative-years enthusiasm for now discredited notions." (2) Keynes's reputation has directly benefitted from this reticence.

Keynes's involvement with eugenics is acknowledged by his primary biographers, though seldom explored in detail. The most common interpretation approaches it as a youthful flirtation, originating in his acknowledged intellectual debts to Thomas Malthus. In this telling, mature Keynes abandoned his early eugenic interests, or at least politely set them aside near the end of his life. Both elements are present in the brief assessment from Robert Skidelsky's three-volume biography. In Skidelsky's Keynes, eugenics becomes "a policy of which he approved as a young man, but which now struck him as grossly insensitive" in the wake of the Nazis and as something he allegedly repudiated in 1943 by his resignation from the Malthusian League. (3) Curiously, Skidelsky makes no mention of the 1946 remark and seldom raises the eugenics issue outside a contrast with its more virulent practitioners. (4)

John Toye's book-length examination of Keynes's work on population theory brought two of his most eugenicist writing samples to the attention of scholars after their omission from Keynes's Collected Writings. Toye's historical groundwork is an invaluable starting point for examination of the role that eugenics played in Keynes's economic thought. Yet it does not answer that question so much as trace Keynes's closely related and evolving theories of demography and its effects. (5) Though he tends to numerous details Skidelsky neglected, Toye offers a similar conclusion. He sees eugenics as a component of Keynes's early life anxieties over Malthusian population traps but not his later and more famous economic works. Using a deeply esoteric interpretation of selected texts, Toye suggests that Keynes underwent a "recantation" of eugenic beliefs around 1930 as he confronted empirical evidence of stabilizing population rates in Great Britain.

We argue for a different interpretation, paralleling Leonard's findings in the American economics profession: Keynes saw both the population's size and hereditary composition as fundamentally prerequisite features of his macroeconomic system at its maturity. …

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