No, Keynes Did Not “Sit Out” the Debate on Eugenics


Biographers of John Maynard Keynes have a peculiar habit of treading very lightly around their subject matter’s involvement in the eugenics movement. The oversight is not for want of evidence.

In one of his last public appearances before his death in 1946, the famed British economist described eugenics as the “most important, significant, and I would add, genuine branch of sociology which exists.” Keynes’s remarks, delivered at a dinner gala of the British Eugenics Society, followed an 8-year stint as an honorary vice president of the organization. It was the last of many such eugenic organizations in which Keynes served as an officer or adviser – a record that dates back to his time as a student at Cambridge. 

Overt nods to eugenic theory also appear throughout Keynes’s writings, including several of his most famous writings. As I documented earlier this year in a longer article with James Harrigan, Keynes’s famously utopian essay “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren” was written as part of a multi-year dialogue with the novelist H.G. Wells on applying eugenic tools to social design.

Yet simply turning to the major biographies of Keynes over the last half century reveals a pattern of omission wherever eugenics is concerned. Robert Skidelsky’s monumental three-volume biography of Keynes devotes no more than a few sentences to the subject out of over 1,500 pages, largely portraying eugenics as a youthful fancy that he moved beyond in his later years. Others omit the subject entirely (the lone exception is a slim volume by John Toye that contextualizes the subject amid Keynes’s population theories, but also errs in interpreting a “recantation” of eugenic principles around the time of the aforementioned ‘Economic Possibilities’ essay).

These oversights are more a matter of polite neglect than intentional exclusion. Until very recently, the existing body of scholarly literature on Keynes simply failed to investigate the subject in depth, or missed clues that were sitting in plain sight. The problem is compounded by the fact that a pair of Keynes’s eugenic-themed essays from the early 1910s were not included in his Collected Works due to issues involving their availability at the time the series was prepared. 

A third major eugenics speech, delivered by Keynes to the British Malthusian League in 1927, remains unpublished to this day (I excerpted the key passage from it here). Add to that the diffuse and sometimes transatlantic nature of the main archival collections on the subject, and the oversight becomes more understandable. The lack of interest in pursuing such leads, however, is further complicated by the high enthusiasm that many Keynes scholars display toward their subject matter’s reputation.

Unfortunately this same pattern repeats in a new intellectual biography of Keynes by Huffington Post columnist Zach Carter. Although styled as a study of Keynes’s political vision and broader outlook on the structure of a democratic society, Carter avoids the eugenics issue almost entirely save for a few passing references to the historical influence of Thomas Malthus’s population theories on Keynes. For a book that goes out of its way to depict Keynes as an anti-authoritarian with deep misgivings about socio-economic inequality, its subject’s lifelong espousal of a eugenics-based hereditary “science” would seem to pose a substantial complication to Carter’s thesis.

I was pleasantly surprised this week when economist Tyler Cowen pressed Carter on this very subject in an interview about his biography. Carter’s answer went into greater depth on the subject than the book, yet it also settled into the all too familiar pattern of downplaying the significance of Keynes’s eugenic commitments. I excerpt the key passages below:

“CARTER: I don’t know that the way that Keynes talks about eugenics is as salient as you suggest. The best article that I came across on Keynes and eugenics is by this guy — I think David Singerman. It’s in the Journal of British Studies. It’s a pretty in-depth look at the way Keynes came to eugenics and what he did and did not support. It’s very clear that Keynes didn’t support eugenics in the way that Americans sterilizing poor Black workers in the South were interested in eugenics.

Keynes was broadly interested in it from the perspective of birth control. This is a time when eugenics and genetics are not as clearly defined as they are today, so he’s thinking about heritability of eye colors — how he gets involved in this stuff. He never really supports anything other than birth control.”

Cowen, much to his credit, pressed back against Carter, pointing out Keynes’s involvement in the Eugenics Society. Yet even against this evidence, Carter adopts a position of dismissiveness: “[Keynes] doesn’t do much there. There are big debates that are happening within that society, and he’s mostly sitting them out.”

Let’s consider Carter’s main claims in turn, starting with his contention that Keynes diverged from the sterilization views associated with some of the racial eugenicists in the United States. Keynes did not directly engage the American dimensions of the eugenics movement beyond a few brief passages, but neither did he reject so-called “negative eugenics,” which emphasizes the use of state policies to shape hereditary dimensions of the population, as Carter strongly implies.

On the contrary, Keynes’s essays are littered with subtle nods to enlisting the powers of the state for hereditary control. A revealing example appeared in a 1923 letter to Margaret Sanger’s Birth Control Review, where Keynes weighed in on the restrictive and race-based immigration quota system that was pending before the United States Congress at the time. “The coming generation of Americans,” Keynes argued, “will be forced by circumstances to consider the problem of what is the ideal population for their country, as well as the not less important problem of the quality of those who are bred up.”

Three years later at a lecture delivered in Berlin, Keynes made a similar nod to eugenics in a discussion of Europe’s population control policies:

My third example concerns population. The time has already come when each country needs a considered national policy about what size of population, whether larger or smaller than at present or the same, is most expedient. And having settled this policy, we must take steps to carry it into operation. The time may arrive a little later when the community as a whole must pay attention to the innate quality as well as to the mere numbers of its future members.

He later published the lecture as his celebrated essay, The End of Laissez-Faire. In reading these passages it is important to note that Keynes self-consciously guarded his language when discussing eugenics in public lectures and essays. He stated as much in a note to Julian Huxley, a prominent eugenicist and physician, after the two attended a bombastic speech by C.V. Drysdale at a 1927 gathering of eugenics supporters. Drysdale’s remarks posited an innate antagonism between “hunger and sex – which in a state of nature were always in conflict with one another” that could only be tamed by proactive checks on reproduction. As Keynes cautioned Huxley the next day, “a little word-control wouldn’t have been out of place.”

Yet Keynes’s own remarks at the same event conveyed perhaps the most candid expression of his own eugenic views, including his willingness to employ state policy to pursue them:

“Man has won the right to use the powerful weapon of the preventive check. But we shall do well to recognize that the weapon is not only a powerful one but a dangerous one. We are now faced with a greater problem, which will take centuries to solve. We have now to learn to use the weapon wisely and rightly. I believe that for the future the problem of population will emerge in the much greater problem of heredity and Eugenics. Mankind has taken into his own hands & out of the hands of nature the task and the duty of moulding his body and his soul to a pattern.”

A stricken line in the handwritten original of the speech reveals Keynes’s own exercise in word control, elaborating on what he meant by this new and powerful “weapon” of eugenics: “Quality must become the preoccupation” now that the matter of population growth numbers had been tamed.

Indeed, Keynes’s writings on the subject belie Carter’s argument that Keynes “never really supports anything other than birth control.” Although Keynes devoted considerable attention to promoting a birth control platform in the 1920s, he had clearly moved to the class and race-infused subject of hereditary “quality” by the mature phase of his eugenic activism. A 1936 exchange of letters with Margaret Sanger revealed as much in clear terms. Knowing his previous support for the British birth control movement, Sanger contacted Keynes to solicit his participation in an American birth control conference, the purpose of which was to “build up an awakening consciousness in the public mind to the importance of population problems” as a numerical conundrum in the classical Malthusian sense.

Contrary to Carter’s depiction, Keynes’s response signaled a singular disinterest in the remaining necessity for birth control measures. “In most countries we have now passed definitely out of the phase of increasing population into that of declining population, and I feel that the emphasis on policy should be considerably changed, – much more with the emphasis on eugenics and much less on restriction as such.” The economist’s thinking had shifted entirely to the question of hereditary “quality,” as his earlier remarks hinted.

The Sanger correspondence coincided with Keynes’s increasing involvement in the British Eugenics Society – the last of the major eugenics groups that Keynes joined. While Carter downplays his involvement to the point of suggesting disinterest in the society’s policy debates, that record is substantially complicated by two factors.

First, in addition to finding his energies consumed by advising the British government’s wartime economic policies, Keynes experienced rapidly declining health in his final years. This caused him to limit much of his day-to-day involvement in organizations such as the Eugenics Society, although he remained an esteemed member in the eyes of its managing director C.P. Blacker. It was Blacker who chose Keynes to deliver the above-noted dinner remarks in 1946 on account of his reputation.

Second, Keynes did in fact provide a major contribution to the Society’s debates of that era, delivering the Society’s 1937 Galton Lecture. Though a characteristically guarded speech, Keynes’s remarks offer something of a eugenic-infused postscript to his landmark General Theory, published the preceding year. Keynes used the occasion to frame how a country such as Britain, which had undergone a stabilization of its population growth, thus taming the “Malthusian Devil,” would now have to confront a second devil “through the breakdown of effective demand” as articulated in his book. The oblique eugenic nod, revealed more openly in the private Sanger correspondence, came in the final line of the lecture: “I do not depart from the old Malthusian conclusion. I only wish to warn you that the chaining up of the one devil may, if we are careless, only serve to loose another still fiercer and more intractable.”

Considered against this and similar evidence, it quickly becomes apparent that Carter has not only followed the route of earlier Keynes biographers by neglecting eugenics – he has compounded it by dressing the subject in euphemism. The result reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of Keynes’s views on the subject, even placing Carter’s depiction of Keynes at direct odds with the records left by Keynes himself.

It is not the only case of euphemism on a related subject in Carter’s book. At another point, Carter takes umbrage at economist Robert Solow for suggesting that a “polite anti-Semitism” afflicts Keynes’s ‘Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren’ – the aforementioned utopian essay from 1930 that presents a eugenic-infused reenvisioning of British society. “Solow presses his case too far,” Carter insists, contending that Keynes is only guilty of “unfortunate, outdated terminology” when he condemns “the love of money” and alludes to anti-Semitic stereotypes in his other essays.

Yet consider another passage from ‘Economic Possibilities.’ After lamenting the power of “compound interest” over economic affairs, Keynes writes: “Perhaps it is not an accident that the race which did most to bring the promise of immortality into the heart and essence of our religions has also done most for the principle of compound interest and particularly loves this most purposive of human institutions.” The allusion to the Jewish faith, and associated stereotypes of greed, becomes clearer when its phrasing is compared to a rather notorious 1926 essay he wrote lambasting the power of the “German political Jews.” In a passage from that essay that Carter acknowledges, Keynes cited Albert Einstein as an exemplar of a virtuous Jewish person. Yet the very next line anticipated the passage from ‘Economic Possibilities,’ Keynes ascribed Einstein’s virtue to the fact that he had “not sublimated immortality into compound interest.” Solow, it appears, was entirely right in his characterization of the passage.

These and similar shortcomings of Carter’s work evince an all too common pattern in grappling with the past, warts and all. Carter, like many Keynes biographers before him, shows clear personal enthusiasm for Keynes’s ideas and political philosophy. Yet it is impossible for the historian to fully grapple with that philosophy when it is stripped of its historical context, including the uglier features – eugenics, anti-Semitism, and similar bigotries. Those features are as much a part of Keynes’s belief system – including their economic dimensions – as his ideas on liquidity traps, business cycle contractions, and the prescriptive responses to each. 

Indeed, both were heavily influenced by an early 20th century spin on Malthusian doctrine, as Keynes himself would be the first to admit (notes in Keynes’s papers pertaining to his personal copy of Malthus’s Essay on Population indicate he saw the earliest seeds of eugenic theory in this work, irrespective of whether this was a correct reading of its author’s intent).

By politely sidestepping these issues in Keynes and other historical figures, we do a disservice to the past. Carter has unfortunately reduced Keynes’s eugenics to a subject that is best not spoken about, and on the rare occasion it is raised as Cowen’s interview did, something to be actively downplayed and dismissed.



* This article was originally published here
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