Eugenics and Libertarianism
Spencer was indeed concerned about human eugenics but, as a believer in laissez-faire, he did not propose using government to improve them. Compulsory eugenics originated with Galton and was rapidly taken up by the British left, with supporters including Shaw, Wells, Keynes, Laski and the Webbs. The idea spread across the political spectrum; Winston Churchill was one of many enthusiastic supporters. The result was an attempt, in 1912, to enact compulsory eugenics into law.
It was successfully opposed by Josiah Wedgewood, who Ridley describes as a radical libertarian. His central argument was not that it was bad science but that it was a striking violation of individual liberty. He made that argument sufficiently persuasive to force the government to withdraw the bill. Another opponent was G.K. Chesterton, best known today as a Catholic apologist and the author of some early mysteries. Chesterton was another radical libertarian, although a somewhat odd ones, to whom I devoted a chapter in the second edition of my Machinery of Freedom.
In addition to libertarian politicians such as Wedgewood and Cecil, compulsory eugenics had another important opponent: The Catholic church. Compulsory sterilization was implemented in a considerable number of countries, including the U.S. and Sweden, and almost implemented in Britain. It was not implemented in countries where the Catholic church was powerful. In that case, at least, the Church’s opposition to the latest findings of modern science put it where it belonged, on the side of the angels.
We were there too.
To be fair, I should add that there was a second push for compulsory eugenics in the early 1930’s, successful in some European countries but not in Britain. This time the failure was at least in part due to intellectual changes associated primarily with the left, the shift from belief in genetic determination of human beings to belief in social determination.
As Ridley points out, there is a different sort of eugenics that is alive and well in the modern world—decisions by parents related to the genes of their actual or potential offspring. He discusses two versions.
One is represented by the Committee for the Prevention of Jewish Genetic Disease, an organization that uses blood tests of school children to identify the carriers of genes for Tay-Sachs or cystic fibrosis. “When matchmakers are later considering a marriage between two young people, they can call a hotline and quote the anonymous numbers they were each assigned at the testing. If the are both carriers of the same mutation … the committee advises against the marriage.”
The other is the increasingly common practice of parents using amniocentesis to identify embryos carrying the extra chromosome that leads to Downs syndrome, and aborting them.