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Economics, Immigration, and Eugenics

In my last post, I mentioned in passing the eugenic dimensions of tax and immigration policy. The genetic quality of the national stock is a taboo subject, and for familiar, excellent reasons. Nazis! That said, the history of eugenics is fascinating, especially if one is also interested in the history of economics as a discipline with deep roots in ideologies of social planning and control. A number of early presidents of the American Economics Association were prominent eugenicist who leaned heavily on eugenicist arguments in policy analysis. Check this out, from Thomas Leonard’s “Eugenics and Economics in the Progressive Era“:

It was a scholarly fashion, circa 1890, to declare the U.S. frontier “closed” and to sound a Malthusian alarm about excess American population growth. But the professional economists who wrote on immigration increasingly emphasized not the quantity of immigrants, but their quality. “If we could leave out of account the question of race and eugenics,” Irving Fisher [a very important figure in the development of 20th century economics] said in his presidential address to the Eugenics Research Association, “I should, as an economist, be inclined to the view that unrestricted immigration . . . is economically advantageous to the country as a whole . . . .” But, cautioned Fisher, “the core of the problem of immigration is . . . one of race and eugenics,” the problem of the Anglo-Saxon racial stock being overwhelmed by racially inferior “defectives, delinquents and dependents.”

Fear and dislike of immigrants certainly were not new in the Progressive Era. But leading professional economists were among the first to provide scientific respectability for immigration restriction on racial grounds. They justified race-based immigration restriction as a remedy for “race suicide,” a Progressive Era term for the process by which racially superior stock (“natives”) is outbred by a more prolific, but racially inferior stock (immigrants). The term “race suicide” is often attributed to Edward A. Ross (1901a, p. 88), who believed that “the higher race quietly and unmurmuringly eliminates itself rather than endure individually the bitter competition it has failed to ward off by collective action.” Ross was no outlier. He was a founding member of the American Economic Association, a pioneering sociologist and a leading public intellectual who boasted that his books sold in the hundreds of thousands.3 Ross’s coinage gained enough currency to be used by Theodore Roosevelt who called race suicide the “greatest problem of civilization,” and regularly returned to the theme of “the elimination instead of the survival of the fittest.”

It’s important to remember that these guys weren’t conservative in any sense we’d recognize today. These weren’t knuckle-dragging troglodyte nativists. Quite the opposite, actually. Eugenics around the turn of the 20th century was at the cutting edge of scientific, progressive thought. In 1910, the likes of Paul Krugman and Larry Summers probably would have been eugenicists. (And I probably would have been some sort of even more terrible communist, so no insult is intended in the observation.)

Technocractic progressivism is alive and well, of course, but it’s now a very different animal, greatly limited in scope and ambition by a host of non-negotiable moral constraints. Since the Holocaust, the Civil Rights revolution, the rise of feminism, the fall of South African apartheid, etc., the idea that policy ought to even acknowledge much less take into account “natural” inequality has become taboo on the progressive left and is now confined mostly to the nativist right. The dramatic conversion of progressives from a pretty hard-nosed belief in lineage-based genetic determinism to the sort of environmental determinism evolutionary psychologists Cosmides, Tooby, and Pinker deride as the “Standard Social Science Model” is partly due to scientific progress. But I think it’s important to consider the extent to which this shift in the social-scientific consensus reflects a prior cultural shift toward the idea that it is profoundly morally important to presuppose natural equality, whatever the facts may be.  

It occurs to me that one reason Charles Murray’s work has been so controversial is that his style of policy analysis too closely resembles Irving Fisher’s. Murray violates the moral taboo against acknowledging natural inequality. But, more importantly, he challenges the idea that policy analysis which does not take into account natural inequality is as scientific as today’s progressives would have it. This in turn raises to intolerable possibility that a latter-day Irving Fisher would be in some important sense a superior technocrat with a superior claim to the mantle of scientific authority.

Anyway, what would a latter-day Irving Fisher, with access to the best and latest science, say about immigration? I’d guess he’d be a big enthusiast for offering visas and citizenship to high-IQ, high-skill foreigners. But what about poorer, low-skill workers? I’m not so sure. Some right-wing anti-immigration activists appeal to old-fashioned eugenic arguments about the threat poor Mexicans would pose to genetic quality of the national population, but I’m deeply skeptical. I’d like to page Garrett JonesRazib Khan.


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