Saturday, February 18, 2012

Feet of clay: Beveridge, Keynes and eugenics

Jonathan Freedland has an article in the Guardian today looking at the attraction that eugenics held for left-wing politicians in the first half of the 20th century:
The Fabians, Sidney and Beatrice Webb and their ilk were not attracted to eugenics because they briefly forgot their leftwing principles. The harder truth is that they were drawn to eugenics for what were then good, leftwing reasons. 
They believed in science and progress, and nothing was more cutting edge and modern than social Darwinism. Man now had the ability to intervene in his own evolution. Instead of natural selection and the law of the jungle, there would be planned selection. And what could be more socialist than planning, the Fabian faith that the gentlemen in Whitehall really did know best? If the state was going to plan the production of motor cars in the national interest, why should it not do the same for the production of babies?
All good Liberals will be aware of this tendency among the Fabians, but we cannot draw much comfort from Freedland's article. Because he also points out that two Liberal heroes were implicated in the eugenics movement too.

John Maynard Keynes was director of the Eugenics Society from 1937 to 1944, and
William Beveridge, who argued that those with "general defects" should be denied not only the vote, but "civil freedom and fatherhood."
I did not know of Keynes' involvement in this movement, but my impression of Beveridge was that his views veered between individualism and collectivism over his career. Perhaps he had more sensible things to say too?

This may be overkind to Beveridge. Freedland links to an article that Dennis Sewell wrote for the Spectator in 2009. It shows that the words Freedland quotes date from 1909, but the he held similar views 30 years later:
On the evening that the House of Commons met to debate the Beveridge Report, Beveridge himself went off to address an audience of eugenicists at the Mansion House. He knew he was in for a rough ride. His scheme of family allowances had originally been devised within the Eugenics Society with a graduated rate, which paid out more to middle-class parents and very little to the poor. The whole point was to combat the eugenicists’ great bugbear — the differential birth rate between the classes. However, the government that day had announced a uniform rate. Beveridge was sympathetic to the complaints of his audience and hinted that a multi-rate system might well be introduced at a later date.
So it seems that Beveridge was a convinced eugenicist throughout.

What moral do we draw from this?

Certainly not that Keynes and Beveridge are beyond the pale. We are never going to agree with everything an historical figure wrote and thought, and people can often be a mixture of the very good and very bad. Hilaire Belloc, for instance, was both a raving antisemite and a uniquely acute critic of the dangers inherent in corporatist society.

But I do think this little bit of intellectual history should remind us of a certain style of argument that is popular in the Liberal Democrats. Often difficult modern-day problems are dismissed simply by citing the name of a past hero.

Should we reform the social security system? Read Beveridge. Can we reconcile individual liberty and economic equality? Read L.T. Hobhouse and T.H. Green. Whatever shall we do about the economy? Read Keynes.

Liberal Left even wanted to drag Gladstone into it the other day. As I recently argued myself, this constant citing of long-dead figures makes our self-styled radicals oddly conservative in practice.

If you add to this a fondness for quoting the party constitution or party policy as a way of countering people who ask awkward questions, and we start to look like a church, complete with saints and sacred texts.

Let's remember that all heroes, even Liberal heroes, have feet of clay and be prepared to a little more thinking of our own.


Mark Pack said...

Good points. I think if anything the problem is even worse as not only are names from the past invoked as if they kill an argument stone dead, they are also often invoked in ways that contradict the invoker is trying to make.

Keynes is the best example. Yes he believed in big deficits in times of recession. But he wasn't a believer in big government. If, say, David Laws expressed similar views on the role of government as Keynes I'm sure many of those who cite Keynes in their favour would start rubbishing the views vigorously.

Simon Titley said...

You are correct that merely citing the name of a long-dead Liberal does not settle an argument. But this problem is not confined to the party's left.

There is an equal tendency on the party's right to cite Gladstone, Cobden or Bright to settle an argument. If anything, it's worse, since the argument runs that, because the right's nineteenth century heros were earlier than the left's twentieth century heros, they must be closer to the truth.

This sort of thinking was the fundamental fallacy behind the Orange Book, which asserted that it was "reclaiming liberalism", as if liberalism existed in some sort of historically pure form and one could therefore settle an argument simply by going back in time.

Liberalism has no Holy Bible or Koran, no Das Kapital or Mein Kampf. Not even Mill's On Liberty fulfils such a role. There is no 'Ur' liberalism (although there is too much er... liberalism).

In the holy words of Brian, you're all individuals!

Left Lib said...

What many people believed in the 1930s and 40s in relation to Eugenics was not that it was based on socialism but it was based on science. As it turned out of course, that science was flawed, but that is easy to say based on hindsight. It was the awfulness of the holocaust in WW2 that forced intellectuals, particularly liberals and socialists and Tory appeasers, to reconsider their beliefs and that was when eugenics went into decline. Had Hitler concentrated on the genocide of Jews and not gone to war with Europe, there may well have been a wider consensus amongst European politicians across the political spectrum to be in favour genocide.

Left Lib said...

As for the historical references, first of all Mark I think that the quotation from Keynes is simple common sense and does not imply that the size of government should be big or small, but should be whatever size it needs to be to do what it can do better than society can manage by any other means.
More generally I think the historical references are made by various people who are looking for legitimacy for their particular definition of liberalism. That is not necessarily a bad thing, in fact I think it is a good thing but it is absolutely crucial to understand the historical context in which who said what. In the 19th century one of the main functions of the state was to conscript men into the army. In that context a large state was favoured by Tories and opposed by radicals. At that time the NHS and state education was not on the political horizon, so we have no way of knowing what they would have thought about it today looking back. JS Mill on the other hand wanted a more intellectual society. What we have today of course is a highly commercialised superficial culture based on celebrities, tabloid newspapers, salacious gossip. It is hard to imagine a society more the opposite of what he wanted and it is all exploited by market forces of which he is meant to be a champion.
What we cannot do of course is bring these people back to life, so these historical interpretations will I guess never be settled.
However I would argue that it is wrong to downgrade history. It was the lack of understanding of the history of Iraq that made it's 2003 invasion so disastrous. John Gray wrote an excellent book on this and other things called "Black Mass". it is all about liberalism and is well worth reading.

Ben Upson said...

I support the sentiment of the article and especially the fault of arguing from reference to "names" or mis-remembered "classic" texts.