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I’ve written about the topic of eugenics several times for Philanthropy Daily, most importantly because it is the single biggest blight on the history of professional philanthropy in America, and because the mindset that motivated it is still part and parcel of establishment philanthropic thinking today: a desire to eliminate “root causes” of social issues, an overconfidence in the power of metrics and measurement to remove social ills, and a disregard for the moral dimension of a methodology that prides itself on its faithfulness to science, logic, and rationality. The silence of today’s philanthropic leaders on the matter of eugenics, which is usually seen only as a historical quirk if it is considered at all, is concerning.

But I continue writing about eugenics because of an even more alarming matter, which is that, far from being a historical quirk, eugenics-inspired policies seem to be re-emerging in their popularity.  Furthermore this trend does not seem to be bound by typical American political divisions. One can see eugenic intent in the centrist work of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in Africa, on the pro-abortion left and its backers from the Buffett Foundation with regard to forcing IUDs onto the young and poor, and in the darkest and most nationalistic parts of the Trumpist right who seek to defend notions of white racial identify.

The center-left president of France, Emmanuel Macron, much beloved in the Beltway here, recently made headlines by suggesting that further aid to Africa would not help the continent if African women continued to have “7 or 8 children per woman”. That eliminating African children from the earth would be cast by a major world leader as a necessary step on the path to civilization rather than a barbaric neocolonialist policy of oppression is certainly alarming, if not surprising given continental Europe’s long trend of failing to have children themselves.

Unfortunately, eugenics-minded thinking is not exclusively found in the halls of power in Europe, or for that matter the halls of power here in America. Last week a local news outlet in rural White County, Tennessee reported that a local judge has ordered that inmates in the county jail will receive 30 days’ credit toward their sentence if they have a vasectomy (or for females, a contraceptive implant lasting up to 4 years). At least 70 inmates have already elected to take part in the procedures, which are provided free of charge courtesy of the Tennessee Department of Health.

Interestingly, Judge Sam Benningfield defends the policy with an appeal to a prototypically conservative value structure: “I hope to encourage them to take personal responsibility and give them a chance, when they do get out, to not to be burdened with children. This gives them a chance to get on their feet and make something of themselves.” But far from encouraging personal responsibility, this policy is plainly coercive, in the same way that say, a company offering women an extra 30 days pay in exchange for a tube-tying procedure would be (and there are countries in the world where analogous policies are already routine).

The eugenic mistake here is to take a problem—in this case the problem of children being born into impoverished or drug-ridden homes—divorcing it from any traditional notion of human dignity, and seeing the “root causes” as a mathematical matter alone. If (A) drug-addicted criminals + (B) natural fertility = (C) children born into suboptimal homes, then the social engineer can feel free to ignore the much more difficult human problem of fixing (A) through addiction therapy and rehabilitation, and simply take the shortcut of incentivizing the elimination of (B). Problem solved! It’s the same old eugenic solution: improve society, raise GDP, and lower crime not through structures that help people to be better off, but by eliminating certain types of people altogether.   

For a historical account of the progressive era thinking that brought us to this point, I highly recommend the Princeton economist Thomas Leonard’s book, Illiberal Reformers: Race, Eugenics, and American Economics in the Progressive Era. While Leonard’s baseline libertarianism shows through a little too heavily at points, it’s a fascinating account that will force you to confront a recent, dark, and rarely remembered era of American governance and economic “expertise.” And it is a terrifying account, because reading it you cannot help but see how—from Bill Gates and Emmanuel Macron all the way down to red state Judge Benningfield—we’ve never really shaken the eugenics impulse.

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