Bioethics and John Maynard Keynes

Xavier Symons
10 May 2013
Reproduced with Permission

A media firestorm broke out last week after Harvard's celebrity economic historian Niall Ferguson offered a crude assessment of the key to Keyesian economics. At a conference in the US last week, he said Keynes did not care about future generations because he was a homosexual and therefore childless. Subsequently Ferguson made an "unqualified apology" on his blog.

Instead of baying about homophobia in the media pack, London columnist Brendan O'Neill ran down a different angle on Keynes: that he was a eugenicist zealot. A number of commentators have recalled that Keynes was director of the British Eugenics Society from 1937 to 1944. Keynes called eugenics "the most important, significant and, I would add, genuine branch of sociology which exists." In one of his unpublished essays, he endorsed the legalisation of birth control because of the irresponsibility of working-class Britons:

"To put difficulties in the way of the use of [contraception] checks increases the proportion of the population born from those who from drunkenness or ignorance or extreme lack of prudence are not only incapable of virtue but incapable also of that degree of prudence which is involved in the use of checks."

O'Neill provocatively concludes, "it is wrong to say Keynes didn't care about future generations. He cared about some of them - the well-bred, genetically good ones. And to the extent that he didn't care about the future offspring of the poor and dumb, well, it wasn't his gayness that made him feel that way, but rather the mean-spirited Malthusianism".

There are very few academic studies of Keynes's views on eugenics. An overview is offered in John Laurant and John Nightingale's Darwinism and Evolutionary Economics. An alternative account can be found in John Toye's Keynes on Population.