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.