Having just finished G. K. Chesterton’s Eugenics and Other Evils, I wished to write some thoughts of mine in response to his ideas while I am yet chewing on them. Call this article the Bordeaux I’m using to wash them down. (At least, I hope it comes off as having such quality and not that of Budweiser.) Chesterton wrote this work in response to the craze for Nietzschean ideas he saw prior to the First World War. Many people wished to produce a society of Übermenschen through the use of Eugenics. Chesterton starts with talking about the Feeble-Minded Act of 1913, which targeted people who lacked mental vigor, i.e. not being able to competently look after their own interests, for removal to mental asylums. Chesterton linked this into one of his favorite themes: how easy it might be to declare anyone insane. Within the U.S.S.R., a certain Russian poet was sent to Siberia for insanity because he believed in God.
In response to people who believed that less competent persons ought to be sent to asylums, he juxtaposes feeble-mindedness against real insanity. Real insanity is simply refusing to adhere to the facts. He states that five different poets might see a tree five different ways–including the melancholic poet who sees it as a good place to hang himself. However, all five see a tree. The lunatic will see a lamp-post or something else. The reason we so worry about the lunatic hurting himself or others lies in him having superimposed his fantasies over true reality. A feeble-minded person sees reality, but is merely not able to profit himself or society as much as the strong-minded fellow, who might even be more of a pain to others than the poor feeble-minded fellow, as Chesterton amusingly points out.
Chesterton ties in the eugenics movement to capitalism or, to speak more accurately, crony capitalism. There may be as many as three different capitalisms: Laissez-faire capitalism, capitalism restricted for the common good, and crony capitalism. The first has perfect faith in the market and believes that an economy will run smoothly as long as the government takes a minimalist approach. The second wants government to set up certain restrictive laws and agencies, e.g. food safety laws, tariffs, etc., which they think will protect the consumer from the excesses of greed. The third rather approaches Fascism with the government being at the behest of employers in creating laws favorable to businessmen.
Much of Chesterton’s disdain for capitalism is really disdain for crony capitalism. This is apparent when he talks about how vagrancy laws drive vagrants to work as wage slaves in factories or how profit is placed above the community’s vital interests. For example, for this particular form of capitalism, the solution for the poor having big families whom they have trouble feeding is birth control and abortion rather than increasing their wages. One of my favorite passages occurs when Chesterton talks about children dubbed by profiteers as unwanted. In Chesterton’s opinion, it is rather the profiteer who is unwanted–not the child.
Socialism also earns Chesterton’s wrath, because it can even more forcibly be a vehicle for creating the eugenicist utopia and depriving people of liberty:
It is better to be in a bad prison than in a good one. From the standpoint of the prisoner this is not at all a paradox; if only because in a bad prison he is more likely to escape. But apart from that, a man was in many ways better off in the old dirty and corrupt prison, where he could bribe turnkeys to bring him drink and meet fellow– prisoners to drink with. Now that is exactly the difference between the present system and the proposed system. Nobody worth talking about respects the present system. Capitalism is a corrupt prison. That is the best that can be said for Capitalism. But it is something to be said for it; for a man is a little freer in that corrupt prison than he would be in a complete prison. As a man can find one jailer more lax than another, so he could find one employer more kind than another; he has at least a choice of tyrants. In the other case he finds the same tyrant at every turn. Mr. Shaw and other rational Socialists have agreed that the State would be in practice government by a small group. Any independent man who disliked that group would find his foe waiting for him at the end of every road. (From Chapter VII)
That reason alone suffices to make one oppose socialism. Chesterton adds that socialists claim that their reforms might decrease liberty, but they would surely improve equality. Instead, they took away British people’s liberty without giving them equality.
But, in the end, it was not rational arguments which destroyed the eugenics movement–even the common sense one which remarked on how science’s ignorance in this field would turn people into guinea pigs for eugenicists–but the First World War. Germany had been the heart of the eugenicist movement, and other Europeans, seeing the horrors produced by the Prussian desire to dominate, turned away from Nietzsche and eugenics. In America, many high schools even took the German language off their curricula. The British people responded by turning to the spontaneous products of their culture. What a shame that the eugenicist beast reared it’s head again just a generation later!