John Maynard Keynes in the History of Eugenics

John Maynard Smith. 1937. Some economic consequences of a declining population, published in Eugenics Review 29(1): 13-17.

What was the research and advocacy that took place by personnel associated with UCL and sister institutions? Seth Jamieson investigates John Maynard Smith. 1937. Some economic consequences of a declining population, published in  29(1): 13-17.

Biographical Context: John Maynard Keynes

It is unsurprising that a figure as prominent as John Maynard Keynes, founder of the influential Keynesian Economics, has received so much attention from biographers. Furthermore, those biographies have often been well received. In fact, the three-volume biography by Robert Skidelsky, Hopes Betrayed, The Economist as Saviour and Fighting for Britain, have been widely acclaimed (Skidelsky, 1992, 1994 and 2001). Harcourt and Turnell described them as “probably the greatest biography of the 20th century.” (Harcourt, et al, 2005). Whilst, Norman Stone said the biography “should be given a Nobel Prize.” (Penguin, 2021).

Baron Skidelsky should be considered within a context, however. To describe him as a Warwick economics professor with a tendency towards writing biographies would be a disservice. The Oxford man’s political career is truly astounding making him one of a minority of UK politicians to have been a member of the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats, and the Conservatives (Robert Skidelsky – Biography, 2008). Keynesian economics, and Keynes himself, were accepted by all major political parties in the post-war consensus, which explains why someone as cross party as Skidelsky is interested in him.

Nevertheless, Skidelsky had come under criticism for previous biographical work which raises questions about his portrayal of Keynes. His biography of Oswald Mosley, published in 1975, was deemed to have made light of Mosley’s fascism as Skidelsky claimed Mosley had been misrepresented (Peele, 1976). Comparatively, Skidelsky makes little reference to Keynes’ eugenicist views, despite the significant amount of time Keynes devoted to the pursuit of Eugenics (Magness, 2020). Skidelsky completely ignores Keynes’ directorship of the Eugenics Society between 1937-44, which was at the height of Keynes’ fame given the major success of his paper, General theory of employment, interest, and money in 1936 (Leung et al, 2021). Keynes attempted to use economic arguments to support his view of eugenics, especially in terms of unemployment and population decline as stated in his 1937 address to the Galton lecture, which makes Skidelsky’s silence on the matter, in such a comprehensive economic biography, suspect (Singerman, 2016).

This story is repeated time and again in other major biographies of Keynes with few exceptions. Perhaps, given current societal trends, Keynes’ sexuality and antisemitism have received more attention than his Eugenicist ideology (Newsroom, 2008). However, Keynes on Population and Economic growth by John Toye publishes two scripts not included in the Collected Writings of Keynes that address population and hence the Keynesian defence of Eugenics (Toye, 1997). These are notable omissions from the Collected Writings as Keynes’ comments on population are thinly veiled arguments in support of Eugenics (Patinkin, 1975). Toye, educated at Cambridge, worked as a professor in Development Policy and Planning at University College Swansea which may have motivated his study of Keynes’ policy and ideas compared to other general biographies (Dilemmas of Development, 1993).

Biographical works that have more to say about the role of eugenic theories in Keynes’ life are written by people interested in the history of eugenics rather than those writing general biographies. John Aldrich of Southampton University has written an extensive piece entitled Eugenics in British Economics from Marshall to Meade. This manuscript talks of the influence of Francis Galton on Keynes in his undergraduate years at Cambridge, leading Keynes to form the Cambridge University Eugenics Society in 1911 (Aldrich, 2019).

In addition, Keynesian Eugenics and the Goodness of the World by David Roth Singerman also provides an overview of Keynes with attention to his eugenicist writings (Singerman, 2016). A Cambridge educated Historian who works for the University of Virginia, Singerman’s work is vital, with reflections on the two years (1905-7) Keynes spent working in the India Office in London and how this influenced his eugenics (Singerman, n.d.).

Keynes’ Obituary published in The Times, 22nd April 1946, is important for assessing Keynes as a Eugenicist (The Times, 1946). Obituaries highlight the achievements of people and demonstrate the causes they treasured. It is surprising, therefore, that Keynes’ eugenics beliefs are not mentioned in his obituary. Obituaries rarely highlight the flaws of a person, unless with kind-hearted wit, but eugenics was still at the forefront of Keynes’ later years, and he pursued Eugenics after WWII unlike many of his former colleagues (Toye, 1997: ch. 5-6). This short biography shows that his economic “genius” was appreciated despite eugenics’ declining popularity.

Therefore, although Skidelsky’s biography is undoubtedly the most famous, the articles by Singerman and Aldrich, who are interested in the history of eugenics, are invaluable. Keynes’ obituary in The Times and Toye’s work also allude to some significant information. Nevertheless, the reasons why eugenics is left out of the narrative when it comes to the more popular biographies should be investigated further.

Interpreting the Text

When analysing Some Economic Consequences of a Declining Population, it is imperative to remember that Keynes was a revered economist (Keynes, 1937). A Cambridge educated professor and a former member of the elite debating society, The Cambridge Apostles society, whilst studying for his undergraduate degree (A Cambridge Secret Revealed: The Apostles, 2011). Considering this, the literal reading of this text does not suffice as a complete interrogation of this source.

A literal reading of Keynes’ speech can be broken down as follows. Economic modelling is not accurate at predicting future trends, but it provides us with some indication of the future. Different economic evidence has varying degrees of reliability, but population trends are one of the most reliable. We tend to be optimistic and think the future will be like the past which we successfully navigated but this is a mistake when it comes to economics and population trends should cause us concern. When there is population increase, there is economic boom, when there is population decline, there is economic recession. When there is stagnation in population numbers then other economic factors become more important (Keynes, 1937).

A surface reading would suggest Keynes is making some gentle arguments against utilitarianism, a philosophy proposed by Jeremy Bentham of UCL, in how we perceive our economic future. He presents what appears to be a carefully considered, multi-faceted view of general economics, grounded in logic and statistics. Keynes’ debating skills are on display, for when his listener accepts this softened version of economic events then they will be drawn into his more sinister conclusions.

Under the surface of these arguments lies his key point: Population in decline warrants human intervention. Intervention in the form of manipulating the breeding of the working classes. This is evidenced towards the end of his speech when he says,

“There are strong reasons lying outside the scope of this evening’s discussion why in that event, or in the threat of that event, measures ought to be taken to prevent it. [Population Decline]” (Keynes, 1937).

The importance of population decline must be proven to be both valid and more important than other economic factors before Keynes’ can successfully assert that an intervention [eugenics] is necessary. Therefore, this document is outlining why population decline is important, Keynes even goes as far as to say previous historians and economists have failed to recognise the importance of population decline before him (Keynes, 1937).

The lack of statistics is remarkable from an economist. However, it is unremarkable from a eugenicist. Keynes recognises that the statistics he provides are rough, but he is aware of the impact he will have by providing any statistics whatsoever, no matter how approximate. To pre-empt fact checking he states that these are ‘very rough’ and only provided to us as ‘broad pointers to what was going on,’ (Keynes, 1937).

There are problems with his statistics from the outset. For example, Keynes never outlines the metric or algorithm he is using to define standard of living and yet he provides percentage increase/decrease for comparison between 1860-1913. There are algorithms for assessing standard of living, however the methods need to be mentioned explicitly for the listener to evaluate Keynes’ claims accurately. Nevertheless, the more correlatable data such as population statistics are broadly correct (Floud, et al, 2008). Nonetheless, the use of broad data is suspicious, refuting broad data is difficult as any precise criticisms can be objected to as ignoring the general trends. Keynes’ is undoubtedly aware of this debating tactic through his experience of debating at Cambridge.

Before delving into further analysis, the context of this speech must be considered. This speech was made in 1937, the height of Keynes’ fame given his 1936 publication of the internationally acclaimed The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money. It also reflects the general conversation in elite circles of the time. Keynes’ makes repeated references to the ‘devil of unemployment’ which was a widespread fear throughout the upper classes given the 1926 general strike and growing Marxist ideals in the working classes (Bambery, 2021).

He manipulatively declares the devil of unemployment as being successfully ‘chained up’ but that the ‘Malthusian devil’ seen in population statistics is threatening to loosen the chains of this monster. Here we see a lack of internal consistency as Keynes had previously said that ‘history never repeats itself,’ so how could the chains of unemployment be loosened like the past (Magness, 2017)? Many listeners never wanted to directly face an unemployment crisis again. The listener is presented with a choice, the return of general strikes or, Keynes suggests, interfere with the population. With this speech now in context, the eugenicist evil lying behind the literal reading of this speech is ever more dramatic and sinister.


Keynes is the perfect example of a white European eugenicist who fits into the broader narrative of eugenics as a history of powerlessness and desire for control. It is without question that eugenics was a pseudoscience dominated by white men and women, and outright racism played a major role in many eugenicist writings and practices however, the history of eugenics is a much broader story. We must not miss the wood for the trees.

When the history of eugenics is viewed as a history of powerlessness and desire for control, elements of the eugenics narrative that were previously seen as outliers can be understood. For example, eugenics has frequently attempted to remove ‘lower class’ or ‘working class’ peoples of the same race as the race pursuing the eugenics cause, notwithstanding people with disabilities and undesirable personality traits. Furthermore, eugenics has not just been pursued in white majority countries and European colonies but also in countries throughout Asia and Africa.

Historians who have sought to portray the history of eugenics as a history of racism have consistently struggled with these anomalies. George Mosse states in The Science of Race that “Pearson opposed class war, emphasising instead a gradual evolution led by an elite.” (Mosse et al, n.d. p.79).

This sentence is a strange inclusion in a book about eugenics and racism and Mosse’s attempt to reconcile his thesis and this statement fall short. Mosse promotes the concept that Pearson was a racial biologist who wanted to achieve white racial supremacy through peaceful means, Pearson’s very own disgusting interpretation of Darwinism (Mosse et al, n.d. p.79). However, a class war is categorically different from a racial war. Pearson was clearly racist and Mosse’s evidence on this is abundantly clear but claiming all the aspects of his eugenics was based on racism is to neglect the whole picture.

Following Sri Lankan independence in 1948, the Sinhalese majority government began a public health initiative dependent on eugenical principles. In 1953 the Family Planning Association of Sri Lanka was established. Admittedly, a white Canadian woman, Mary Rutnam, is seen as the initial driving force behind Sri Lankan eugenics but all her authority came directly from the Sinhalese government and Family Planning continued in Sri Lanka long after her death. By 1956 Family Planning had been incorporated into official government policy. Population control, the birth rate of Sinhalese peasants being the main problem, was seen as a stepping-stone to an economic boom. Economic boom meant more power for the Sri Lankan government. This policy was dramatically reversed when Sinhalese-Tamil tensions began to flare up in the 1960-80s. A medical student on her elective in Sri Lanka commented, “There is a financial incentive for sterilisation. This is now Rs 250… there are now more restrictions on sterilisations and incentive has been reduced.” (Moisley, 1983 p.31). Clare Moisley wrote these words in 1983 but didn’t recognise why the incentives had been reduced. We now know that there were fears family planning would reduce the number of Sinhalese people in Sri Lanka, thus increasing the percentage of Tamils in the country, posing an imminent threat to democratic Sinhalese power. So, family planning was gradually abandoned from the 1960s onwards (Bashford, 2012 p.238).

Sri Lankan eugenics is not a narrative of racism, although racism certainly played a part. Strangely, Anti-Tamil sentiment and fears had a large effect on the reversal of eugenics whereas the main driving force for eugenics was economic power. Eugenics was abandoned in favour of the power of Sinhalese majority rule over the Tamil minority and civil war broke out in 1983, shortly after Clare Moisley’s elective report.

Kenyan eugenics is another international case that fits into the broader narrative of power-seeking. Eugenics was primarily pursued by the medical profession in Kenya and there were racist motives, for example, they labelled East African Natives as ‘mentally deficient.’ However, there was a broader view amongst colonialists and some doctors that Africa was untouched by civilisation and could be used as a control study, a lab rat, to examine human behaviour (Brophy et al, 2015 p.64-5). These pseudoscientists were claiming authority over people’s lives as if they were Guinea pigs in a laboratory in England. The illusion of power was tantalising for them. Evil on a continental scale.

Eugenics as a power-seeking policy is further evidenced in societal fears about rising criminality [regardless of race], disability, roles of women and attempts to increase the success of the middle class. Historians have frequently tried to narrow down the history of eugenics to one of these issues however, they can all be linked when considered through the lens of power and control seeking. In the case of disability, Edward J Larson notes that eugenics rarely made it to the British Parliamentary floor, but one exception was with the Mental Deficiency bill of 1912-13. This was heralded as the greatest achievement of the eugenics movement in the UK (Larson, 1991 p.45-60). Eugenicists felt that disability was an unnecessary burden on society and hindered societal progress in the direction they so desired, eugenics was being implemented to remove this middle-class sense of powerlessness over disability and its perceived societal consequences.

The South of America is a fascinating example of power dynamics and eugenics. Louisiana was the centre of legal battles in 1926 and 1932 because eugenics programmes had been met with fierce opposition from the Catholic Church. The relatively large Catholic population in Louisiana and the protection offered by the Church to the poor, immigrants and the unwell made Louisiana a strange choice for a large eugenics campaign. The very people they were attempting to remove from the human race were protected by an ancient authority. And yet, Louisiana was the first state to have a sterilisation bill placed in front of the courts. Although other states would have been an easier target, eugenicists aimed at Louisiana to demonstrate their power over Catholicism (Larson, 1995 p.129-130).

Furthermore, let us consider figure 1, a cartoon produced by the American Marion S Norton in 1937, the same year as Keynes’ speech on unemployment (Allen, 1997 p.77-88). Ada Juke was a white woman who was deemed to have a 92% defective descendant rate. The astounding lack of logic in this image notwithstanding, it shows the eugenical fear of the working class.

Powerlessness to reduce a variety of crimes and mental illnesses despite government measures meant the eugenics movement could cultivate middle-class support with fear tactics. There is no evidence provided in this image as to why mental illness or crime would be seen more in the working classes, because no such evidence has ever existed. In fact, the main thrust of the argument is simply that it would have been economically beneficial to sterilise Ada Juke because her descendants cannot be controlled and cost a lot of money to deal with (Allen, 1997 p.77-88).

As we have seen, eugenics in the fields of disability, criminality, race, mental illness and working classes all share a common evil. The sense of powerlessness. Modern psychology has shown the impact of a sense of powerlessness on an individual’s mental and physical health and the historical analysis of eugenics can show the evil impact of this sense of powerlessness when it is seen in policy making and ideology (Seaman, et al, 1995 p, 517-525).

Turning once again to Keynes, powerlessness underpins his views as well. Throughout Some Economic Consequences of a Declining Population, Keynes is mourning his inability to make accurate economic predictions (Keynes, 1937). He repeatedly mentions how the future ‘doesn’t resemble the past’ and this is just as frustrating for him as it is for his audience. Even Keynes, the world renown economist, cannot make economic predictions. Powerlessness. This is powerlessness mixed with a strong desire for control which inevitably breeds dangerous ideology. Keynes’ knows that even population statistics are not completely predictable in their economic consequences, but he is pushing the agenda that these statistics are our best bet because there is a theoretical method of intervention, satisfying his desire for control.

Reflecting on Keynes’ biography we can see the development of Keynes’ desire for control and sense of powerlessness. As a young Etonian, born into the upper-middle classes, watching the power of the British empire declining, Keynes’ could see his future in simultaneous decline (BBC – History – John Maynard Keynes, 2014). Unable to change this, his study of economics became a study of returning Britain to power (Cooper, 2013).

Whether or not Keynes was racist, surprisingly the debate still rages on to this day, he was a key contributor to the eugenics cause in the UK and one of its most famous ideological advocates (Paulovicova, 2008). His primary concern in the field of eugenics seems to be the ‘problem’ of the working class. Unemployment, and its consequential strikes and riots, seem to have reinforced his view that the UK’s middle class was in decline, and that he was powerless to change this. However, most historians agree that anti-Semitism was very prevalent in Keynes’ writings and personal relationships, therefore racism cannot be discounted as a motivator for Keynes’ eugenics (Chandavarkar, 2000 p.1619-1624).

Nevertheless, eugenical anti-Semitism furthers the evidence base for the hypothesis that eugenics is a history of control and power-seeking. On a surface level inspection, the Jewish population in any European state was never especially large which begs the question of why eugenicists feared Jewish people so much.  Their racist perceptions fuelled the notion that the Jewish Populus were disproportionally powerful (Botz, 2016 p.318). Nazi propaganda and Hitler’s personal beliefs expressed in Mein Campf stated that Jewish people were responsible for most of the world’s evils, including the loss of WWI and even economic recession in Germany. Some argue that Hitler’s anti-Semitism started as a painter in Austria where he believed Jewish people in positions of power were preventing his success (Why did Hitler hate the Jews? n.d.). The cataclysmic nonsense espoused by Hitler found a place in the minds of many elite individuals across Europe looking for a scapegoat for their own problems. If they were not in control of their own life’s direction, then a group of sinister people must be working against them.

These views lacked internal consistency, as all racism does, as poor Jewish families in London were as equally hated as well-off Jewish families (Report of The Lancet Special Sanitary Commission on the Polish colony of Jew Tailors, 1884). Keynes’, therefore, can assuredly be labelled an anti-Semite and, importantly, the likely delusion underlying his racism was the fear of losing power himself.

Eugenics is a history of racism. It is also a history of misogamy, ableism, anti-religion, and classism. These histories can all be amalgamated into one evil when viewed with a broader historical lens. The sense of powerlessness amongst the elite of many races, in many time periods and cultures, accounts for the ideological evil of the eugenic beliefs and policies that followed.


In conclusion, Keynes is a fantastic example of a eugenicist riddled with fear and delusions, attempting to resolve internal fears and failures by promoting dangerous and hurtful ideas. The Etonian, anti-Semite with a keen grasp on general economics warped his own keen understanding of economics to defend the indefensible realm of eugenics. Keynes fits perfectly into the historical hypothesis that the history of eugenics is a history of powerlessness and desire for control. This hypothesis is unlike others in that it can account for attacks on people with mental illness and disabilities, people who suffer from addictions, people from relatively poor backgrounds as well as issues of race, gender, sexuality, and religion. This hypothesis accounts for eugenics outside of Europe and its seeping nature into fields like economics.

List of References

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UCL Department of Science and Technology Studies (STS) logoInvestigating UCL Eugenics

“Investigating UCL Eugenics” is a series of essays investigating specific aspects of eugenics research and advocacy at University College London (UCL). This includes papers produced as part of student research projects in the undergraduate module, HPSC0070 Eugenics in Science and Culture in UCL Department of Science and Technology Studies (STS). The module was co-taught in 2021-22 by Professor Joe Cain and Dr Maria Kiladi.

Instructions for this essay asked for a specific series of tasks. Each student was assigned one specific publication somehow linked to the history of eugenics research and advocacy at University College London (UCL), or a sister institution nearby. Students were required to structure their essay according to a series of sections: (a) author (place the publication in a biographical context), (b) text (interpret the publication as a historical text), (c) context (place the publication in a relevant historical context or interpretation), and (d) list of references (include a complete, well-organized, and clear list of references). The syllabus provides detailed instruction.

Individual posts remain the copyrighted intellectual property of the author and appear here with their permission. The author is the person responsible for post content. Readers are reminded this essay was completed in 2021 during a period of restricted movement and facility closures owing to pandemic restrictions.