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review of Zubrin's Merchants of Despair

Tuesday, October 4, 2016 10:23
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(Before It's News)

I've written a good bit on eugenics and its intersection with economics and public policy. See: for example, my first article which “celebrated” the centennial of Indiana's path-breaking law and an essay expanding on the connection between health care policy and eugenics, In the next year or so, I'll have a journal article in Markets and Morality and a book review in the Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies. Continuing along those lines: Here is a brief overview (and set of excerpts/quotes) from Robert Zubrin's Merchants of Despair

Zubrin opens by distinguishing between environmentalism and anti-humanism: The latter is not the former, although it often masquerades as the former (2). He defines the former as applying “practical solutions to real environmental problems…for the purpose of making the world a better place for all humans to thrive in.” Of course, anti-humanism is not interested in the last two prepositional phrases of that definition.

One key problem in this arena is ignorance of basic economics– from the value of mutually beneficial trade to the dynamics of markets through incentives. Zubrin opens chapter 2 by quoting Henry George (5): “The jayhawk and the man eat chickens, but the more jayhawks, the fewer chickens; the more men, the more chickens.” Human beings are not simply consumers but also cultivators (7).

Zubrin (6) offers a sobering quote from Malthus– the original, famous anti-economist in this regard:  

“we should facilitate, instead of foolishly and vainly endeavouring to impede, the operations of nature in producing this mortality; and if we dread the too frequent visitation of the horrid form of famine, we should sedulously encourage the other forms of destruction, which we compel nature to use. Instead of recommending cleanliness to the poor, we should encourage contrary habits…should make the streets narrower, crowd more people into the houses, and court the return of the plague...should build our villages near stagnant pools, and particularly encourage settlements in all marshy and unwholesome situations. But above all, we should reprobate specific remedies for ravaging diseases…”


Zubrin also offers a long, surprising quote from Friedrich Engels refuting Malthus (7-8). Later, in chapter 9, Zubrin covers the non-genius of Paul Ehrlich, who received a Genius Award from the McArthur Foundation (118) and then got spanked by Julian Simon in their famous bet, which played out along basic economic principles. Zubrin also devotes space to the Green Revolution and the crucial work of Norman Borlaug (208-212)– again, the implications of economics within market economies
 

On the other side of the coin, Zubrin covers the role of government in their efforts to make Malthus' predictions come true (the only way it'll happen): “While history has proven Malthusianism empirically false, however, it provides the ideal foundation for justifying human oppression and tyranny.” (9) 

Malthus' theory was used to justify laws against the poor in Britain (the Poor Law Act of 1834) which “forced hundreds of thousands of poor Britons into virtual slavery” (9) Zubrin also addresses the Irish (“potato“) famine and dispels popular myths about it– that it was caused by overpopulation or too few potatoes. Instead, potatoes were all the Irish could afford and they were exporting all sorts of grain and meat to the British during this time. A key official in the British government characterized the deaths from the famine as bringing “permanent good out of transient evil” (12).

Zubrin also connects this strain of thought to Darwinism, eugenics (particularly of the late 19th and early 20th C), and the even-nastier events of the mid-20th century. Where Malthusians saw over-population and death as an inevitable but regrettable consequence, Darwinians saw it “as a blessing…hastened the advance of humanity through the weeding out of 'unfit' individuals and race.” (27) When seeing man as just another animal, the inferences get squirrelly. But human beings “are capable of systematically passing on information through non-hereditary means, such as artifacts and words.” (30)

All of this also “did a perfect job of justifying brutal European imperial looting of the less-developed world.” (31) Darwin's work “produced a forceful argument for those wishing to be free of the constraints of Christian or Enlightenment humanist ethics…hardly anyone is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed…human compassion toward the unfortunate was not merely useful (as per Malthus) but actually morally wrong…Instead of being evils, war, disease, and famine were not good and necessary.” (33-34)

Zubrin presents some sobering quotes from Darwin in chapter 2– where he argued that “the civilized races of man will almost certainly exterminate and replace the savage races” (26). As a result, the gap between man and monkey will grow, instead of the small gaps he saw between “negros”, Australians (Aborigines who were a step below blacks– and rated below “the better breeds of domestic dogs” [37]), and gorillas (26).

Zubrin provides more “great” quotes on eugenics in chapter 3. The editoralists of the New York Times eulogized Frederick Douglass in 1895 by noting that he was a great man. But they attribute some of his greatness to his “white blood” and propose that he would have been greater with “more white blood” and without “any black blood”. As such, his blackness should have been seen as “a cause for lamentation instead of a source of lyrical enthusiasm over African possibilities…plain justice should see to it that the right race gets the glory or the humiliation.” (35) Wow.

Zubrin notes that Darwin was not a racist or a utopian, but was content to watch and wait for nature to take its seemingly-inevitable course. “Nevertheless, such people readily understood that Darwinism gave them precisely the scientific and ethical justification they desired.” (35) For example, Ernst Haeckel: “Since the lower races (such as the Veddahs or Australian Negroes) are psychologically nearer to the mammals (apes and dogs) than to civilized Europeans, we must, therefore, assign a totally different value to their lives.” (43)

Zubrin points to the pre-WWII role of the Eugenics Record Office (ERO) in promoting eugenics (53-56): forced sterilizations of “inadequate” people (feeble-minded, mentally ill, criminal, epileptic, drug addicts, diseased, bling, deaf, deformed, and dependent)– with laws in 30 states, 63K institutionalized who were sterilized, and hundreds of thousands (or millions) of poor people who were sterilized to avoid losing welfare benefits– until it was ruled unlawful in 1974. The government also allowed the poor to die from “pellagra” by squelching information and treatment.

IQ tests were part of the problem, given their selection bias and testing bias. Test questions were culturally based (including baseball) and “proved” that Americans were smarter than immigrants. Moreover, it “proved” that immigrants were getting worse, since they did worse and worse every year. Nice. 

In his first chapter about the Nazis, he opens with a Rudolph Hess quote that “National Socialism is nothing but applied biology.” (68) Zubrin is helpful in noting that the Nazi anti-semitism was a “tyranny created to serve the ideology”. But the ideology was not so strong that they weren't willing to discriminate against Jewish folks as soldiers, doctors, and scientists. (Well, at least initially; as persecution increased, Hitler drove Jewish scientists to America, leading ironically to the atomic bomb.) “Darwinian ideology did not merely control Nazi Germany– it created it and enabled its capacity for evil.” (70)

How else could a majority behave in this manner? How else could anti-Semitism– a common issue– rise to this level? And why would it aimed at so many folks– given that the Nazi genocide was aimed at so many groups of people? “It was not motivated by old-fashioned bigotry. It certainly took advantage of such sentiments, [but]…it required Darwinian science.” (72) 

Zubrin quotes Weikart: “Darwinism by itself did not produce the Holocaust, but without Darwinism, especially in its social Darwinist and eugenics permutations, neither Hitler nor his Nazi followers would have had the necessary scientific underpinnings to convince themselves and their collaborators that one of the world's greatest atrocities was really morally praiseworthy.” Zubrin describes an “inverted…moral calculus”: “came to view their own inner voice speaking for such compassion as the voice of sentimental weakness, which had to be overruled by their intellectual convictions, which presented themselves as the voice of duty…” (73)

Particularly with WWII's extension of the relevant principles, direct/overt eugenics fell out of favor. But the related instincts have remained in play– from abortion to health care. Zubrin highlights the role of a closer cousin, population control”, after WWII. From social pressures to government subsidies, governments were encouraged– and they were encouraged to “encourage” their people– to restrict population. In particular, the wrong kind of people were especially encouraged to refrain (81-85). In America, this included Native Americans (156).

In a later chapter, Zubrin opens by quoting LBJ: “Five dollars in population control is worth a hundred dollars invested in economic growth.” (154). And while we realize today that the old Keynesian fiscal policy ideas are bankrupt, the idea of “investing” $100 was really considered something back then!
 In chapter 8, Zubrin details the role of malaria in WWII, particular as Germany vacated the field in Italy– and American know-how that defeated malaria as a wartime and post-war enemy. From there, Zubrin returns to the usefulness of malaria as a form of population control and anti-humanists crying over malaria's demise. Two nice quotes here: Alexander King (Club of Rome; scientist): “My chief quandary with DDT in hindsight is that it has greatly added to the population problem.” Aldous Huxley: “Quick death by death has been abolished; but life made miserable by undernourishment and over-crowding is not the rule, and slow death by outright starvation threatens ever greater numbers.

Rachel Carson's screed against DDT initially carried the day. But Zubrin notes that science of the time strongly favored DDT, including powerful pro-DDT statements by the NAS and the EPA. But he blames William Ruckelhaus for running with a ban on DDT in the U.S., making DDT more expensive by banning US exports, and connecting USAID and other foreign aid to eschewing DDT.


I suppose all of this could be a function of Malthusian ignorance, rather than eugenics—particularly aimed at certain people groups. Then again, we’ve had plenty of the latter—from science and popular wisdom, from Darwin and the Progressive Era until recent decades. So, it’s difficult to dismiss the hypothesis out-of-hand.

In any case, it's certainly enough to make the objective person wonder about the extent to which science is used– out of ignorance or the pursuit of power– to achieve other political ends.

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