Why Mises Opposed Both Eugenics and Social Darwinism

In the middle of his earnest if muddled article “Taking Back America from the Libertarians,” Patrick Deneen veers suddenly off course to perpetrate a vicious and gratuitous calumny against Ludwig von Mises, F.A. Hayek, and Ayn Rand by insinuating that the modern libertarian movement that they initiated in the US was based on “Social Darwinism” including, according to Deneen, “its attraction to eugenics.”

Examining this charge with respect to Ludwig von Mises exposes the breathtaking shallowness of Deneen’s scholarship. Mises associated eugenics with both Marxian socialism and National Socialism, the very antitheses of libertarianism or classical liberalism. In various works, Mises passionately denounced eugenics. He pointed out that it was a sine qua non of all centrally planned economies in order to ensure sufficient subsistence for the planners’ subject population:

Without coercive regulation of the growth of population, a socialist community is inconceivable. A socialist community must be in a position to prevent the size of the population from mounting above or falling below certain definite limits….And since in it those motives, which in a society based on private ownership of the means of production harmonize the number of births with the limitations of the means of subsistence, would not exist, it will be obliged to regulate the matter itself. (Socialism, p. 198)

Mises viewed National Socialist eugenics as the extreme but logical outcome of the destruction of the free market economy, in which the quantities and qualities of goods and their methods of production are completely controlled by consumer choice. If the state were to usurp consumers’ preferences and arrogate to itself the function of deciding these matters in the sphere of goods, why should it not overturn the spontaneous mating decisions of individuals and itself determine the quality of human beings to breed:

The Nazi plan was more comprehensive and therefore more pernicious than that of the Marxians. It aimed at abolishing laisser-faire not only in the production of material goods, but no less in the production of men. The Führer was not only the general manager of all industries; he was also the general manager of the breeding-farm intent upon rearing superior men and eliminating inferior stock. A grandiose scheme of eugenics was to be put into effect according to “scientific” principles. (Socialism, p. 581)

Finally, Mises points out that eugenicists’ aim to improve the “quality” of the human race is an incoherent and meaningless goal. Given the inherent inequality of human beings along multiple dimensions and the constant variation in ideological conditions, there exists no clear and objective standard by which the quality of human beings can be measured or appraised:

But society is not a stud-farm operated for the production of a definite type of men. There is no “natural” standard to establish what is desirable and what is undesirable in the biological evolution of man. Any standard chosen is arbitrary, purely subjective….The eugenists pretend that they want to eliminate criminal individuals. But the qualification of a man as a criminal depends upon the prevailing laws of the country and varies with the change in social and political ideologies….Whom do the eugenists want to eliminate, Brutus or Caesar? Both violated the laws of their country. If eighteenth-century eugenists had prevented alcohol addicts from generating children, their planning would have eliminated Beethoven. (Human Action, p. 165; Socialism, p. 581)

For a fuller examination of Mises’s attitude toward eugenics, I recommend the insightful article by Matthew McCaffrey.

Regarding social Darwinism, Mises took a nuanced position which Deneen clearly did not bestir himself to explore in any depth. Mises criticized both the proponents and critics of social Darwinism. He argued that the concept of the “struggle for survival” that Darwin borrowed from the classical economist Thomas Malthus “is to be understood in a metaphorical sense. Its meaning is that a living being actively resists the forces detrimental to its own life” (Human Action, p. 175). For human beings endowed with reason the struggle for life does not imply a “war of extermination” but quite the opposite, peace and cooperation. As Mises pointed out:

Reason has demonstrated that for man, the most adequate means of improving his condition is social cooperation and division of labor. They are man’s foremost tool in his struggle for survival. But they can only work where there is peace. (Human Action, p. 175)

For human beings, therefore, who individually and rationally grasp the material benefits of social cooperation and the division of labor, the catallactic competition of peaceful, voluntary exchange replaces the merciless biological competition that is ever red in tooth and claw. The “survival of the fittest” is a metaphor that applies to entrepreneurs who compete for consumer favor by offering the highest-quality goods at the cheapest possible prices. Those who fail in this competitive struggle—which is open to all in a laissez-faire economy—to best satisfy consumer demand do not die but simply go back to the ranks of hired employees to earn their living. In the meantime, the competitive rivalry among entrepreneurs bestows a cornucopia of more and better goods on the masses of humankind.

Finally, Mises distinguishes between the “harmonists,” which include him and his fellow free market economists and who construe the struggle for existence in the metaphorical sense, and the “antiharmonists,” who take it literally. The latter are “the various schools of nationalism and racism,” who believe that “there is irreconcilable antagonism prevailing among various groups such as nations or races” and, therefore, that “it is ‘natural’ that there should be perpetual war among various groups” (Theory and History, p. 41). The logical conclusion arrived at by these nationalist and racist philosophies is that

human conditions involve forever irreconcilable conflicts, first among the various groups fighting one another, later, after the final victory of the master group between the latter and the enslaved rest of mankind. Hence the supreme elite group must always be ready to fight, first to crush the rival groups, then to quell rebellion of the slaves. (Theory and History, p. 42)

I will leave it as an exercise in scholarship for Deneen to investigate and report on why neither F.A. Hayek nor Ayn Rand were eugenicists, nor social Darwinists (in anything more than the metaphorical sense)


  • Joseph T. Salerno received his PhD in economics from Rutgers University. He is professor emeritus of economics in the Finance and Graduate Economics Department in the Lubin School of Business of Pace University in New York City. He is the editor of the Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics and the Academic Vice President of the Ludwig von Mises Institute where he held the inaugural Peterson-Luddy Chair in Austrian Economics. He also holds the John V. Denson II Endowed Professorship in the economics department at Auburn University.

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