Galton’s Demented Idea, by Bryan Caplan

In 1873, Francis Galton, founding father of modern statistics and behavioral genetics, publicized a demented idea.  It begins promisingly:

My proposal is to make the encouragement of the Chinese settlements at one or more suitable places on the East Coast of Africa a part of our national policy…

You might think that Galton would hail the mutual economic benefits of immigration for Chinese and Africans alike.  Perhaps Chinese entrepreneurs would kick-start African economic growth, or at least help modernize agriculture.  But the idea of mutually beneficial exchange never crosses Galton’s mind.  Instead, he predicts gradual genocide, professing…

…the belief that the Chinese immigrants would not only maintain their position, but that they would multiply and their descendants supplant the inferior Negro race. I should expect the large part of the African seaboard, now sparsely occupied by lazy, palavering savages living under
the nominal sovereignty of the Zanzibar, or Portugal, might in a few years be tenanted by industrious, order loving Chinese…

If that’s not clear enough for you:

We ourselves are no descendents of the aborigines of Britain, and our colonists were invaders of the regions they now occupy as their lawful home. But the countries into which the Anglo-Saxon race can be transfused are restricted to those where the climate is temperate. The Tropics are not for us, to inhabit permanently; the greater part of Africa is the heritage of people differently constituted
to ourselves. On that continent, as elsewhere, one population continually drives out another.

Normally, of course, it is the opponents of immigration who claim that immigration is the first step toward genocide.  But Galton reverses this logic:

The history of the world tells a tale of the continual
displacement of populations, each by a worthier successor, and humanity
gains thereby… The gain would be immense to the whole civilized world
if we were to out-breed and finally displace the negro, as completely as the latter has displaced the aborigines of the West Indies.

Most modern readers will attribute Galton’s demented idea to racism.  He certainly sounds racist enough, luridly contrasting Chinese virtue with African vice:

[I]ndividuals of the mental caliber I have just described are much more exceptional in the negro than in the Anglo-Saxon
race, and that average negroes possess too little intellect, self-reliance, and self-control to make it possible for them to sustain the burden of any respectable form of civilization without a large measure of external guidance and support.


The Chinese emigrants possess an extraordinary instinct for political and social organization; they contrive to establish for themselves a police and internal government, and they give
no trouble to their rulers so long as they are left to manage those matters by themselves. They are good-tempered, frugal, industrious, saving, commercially inclined, and extraordinarily

But Galton’s error goes deeper than racism.  Despite his glorification of the "civilized world," he fails to grasp that specialization and trade – not killing people and looting their stuff – are the material and moral foundation of civilization. 

Materially speaking, civilization is a vast system of cooperation of people with a vast range of abilities.  The Law of Comparative Advantage shows that peaceful trade for mutual gain is possible between people of widely varying skills.  Even if Galton’s factual claims about the Chinese and African character were entirely correct, the two groups could still prosper side by side.

Morally speaking, respect for individual rights is the essential difference between civilization and barbarism.  If Galton were accused of murdering his maid, "I was smarter than her" would be an absurd defense.  Any civilized society would treat him as a heinous criminal.  The same holds at the societal level.  Genocide is criminal even if the perpetrators are "good-tempered, frugal, industrious, saving, commercially inclined, and extraordinarily
prolific" and the victims are lacking in "intellect, self-reliance, and self-control."  For a civilized person, Galton’s sweeping compliments and insults are morally beside the point.

You could say that the power of comparative advantage and the wrongness of mass murder are too trivial to blog.  I wish it were so.  But if these claims are so trivial, how could Francis Galton, one of history’s most brilliant men, utterly fail to see them?

The good news is that, 140 years after Galton wrote "Africa for the Chinese," the forces he ignored are well at work.  China will soon be Africa’s largest trading partner.  Chinese businesses are investing heavily in Africa.  21st-century capitalism is building the better Africa that 19th-century eugenics tried and failed to kill in the womb.


via EconLog


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