People who label themselves political or social progressives like to think of themselves as both forward-thinking and freedom-loving. That has not always been the case, however. Progressives have at times been divided on certain issues, just as they are today over sex workers’ rights. Those who currently favor the so-called “end demand” policies first instituted by Sweden in 1999 (hence its nicknames of “Swedish model” and “Nordic model”) follow a basic logic of social engineering:
- X is bad for society.
- If X were eliminated, it would benefit society.
- Therefore, government should institute policies for eliminating X.
Where this logic fails is in identifying “X” in utterly simplistic ways. Alcohol, for example, was considered “bad for society,” leading to failed experiments in prohibition which increased crime, thus making things worse for society. Homosexuals were (and in many places still are) branded as harmful deviants, subject to criminal penalties and dubious cures.
Progressives forget that, from the late 19th century until well past the end of World War II, there was a movement dedicated to improving humanity through a series of programs, all justified by the mantle of science. In fact, primitive forms of this form of social engineering had been practiced in ancient societies, and supported by philosophers like Plato. The ideas behind this organized movement began with an eminent scientist, motivated by his cousin Charles Darwin, and were promoted in many countries in Europe, the Americas, and Australia. In the United States, feminists and other progressives embraced the movement, leading to the adoption of laws in many states and the Federal government. In Great Britain, they found support across political lines, from conservatives like Winston Churchill to members of the Fabian Society. Sweden adopted elements of the movement’s agenda as part of the folkhemmet envisioned by Social Democrats and other reformers. Of course, the movement did have its critics, from public intellectuals like G. K Chesterton to notable scientists like Franz Boas and J. B. S. Haldane. Still, many embraced the ideas of the movement, even after witnessing its most brutal implementation in Nazi Germany.
That movement was eugenics.
Sir Francis Galton first conceived of the idea that, if animals could be selectively bred for certain traits, then the same principle ought to be applied to humans. He also suggested that those considered unfit “could find a welcome and a refuge in celibate monasteries or sisterhoods,” and that prospective immigrants should be screened for their potential fitness (thus anticipating policies to be enacted in the United States, Australia, and other countries). While he was motivated by Darwin’s ideas of natural selection, his illustrious cousin did not openly embrace his views; indeed, his writings indicated that he preferred that such choices be left to individuals rather than the state. But others picked up where Galton left off, and started a worldwide eugenics movement to improve the human race, whether by positive means (e.g., “Fit Family” competitions) or negative ones (compulsory sterilization of the mentally ill and “feeble-minded”).
A vocal minority raised serious questions. They worried about who was to decide whether someone was “fit” enough to breed, and how. They raised the point that many supposed weaknesses were not inheritable at all. They pointed to outstanding intellects and artists who also exhibited supposedly congenital weaknesses. G. K. Chesterton argued that the vague definitions of unfitness could very well lead to an unjust imposition of conformity: “Every tramp who is sulk, every labourer who is shy, every rustic who is eccentric, can quite easily be brought under such conditions as were designed for homicidal maniacs.”
Sure enough, eugenics programs were being implemented to rationalize exclusion of racial minorities, forced sterilization of “degenerates,” presumption of guilt in criminal cases based on pseudoscientific theories, and other violations of human rights. Sex workers were especially victimized by these programs, as prostitution and other “lewd and lascivious behavior” was considered a sign of degeneracy, leading to governments on both sides of the Atlantic including them in their compulsory sterilization programs. When the Nazis were questioned about the barbaric measures they took to achieve their goal of “racial purity,” they tried to argue that the only differences from the eugenics programs being implemented in countries like Sweden and the United States was a matter of scale.
Nowadays, many self-described progressives are so horrified at the idea of eugenics that it leads them to be skeptical about everything from reproductive surrogacy to genetically modified foods. They need to remember that their ideological predecessors were some of the biggest supporters of this failed program – and that the same simplistic logic behind it is now being used to promote the cruel failure of the Swedish model and other prohibitionist policies against sex workers.