Norms and Institutions
By Arnold Kling
From p. 402 of The Bourgeois Virtues by Deirdre N. McCloskey:
Associate Justice Holmes declared in the Buck v. Bell opinion of 1927 that “it is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes. Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”
So sterilization laws remained on the books another fifty years in thirty-three states, with over 60,000 operations performed. The United States, by the way, was not the worst offender, even excepting Germany. Sweden sterilized 63,000 people 1933-1975, tiny Norway 40,000. The legal theory, backed by the best science at the time, is that people like Carrie Buck–who, incidentally…was not feebleminded but poor–should be prevented from damaging other people in their offspring.
McCloskey’s book is not easy reading. You may find her meandering, anecdotal approach delightful, frustrating, or both. Ultimately, it does reinforce the case that (a) economic rationality is a virtue but (b) other virtues are also needed in order for individuals to be good human beings and for markets to work.