In a recent interview, Robbie Shilliam suggested that the neoliberal project could usefully be understood as the offspring of the nineteenth-century eugenics movement. His point is that neoliberal ideology has always sought to control which social groups and cultural practices are able to reproduce and which are not. In this sense, neoliberalism may be said to rekindle certain Victorian attitudes towards ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ populations, the ‘desirable’ and the ‘undesirable’, the eugenic and the dysgenic. And this, says Shilliam, is ‘neoliberalism working for eugenics’.

While intended as a provocation, Shilliam’s suggestion bears closer investigation. As Quinn Slobodian has shown in a recent essay, there exist close linkages between neoliberal think tanks and the dregs of the eugenics movement that lurk in certain dark and very online corners of academia. Forged in the closing decades of the twentieth century by controversial figures like Bell Curve author Charles Murray and the recently deceased latter-day eugenicist Richard Lynn, these linkages have made it possible for ideas, concepts, and arguments to travel from the eugenics tradition into neoliberal thought and vice versa.

My own archival research has been able to trace these linkages back to the early twentieth century, when the neoliberal project was still in its infancy. This indicates not just that there has always existed traffic between the neoliberal movement and the eugenics movement but that there exists a certain gravitational pull between the two, an elective affinity that has, over time, generated a good deal of conceptual crossover between the two traditions.

The Eugenics Society and the Early Neoliberals

At least until the Second World War, the eugenics movement in Britain was a prominent and well-respected fixture of ruling-class culture. An ideological broad church, support for eugenics cut across otherwise distinct political viewpoints. Thus the movement brought together Fabians like H.G. Wells and the Webbs, progressive liberals like William Beveridge and John Maynard Keynes, and conservatives like Winston Churchill and Anthony Ludovici.

In this period, the most visible and influential locus of the movement was the Eugenics Society, which had been founded in 1907. Although it was only one among many eugenicist networks, membership of the Society carried some prestige and, at a minimum, signalled interest in its objectives and its publications—most notably its in-house periodical, the Eugenics Review, which every member received.

Although the Society is still active today (having rebranded itself first as the Galton Institute in 1989 and then again as the Adelphi Genetics Forum in 2021), the prestige it enjoyed in the interwar period all but dissipated during the Second World War, when eugenics came to be irrevocably associated with the horrors of Nazi race doctrine. In the post-war era, the eugenics movement, in Britain and elsewhere, became little more than a shelter for right-wing cranks and white supremacists, the last bastion of a form of race science that had been thoroughly discredited.

Today, insight into the Society’s membership is provided by the Wellcome Collection in London, which holds a sizeable and largely digitised archival collection that covers more than a century’s worth of administrative files for the Eugenics Society and its successors. These archives shed some light on the crossover between the nascent neoliberal movement and the eugenics movement.

These archives show, for instance, that William Hutt was elected a Fellow of the Eugenics Society in October 1926, several months before he emigrated to South Africa, where he was to build a career for himself as a high-profile neoliberal economist. Hutt was still a Fellow by 1957, eight years after he joined the Mont Pèlerin Society, an international network of neoliberal intellectuals that is widely considered to have been the flagship of their movement.

They also show that David Graham Hutton became a member around 1936 before being co-opted onto the Society’s executive council in March of 1939. And although shortly thereafter the Society went into wartime hiatus, Hutton remained a Fellow until at least 1977. Hutton was a key figure in the formation of British neoliberalism, both as a writer of numerous influential neoliberal tracts and, arguably more importantly, as an early advisor of the Institute of Economic Affairs. Established in 1955 by Antony Fisher, the IEA is widely understood as one of the most prominent and influential neoliberal think tanks in the world.

Crucially, the IEA also played a central role in the cross-fertilisation between the neoliberal movement and the eugenics movement. Indeed, Hutton was not the only early Institute affiliate with links to the eugenics movement. Colin Clark, another early IEA advisor, had developed close ties with the Eugenics Society in the mid-1930s. In 1936, Clark was appointed a member of the Committee to Investigate Population Problems, a research group whose objective it was to investigate the causes of Britain’s falling birth rate. Clark made his own position on this question clear in a review essay he published in the July 1937 issue of the Eugenics Review, writing that Britain urgently needed ‘to increase the fertility of all sections [of its population], and particularly of those carrying genetically valuable traits’. In a public lecture delivered that same month at the newly established Eugenics Society of Victoria, Australia, which he had helped to establish, he described low birth rates across Western Europe as amounting to ‘race suicide’. And although Clark was later to decry the impact early eugenicists had had on Nazism, he never abandoned his firm belief that population decline is economically and morally harmful.

Arguably the most significant figure to mediate between the neoliberal camp and the Eugenics Society, however, was Ralph Harris. Head of the IEA from 1957 to 1988, the Secretary of the Mont Pèlerin Society from 1967 to 1976, and then its President from 1982 to 1984, Harris was made a life peer by Margaret Thatcher and became a member of the British House of Lords in July 1979. He was undoubtedly a key figure in not only British neoliberalism but also the neoliberal project writ large.

As the Wellcome archives show, Harris became a member of the Eugenics Society in July 1971 and remained affiliated until November 1979 — four months after he was raised to the peerage. This stint did not come out of nowhere. As Quinn Slobodian has documented, this overture to the Eugenics Society formed part of a joint effort by Harris and Richard Lynn, then a close associate of the IEA, to establish a research institute inspired by and named after Francis Galton, the man who had coined the term ‘eugenics’ and effectively founded the eugenics movement. Harris had a pre-existing fascination with Galton. Indeed, he opened his first published book, a biographical study of R.A. Butler published in 1956, with a quote from Galton. The point of the quote was to establish Butler’s high-quality pedigree, his remarkable ‘hereditary gifts’. And for Harris, this assessment carried that much more weight for having come from Galton, ‘the founder of the science of eugenics’.

Lynn, for his part, spent much of his career networking with both the neoliberal movement and the Eugenics Society. Having been drawn into the IEA’s orbit by Harris in late 1960s, he soon became a frequent guest at its events and regularly published book chapters and short articles for its in-house publications. This relationship lasted for several decades, persisting even after Lynn started publicly expounding his support for race science and eugenics in the early 1980s. As he later recalled in his memoirs, Lynn’s relationship with the IEA left such a deep impression on him that when he founded his own eugenicist think tank in 1995, called the Ulster Institute for Social Research, he modelled it upon the IEA.

The Elective Affinity of Neoliberalism and Eugenics

That there were some individuals who forged linkages between the neoliberal movement and the eugenics movement does not, of course, mean that neoliberal ideology is somehow inherently eugenicist. This would be the wrong conclusion to draw. There is, however, a lot to be gained from asking why these linkages have been such a persistent fixture in neoliberalism’s history.

My answer to this question would be that there exists what Max Weber called ‘elective affinity’ between the neoliberal and the (right-wing) eugenics traditions. This is to say that certain motifs within each tradition resonate so strongly with those of the other tradition that adherents of the one are drawn to the other more or less organically.

This affinity is in no small part due to the sociological similarities between the eugenics movement and the neoliberal movement. Both were small but well-organised elite networks labouring to influence policy by targeting bourgeois opinion. And, additionally, both movements were structured around kindred anxieties over the size, agency, and reproductive habits of the working class, the fate of ‘Western civilisation’ as twilight loomed for Europe’s empire, and the fragility of existing social and material hierarchies.

This explains why thematic synchronicities between neoliberal ideology and eugenics are plenty. A focus on ‘population quality’, the distinction between the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor, a deep sense of post-imperial melancholy, and a concern that unchecked immigration will weaken the nation are common staples of conservative neoliberalism and the eugenicist imaginary alike.

But the affinity runs deeper than these broad thematic parallels. Central to neoliberalism is the signally racialised view that material inequality, whether domestic or global, is a function of the inherent deficiencies of the deprived: the poor are poor because of their failure to be productive or entrepreneurial. And in assembling their defence of inequality, many neoliberals have gratefully drawn on work by eugenicists that claims to prove the existence of race differences in intelligence, personality, or productivity. This is why so many neoliberal intellectuals became interested in the race and IQ debate that resurfaced in the late 1960s.

Likewise, the critique of the welfare state that sits at the very heart of neoliberal ideology is structured in ways that call to mind classical eugenicist concerns over charity. Indeed, if Francis Galton and Friedrich Hayek have one view in common it is that blanket social security disrupts ‘organic’ social ordering processes and thwarts humanity’s evolutionary progress by permitting unproductive groups and habits to reproduce in larger numbers than ideally they should.

Today, when neoliberal ideology is fully on the defensive and increasingly seeks refuge in lurid racialism to justify the inequalities it spawns, these historical affinities are proving a useful resource. Indeed, if figures like Murray and Lynn have managed to formalise and explicate the linkages between neoliberal ideology and eugenics, they were not so much forging new alliances as they were reinvigorating old ones.


Lars Cornelissen researches the role played by themes of race and colonialism in the neoliberal tradition of thought, a topic he is currently writing a book on. Earlier this year he published an article on ‘Neoliberal Imperialism’. He works for the Independent Social Research Foundation.

This is the first contribution of PERC’s new series, Neoliberal Visions of HealthIf you wish to get involved or would like to pitch an idea for a contribution, get in touch with our editor Carla Ibled (c.ibled[at]

The series is supported by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) (no. ES/X007359/1) and the South East Network for Social Sciences (SeNSS).