What should we do with Stephen Enke?

If I ever wanted a bad guy to feature in my stories, I had it: Stephen Enke (1916-1974).

Enke is recorded as one of the most prolific writers in top journal in economics around the 1940s, specializing in innocuous topics such as monopolistic competition (Chamberlin was in his PhD committee at Harvard) and international trade.

But around late 1940s, he started writing on subjects with a more charged and dubious moral dimension. One of the first economists hired by the RAND Coporation, he founded the Logistics Department there in 1953. In his researches at Rand, he had no scruple pondering questions of life and death for millions of people in terms of  financial cost and benefits. He was far from being alone, would you immediately reply. I know, but Enke has pushed the cost-benefit logic several steps beyond.

Enke left RAND in 1958, and in 1959 seems to have spent a year in India studying the explosion of demographics. One of his  solutions to the “population problem” was to propose the payment of cash bonus to Indian males accepting sterilization through vasectomy (he estimated for the Review of Economics and Statistics that the rational payment to the sterilized person should amount to 700 rupees).

During the 1960s, Enke visited South Africa and Rhodesia. One of his contributions that I have been able to retrieve was a piece entitled: “Why should we apologize for recent colonialism?”, published in Optima, the journal of a local holding. In my recollection, this article was detailing the great economic benefits brought by colonial countries to Africa, very much in line with Enke’s approach to other social issues.

Then after a 5-year stint as professor of economics at Duke, among many other duties that retained him often in Washington, in 1968 Enke became the manager of economic development programs for Technical Military Planning Operation – TEMPO (General Electric’s  Center for Advanced Studies at Santa Barbara, California). There, he continued to work on “economic effects of slowing population growth” but also on “the economy of South Vietnam”, according to some archives held by the Hoover Institute.

Overall, Enke is an economist that does not figure in the gallery of portrait of my heroes. So I was quite disconcerted to find, in relation to my researches on economists,  McCarthyism and the Owen Lattimore affair (sorry for this bit of self-promotion), that Enke did not stand on the side I expected.

In 1949, he had refused to sign the loyalty oath put in place by the University of California. I don’t have the record at hand, but appearing before some committee of professors, he stated that he had complied to many security checks to join the RAND Corporation, but did not see why he would have to undergo the same kind of scrutiny coming from the Regents of a university. It is not clear whether or not he was ultimately fired from UCLA (Robert Leonard in his “War as a simple problem” 1991 article says he was, but new archival sources would show that Enke finally complied).

In 1953, when solicited by Fritz Machlup to donate some money for the defense of the principal target of McCarthy, Owen Lattimore from the University of Johns Hopkins, Enke’s reply was the following (click on the pic to enlarge it):

Enke to Machlup, Feb 17, 1953. Machlup papers, Hoover Institution Archives.
Enke to Machlup, Feb 17, 1953. Machlup papers, Hoover Institution Archives.

This facet of Enke does not fit squarely with the cold warrior figure he was in other respects.

So, what should we do with Stephen Enke? I am not calling for a judgment of praise or condemnation (so “out” the bad guy story). I just try to understand this career and positions which taken together, do not make complete sense to me. Having access to his family archives (if any) or the memory of his former colleagues would help, I suppose.

About Clement

Assistant Professor at EMLyon.


  1. Well, truly bad guys you can find in the movies. Enke’s career and positions as you state them could make sense in several more or less plausible ways (ultra-conservative cold warrior that thought McCarthy was a distracting bad joke, hardcore scientist carried away by eugenics and the possibilities of scientifically civilising colonised societies), but you need some basic information about his political/social views, and also about their evolution. It seems interesting to question if his work at RAND changed his view of the world (say, after 1953), but maybe this is a red herring. You cannot know it if you know nothing about what he stood for.

  2. I know Enke from exactly one memo he wrote at RAND, but I might have some slight insight here, which is that the RAND logistics department was sort of an operations research house, dealing with establishing methods of drawing comparisons between different system designs (as was very early systems analysis, 1947-1954 roughly, with which Enke was involved). This did not really involve “pondering questions of life and death for millions of people in terms of financial cost and benefits”, and should not be confused with strategic theory or behavioral applications of game theory.

    People like to use RAND as an element of 20th-century theodicy (explanations for why there is evil in the world; see also the McNamara obits referencing his intellectual status as rationalist), but there is yet to be written a good fine-tuned analysis of the different activities undertaken at RAND—including its economics program—let alone their various political resonances. For example, Herman Kahn of RAND/Hudson Institute was a major critic of the “limits to growth” alarmism (as were many political conservatives), though Kahn was notorious for his nuclear strategery. Controlling population growth (as with eugenics a couple generations earlier) was frequently associated with some branches of the left. As for McCarthy, there were plenty of Cold Warriors, right and left, who saw him as ridiculous or dangerous.

    All this stuff needs tons of research freed from the moral interpretations demanded by right and left alike, and I look forward to seeing more!

  3. I am very late to this discussion, but the question about the complexity of character is fairly easy to resolve: collegiality (vis-a-vis Lattimore), and a sense of own’s own dignity (vis-a-vis additional security checks) are in no conflict at all with a very right-wing pro-colonial position!

  4. Guess I’m late to this thread however, I share your discomfort with the work of Stephen Enke. I have been reading Matthew Connelly’s book, Fatal Misconception: The Struggle to Control World Population. Enke uses some very specious logic to suggest a theory that increases in population negatively affect GNP and to quantify this adverse effect. He did not, however, attempt to see if real world data bore out this theory.

    People have a habit of thinking that numbers somehow don’t lie when like any information, they can be very easily manipulated. I would also like to know more about this economist….so far, I’ve filed him under dangerous…a name to remember and watch for.

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