Political Essays (1819)/An Examination of Mr. Malthus's Doctrines

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Wallace, the author of "Various Prospects of Mankind, Nature, and Providence," was the first person, we believe, who applied the principle of the superior power of increase in population over the means of subsistence, as an insuperable objection to the arguments for the perfectibility of man, for which, in other respects, this author was an advocate. He has devoted a long and elaborate Essay to prove these two points:—1. That there is a natural and necessary inability in the means of subsistence to go on increasing always in the same ratio as the population, the limits of the earth necessarily limiting the actual increase of the one, and there being no limits to the tendency to increase in the other; 2. That the checks which have hitherto, and which always must keep population down to the level of the means of subsistence, are vice and misery; and consequently, that in a state of perfectibility, as it is called, viz. in a state of perfect wisdom, virtue, and happiness, where these indispensable checks to population, vice and misery, were entirely removed, population would go on increasing to an alarming and most excessive degree, and unavoidably end in the utmost disorder, confusion, vice and misery.—(See Various Prospects, &c. p. 113-123.)

The principle laid down by this author, that population could not go on for ever increasing at its natural rate, or free from every restraint, either moral or physical, without ultimately outstripping the utmost possible increase of the means of subsistence, we hold to be unquestionable, if not self-evident: the other principle assumed by the original author, viz. that vice and misery are the only possible checks to population, we hold to be false as a matter of fact, and peculiarly absurd and contradictory, when applied to that state of society contemplated by the author, that is to say, one in which abstract reason and pure virtue, or a regard to the general good, should have got the better of every animal instinct and selfish passion. Of this, perhaps, a word hereafter. But be this as it may, both the principle of the necessary increase of the population beyond the means of subsistence, and the application of that principle as a final obstacle to all Utopian perfectibility schemes, are borrowed (whole) by Mr. Malthus from Wallace's work. This is not very stoutly denied by his admirers; but, say they, Mr. Malthus was the first to reduce the inequality between the possible increase of food and population to a mathematical certainty, to the arithmetical and geometrical ratios. In answer to which, we say, that those ratios are, in a strict and scientific view of the subject, entirely fallacious—a pure fiction. For a grain of corn or of mustard-seed has the same or a greater power of propagating its species than a man, till it has overspread the whole earth, till there is no longer any room for it to grow or to spread farther. A bushel of wheat will sow a whole field: the produce of that field will sow twenty fields, and produce twenty harvests. Till there are no longer fields to sow, that is, till a country or the earth is exhausted, the means of subsistence will go on increasing in more than a geometrical ratio; will more than double itself in every generation or season, and will more than keep pace with the progress of population; for this is supposed only to double itself, where it is unchecked, every twenty years. Therefore it is not true as an abstract proposition, that of itself, or in the nature of the growth of the produce of the earth, food can only increase in the snail-pace progress of an arithmetical ratio, while population goes on at a swinging geometrical rate: for the food keeps pace, or more than keeps pace, with the population, while there is room to grow it in, and after that room is filled up, it does not go on, even in that arithmetical ratio—it does not increase at all, or very little. That is, the ratio, instead of being always true, is never true at all: neither before the soil is fully cultivated, nor afterwards. Food does not increase in an arithmetical series in China, or even in England: it increases in a geometrical series, or as fast as the population, in America. The rates at which one or the other increase naturally, or can be made to increase, have no relation to an arithmetical and geometrical series. They are co-ordinate till the earth, or any given portion of it, is occupied and cultivated, and, after that, they are quite disproportionate: or rather, both stop practically at the same instant; the means of subsistence with the limits of the soil, and the population with the limits of the means of subsistence. All that is true of Mr. Malthus's doctrine, then, is this, that the tendency of population to increase remains after the power of the earth to produce more food is gone; that the one is limited, the other unlimited. This is enough for the morality of the question: his mathematics are altogether spurious. Entirely groundless as they are, they have still been of the greatest use to Mr. Malthus, in alarming the imaginations and confounding the understandings of his readers. For, if the case had been represented as it stands, the increase of population would have seemed, till the limits of the earth were full, a great moral good; and after they were passed, a physical impossibility, the state of society remaining the same. But, by means of the arithmetical and geometrical series, ever present to the mental eye, and overlaying the whole question, whether applicable to it or not, it seems, first, as if this inordinate and unequal pressure of population on the means of subsistence was, at all times, and in all circumstances, equally to be dreaded, and equally inevitable; and again, as if, the more that population advanced, the greater the evil became, the actual excess as well as the tendency to excess. For it appears by looking at the scale, at the "stop-watch" of the new system of morals and legislation, as if, when the population is at 4, the means of subsistence is at 3; so that there is here only a deficit of 1 in the latter, and a small corresponding quantity of vice and misery; but that when it gets on to 32, the means of subsistence being only 6, here is a necessary deficiency of food, and all the comforts of life, to 26 persons out of 32, so that life becomes an evil, and the world a wretched lazar-house, a monstrous sink of misery and famine, one foul abortion, in proportion as it is full of human beings enjoying the comforts and necessaries of life. It consequently follows, that the more we can, by the wholesome preventive checks of vice and misery, keep back the principle of population to its first stages, and the means of subsistence to as low a level as possible, we keep these two mechanical, and otherwise unmanageable principles, in closer harmony,—hinder the one from pressing excessively on the other, and by producing the least possible quantity of good, prevent the greatest possible quantity of evil. This doctrine is false in fact and theory. Its advocates do not understand it, nor is it intelligible. The actual existence of 26 persons in want, when there is only food for six out of 32, is a chimera which never entered the brains of any one not an adept in Mr. Malthus's mathematical series; the population confessedly never can or does exceed the means of subsistence in a literal sense; and the tendency to exceed it in a moral sense, that is, so as to destroy the comforts and happiness of society, and occasion vice and misery, does not depend on the actual population supported by actual means of subsistence, but solely on the greater or less degree of moral restraint, in any number of individuals (ten hundred or ten millions), inducing them to go beyond or stop short of impending vice and misery in the career of population. The instant, however, any increase in population, with or without an increase in the means of subsistence, is hinted, the disciples of Mr. Malthus are struck with horror at the vice and misery which must ensue to keep this double population down; nay, mention any improvement, any reform, any addition to the comforts or necessaries of life, any diminution of vice and misery, and the infallible result in their apprehensive imaginations is only an incalculable increase of vice and misery, from the increased means of subsistence, and the increased population that would follow. They have but this one idea in their heads; it comes in at every turn, and nothing can drive it out. Twice last year did Major Torrens go down to the City Meeting with Mr. Malthus's arithmetical and geometrical ratios in his pocket, as a double and effectual bar to Mr. Owen's plan, or, indeed, if he is consistent, to any other plan of reform. He appeared to consider these ratios as decisive against any philosophical scheme of perfectibility, and as proportionably inimical to any subordinate approximation to any such ultimate visionary perfection. He argued that Mr. Owen's "projected villages," if realised in all their pauper splendour, and to the projector's heart's content, would, by providing for the support and increased comforts of an additional population, only (by that very means) give a double impetus to the mechanical operation of the ratios in question, and produce a double quantity of crime and misery, by making the principle of population press with extended force on the means of subsistence. This is what we cannot comprehend. Suppose Mr. Owen's plan, or any other, would afford double employment, double comfort and subsistence to the poor throughout the country, where would be the harm of this, where the objection, near or remote, except on the false principles laid down or insinuated in Mr. Malthus's work? For instance, if another island such as England could by an enchanter be conjured up in the middle of the sea, with all the same means of subsistence, arts, trades, agriculture, manufactures, institutions, laws, &c. as this country, we ask whether this new country would not be a good in proportion to the number of beings maintained in such a state of comfort: or, if these gentlemen will have it so, in proportion to the increase of population pressing on the means of subsistence? We say it would be a good, just in the same sense and proportion that it would be an evil, if England as it is, with all its inhabitants, means of subsistence, arts, trades, manufactures, agriculture, institutions, laws. King, Lords and Commons, were sunk in the sea? Who would not weep for England so sunk,—who would not rejoice to see another England so rising up out of the same element? The good would be immense, and the evil would be none: for it is evident, that though the population of both islands would be double that of either singly, it is the height of absurdity to suppose this would increase the tendency of the population to press more upon the means of subsistence, or to produce a greater quantity of vice and misery in either, than if the one or the other did not exist. But the case is precisely the same if we suppose England itself, our England, to be doubled in population and the means of subsistence:—if we suppose such an improvement in our arts, trade, manufactures, agriculture, institutions, laws, every thing, possible, as to maintain double the same number of Englishmen, in the same or in a greater degree of comfort and enjoyment, of liberty, virtue, knowledge, happiness, and independence. The population being doubled would not press more unequally on double the means of subsistence, than half that population would press on half those means of subsistence. If this increase would be an evil, the destroying half the present population, and half the present means of subsistence, the laying waste more lands, the destroying arts and the implements of husbandry, the re-barbarising and the re-enslaving the country, would be a good. The sinking the maritime counties with all their inhabitants in the Channel, instead of "redeeming tracts from the sea," would be a great good to the community and the State; the flooding the fen districts would do something, in like manner, to prevent the pressure of the principle of population on the level of the means of subsistence; and if thirty-nine out of forty of the counties could be struck off the list of shires, and the whole island reduced to a sand-bank, the King of England would reign, according to these speculatists, over forty or forty thousand times the quantity of liberty, happiness, wisdom, and virtue, that he now does, having no subjects, or only a select few, for the principle of population to commit its ravages upon, by overstepping the means of subsistence. The condition of New Zealand must approach nearer to the beau ideal of political philosophy contemplated by these persons, than the state of Great Britain in the reign of George III. Such is the logical result of their mode of reasoning, though they do not push it to this length;—they only apply it to the defence of all existing abuses, and the prevention of all timely reform! Its advocates are contented to make use of it as a lucky diversion against all Utopian projects of perfectibility, and against every practical advance in human improvement. But they cannot consistently stop here, for it requires not only a shrinking back from every progressive refinement, but a perpetual deterioration and retrograde movement from the positive advances we have made in civilization, comfort, and population, to the lowest state of barbarism, ignorance, and depopulation—till we come back to the age of acorns and pig-nuts, and reduce this once flourishing, populous, free, industrious, independent, and contented people, to a horde of wandering savages, housing in thickets, and living on dewberries, shell-fish, and crab-apples. This will never do.