Political Essays (1819)/On the Principles of Population as affecting the Schemes of Utopian Improvement

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"A swaggering paradox, when once explained, soon sinks into an unmeaning common-place."

This excellent saying of a great man was never more strictly applicable to any system than it is to Mr. Malthus's paradox, and his explanation of it. It seemed, on the first publication of the Essay on Population, as if the whole world was going to be turned topsy-turvy, all our ideas of moral good and evil, were in a manner confounded, we scarcely knew whether we stood on our head or our heels: but after exciting considerable expectation, giving us a good shake, and making us a little dizzy, Mr. Malthus does as we do when we shew the children London,—sets us on our feet again, and every thing goes on as before. The common notions that prevailed on this subject, till our author's first population-scheme tended to weaken them, were that life is a blessing, and that the more people could be maintained in any state in a tolerable degree of health, comfort and decency, the better: that want and misery are not desirable in themselves, that famine is not to be courted for its own sake, that wars, disease and pestilence are not what every friend of his country or his species should pray for in the first place: that vice in its different shapes is a thing that the world could do very well without, and that if it could be got rid of altogether, it would be a great gain. In short, that the object both of the moralist and politician was to diminish as much as possible the quantity of vice and misery existing in the world: without apprehending that by thus effectually introducing more virtue and happiness, more reason and good sense, that by improving the manners of a people, removing pernicious habits and principles of acting, or securing greater plenty, and a greater number of mouths to partake of it, they were doing a disservice to humanity. Then comes Mr. Malthus with his octavo book, and tells us there is another great evil, which had never been found out, or at least not sufficiently attended to till his time, namely, excessive population: that this evil was infinitely greater and more to be dreaded than all others put together; and that its approach could only be checked by vice and misery: that any increase of virtue or happiness was the direct way to hasten it on; and that in proportion as we attempted to improve the condition of mankind, and lessened the restraints of vice and misery, we threw down the only barriers that could protect us from this most formidable scourge of the species, population. Vice and misery were indeed evils, but they were absolutely necessary evils; necessary to prevent the introduction of others of an incalculably and inconceivably greater magnitude; and that every proposal to lessen their actual quantity, on which the measure of our safety depended, might be attended with the most ruinous consequences, and ought to be looked upon with horror. I think that this description of the tendency and complexion of Mr. Malthus's first essay is not in the least exaggerated, but an exact and faithful picture of the impression, which it made on every one's mind.

After taking some time to recover from the surprise and hurry into which so great a discovery would naturally throw him, he comes forward again with a large quarto, in which he is at great pains both to say and unsay all that he has said in his former volume; and upon the whole concludes, that population is in itself a good thing, that it is never likely to do much harm, that virtue and happiness ought to be promoted by every practicable means, and that the most effectual as well as desirable check to excessive population is moral restraint. The mighty discovery thus reduced to, and pieced out by common sense, the wonder vanishes, and we breathe a little freely again. Mr. Malthus is, however, by no means willing to give up his old doctrine, or eat his own words: he stickles stoutly for it at times. He has his fits of reason and his fits of extravagance, his yielding and his obstinate moments, fluctuating between the two, and vibrating backwards and forwards with a dexterity of self-contradiction which it is wonderful to behold. The following passage is so curious in this respect that I cannot help quoting it in this place. Speaking of the Reply of the author of the Political Justice to his former work, he observes, "But Mr. Godwin says, that if he looks into the past history of the world, he does not see that increasing population has been controlled and confined by vice and misery alone. In this observation I cannot agree with him. I will thank Mr. Godwin to name to me any check, that in past ages has contributed to keep down the population to the level of the means of subsistence, that does not fairly come under some form of vice or misery; except indeed the check of moral restraint, which I have mentioned in the course of this work; and which to say the truth, whatever hopes we may entertain of its prevalence in future, has undoubtedly in past ages operated with very inconsiderable force."[1] When I assure the reader that I give him this passage fairly and fully, I think he will be of opinion with me, that it would be difficult to produce an instance of a more miserable attempt to reconcile a contradiction by childish evasion, to insist upon an argument, and give it up in the same breath. Does Mr. Malthus really think that he has such an absolute right and authority over this subject of population, that provided he mentions a principle, or shews that he is not ignorant of it, and cannot be caught napping by the critics, he is at liberty to say that it has or has not had any operation, just as he pleases, and that the state of the fact is a matter of perfect indifference? He contradicts the opinion of Mr. Godwin that vice and misery are not the only checks to population, and gives as a proof of his assertion, that he himself truly has mentioned another check. Thus after flatly denying that moral restraint has any effect at all, he modestly concludes by saying that it has had some, no doubt, but promises that it will never have a great deal. Yet in the very next page, he says, "On this sentiment, whether virtue, prudence or pride, which I have already noticed under the name of moral restraint, or of the more comprehensive title, the preventive check, it will appear, that in the sequel of this work, I shall lay considerable stress." p. 385. This kind of reasoning is enough to give one the headache.

The most singular thing in this singular performance of our author is, that it should have been originally ushered into the world as the most complete and only satisfactory answer to the speculations of Godwin, Condorcet and others, or to what has been called the modern philosophy. A more complete piece of wrong-headedness, a more strange perversion of reason could hardly be devised by the wit of man. Whatever we may think of the doctrine of the progressive improvement of the human mind, or of a state of society in which every thing will be subject to the absolute control of reason, however absurd, unnatural, or impracticable we may conceive such a system to be, certainly it cannot without the grossest inconsistency be objected to it, that such a system would necessarily be rendered abortive, because if reason should ever get the mastery over all our actions, we shall then be governed entirely by our physical appetites and passions, without the least regard to consequences. This appears to me a refinement on absurdity. Several philosophers and speculatists had supposed that a certain state of society very different from any that has hitherto existed was in itself practicable; and that if it were realised, it would be productive of a far greater degree of human happiness than is compatible with the present institutions of society. I have nothing to do with either of these points. I will allow to any one who pleases that all such schemes are "false, sophistical, unfounded in the extreme." But I cannot agree with Mr. Malthus that they would be bad, in proportion as they were good; that their excellence would be their ruin; or that the true and only unanswerable objection against all such schemes is that very degree of happiness, virtue, and improvement, to which they are supposed to give rise. And I cannot agree with him in this, because it is contrary to common sense, and leads to the subversion of every principle of moral reasoning. Without perplexing himself with the subtle arguments of his opponents, Mr. Malthus comes boldly forward, and says, "Gentlemen, I am willing to make you large concessions, I am ready to allow the practicability and the desirableness of your schemes; the more happiness, the more virtue, the more refinement they are productive of, the better; all these will only add to the 'exuberant strength of my argument;' I have a short answer to all objections, to be sure I found it in an old political receipt-book, called Prospects, &c. by one Wallace, a man not much known, but no matter for that, finding is keeping, you know:" and with one smart stroke of his wand, on which are inscribed certain mystical characters, and algebraic proportions, he levels the fairy enchantment with the ground. For, says Mr. Malthus, though this improved state of society were actually realised, it could not possibly continue, but must soon terminate in a state of things pregnant with evils far more insupportable than any we at present endure, in consequence of the excessive population which would follow, and the impossibility of providing for its support.

This is what I do not understand. It is, in other words, to assert that the doubling the population of a country, for example, after a certain period, will be attended with the most pernicious effects, by want, famine, bloodshed, and a state of general violence and confusion; this will afterwards lead to vices and practices still worse than the physical evils they are designed to prevent, &c. and yet that at this period those who will be the most interested in preventing these consequences, and the best acquainted with the circumstances that lead to them, will neither have the understanding to foresee, nor the heart to feel, nor the will to prevent the sure evils to which they expose themselves and others, though this advanced state of population, which does not admit of any addition without danger is supposed to be the immediate result of a more general diffusion of the comforts and conveniences of life, of more enlarged and liberal views, of a more refined and comprehensive regard to our own permanent interests, as well as those of others, of correspondent habits and manners, and of a state of things, in which our gross animal appetites will be subjected to the practical control of reason. The influence of rational motives, of refined and long-sighted views of things is supposed to have taken place of narrow, selfish, and merely sensual motives: this is implied in the very statement of the question. "What conjuration and what mighty magic" should thus blind our philosophical descendants on this single subject in which they are more interested than in all the rest, so that they should stand with their eyes open on the edge of a precipice, and instead of retreating from it, should throw themselves down headlong, I cannot comprehend; unless indeed we suppose that the impulse to propagate the species is so strong and uncontrolable, that reason has no power over it. This is what Mr. Malthus was at one time strongly disposed to assert, and what he is at present half inclined to retract. Without this foundation to rest on, the whole of his reasoning is unintelligible. It seems to me a most childish way of answering any one, who chooses to assert that mankind are capable of being governed entirely by their reason, and that it would be better for them if they were, to say, No, for if they were governed entirely by it, they would be much less able to attend to its dictates than they are at present: and the evils, which would thus follow from the unrestrained increase of population, would be excessive.—Almost every little Miss, who has had the advantage of a boarding-school education, or been properly tutored by her mamma, whose hair is not of an absolute flame-colour, and who has hopes in time, if she behaves prettily, of getting a good husband, waits patiently year after year, looks about her, rejects or trifles with half a dozen lovers, favouring one, laughing at another, chusing among them "as one picks pears, saying, this I like, that I loathe," with the greatest indifference, as if it were no such very pressing affair, and all the while behaves very prettily:—why, what an idea does Mr. Malthus give us of the grave, masculine genius of our Utopian philosophers, their sublime attainments and gigantic energy, that they will not be able to manage these matters as decently and cleverly as the silliest woman can do at present! Mr. Malthus indeed endeavours to soften the absurdity by saying that moral restraint at present owes its strength to selfish motives: what is that to the purpose? If Mr. Malthus chooses to say, that men will always be governed by the same gross mechanical motives that they are at present, I have no objection to make to it; but it is shifting the question: it is not arguing against the state of society we are considering from the consequences to which it would give rise, but against the possibility of its ever existing. It is absurd to object to a system on account of the consequences which would follow if we once suppose men to be actuated by entirely different motives and principles from what they are at present, and then to say, that those consequences would necessarily follow, because men would never be what we suppose them. It is very idle to alarm the imagination by deprecating the evils that must follow from the practical adoption of a particular scheme, yet to allow that we have no reason to dread those consequences, but because the scheme itself is impracticable.— But I am ashamed of wasting the reader's time and my own in thus beating the air. It is not however my fault that Mr. Malthus has written nonsense, or that others have admired it. It is not Mr. Malthus's nonsense, but the opinion of the world respecting it, that I would be thought to compliment by this serious refutation of what in itself neither deserves nor admits of any reasoning upon it. If, however, we recollect the source from whence Mr. Malthus borrowed his principle and the application of it to improvements in political philosophy, we must allow that he is merely passive in error. The principle itself would not have been worth a farthing to him without the application, and accordingly he took them as he found them lying snug together; and as Trim having converted the old jack-boots into a pair of new mortars immediately planted them against whichever of my uncle Toby's garrisons the allies were then busy in besieging, so the public-spirited gallantry of our modern engineer directed him to bend the whole force of his clumsy discovery against that system of philosophy which was the most talked of at the time, but to which it was the least applicable of all others. Wallace, I have no doubt, took up his idea either as a paradox, or a jeu d'esprit, or because any thing, he thought, was of weight enough to overturn what had never existed any where but in the imagination; or he was led into a piece of false logic by an error we are very apt to fall into, of supposing because he had never been struck himself by the difficulty of population in such a state of society, that therefore the people themselves would not find it out, nor make any provision against it. But though I can in some measure excuse a lively paradox, I do not think the same favour is to be shewn to the dull, dogged, voluminous repetition of an absurdity.

I cannot help thinking that our author has been too much influenced in his different feelings on this subject, by the particular purpose he had in view at the time. Mr. Malthus might not improperly have taken for the motto of his first edition,—"These three bear record on earth, vice, misery, and population." In his answer to Mr. Godwin, this principle was represented as an evil, for which no remedy could be found but in evil;—that its operation was mechanical, unceasing, necessary; that it went straight forward to its end, unchecked by fear, or reason, or remorse; that the evils, which it drew after it, could only be avoided by other evils, by actual vice and misery. Population was, in fact, the great Devil, the untamed Beelzebub that was only kept chained down by vice and misery, and which, if it were once let loose from these restraints, would go forth, and ravage the earth. That they were, of course, the two main props and pillars of society, and that the lower and weaker they kept this principle, the better able they were to contend with it: that therefore any diminution of that degree of them, which at present prevails, and is found sufficient to keep the world in order, was of all things chiefly to be dreaded.—Mr. Malthus seems fully aware of the importance of the stage-maxim. To elevate and surprise. Having once heated the imaginations of his readers, he knows that he can afterwards mould them into whatever shape he pleases. All this bustle and terror, and stage-effect, and theatrical mummery was only to serve a temporary purpose, for all of a sudden the scene is shifted, and the storm subsides. Having frighted away the boldest champions of modern philosophy, this monstrous appearance, full of strange and inexplicable horrors, is suffered quietly to shrink back to its natural dimensions, and we find it to be nothing more than a common-sized tame looking animal, which however requires a chain and the whip of its keeper to prevent it from becoming mischievous. Mr. Malthus then steps forward and says, "The evil we were all in danger of was not population,—but philosophy. Nothing is to be done with the latter by mere reasoning. I, therefore, thought it right to make use of a little terror to accomplish the end. As to the principle of population you need be under no alarm; only leave it to me, and I shall be able to manage it very well. All its dreadful consequences may be easily prevented by a proper application of the motives of common prudence and common decency." If, however, any one should be at a loss to know how it is possible to reconcile such contradictions, I would suggest to Mr. Malthus the answer which Hamlet makes to his friend Guilderstern, "'Tis as easy as lying: govern these ventiges (the poor-rates and private charity) with your fingers and thumb, and this same instrument will discourse most excellent music; look you, here are the stops," (namely, Mr. Malthus's Essay and Mr. Whitbread's Poor Bill).[2]

  1. The prevalence of this check may be estimated by the general proportion of virtue and happiness in the world, for if there were no such check, there could be nothing but vice and misery.
  2. Written in 1807, at a time when Mr. Whitbread's scheme was in agitation in the House of Commons, and Mr. Malthus used to wait in the lobbies with his essay in his hand, for the instruction and compliments of Honourable Members. The above article is taken from a Reply to Mr. Malthus, one of my very early Essays, the style of which is, I confess, a little exuberant, but of the arguments I see no reason to be ashamed.