Political Essays (1819)/Queries relating to the Essay on Population

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Query 1. Whether the real source of Mr. Malthus's Essay is not to be found in a work published in the year 1761, entitled, "Various Prospects of Mankind," by a Scotchman of the name of Wallace? Or whether this writer has not both stated the principle of the disproportion between the unlimited power of increase in population, and the limited power of increase in the means of subsistence, which principle is the corner-stone of the Essay; and whether he has not drawn the very same inference from it that Mr. Malthus has done, viz. that vice and misery are necessary to keep population down to the level of the means of subsistence?

2. Whether the chapter in Wallace, written expressly to prove these two points (or in other words, to shew that the principle of population is necessarily incompatible with any great degree of improvement in government or morals) does not completely anticipate Mr. Malthus's work, both in its principle and its conclusion?

3. Whether the idea of an arithmetical and geometrical series by which Mr. Malthus has been thought to have furnished the precise rule or calculus of the disproportion between food and population, is not, strictly speaking, inapplicable to the subject; inasmuch as in new and lately occupied countries, the quantity of food may be made to increase nearly in the same proportion as population, and in all old and well cultivated countries must be stationary, or nearly so? Whether, therefore, this mode of viewing the subject has not tended as much to embarrass as to illustrate the question, and to divert the mind from the real source of the only necessary distinction between food and population, namely, the want of sufficient room for the former to grow in; a grain of corn, as long as it has room to increase and multiply: in fact propagating its species much faster even than a man?

4. Whether the argument borrowed from Wallace, and constituting the chief scope and tenor of the first edition of the Essay, which professed to overturn all schemes of human perfectibility and Utopian forms of government from the sole principle of population, does not involve a plain contradiction;—both these authors, first of all, supposing or taking for granted a state of society in which the most perfect order, wisdom, virtue, and happiness shall prevail, and then endeavouring to shew that all these advantages would only hasten their own ruin, and end in famine, confusion, and unexampled wretchedness, in consequence of taking away the only possible checks to population, vice and misery? Whether this objection does not suppose mankind in a state of the most perfect reason, to be utterly blind to the consequences of the unrestrained indulgence of their appetites, and with the most perfect wisdom and virtue regulating all their actions, not to have the slightest command over their animal passions? There is nothing in any of the visionary schemes of human perfection so idle as this objection brought against them, which has no more to do with the reasonings of Godwin, Condorcet, &c. (against which Mr. Malthus's first Essay was directed) than with the prophecies of the Millennium!

5. Whether, in order to give some colour of plausibility to his argument, and to prove that the highest conceivable degree of wisdom and virtue could be of no avail in keeping down the principle of population, Mr. Malthus did not at first set out with representing this principle, to wit, the impulse to propagate the species, as a law of the same order and cogency as that of satisfying the cravings of hunger; so that reason having no power over it, vice and misery must be the necessary consequences, and only possible checks to population?

6. Whether this original view of the subject did not unavoidably lead to the most extravagant conclusions, not only by representing the total removal of all vice and misery as the greatest evil that could happen to the world, but (what is of more consequence than this speculative paradox) by throwing a suspicion and a stigma on all subordinate improvements or plans of reform, as so many clauses or sections of the same general principle? Whether the quantity of vice and misery necessary to keep population down to the level of the means of subsistence, being left quite undetermined by the author, the old barriers between vice and virtue, good and evil, were not broken down, and a perfect latitude of choice allowed between forms of government and modes of society, according to the temper of the times, or the taste of individuals; only that vice and misery being always the safe side, the presumption would naturally be in favour of the most barbarous, ignorant, enslaved, and profligate? Whether the stumbling-block thus thrown in the way of those who aimed at any amendment in social institutions, does not obviously account for the alarm and opposition which Mr. Malthus's work excited on the one hand, and for the cordiality and triumph with which it was hailed on the other?

7. Whether this view of the question, which is all in which the Essay differs fundamentally from the received and less startling notions on the subject, is not palpably, and by the author's subsequent confession, false, sophistical, and unfounded?

8. Whether the additional principle of moral restraint, inserted in the second and following editions of the Essay as one effectual, and as the only desirable means of checking population, does not at once overturn all the paradoxical conclusions of the author respecting the state of man in society, and whether nearly all these conclusions do not still stand in Mr. Malthus's work as they originally stood, as false in fact as they are inconsistent in reasoning? Whether, indeed, it was likely, that Mr. Malthus would give up the sweeping conclusions of his first Essay, the fruits of his industry and the pledges of his success, without great reluctance; or in such a manner as not to leave the general plan of his work full of contradictions and almost unintelligible?

9. Whether, for example, in treating of the durability of a perfect form of government, Mr. Malthus has not "sicklied over the subject with the same pale and jaundiced cast of thought," by supposing vice and misery to be the only effectual checks to population; and in his tenacity on this his old and favourite doctrine, whether he has not formally challenged his opponents to point out any other, "except indeed" (he adds, recollecting himself) "moral restraint," which however he considers as of no effect at all?

10. Whether, consistently with this verbal acknowledgement and virtual rejection of the influence of moral causes, the general tendency of Mr. M.'s system is not to represent the actual state of man in society as nothing better than a blind struggle between vice, misery, and the principle of population, the effects of which are just as mechanical as the ebbing and flowing of the tide, and to bury all other principles, all knowledge, or virtue, or liberty, under a heap of misapplied facts?

11. Whether, instead of accounting for the different degrees of happiness, plenty, populousness, &c. in different countries, or in the same country at different periods, from good or bad government, from the vicissitudes of manners, civilization, and knowledge, according to the common prejudice, Mr. Malthus does not expressly and repeatedly declare that political institutions are but as the dust in the balance compared with the inevitable consequences of the principle of population; and whether he does not treat with the utmost contempt all those, who not being in the secret of "the grinding law of necessity," had before his time superficially concluded that moral, political, religious, and other positive causes were of considerable weight in determining the happiness or misery of mankind? It were to be wished that the author, instead of tampering with his subject, and alternately holding out concessions, and then recalling them, had made one bold and honest effort to get rid of the bewildering effects of his original system, by affording his readers some clue to determine, both in what manner and to what extent other causes, independent of the principle of population, actually combine with that principle (no longer pretended to be absolute and uncontroulable) to vary the face of nature and society, under the same general law, and had not left this most important desideratum in his work, to be apocryphally supplied by the ingenuity and zeal of his apologists?

12. Whether Mr. Malthus does not uniformly discourage every plan for extending the limits of population, and consequently the sphere of human enjoyment, either by cultivating new tracts of soil, or improving the old ones, by repeating on all occasions the same stale, senseless objection, that, after all, the principle of population will press as much as ever on the means of subsistence; or in other words, that though the means of subsistence and comfort will be increased, there will be a proportionable increase in the number of those who are to partake of it? Or whether Mr. Malthus's panic fear on this subject has not subsided into an equally unphilosophical indifference?

13. Whether the principle of moral restraint, formally recognized in Mr. Malthus's latter writings, and in reality turning all his paradoxes into mere impertinence, does not remain a dead letter, which he never calls into action, except for the single purpose of torturing the poor under pretence of reforming their morals?

14. Whether the avowed basis of the author's system on the poor-laws, is not the following:—that by the laws of God and nature, the rich have a right to starve the poor whenever they (the poor) cannot maintain themselves; and whether the deliberate sophistry by which this right is attempted to be made out, is not as gross an insult on the understanding as on the feelings of the public? Or whether this reasoning does not consist in a trite truism and a wilful contradiction; the truism being, that whenever the earth cannot maintain all its inhabitants, that then, by the laws of God and nature, or the physical constitution of things, some of them must perish; and the contradiction being, that the right of the rich to withhold a morsel of bread from the poor, while they themselves roll in abundance, is a law of God and nature, founded on the same physical necessity or absolute deficiency in the means of subsistence?

15. Whether the commentators on the Essay have not fallen into the same unwarrantable mode of reasoning, by confounding the real funds for the maintenance of labour, i.e. the actual produce of the soil, with the scanty pittance allowed out of it for the maintenance of the labourer (after the demands of luxury and idleness are satisfied) by the positive, varying laws of every country, or by the caprice of individuals?

16. Whether these two things are not fundamentally distinct in themselves, and ought not to be kept so, in a question of such importance, as the right of the rich to starve the poor by system?

17. Whether Mr. Malthus has not been too much disposed to consider the rich as a sort of Gods upon earth, who were merely employed in distributing the goods of nature and fortune among the poor, who themselves neither ate nor drank, "neither married nor were given in marriage," and consequently were altogether unconcerned in the limited extent of the means of subsistence, and the unlimited increase of population?

18. Lastly, whether the whole of the reverend author's management of the principle of population and of the necessity of moral restraint, does not seem to have been copied from the prudent Friar's advice in Chaucer?

"Beware therefore with lordes for to play,
Singeth Placebo:—
To a poor man men should his vices tell,
But not to a lord, though he should go to hell."


J. M'Creery, Printer, Black-Horse-Court, London.