Book 8, Chapter 09 : Objection to this System from the Principle of Population
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Book 8, Chapter 09
An author who has speculated widely upon subjects of government1 has recommended equality, (or, which was rather his idea, a community of goods to be maintained by the vigilance of the state), as a complete remedy, for the usurpation and distress which are, at present, the most powerful enemies of human kind; for the vises which infect education in some instances, and the neglect it encounters in more; for all the turbulence of passion, and all the injustice of selfishness. But, after having exhibited this brilliant picture, he finds an argument that demolishes the whole, and restores him to indifference or despair, in "the excessive population that would ensue."
The question of population, as it relates to the science of politics and society, is considerably curious. Several writers upon these topics have treated it in a way calculated to produce a very gloomy impression, and have placed precautions to counteract the multiplication of the human species, among the most important objects of civil prudence. These precautions appear to have occupied much attention in several ancient nations, among whom there prevailed a great solicitude, that the number of citizens in the state should suffer no augmentations. In modern times a contrary opinion has frequently obtained, and the populousness of a country has been said to constitute its true wealth and prosperity.
Perhaps however express precautions in either kind, are superfluous and nugatory. There is a principle in the nature of human society, by means of which everything seems to tend to its level, and to proceed in the most auspicious way, when least interfered with by the mode of regulation. In a certain stage of the social progress population seems rapidly to increase; this seems to be the case in the United States of America. In a subsequent stage, it undergoes little change, either in the way of increase or diminution; this is the case in the more civilized countries of Europe. The number of inhabitants in a country will perhaps never be found, in the ordinary course of affairs, greatly to increase, beyond the facility of subsistence.
Nothing is more easy than to account for this circumstance. So long as there is a facility of subsistence, men will be encouraged to early marriages, and to a careful rearing of their children. In America, it is said, men congratulate themselves upon the increase of their families as upon a new accession of wealth. The labor of their children, even in the early stage, soon redeems and even repays with interest, the expense and effort of rearing them. In such countries the wages of the laborer are high, for the number of laborers bear no proportion to the general spirit of enterprise. In many European countries, on the other hand, a large family has become a proverbial expression for an uncommon degree of poverty and wretchedness. The price of labor in any state, so long as the spirit of accumulation shall prevail, is an infallible barometer of the state of its population. It is impossible where the price of labor is greatly reduced, and an added population threatens a still further reduction, that men should not be considerably under the influence of fear, respecting an early marriage, and a numerous family.
There are various methods by the practice of which population may be checked; by the exposing of children, as among the ancients, and, at this day, in China; by the art of procuring abortion, as it is said to subsist in the island of Ceylon; by a promiscuous intercourse of the sexes, which is found extremely hostile to the multiplication of the species; or, lastly, by a systematical abstinence, such as must be supposed, in some degree, to prevail in monasteries of either sex. But, without any express institution of this kind, the encouragement or discouragement that arises from the general state of a community, will probably be found to be all-powerful in its operation.
Supposing however that population were not thus adapted to find its own level, it is obvious to remark upon the objection of this chapter, that to reason thus, is to foresee difficulties at a great distance. Three fourths of the habitable globe, are now uncultivated. The improvements to be made in cultivation, and the augmentations the earth is capable of receiving in the article of productiveness, cannot, as yet, be reduced to any limits of calculation. Myriads of centuries of still increasing population may pass away, and the earth be yet found sufficient for the support of its inhabitants. It were idle therefore to conceive discouragement from so distant a contingency. The rational anticipation of human improvement are unlimited, not eternal. The very globe that we inhabit, and the solar system, may, for anything that we know, be subject to decay. Physical casualties of different denominations, may interfere with the progressive nature of intellect. But, putting these out of the question, it is certainly most reasonable, to commit so remote a danger to the chance of such remedies, (remedies, of which perhaps we may, at this time, not have the smallest idea) as shall suggest themselves at a period sufficiently early for their practical application.
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