Of Population : Book 3, Chapter 01 : Futility of Mr. Malthus's Doctrine respecting the Checks on Population
(1756 - 1836) ~ Respected Anarchist Philosopher and Sociologist of the Enlightenment Era : His most famous work, An Inquiry concerning Political Justice, appeared in 1793, inspired to some extent by the political turbulence and fundamental restructuring of governmental institutions underway in France. Godwin's belief is that governments are fundamentally inimical to the integrity of the human beings living under their strictures... (From : University of Pennsylvania Bio.)
• "Courts are so encumbered and hedged in with ceremony, that the members of them are always prone to imagine that the form is more essential and indispensable, than the substance." (From : "Instructions to a Statesman," by William Godwin.)
• "Fickleness and instability, your lordship will please to observe, are of the very essence of a real statesman." (From : "Instructions to a Statesman," by William Godwin.)
• "Anarchy and darkness will be the original appearance. But light shall spring out of the noon of night; harmony and order shall succeed the chaos." (From : "Instructions to a Statesman," by William Godwin.)
Book 3, Chapter 01
IN the preceding Book I have taken for the subject of my inquiry the possible progress of mankind under peculiarly favorable circumstances as to the increase of their numbers I have produced the example of Sweden as the most advantageous specimen of the kind that is contained in the records of history I have not contented myself with this but have proceeded
in the endeavor to establish certain principles on the subject. From the example of Sweden, corroborated by views drawn from all other countries of Europe, in which any progress has been made in collecting Tables that have reference to population, I have sought to fix certain maxims which may be of use to guide us in our speculations on the subject. To this I have added some general reasonings, built upon the nature of marriage, and the numbers and fruitfulness of human females, calculated to confirm these facts, and to shew from the nature of things why they should be found such as they are.
But there is another question behind, which will be of scarcely less importance in enabling us to settle our opinions on the subject of this work. This is (to borrow the language of Mr. Malthus), "What is it that checks population?"
Or, I should rather chuse to express the inquiry upon which I am about ot enter thus: Population has been found, under peculiarly favorable circumstances, for example in Sweden, to have a tendency to double itself in a little more than one hundred years. But the history of the world is not in accord with the example of Sweden. We have no reason to suppose that the globe of the earth, at least so far as it was then known, was at all less populous three thousand years ago, than it is now.
The inference therefore, in the point of view
in which we are here considering the subject, is, first, from the example of Sweden, that population, or the numbers of mankind, has a natural tendency to increase under particularly favorable circumstances, at the rate of a doubling in a little more than on hundred years; and, secondly, from the history of the world, that this increase is perpetually counteracted, so that we have no reason to believe that the earth is now more populous than at any past period of authentic history, or, from any ting that is at present going on on the face of the globe, that it has any likelihood to become so.
Population is kept down. This truth we learn from the history of mankind: and in this proposition I agree with Mr. Malthus.
But, in announcing this proposition, two questions occur to me. First, how is it kept down? Secondly, is it necessary for the common good, that any special attention should be given by governments and national councils, in the way of taking care that it should be kept down, or that the increase of the numbers of mankind should not be encouraged?
On the first question, [How does it happen that the population of the earth does not go on in a course of perpetual increase?] Mr. Malthus advances two propositions interchangeably, substituting the one for the otehr at his pleasure, as if they were only two ways of expressing the same thing: first, that population is kept down
by the intervention of vise and misery: secondly, that it is kept down, because the numbers of mankind are, every where and incessantly, tending ot increase beyond the limits of the means of subsistence.
Now these propositions are so far from being synonymous, and if I may apply the word somewhat out of its usual meaning, tautological, that one of them may be true, and the other totally and entirely false.
That vise and misery have a share in keeping down the numbers of mankind, I will not deny. There may also be other causes, as yet little adverted to, which may be concerned in producing the same effect.
The most obvious causes which all history forces upon our attention, are war, pestilence, and famine. And here I would distinguish between the two agents which in Mr. Malthus's book are perpetually coupled, vise, and misery: or, as I would rather denominate them, vise, and the visitation of calamity. Pestilence is not vise; famine can scarcely deserve to be called by that name. War therefore, of these three, is the agent for thinning the ranks of mankind, which is best entitled to be denominated vise.
But how far are any of these concerned with a scarcity of the means of subsistence? Famine indeed is a sweeping name, which expresses that scarcity in its most aggravated degree. But pestilence- is that only a lack of the means of
subsistence under another form? Is the plague produced by hunger? Is yellow fever produced by hunger? When our devoted country in former centuries was so often visited with the plague, where Englishmen in greater comparative want of the means of subsistence than at present?
War is, of almost any example that could be devised, well adapted to shew that Mr. Malthus's two propositions are of very different import. Do men go to war because they want the means of subsistence? Far otherwise. War in civilized countries is the offspring of pride, of wantonness, and an artificial method of thinking and living. War cannot be carried on in such countries without a previous accumulation of the means of subsistence. Money, it has often been said, is the sinew of war. It would be more accurate to say, that provisions [munition de bouche] are the sinews of war. The first care of a power going to war is to establish magazines. I may add, that money itself is nothing, except so far as it can purchase the conveniences, and, a fortiori, the necessaries of life.
So far therefore as war is concerned, I allow that the numbers of mankind are thinned by vise: So far as famine and pestilence enter into the question, I admit that the same effect may be attributed to calamity.
But I totally reject Mr. Malthus's vise and misery in the obscure details. I affirm, that
would elapse,"c before the most fatal and heart-sickening consequences would be produced. And the whole tendency of his book is to prove, that the expected disasters would be as rapid, as they were irresistible in their manifestation and their progess.
The inference certainly from all history is, the population does not challenge the vigilance of governments to keep it down. The inference from all history is, that those countries, other things equal, have been happiest, where the increase of mankind has been most encouraged, and those the most miserable, in which the power of depopulation has most fully displayed itself. If an author, in the beginning of the nineteenth century of the Christian era, comes forward, to teach us a new creed, and to persuade us to abandon that which the concurrent wisdom of ages had taught us, he should surely not attempt to do this by the sole aid of a few dogmatical maxims, but should have gone through the annals of antiquity, and have shewn us where in all famous nations and states the evil crept in. The fact is completely against him. The fact is, according to the evidence of all history, that population does not require the vigilance of governments to keep it down.
When once we have discarded this cardinal error, the rest of the subject becomes a topic of
laudable speculation. What tendency is there in the human species to increase their numbers? It cannot be disputed, that in some countries (Sweden for example) there appears to be a power in mankind to increase their numbers by procreation only. Under what circumstances, and for how long a time, may this power be supposed to exert itself? Under the most favorable circumstances, what would be the degree of the increase? What are the causes that check the increase, and that produce a progress in the opposite direction? For the instances appear to be much more numerous and striking of a rapid depopulation. At all events this is certain, that no governments, previously to the publication of Mr. Malthus's book, ever set themselves up for patrons of depopulation, and to "stop the propagation of mankind:" and it is scarcely less certain, that the population of the earth is not greater now than it was three thousand years ago.
If Mr. Malthus's doctrine were sound, and his novelties constituted a real discovery, the history of the population of the earth would be very different from the thing that it is. But his theory sustains the common fate of every mere hypothesis ingeniously contrived to account for the phenomena around us. It may look in some degree plausible in itself; but it will never truly tally with the facts it is brought to explain. It
pays us with words; but it does not clear up a single difficulty.
The population of every old country, according to Mr. Malthus, is kept down by "pressing hard against the limits of the means of subsistence." If this were true, what would be the real state of the case in the history of all the nations of the earth? A periodical fluctuation. —That there is a change I admit, and that nations from time to time increase and decrease in the numbers of their people. But the cause of these changes has never yet been fully explained; and least of all do they square with Mr. Malthus' hypothesis —To proceed in the statement and refutation of the views exhibited in the Essay on Population. Every country, as well as North America, in the proportion of its area and its soil is capable of subsisting a given number of inhabitants. When this capacity has been used, and the country has been replenished with men, that district or portion of the globe will refuse to receive a greater number. But it is perhaps the nature of every check or reaction, to operate somewhat beyond the extent of the impulse that gave it birth. Hence, we will say, comes the depopulation, which forms so memorable a portion of the records of universal history. That we may not fall into the error, so incident to the limited faculties of man, of cofounding ourselves amid the complication of very large numbers, let us take a district or an island fully
competent to the subsistence of one thousand human inhabitants. The power of procreation, we will assume, continually tends to increase the numbers of mankind. The population of this district therefore, having arrived at one thousand, has an abstract tendency to extend itself further. But here it is stopped by the most powerful of all causes. Calamity invades this devoted race of men, poverty, examples of terrible distress, and the want of the means of subsistence. Hereupon follows, we will suppose, depopulation. No man need look far for the most impressive examples of depopulation. We will imagine the number of inhabitants reduced to five hundred. What will be the consequence of this? The area and the soil were fully competent to subsist twice that number. Strips and acres of land now seem to call loudly for the hand of the cultivator. The whole country pines and is sick for the plowshare and the spade. Nothing therefore is more evident, upon Mr. Malthus's scheme, than that this region will speedily recover its lost population. Want of the means of subsistence put it down: that want being removed, the principle of increase inherent in the human species will raise it up again.
But is this really the case in the history of the earth? Let us look through all the depopulated countries enumerated by Montesquieu. They have been amply blessed in the remedy
prescribed by Mr. Malthus, the reduction of the numbers of those who cried out for the means of subsistence. Why are they at present unconscious of their happiness, and why do they not diligently apply themselves to increase their numbers? I think I may venture to say that in no one instance has the thing happened as Mr. Malthus's theory requires. Wherever depopulation has once set up its standard, the evil goes on. In these countries we do not find, as according to the dicta of the Essay on Population we ought to find, a periodical flux and reflux of the number of their inhabitants,d an elasticity by means of which, as soon as the pressure had operated to a certain point, the principle resumes its sway, and the energies mount again. On the contrary, wherever depopulation has operated to a great extent, and for a considerable length of time, I believe we shall never find the country resuming its preceding prosperity and populousness, unless by an actual planting and settling of a new race of inhabitants within its limits.
Hence it appears, that it is something else,
and not merely or principally a rise and fall in the means that nature affords us for obtaining provisions and subsistence, that limits the population of a country, and causes that country in many instances to produce so much smaller a proportion of human beings, than it could boast in some preceding generation, or in some remote age of the world.
I would observe by the way, that a want of the means of subsistence, and a want of the means which nature affords to man for obtaining provisions and subsistence, are by no means synonymous. Much of Mr. Malthus's strength lies in his ambiguities. When the whole earth has been "cultivated like a garden,"e we will suppose for a moment that this state of things puts a bar on the multiplication of mankind. But it is a very different question, and is well worthy of the inquiry of the political economist, Why Turkey in Europe, Turkey in Asia, Persia, Egypt, and a multitude of other countries, are so thinly inhabited now, to what they were in the renowned periods of their ancient history. Certainly it is not because their soil is exhausted. Certainly it is not because another blade of corn refuses to grow on their surface. We may venture, even in the infancy of the inquiry, to assert, that the cause is to be found in the government and political administration of these
countries. If a beneficent sovereign, the father of his people, were to arise among them, if a great genius, who loved his fellow-men, and in whom the ardor of his love generated enlightened attention, and fertilized the field of intellectual resources, were to mount the throne, if such a one were to apply all his energies to make his country what it formerly was, when it seemed to be the granary of the world, we may reasonably believe that his labors would not be in vain. The great mass of the people in that country would no longer be oppressed. Their sovereign, and inspired by him a long train of men in power inferior to the throne, would make it their ambition, that each father of a family who desired it, should have a portion of land subject to his own providence and discretion, and should possess the means of rendering the land he owned available to the purposes of human prosperity. The energies of the inhabitants of the country would be called forth, and men from the other regions would be invited to settle on this advantageous soil. Hence it appears, that it is ill government, and not a want of the means of subsistence, that renders these countries a permanent scene of desolation.
But Mr. Malthus, that dark and terrible genius that is ever at hand to blast all the hopes of all mankind, will tell us, that Egypt, or whatever other territory we take for our example, will one day be "cultivated like a garden," and
will refuse itself to any further increase of inhabitants. Be it so: we will not dispute that for the present. But is that any reason why, out of a generous care for a distant posterity, we should refuse the vast accession of happiness that shall be offered to us? "Take the good the Gods provide thee." I am disposed, like Mr. Malthus, to say, "An event at such a distance," as that of a whole country, or the whole earth, having more inhabitants than its soil will maintain, "may fairly be left to Providence."f We have disarmed the Essay on Population of all its sting, when we have proved that, "at every period during the progress of cultivation, the distress for want of food will [not] be constantly pressing on all mankind," or, in other words, that the population of Europe, and the other parts of the Old World, is not necessarily "always pressing hard against the limits of the means of subsistence."
c Vol. II. p. 269.
d This remark perhaps stands in need of explanation. I acknowledge a flux and reflux in the population of countries, as, for example, in Sweden. But I affirm that there is no instance of a country abundantly peopled, then reduced in its numbers through a scarcity of the means of subsistence and afterwards from the depths of depopulation becoming populous again purely because the superabundance of its citizens was taken away.
e Essay on Population, Vol. II, p. 220.
f Vol.II, p. 220.
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