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argument, however, of the Essay on Population, as a criticism of the Political Justice, had been that political institutions were not the only, or even the main cause of suffering and poverty, but that individuals, whether left to themselves or oppressed by governments, were a cause of their own sufferings and poverty by yielding to their passions. “ The very admission of the necessity of prudence to prevent the misery from an overcharged population removes the blame from public institutions to the conduct of individuals. And certain it is, that almost under the worst form of government, where there was any tolerable freedom of competition, the race of labourers, by not marrying and consequently decreasing their numbers, might immediately better their condition, and under the very best form of government, by marrying and greatly increasing their numbers, they would immediately make their condition worse."1 We may add that Malthus saw, in this prudence, the possibility of an immediate and certain benefit to the human race, as opposed to the remote and comparatively uncertain benefit of a complete conversion of the race to the principles of Political Justice.
This main doctrine of Malthus has influenced modern thought in two different ways. It has (first of all) had an influence on men more interested in Political Philosophy or in broad philosophical and scientific theories, than in Political Economy as a special branch of study ; and in the second place), either (a) as a substantive economic doctrine, or (b) as a foundation for such, it has affected Political Economy itself.
In regard to political philosophy Malthus is not original. The details of his views on the State and government are those of an advanced Whig of the school of Fox and Grey. His adherence to Adam Smith did not prevent him from departing from“ laissez-faire” even more than his master. Though a Utilitarian, he was not wholly an individualist ; and he was not pronouncedly cosmopolitan. He applied the doctrine of Population to politics ; it was the interest of tyrants (he thought) that population should grow without any preventive checks, for this meant distress and restlessness, and the constant need of a strong military power. It was not the interest of any constitutional government to hold out direct encouragements to the growth of population, whether by a bounty on large families, or by a lax system of
1 Letter of Malthus to Godwin, quoted in Life of Godwin (K. Paul), I. 324. See Malthus and His Work, Bk. IV. “The Critics.”
poor relief. There was never any fear but that numbers would increase where trade and wealth were increasing; there was no need of a bait ; a bait would simply increase numbers beyond resources. We must therefore convince governments, imperial and local, that they must not interfere in these matters. We must also convince every man in the country that he has no right to bring children into the world if he cannot reasonably expect to maintain them.
This is the real meaning of the statement, which Malthus advances against the Abbé Raynal and others, that there is no “right to live,” and that a man may find that at “ Nature's mighty feast " there is no cover laid for him. Not this man sinned, but his parents; and yet this man bears the consequences.
Malthus is contending not that the poor should not be relieved, but that they should not be able to claim relief as a right, for, if dependence is not made more irksome than industrious independence, there will be no limit to the number of dependent families. “Si quantum
"Si quantum pauperum est petere pecunias cæperint, singuli nunquam exsatiabuntur; respublica deficiet.” The right to relief is illusory, because if all made the claim, it could not be granted. The English Poor Laws had practically conceded the right, and Malthus thought they had relieved suffering at the cost of creating more of it. If there had been no Poor Laws, " the aggregate mass of happiness" would have been greater than it was in his days, though there might have been more instances of severe distress. By the rule of the “Greatest Happiness,” Malthus has a strong position here; and he has succeeded in impressing on all thoughtful political reformers the necessity of considering how far any project, otherwise desirable, would tend to encourage the tendency of men to do nothing for themselves if they can get others to do it for them. If a man's family will be supported by his neighbours, there
will be a great temptation to him to marry without having himself made provision for the future.
This is the one aspect of the Malthusian argument against systems of Equality; and it is undoubtedly one that must be faced with frankness. It is not the aspect that most concerned Godwin's scheme, for the realizing of the latter implied that all men were intellectually and morally enlightened and weaned from indolence. But it applied to such a scheme as Robert Owen's, which was prominently before the public a quarter of a century after the Political Justice, and was, unlike Godwin's, socialistic, or largely dependent on Government for its execution.
It was a mistake of Malthus to regard all systems of equality as expressions of a few identical fallacies that persisted in recurring from age to age, only to be as regularly refuted.
The very necessity he himself experienced of adopting an almost entirely new plan of attack should have shown him that the positions he was criticising were not identical with the old. The Utopias of his day were an attempted solution of social problems that were substantially new. The main argument of Malthus was not so, though there were circumstances of the time that no doubt gave it peculiar force. It was his pointed application and statistical justification of it, and his careful statement of its qualifications, that made his work effective for its purpose in the first instance, and permanently valuable afterwards. The idea that the struggle for existence was a wide principle of progress, through the survival of the fittest, was suggested to Darwin long afterwards by a study of the Essay on Popula. tion.
But this positive application did not occur to Malthus himself. He saw that the struggle for existence was the law of all living beings; and, if he had thought of the matter in the light of the reasoning of the Wealth of Nations, he might have seen that in nature's free competition the survivors are those that make best use of their advantages. But, when he takes a positive view of his subject at all, he looks rather to the effects of the pressure of population as stimulating men to action,” than
1 See the note to this chapter, and compare end of Book IV. ? Eg. Essay, 7th ed., I. vi. 38.
to the effects of the consequent struggle for existence in sifting out the strongest, and pro tanto improving the breed of men. Whether or not the special form of the Evolution theory, known as the theory of Natural Selection, helps us to an adequate explanation of the forms of social development, will be considered afterwards. The biological question is of course beyond our scope in any
It has sometimes been doubted whether the theory of Population belongs strictly to Political Economy at all
, and we cannot pass to the consideration of the influence of that theory on economical speculations without saying a word on this objection. The doubt seems to arise because of the very closeness of the connection between political economy and political philosophy. Malthus himself seemed to regard the effects of the tendency of population to outstrip food as bearing even more vitally on the happiness than on the wealth of nations, which he thought Adam Smith had too exclusively considered. This means in substance that Adam Smith had paid more attention to production than to distribution of wealth the latter may be of such a character as to nullify the good of the former for a great part of the people concerned. In this matter Malthus agrees with Godwin ; and his book is a study of the nature and causes rather of the poverty than of the wealth of nations. If people take his advice, the distribution, he thinks, will be less faulty than it is now.
But the pressure of population affects production as well as distribution, for it is a strong spur to the former. We may go further and notice that the desire of marriage is usually one element in commercial ambition ; individualism does not exclude family life; the strongest opposition is between the family and the society, not between the latter and single individuals, as if they could usually be severed from the family. The motive of commercial ambition is the aggrandisement of the family, as often as personal gain, though in certain cases marriage and the desire of marriage may hinder commercial ambition instead of forwarding it.
Coming to questions of theory, we find Malthus directly deriving a theory of Rent from the tendency of
population to press upon subsistence, and his contemporary, Ricardo, building on the theory of population a theory of Wages, Profits, and Value, which kept its ground in England with obstinacy till near our own time. It is true that Malthus distinguished between economical theory and its application, being perhaps the first to recognise the character and limitations of the abstract method of economical inquiry ; but he certainly included among the first principles of theory the principle which was expounded and illustrated in his own essay.
Malthus is sometimes said to have introduced into political economy the notion of Law. It is true that his emphasis on a principle which (in Mill's language) partook largely of the nature of physical fact may have encouraged economists to look for general principles that should be as binding and far-reaching as physical laws. This would have been a doubtful service. But a law in the sense of a uniformity of sequence from permanent causes was in practice the quest of Adam Smith (to go no farther back), though instead of using the word law, Adam Smith spoke of what “naturally” happened, or of a “principle" merely. In regard to the uniformities of economic theory (as supply and demand, rent, wages, etc.), the phrase "principle” was preferred even by Malthus himself, and it seems to have been Ricardo that first taught English economists to speak freely of "economic laws.” 1
In the last place, the doctrines of Malthus have several points of contact with Psychology and Ethics. Though he gives no satisfactory psychological basis for his theory of Value (attributing value, as he does, somewhat vaguely to a Supply and Demand which are not fully defined or analysed), he brings us directly face to face with ethics and psychology, in his doctrine of moral restraint, and in his view of the standard of living. His view is Utilitarian. The civilized man restrains himself—"reason interrupts his career”—because he sees that the immediate pleasure will bring him ultimately a large balance of pains ; the calculation of consequences (to Malthus as to Godwin) is the decisive element. Again, the civilized
i See above, p. 193 seq.