Economic Harmonies

Frédéric Bastiat
Bastiat, Frédéric
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George B. de Huszar, trans. and W. Hayden Boyers, ed.
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Irvington-on-Hudson, NY: Foundation for Economic Education, Inc.
Pub. Date
Introduction by Dean Russell
24 of 34




I have been anxious to reach this chapter if only to vindicate Malthus after the violent attacks that have been directed against him. It is almost incredible that authors of no consequence, of no standing, so uninformed that they display their ignorance on every page they write, should have succeeded, by dint of echoing one another's words, in discrediting in the public mind a serious, conscientious, and philanthropic author and in representing as absurd a carefully developed theory that, at the very least, is worthy of close study and attention.


It may be that I do not entirely share Malthus' opinions. There are two sides to every question, and I feel that Malthus kept his attention fixed too much on the dark side. For my part, I admit, I have so often in my study of economics had occasion to come to the conclusion that what God does, He does well, that, when logic leads me to a different view, I cannot help but mistrust my logic. I know that this faith in a providential design can be intellectually dangerous. The reader will subsequently be able to judge whether or not my personal bias in this respect has led me astray. But it will never prevent me from acknowledging that there is a great deal of truth in Malthus' admirable work nor from paying homage to the ardent love of mankind that inspired every line he wrote.


Malthus, who had a profound and thorough understanding of economics, clearly understood as well all the ingenious forces with which Nature has provided mankind in order to assure its progress. At the same time, he believed that human progress could be completely paralyzed by virtue of the operation of one law, the law of population. As he contemplated the world, he said sadly to himself: "God appears to have taken great care of the species, but to have shown very little concern for the individual. In fact, whatever species of animal we consider, we find its fecundity so overwhelming, its power of reproduction so extraordinary, its generative capacity so superabundant, as indeed to assure the survival of the species, but to leave the individual in a most precarious position; for all the reproductive cells cannot be given life; some must fail to be born or must die prematurely. Man is no exception to this law. (And it is surprising that this shocks the socialists, who are always declaring that the rights of the whole of society must take precedence over the rights of the individual.) God has certainly assured the continuation of the human race by providing it with great powers of reproduction. The numbers of mankind would then naturally come to exceed what the soil could maintain, if foresight were not exercised. But man is endowed with foresight, and hence his reason and his will are alone able to halt this disastrous trend."


Starting from these premises, which Malthus held as incontestable, though others may challenge them if they will, he necessarily had to place the greatest possible stress on the exercise of foresight. For there was no middle course: either man must voluntarily curb his excessive reproduction, or else, like all other species, become subject to the operation of repressive checks.


Malthus, therefore, never felt that he could go too far in exhorting men to exercise foresight; the greater his love for them, the more he felt obliged to hold up to them the disastrous consequences of unwise reproduction, so that they might the better avoid them. He said: If you reproduce irresponsibly, you will never be able to escape the punishment that awaits you, in various and sundry, but always horrible, forms: famine, war, pestilence, etc. Asceticism, charity, social and economic justice can never be more than ineffectual remedies.


In his ardor Malthus allowed an expression to escape him that, when separated from the context and spirit of his work, may seem harsh and unfeeling. It appeared in the first edition of his book, which was then only in pamphlet form and not yet a work in four volumes. It was pointed out to him that in the form in which this passage was couched his thought could be misinterpreted. He hastened to delete it, and it never reappeared in the subsequent numerous editions of the Essay on Population.


But one of his opponents, Mr. Godwin,*108 had picked it up, and M. de Sismondi (one of those men who, with the best intentions in the world, do the most harm) reproduced the unfortunate words. Immediately all the socialists seized upon it, and that was all they needed to try, condemn, and execute Malthus on the spot. Certainly they must thank Sismondi for his erudition; for they themselves had never read either Malthus or Godwin.


Thus, they represented as the basis of his system the passage that Malthus himself later deleted. They repeat it ad nauseam. In a little 18mo volume M. Pierre Leroux*109 repeats it at least forty times; it forms the stock in trade of all the second-rate reformers' tirades.


One day, after he had written a chapter against Malthus, I was talking with the most celebrated and articulate member of this school. I quoted some of the opinions expressed in the Essay on Population, and I received the impression that he had no knowledge of the work. I said to him, "You have refuted Malthus, but have you by any chance read him through from one end to the other?"


"I have not read him at all," he replied. "His whole system is set forth on one page and can be summed up in his famous arithmetical and geometrical ratios. That's enough for me."


"Apparently," I said to him, "you care nothing for the public, for Malthus, for the truth, for conscience, or for yourself."


This is the way an opinion gains acceptance in France. Fifty ignoramuses repeat in chorus some absurd libel that has been thought up by an even bigger ignoramus; and, if only it happens to coincide to some slight degree with prevailing attitudes and passions, it becomes a self-evident truth.


We must recognize, however, that science cannot approach a problem with the deliberate intention of arriving at an optimistic conclusion. What would we think of a man who began his study of physiology already committed to the proposition that God could not have willed that men should be afflicted with disease? If the physiologist advancing such a hypothesis were challenged by another who pointed to the facts, he probably would become angry and might even accuse his colleague of irreverence; but it is difficult to imagine that he would go so far as to accuse him of being the creator of disease.


Yet this is what has happened in Malthus' case. In a work well supported with facts and figures, he set forth a law that runs counter to the idea of many optimists. Men who refused to accept this law have attacked Malthus spitefully and bitterly, with flagrant bad faith, as if he himself had deliberately thrown in the way of the human race obstacles that, according to him, stem from the law of population. It would have been more scientific simply to prove that Malthus was wrong, and that his so-called law is not in fact a law at all.


Population, it must be emphasized, is one of those all too numerous subjects that remind us that man often has little more open to him than a choice between two evils. Whatever may have been God's intent, suffering has entered into His plan. Let us not seek for harmony in the absence of evil, but in the tendency of evil to lead us back to the good and to become less and less prevalent. God has given us free will. First we have to learn—which is a long and difficult task; then we have to act in conformity with what we have learned, which is hardly easier. In this way, we shall gradually free ourselves from some of our suffering, without ever altogether escaping from it; for even when we succeed completely in avoiding punishment, we do so only by increased exercise of the painful virtue of foresight. The more we succeed in securing ourselves from the repressive hand of retribution, the more we must incur the inconveniences of prevention.


It does no good to rebel against this situation; it is the human condition; it is the atmosphere in which we live and breathe. If we face the facts courageously, we shall see that a large area has been left open for the exercise of our initiative. Here, as everywhere else, man can choose between two possibilities: either the pain that he imposes upon himself—foresight, labor, virtue, the effort of will needed to act in conformity with universal law, deliberate co-operation with the will of God, an act of sacrifice that becomes a joy, a struggle with himself that raises him above his finite nature—or the pain that is imposed upon him, the punishment he suffers, in a position of passivity in relation to beings of a lower order, a lesson forced upon the intelligent creature by inanimate or unconscious agents, a consciously felt fall from his position of eminence that places him on the downward path which leads to a degradation still more profound.


It is by accepting the inescapable condition of man, by never losing sight of his wretchedness as well as of his sublimity, that we shall approach, with Malthus, the problem of population. On this great question we shall first play the role, to some extent, of a mere reporter; then, we shall present our own views. If the laws of population can be reduced to a single concise formula, it will certainly be fortunate for the advancement and dissemination of the science of political economy. But if, by reason of the number and complexity of the data relating to the problem, we discover that these laws do not permit of brief and exact definition, we shall have the wisdom to abandon the attempt. Accuracy, even at the risk of being excessively long, is preferable to oversimplification.


We have seen that progress consists in making the forces of Nature serve more and more as means for the satisfaction of our wants, so that in each successive age the same amount of utility is obtained at the cost of less effort, leaving at the disposal of society either increased leisure or a greater supply of labor for providing new satisfactions.


We have further shown how each advance over Nature, after first rewarding the initiative of a few men, soon becomes, by the operation of the law of competition, the gratuitous and common heritage of all mankind.


From these premises, it would appear to be a likely conclusion that human well-being would surely have increased and at the same time would have rapidly become more equitably distributed.


But, in point of fact, such has not been the case. There are in the world great multitudes of men who are in wretched circumstances, and their wretchedness is not of their own making. What are the causes of this situation?


I believe that there are several. The first is called plunder, or, if you will, injustice. Economists have referred to it only incidentally and only in so far as it implies some error, some false scientific notion. Since they were setting forth general laws, they did not feel that it behooved them to concern themselves with the effect of these laws when they were not in operation, when they were being violated. But plunder has played, and continues to play, too important a role in the world for us, even as economists, to be able to ignore it. It is not alone a question of haphazard thefts, cases of petty larceny, isolated crimes. War, slavery, pious frauds, privilege, monopoly, restrictions, tax abuses—these are the most striking manifestations of plunder. We can realize, by noting their presence or the deep imprints they have left, what a great influence disturbing forces of such vast proportions must have exerted or still do exert on social and economic inequality; later we shall attempt to measure their scope and range.


But another factor that has delayed progress and, more particularly, has stood in the way of its equitable distribution among all men has been, according to certain authors, that of population.


Obviously, if, even as wealth increases, the number of men among whom it must be distributed increases even more rapidly, absolute wealth may become greater, and at the same time individual wealth may become less.


If, in addition, there are certain types of services that can be performed by anyone, like those that require only physical strength, and if the class that performs these functions, which is the most poorly paid, is the very one that multiplies most rapidly, then the workers will create a disastrous competition within their own ranks. The lowest social stratum, if it multiplies more rapidly than progress develops, will never share in its benefits.


We thus see how fundamentally important the law of population is.


Malthus formulated it in these terms:


Population tends to remain on a level with the means of subsistence.


In passing, let me observe that it is surprising that Malthus has been assigned the honor, or the responsibility, of formulating this law, whether it is true or false. There has not been a single writer on such subjects, since the days of Aristotle, who has not proclaimed it, and often in the same terms.


We need only glance at the whole of animate creation to perceive—beyond the shadow of a doubt—that Nature is much more concerned with the species than with the individual.


Her precautions for the survival of the species are tremendous, and among these precautions the copious fecundity of the powers of reproduction figures prominently. This superabundance appears everywhere to exist in inverse ratio to the degree of sensitivity, intelligence, and strength with which each species resists destruction.


Thus, in the vegetable kingdom the means of reproduction, by seeds, sprouts, etc., that can be supplied by a single individual are incalculable. I should not be surprised if a single elm tree, provided all its seeds sprouted, could produce a million trees a year. Why does this not happen? Because not all these seeds find the conditions necessary to life, namely, space and nourishment. They are destroyed, and since plants do not have sensitivity, Nature has spared neither the means of reproduction nor those of destruction.


Animals that exist on barely more than the level of vegetable life likewise reproduce in immense numbers. Who has not wondered how oysters can multiply rapidly enough to withstand the amazing toll that is taken of them for human consumption?


As we move up the scale of animate creatures, we find that Nature becomes less lavish with the means of reproduction she supplies.


Vertebrates cannot multiply as rapidly as the others, especially among the larger species. After nine months of gestation, the cow gives birth to only one calf and must suckle it for a considerable time. Nevertheless, it is obvious that the reproductive powers of the bovine species are more than sufficient. In rich countries, like England, France, and Switzerland, cattle are on the increase, despite the very heavy toll taken of them; and if we had unlimited pasture lands, there is no doubt that we could attain both a higher rate of consumption and more rapid reproduction. I suggest that, if land and feed were ample, we could in a few years time have ten times our present number of steers and cows and still eat ten times our present amount of beef. The reproductive capabilities of cattle are, therefore, far from having shown us the full measure of their power, aside from any extraneous limitations arising from lack of land or feed.


It is certain that man's reproductive capability is less powerful than that of any other species, and inevitably so. Man was not designed to be as exposed to annihilation as the animals, in view of the superior capacity for feeling, intelligence, and sympathy with which Nature has endowed him. But is he physically exempt from that law by virtue of which all species are capable of multiplying more rapidly than space or food permit? It is impossible to suppose so.


I say physically, for I am speaking here only of the physiological law.


There is a fundamental difference between the physiological capacity for reproduction and actual reproduction.


The one is the absolute organic potential, freed from every obstacle and every external limitation. The other is what actually remains after all the adverse factors that restrict and limit this potential have run their course. Thus, the reproductive potential of the poppy can well be one million per year, and yet in a given poppy field the actual reproduction may remain stationary or even decrease.


It is this physiological law that Malthus tried to formulate. He sought to determine in what period of time a certain number of men could double if their space and food were unlimited.


We can see at once that, since this hypothesis of complete satisfaction of all wants is never realized, the theoretical period is necessarily shorter than any observable period of actual doubling could ever be.


In fact, cases observed yield widely varying figures. According to the studies made by M. Moreau de Jonnès,*110 using current population trends as his basis, the doubling would require: 555 years in Turkey, 227 in Switzerland, 138 in France, 106 in Spain, 100 in Holland, 76 in Germany, 43 in Russia and England, 25 in the United States, deducting the numbers due to immigration.


Why these tremendous differences? We have no reason for believing that they stem from physiological causes. Swiss women are as robust and as fertile as American women.


It must be that the absolute physiological potential of reproduction is held in bounds by external checks. And this is proved beyond question as soon as some circumstance or other happens to remove these checks. Thus, an improvement in agriculture, a new industry, some new source of local wealth, is invariably accompanied by a rise in the birth rate. In the same way, when a scourge like a plague, a famine, or a war destroys a large part of the population, immediately the rate of reproduction is accelerated.


When, then, the rate slows down or comes to a halt, it is because land and food either are, or are likely to be, deficient; it is because it encounters an obstacle, or, seeing an obstacle in its path, falls back.


This phenomenon, the exposition of which raised such a clamor against Malthus, seems to me to be really incontestable.


If we put a thousand mice in a cage with only enough food to keep them alive from day to day, their number, despite their well-known fertility, could never exceed a thousand; or if it did, there would be privation and suffering, both of which would tend to decrease the number. In this case, it would certainly be correct to say that an external cause imposes a limit, not on their fertility, but on the result of their fertility. There would certainly be a conflict between the physiological tendency and the limiting factor; hence, the population would remain constant. This is easily proved, for if we were gradually to raise the daily ration until we had doubled it, we should soon see two thousand mice in the cage.


And how do his opponents try to answer Malthus? Against his theory they cite the facts. They say to him: The proof that man's reproductive capabilities are not without definite limits is to be found in the fact that in certain countries the population is stationary. If the law of constant increase were true, if population doubled every twenty-five years, France, which had thirty million inhabitants in 1820, would today have more than sixty million.


Is this logical?


Of course not!


I first note that the population in France has increased only one-fifth in twenty-five years, whereas elsewhere it has doubled. I seek the reason. I find it in the lack of space and sustenance. I perceive that, under the conditions existing today in agriculture, population, and mode of life, it is difficult to create the means of subsistence with sufficient rapidity for all potential births to become actual births or, if they do, for those born to survive. Now, I declare that the means of subsistence cannot double—or at least they do not double—in France every twenty-five years. It is precisely the combined action of all these negative forces that, in my opinion, holds in check the physiological potential; and to argue against me, you cite the slowness of reproduction as proof that the physiological potential does not exist! Such a line of reasoning cannot be advanced seriously.


Has the geometric progression indicated by Malthus been challenged on any more reasonable grounds? Malthus never advanced the fatuous premise that "mankind, in actual fact, multiplies in geometrical ratio." He says, on the contrary, that this is not in fact the case, since he is investigating the obstacles that prevent it from being so, and he offers this ratio merely as a formula to show the physiological potential of reproduction.


Seeking to discover in what period of time a given population could double, assuming that all wants were satisfied and no obstacles were encountered at any time, he set the figure at twenty-five years. He arrived at this figure after direct observation of the people that, though falling infinitely short of meeting the conditions of his hypothesis, came nearest to them—the American people. Once this period had been arrived at, and because the matter under consideration was the potential rate of reproduction, he declared that population tended to increase in geometrical ratio.


This is denied, but, in all truth, to do so is to go against the evidence. It may well be that the period necessary to double the population is not twenty-five, but thirty, or forty, or fifty years; it may vary from race to race. All this is more or less debatable; but it most assuredly cannot be alleged that, on this hypothesis, the progression would not be geometrical. If in fact one hundred couples produced two hundred offspring in a given period, why would two hundred couples not produce four hundred in an equal period?


Because, it is said, their reproduction would be held in check.


This is just what Malthus says.


But by what will it be held in check?


Malthus assigns two general checks to man's unlimited increase: he calls them the preventive check and the positive check.*111


Since population can be kept below its physiological tendencies only by a decrease in births or an increase in deaths, there is no doubt that Malthus' classification is complete.


Besides, when conditions of space and sustenance are such that population cannot go beyond a certain figure, there is no doubt that the action of the positive check is more powerful in the same degree to which the action of the preventive check is less powerful. To say that births can increase without an increase in deaths while the food supply remains stationary is to fall into an obvious contradiction.


It is no less evident, a priori, and apart from other extremely grave economic considerations, that in this situation voluntary self-restraint is preferable to restraints imposed from without.


Up to this point, then, Malthus' theory cannot be challenged in any detail.


Perhaps Malthus was wrong in setting this twenty-five-year period, which he had observed in the United States, as the limit of human fertility. I know very well that he felt that by this means he was avoiding any possible reproach of exaggerating or of being too theoretical. How can anyone dare claim, he said to himself, that I am allowing too much latitude for the possible when I am basing my conclusions on the actual facts? He was not aware that in thus combining the possible with the actual, and in setting up as the measure for the law of reproduction, with no reference to the law of limitation, a period arrived at through observation of data subject to both these laws, he ran the risk of not being understood. But this is precisely what happened. People laughed at his geometrical and arithmetical ratios; they reproached him for using the United States as the type for the rest of the world; in a word, they used against him his failure to distinguish between two very different laws and contested his findings by using each of them to refute the other.


When we try to determine what is, theoretically, the reproductive power of the human race, we must forget for the moment all physical or moral checks resulting from lack of space, food, or creature comforts. But, once the question is couched in these terms, it is really superfluous to find an exact answer. In the human species, as in all living organisms, this power surpasses by a tremendous margin all instances of rapid reproduction observable in the past or to be observed in the future. In the case of wheat, for example, assuming that every seed sprouts five stalks, and each stalk produces twenty grains, each grain can then theoretically produce ten million grains in five years. Or take the canine race. Calculating in the same way, with four puppies per litter and six years of fecundity, we find that a pair of dogs can in twelve years produce eight million offspring.


In the human race, setting puberty at sixteen and the end of fertility at thirty, each couple could bring eight children into the world. We reduce this number by half to allow for premature deaths, which would be a great deal since we are assuming the satisfaction of all wants, a hypothesis that would greatly lower the death rate, and we still find these figures for a twenty-five-year period: 2 - 4 - 8 - 16 - 32 - 64 - 128 - 256 - 512; etc., or two million in two centuries.


If we make the calculation on the basis adopted by Euler, the period of doubling will be twelve years and a half; eight periods will make just a century, and the increase in this period of time will be as 512:2.


At no time, in no country, has the number of men ever been known to increase with such frightening rapidity. According to Genesis, the Hebrews entering Egypt numbered seventy couples; in the Book of Numbers, two centuries later, we find that the census taken by Moses listed six hundred thousand men twenty-one years of age and over; hence, a total population of at least two million. We may thus reckon that the population had doubled every fourteen years. The statistical tables of the Bureau of Standards are hardly applicable to Biblical matters. Shall we say that the figure of six hundred thousand men of military age implies a total population in excess of two million, and shall we conclude from this that the population doubled in a shorter period than Euler calculated? We are free to challenge either Moses' census or Euler's estimates; but we certainly will not contend that the Hebrews multiplied more rapidly than it is possible to multiply. That is all I ask.


After this example, which appears to be the one in which actual fecundity most nearly approximated potential fecundity, we have that of the United States. Here we know that the doubling takes place in less than twenty-five years.


It is unnecessary to carry these inquiries further; it is enough to recognize that in our species, as in all species, the physiological potential of reproduction is greater than the actual reproduction. Furthermore, it would be a logical absurdity for the actual to be greater than the potential.


Along with this absolute force, which we have no need to measure more accurately, and which we may quite well consider as uniform, there exists, as we have said, another force, which, to a degree, limits, restrains, and arrests the action of the first and places in its way certain obstacles that vary greatly according to time and place, and according to the occupations, manners and customs, laws, and religions of various peoples.


This second force I call the law of limitation, and it is clear that the rise and fall of population, in every country, is the result of the combined action of this law with the other.


But what is this law of limitation? We may say, in a very general way, that the propagation of life is restricted or impeded by the difficulty of sustaining life. This idea, which we have already expressed in Malthus' formula, requires further development. It constitutes the most essential part of our subject.**66


Organisms endowed with life but not with feeling are strictly passive in this struggle between the two forces. For plant life, it is entirely accurate to say that in every species the existing numbers are kept within the limits imposed by the means of subsistence. The reproductive power of their seeds is infinite, but their resources in terms of land and its fertility are not. The seeds harm and destroy one another; they fail to germinate; and, in the last analysis, only as many grow as the soil can nourish. Animals are sentient, but they appear, for the most part, to be lacking in foresight; they propagate, they multiply rapidly, without any concern for the fate of their posterity. Only death, a premature death, can limit their reproduction and maintain the balance between their number and their means of subsistence.


M. de Lamennais,*112 speaking to the people in his inimitable style, declared: "There is room for all on earth, and God has made the earth rich enough to provide abundantly for the wants of all." And farther on: "The Author of the universe has not caused man's condition to be worse than that of the animals; and are they not all invited to Nature's rich feast? Is a single one of them turned away?" And again: "The plants of the fields thrust out their roots beside each other into the earth, and it feeds them all, and all grow in peace; no one of them absorbs the other's life-giving sap."


We may be permitted to take these utterances as mere hollow declamations serving to encourage dangerous conclusions and may well regret that such wonderful oratory has been expended on the popularization of the most disastrous of errors.


It is certainly not true that one plant does not steal another's sap, and that all thrust out their roots into the soil without doing harm to one another. Millions of seeds fall each year upon the ground, draw from it a beginning of life, then die, strangled by stronger and hardier plants. It is not true that all the animals that come into the world are invited to Nature's rich feast, and that not one of them is turned away. Wild species destroy one another, and among the domesticated species man cuts off an incalculable number. Nothing serves better to prove the existence and the interrelation of these two laws of reproduction and limitation. Why are there so many cattle and sheep in France despite the toll that is taken of them? Why are there so few wolves and bears, although far fewer are killed, and they are designed by Nature to multiply far faster? The reason is that man furnishes the first with food and denies it to the other; he so applies the law of limitation to them that he leaves more or less latitude for the operation of the law of reproduction.


Thus, for both plants and animals, the limiting force seems to take only one form, that of destruction. But man is endowed with reason, with foresight; and this new factor alters the manner in which this force affects him.


Undoubtedly, in so far as man has physical organs, in so far as, to speak bluntly, he is an animal, the law of limitation, in the form of destruction, applies to him. It is impossible for the number of men on earth to exceed their means of subsistence: that would be equivalent to saying that more men exist than can exist, which is an absurdity. If, therefore, man's reason and foresight become dormant, he falls to the level of plants or animals; he becomes a mere brute. Then, inevitably he multiplies in accordance with the great physiological law that governs all species; and it is also inevitable that he should be destroyed by reason of the law of limitation, to whose action, in this case, he has remained indifferent.


But, if he exercises foresight, this second law comes within the orbit of his will. He alters it; he directs it; indeed, it is no longer the same law; it is no longer a blind force, but an intelligent force; no longer merely a natural law, it becomes a social law also. Man is the meeting point where these two principles, mind and matter, merge and become one; he is not entirely under the dominion of either the one or the other. Hence, the law of limitation is evidenced in the human race under two forms and maintains population at a necessary level through the double action of foresight and destruction.


These two forces are not uniform in their operation. On the contrary: the greater the action of the one, the less the action of the other. There is one objective that must be realized—limitation. It is attained by greater or lesser degrees of either repression or prevention, depending upon whether man is brutish or spiritual, whether he is more mind or more matter, whether he lives in the vegetable kingdom or in the moral sphere. The law operates in varying degrees from within or without, but one way or the other it always operates.


We in France do not fully appreciate how great the domain of foresight is, for Malthus' translator, by retaining the vague and inadequate literal words "moral restraint,"*113 has put into general circulation a most imperfect idea of what the concept includes. He further weakens Malthus' meaning by appending this definition: "Moral restraint is the virtue of not marrying when one does not have the means to support a family, and yet living in chastity." The obstacles that society wisely puts in the way of mankind's possible increase in population take many other forms than that of moral restraint as just defined. For example, why the blessed ignorance of the earliest years, doubtless the only ignorance that it would be criminal to dispel, which is respected by all and guarded by the zealous mother like a treasure? Why is the age of ignorance followed by that seemly and mysterious modesty with which the maiden awes and enchants her lover, lengthening and beautifying the days of innocent courtship? How marvelous, and yet under any other circumstances how absurd, are the veils that are drawn between ignorance and knowledge, and, later, the obstacles that are placed between knowledge and bliss. Why does public opinion, with all its power, impose such strict laws upon the relations between the sexes, brand with shame their least infraction, and pursue relentlessly those who succumb to weakness and their unfortunate offspring, even unto the fourth and fifth generation? And then the punctilious code of honor, the rigid reserve, so universally admired even by those who do not practice it, the standards, the exacting conventions, the precautions of all kinds—what are all these except manifestations of the law of limitation operating on the moral, intelligent, and preventive level, the level, in a word, that is man's and man's alone?


Allow these bars to be let down, allow the human race, in matters that relate to the union of the sexes, to lose its concern for the conventions, for fortune, for the future, for public opinion, for good conduct, let it descend to the plane of plant or animal life; and can there be any doubt that man's power of reproduction, like that of the plants and animals, will function so overwhelmingly as soon to necessitate the intervention of the law of limitation, operating this time on the physical, brutish, and repressive level, that is, through the instrumentality of poverty, disease, and death?


Can anyone deny that, but for foresight or moral considerations, sexual impulses would be too strong to be resisted, in our species as in all others, from the age of puberty on? If we set this age at sixteen, and if the civil records show that, in a given country, marriage is not contracted before the age of twenty-four, this means that the moral and preventive aspects of the law of limitation have subtracted eight years from the period that the law of reproduction would otherwise be in operation; and if to this figure we add those who practice complete celibacy, we shall recognize that the Creator has not dealt with intelligent man as He has with the unreasoning beasts, and that man has it within his power to turn repressive limitation into preventive limitation.


It is quite curious that in regard to this great question the idealistic and the materialistic schools have, so to speak, exchanged roles. The idealists thunder against the use of foresight, insisting that brute instincts be obeyed; while the materialists exalt man's moral nature and urge that reason curb passion and appetite.


The difficulty lies in a failure to see the problem in its true light. Let the father of a family consult the most orthodox priest concerning the guidance of his children, and he will surely get from him, for the particular case, advice that is actually in complete agreement with scientific principles; yet this same priest rejects them when they are given the name of principles. "Protect your daughter," the old priest will say; "expose her the least you can to the temptations of the world. Cultivate like a precious flower the blessed ignorance and the heavenly modesty that are at once her charm and her defense. Wait until a fit and worthy suitor comes along. In the meanwhile, labor to provide a suitable future for her. Consider that in poverty marriage brings many hardships and even more dangers. Remember those old proverbs, which embody the wisdom of nations, and which assure us that financial security is the surest guarantee of marital peace and harmony. Why should you be hasty? Do you want your daughter to be burdened at twenty-five with a family that she cannot raise and educate in keeping with your own rank and station? Do you want her husband, feeling the insufficiency of his income, to give way to worry, to despair, and perhaps at last to demoralization? The problem you face is the most serious of all those to which you can turn your attention. Weigh it carefully. Think it over calmly. Avoid undue haste, etc."


Suppose that the father answered in the words of M. de Lamennais: "In the beginning God gave this commandment to all men: 'Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it.' And yet you say to a girl: 'Give up hope of a family, the blameless delights of marriage, the holy joys of motherhood. Deprive yourself; live alone. In what way can you be fruitful save in multiplying your woes?' " Do you think that the old priest would have nothing to say in answer to this line of reasoning?


"God," he would say, "has not bidden men to be fruitful like the beasts of the field, without measure, without discernment, without heed for the future. He has not endowed his chosen creatures with reason only to forbid them to use it in meeting the most crucial problems of their lives. He has indeed bidden man to be fruitful; but, to be fruitful, man must live, and to live, he must have the means of supporting life; and in God's commandment that man multiply is implied the commandment that he provide for his young ones the means of existence. Religion has not classed virginity as a crime. Far from it: religion has made it a virtue, has honored, sanctified, and glorified it. We must not, therefore, feel that we are violating one of God's commandments when we take steps to obey it with prudence, and with a view to the prosperity, the happiness, and the dignity of our families."


Well, now, do we not hear reasoning of this kind, which is the voice of experience, repeated daily, and do we not see it used by every moral and enlightened family as a guide to conduct? And what is it except the application of a general theory to a particular case? Or rather, what is this theory except a generalization drawn from particular cases? The idealist who, on principle, rejects recourse to preventive limitation is like a physicist who would say to people: Always act in the particular case as if bodies had mass, but do not admit in theory that mass exists.


Up to this point we have confined ourselves entirely to the theory of Malthus; but it seems to me that there is one attribute of man to which he, like most authors, has not attached the importance it deserves. It plays a very great role in the phenomena of population, it solves a number of the problems that this great question raises, and it renews in the soul of him who loves mankind the assurance and confidence that an incomplete understanding of political economy might have shaken. This attribute, which, moreover, is included in our notions of reason and foresight, is perfectibility. Man is perfectible. He is capable of improvement or degeneration. If, in a strict sense, he is capable of remaining stationary, he is also capable of moving up or down the endless ladder of civilization. This is true of individuals, of families, of nations, and of races.


Malthus did not fully appreciate this capacity for progress and was consequently led to pessimistic conclusions, and these in turn have aroused public opinion against him. And, indeed, since he envisaged the preventive check in something of an ascetic form and therefore, we must admit, one not likely to be widely accepted, he could not expect that it would have much effect. Hence, it was his belief that the repressive (or, as he called it, the positive) check would be the decisive one; in other words, vice, poverty, war, crime, etc.


In my opinion, there is a fallacy in this reasoning; for, as we shall see, the action of the preventive force is not confined solely to the practice of chastity, an act of self-denial, but also and above all, it finds expression in a state of well-being, in an instinctive tendency towards self-preservation and the protection of one's family.


Population, it has been said, tends to keep at the level of the means of subsistence. Let me note that for this term, the means of subsistence, once universally accepted, J. B. Say has substituted another term that is much more accurate: the means of existence. At first glance it would appear that subsistence alone is involved in this question. Such is not the case. Man does not live by bread alone, and a study of the facts shows clearly that population stops increasing or declines when the sum total of all the means of existence, including clothing, housing, and the other things that climate or even habit render necessary, becomes insufficient.


We must say, therefore: Population tends to keep at the level of the means of existence.


But are these means a fixed, absolute, uniform quantity? Certainly not. As civilization improves, man's wants become greater, even for his mere subsistence. Considered from the point of view of man as a perfectible being, the means of existence, among which must be included the satisfaction of moral, intellectual, and physical wants, permit of as many varying degrees as there are in civilization itself, that is, an infinite number. Undoubtedly, there is a lower limit: the satisfaction of hunger and a certain amount of protecton against cold are basic necessities for the maintenance of life; and we can observe life at this level among the Indians in America and the poverty-stricken in Europe. But as for an upper limit, I know of none; there is none. Once natural wants are satisfied, others arise that are artificial at the beginning, if you will, but which in their turn become natural through the force of habit, and, when they are satisfied, others arise, and still others, with no discernible end.


Hence, with every step that man takes along the road of civilization, his wants become more extensive, and his means of existence, which we may call the point at which the great laws of increase and limitation meet, keep pace with his wants. For, although man is capable of degeneration as well as improvement, he naturally turns away from the one and aspires toward the other. His efforts tend to keep him from falling back from the heights that he has already won and to raise him even higher; and habit, which has so well been called second nature, acts like a valve in our arteries to block any backward movement. It is therefore quite natural that man's habitually progressive tendency should manifest itself also in the control he exercises over his own multiplication and impel him to apply to this problem his best moral and intellectual efforts.


The consequences of man's being thus constituted are many; we shall confine ourselves to mentioning just a few of them. First, we readily admit with the economists that population and the means of existence reach an equilibrium; but since the means of existence are capable of infinite fluctuation and vary with the civilization and the habits of life that produce them, we cannot agree, as we compare different peoples and classes, that population is proportional to production, as stated by J. B. Say,**67 or to income, as affirmed by M. de Sismondi. Furthermore, since every step up the ladder of culture implies a higher degree of foresight, the moral and preventive check must more and more neutralize the action of the brutish and repressive check, according as progress is achieved in society or in any of its segments. It follows that any social progress contains within itself the seed of still further progress. Vires acquirit eundo, since improved standards of living and greater foresight engender one another in indefinite succession. Similarly, when, for whatever reason, mankind retrogresses, want and improvidence exert a cause-and-effect action upon each other, and the decline would never be halted if society had not been provided with that self-healing faculty, the vis medicatrix, which Providence has implanted in all living organisms. We may observe, in fact, that during every stage of a period of decline the action of the law of limitation in its destructive form becomes progressively more painful and more readily discernible. At first there is merely a backward movement, a decline in the standard of living; later come poverty, hunger, disorders, war, death—painful but unfailing methods of instruction.


We should like to pause here long enough to demonstrate how this theory explains the facts, and how, in turn, the facts support the theory. When, in the case of a nation or a class, the means of existence fall to that lower level at which they become one with the means of mere subsistence, as in China, in Ireland, and among the poorest classes in all countries, the least fluctuation in population or food supply is recorded in the mortality rate. The facts in this instance confirm the inferences of science. For a long time now Europe has not experienced a famine, and the elimination of this scourge has been attributed to a multitude of causes. A number of them do exist, undoubtedly, but the one most generally responsible is that the means of existence have risen, by reason of social progress, far above the means of subsistence. When years of scarcity come, many satisfactions can be sacrificed before any curtailment of food is rendered necessary. Such is not the case in China or in Ireland. When men have nothing except a little rice or a few potatoes, with what will they buy other foods if the rice or the potatoes happen to fail them?


And finally, there is a third consequence of man's perfectibility, which we must point out here because it refutes the pessimistic side of Malthus' theory. We have attributed to him the formula: Population tends to keep at the level of the means of subsistence. We should have said that he went far beyond this, and that his real formula, the one from which he derived such distressing conclusions, is this: Population tends to increase faster than the means of subsistence. If Malthus had merely meant by this statement that in the human race the power to beget life is greater than the power to sustain it, there could have been no possible argument. But this is not what he meant. He declares that, taking into consideration absolute fertility, on the one hand, and, on the other, the means of limiting it in the form of either repression or prevention, we find that the result is nonetheless a tendency for population to increase faster than the means of subsistence.**68 This is true of all living species, except man. Man is an intelligent being and can make unlimited use of the preventive check. He is perfectible; he seeks to improve his situation; he finds decadence repugnant. Progress is his normal state; progress implies an increasingly enlightened use of the preventive check; hence, the means of existence increase more rapidly than population. This result is not only to be deduced from the theory of perfectibility, but is also confirmed by the facts, since everywhere we find the range of man's satisfactions widening. If it were true, as Malthus says, that for each increase in the means of existence there is a corresponding and greater increase in population, the poverty of our race would necessarily be constantly on the increase, and civilization would stand at the beginning of time, and barbarism at the end. Just the opposite takes place. Hence, it follows that the law of limitation has been powerful enough to hold the rising tide of population below the rate at which goods and services are produced.


We can see from the foregoing how vast and difficult the question of population is. It is no doubt regrettable that a precisely formulated answer has not yet been given to it, and naturally I regret even more that I myself cannot be the one to give it. But do we not see how incompatible the subject is with the narrow limitations of any dogmatic axiom? And is it not a vain and idle thing to try to express in the form of a set equation the relations of data that are essentially variable? Let us recall what these data are.


1. The law of increase, i.e., the absolute, potential, physiological capacity of the human race to propagate life, without reference to the difficulties of sustaining life. This first datum, which alone can be measured at all accurately, is the only one in which accuracy is unnecessary; for of what importance is the theoretical upper limit of population increase, if it can never be reached under the actual conditions of human existence, which require man to live by the sweat of his brow?


2. There is, therefore, a limit to the law of increase. What is it? The means of existence, it is said. But what are these means? An indeterminate sum total of satisfactions. They are variable, and therefore the limit we are seeking to determine varies with them according to place, time, race, social rank, manners, public opinion, and habit.


3. Finally, what is the force that holds population within these constantly changing bounds? As far as man is concerned, it has two components: the repressive check and the preventive check. Now, the action of the first of these, to which, by its very nature, no exact measurement can be applied, is, furthermore, entirely subordinate to the action of the second, which, in turn, is dependent on the degree of civilization attained, habits, religious and political traditions, property and labor relations, family arrangements, etc., etc. It is therefore impossible to establish between the law of increase and the law of limitation an equation by which the actual population can be deduced. In algebra a and b represent known quantities that are numbered, measured, and of fixed proportions; but means of existence, self-control, and the mortality rate—three key data in the problem of population—are themselves variable and are made even more so by the amazing variability of the subject to whom they refer, man, that creature who, according to Montaigne, is so marvelously inconstant and diverse. It is therefore not surprising that in seeking to make of this equation something more exact than its nature permits of, economists have managed to create more disagreement than unity of opinion, for there is not one term in the formulas they employ that is not open to a host of objections, based both on theory and on fact.


Let us now proceed to consider a few practical applications, for in practical application we find both the clearest explanation of the theory and the true fruit of the tree of economic knowledge.


Labor, we have said, is the sole article of exchange. In order to secure a utility (unless Nature gives it to us gratis), we must go to the pains of producing it or repay with equivalent pains the persons who have taken the pains for us. Man creates absolutely nothing. He can merely arrange, reorder, or transport for a useful end things already existing. He performs none of these acts without taking pains, and the fruit of his pains is his property. If he surrenders it to another, he has the right to receive in return a service judged to be equivalent after free bargaining. This is the principle of value, of compensation, of exchange; and simple though it is, it is nonetheless true. In what we call commodities there exist varying degrees of natural utility and of man-made utility. The latter, in which alone the idea of labor is implicit, is the sole subject of human transactions; and, without in any way taking exception to the famous and useful formula of J. B. Say: "Products are exchanged for products," I accept the following as being more scientifically accurate: Labor is exchanged for labor, or rather, services are exchanged for services.


This does not mean that a given amount of labor is exchanged for another on the basis of the time or effort required to perform it, or that he who offers an hour's pains or expends a quantity of effort sufficient to register one hundred degrees on the dynamometer can always demand that a like amount of effort be expended for him in return. Time spent and effort exerted are two of the elements that have a bearing on the appraisal of labor, but they are not the only ones. There are also the questions of how disagreeable the work is, how dangerous, how difficult, how much it requires in the way of intelligence and foresight, and even how successfully it has been performed. Where free and voluntary transactions are the rule, where property rights are completely assured, every man has complete control over his own labor, and is therefore free to exchange it at his own price. His willingness to accept the demands of the other party to the transaction ends at the point where it is more to his advantage to retain possession of the product of his own labor. There is also a limit to his demands. This is the point at which the other party to the transaction finds it to his interest not to make the exchange.


There are in society as many economic strata, so to speak, as there are gradations in the established rates of compensation. The most poorly paid of all types of labor is that which least rises above the purely mechanical, animal level. This is in accord with providential intent and is at once just, useful, and inevitable. The unskilled laborer soon reaches that limit to his demands to which I have just referred, for there is no one who cannot perform this purely mechanical type of labor; and he himself is soon pushed to the limit where he must accept others' demands, for he is incapable of performing for himself the intelligent labor that his wants require. The time spent and the muscular strength expended, which are attributes of matter, are the only bases for determining the remuneration due this kind of physical labor, and that is why it is usually paid by the day. All industrial progress consists in replacing, in every product, a certain amount of man-made, and consequently onerous, utility by the same amount of natural, and consequently gratuitous, utility. It follows that, if there is any one class in society whom free competition is more likely to benefit than any other, it is the laboring class. What would be its lot if the forces of Nature and the techniques and tools of production were not constantly employed, thanks to competition, in making available to all gratis the results of their combined action? The mere day laborer is not capable of putting heat, gravitation, and elasticity to his own use. He does not invent the techniques, nor does he possess the tools, by which these forces are exploited. When these discoveries are first made, their inventors are very well paid for their labor, which requires a high degree of intelligence. In other words, this labor of theirs is rated as equal to a tremendous amount of unskilled labor; that is, the thing they produce is expensive. But competition intervenes; the price of the product falls; the harnessing of the services of Nature benefits no longer the producer, but the consumer; and the pay for the labor involved approximates that of labor whose pay is reckoned in terms of its duration. Thus, the common store of gratuitous utility steadily increases. Products of all kinds tend to assume, and do in fact assume, more and more every day, that form of gratuitous utility under which we enjoy water, air, and light. Thus, the general standard of living tends to rise, and inequalities tend to diminish; therefore, apart from the action of the law of population, the lowest class of society is the one that, potentially, should improve most rapidly. But we have said, "apart from the action of the law of population," and thus we return to our subject.


Let us imagine a basin into which an inlet, which keeps growing in size, pours an increasingly large stream of water. If no other factors are involved, the level of water in the basin will steadily rise; but if the sides of the basin are flexible, so that they can expand or contract, it is obvious that the water level will depend upon the combined action of these two factors. The level will fall, no matter how much larger a volume of water the inlet pours into the basin, if the basin's capacity increases even more rapidly; it will rise if the circumference of this reservoir widens at a relatively slower rate, and it will rise even more rapidly if the sides of the reservoir remain the same, and still more if they contract.


This illustration aptly depicts the stratum of society to which, admittedly, the great mass of humanity belongs, and gives us an indication of the probable fate in store for it. Its remuneration, that is, the objects that can satisfy its wants and provide its sustenance, is represented by the water flowing through the variable inlet. The flexible sides of the reservoir represent the increase or decrease of population. It is certain**69 that the means of existence reach it in constantly increasing amount, but it is also certain that its circumference can expand even more rapidly. Consequently, the way of life which this class enjoys will be more or less favorable, on a higher or a lower plane, in proportion as the law of limitation, morally and intelligently applied as a preventive check, holds within bounds the maximum physiologically potential reproduction. There is a limit beyond which the numbers of the working class cannot rise: the point at which the sums available for their remuneration are not sufficient to support them. But there is no limit to their possible progress, which depends upon only two factors, and one of these, wealth, is steadily increasing, while the other, population, can be controlled at will.


All that we have just said about the lowest stratum of society, which performs the hardest and most unskilled type of labor, applies as well to all the higher strata, whose relative status is in inverse ratio, so to speak, to the degree of physical and unskilled labor that their work requires them to do. Considering each class apart from the others, we find that the same general laws apply to all. In every one of them there is the same conflict between the physiological power of reproduction and the moral power of self-restraint. The only variable from one class to another is the point at which these two forces meet, the height at which the scale of remuneration and the mores of each particular class fix that limit on population which we call the means of existence.


But if we consider the various social strata, no longer individually, but collectively and in their mutual relations, I believe that we can discern that the two forces have precisely the opposite tendency, and this is certainly the explanation of the actual situation of mankind. We have demonstrated how all economic phenomena, and especially the law of competition, tend to level all classes. Theoretically this seems to us incontestable. Since no special advantage of Nature, no ingenious technique, none of the implements by which these techniques are put to use, can remain the permanent monopoly of their producers as such; since the product of their labor, by an inevitable dispensation of Providence, tends to become the common, gratuitous, and consequently equal heritage of all mankind; it is clear that the most impoverished class is the one that derives the greatest relative advantage from the admirable operation of the laws of social economy. Just as the poor man is treated as generously in regard to the air he breathes as the rich man, so he becomes the rich man's equal in regard to all that part of the value of commodities which is constantly being eliminated by progress. There is, then, in mankind a basic tendency toward equality. I do not mean here a tendency to desire equality, but a tendency to achieve it. Nevertheless, equality has not been achieved or else is being achieved so slowly that when we compare two widely separated ages we can hardly discern that any forward steps have been taken at all. They are, indeed, so little in evidence that many observers refuse to admit their existence, although mistakenly, to be sure. What stands in the way of this intermingling of classes at a common and steadily rising level?


I do not believe that we need look elsewhere for the answer than at the various degrees of foresight that each class of society evidences in respect to the question of population. The law of limitation, as we have said, is available to all men in its moral and preventive aspects. Man, as we have also said, is perfectible, and, as he progresses, he makes more intelligent use of this law. It is therefore natural that the more enlightened a class, the more effective the measures it adopts, the more considerable the sacrifices it imposes upon itself, in order to maintain its own population at a level in keeping with its means of existence.


If the science of statistics were sufficiently advanced, it would probably turn this theoretical conjecture of mine into a certainty by showing that early marriages are less frequent in the upper than in the lower strata of society. Now, if such is the case, it is easy to understand how, in the great market place of society where all classes offer their respective services to the highest bidder, where all types of labor are exchanged, unskilled labor is always in greater supply than skilled, intelligent labor. And this explains the persistence of that social inequality which so many other powerful forces constantly tend to eliminate.


The theory that we have just expounded in this brief fashion leads to this practical observation, namely, that the best forms of philanthropy, the best social institutions, are those that, working in accord with the providential plan as the social harmonies reveal it to us—which is equality along with constant progress—succeed in distributing among all ranks of humanity, and especially the lowest, the gifts of knowledge, reason, morality, and foresight.


We say "institutions," because the fact is that foresight springs as much from the necessities of one's situation as from purely intellectual considerations. There are certain systems of property or, rather, of production, that encourage, more than others, the acquisition of what the economists call a knowledge of the market, and consequently of foresight. It seems certain, for example, that sharecropping,*114 much more than the system of renting land at a fixed rate,**70 encourages the lower classes to apply the preventive check to the rising tide of population. A family of sharecroppers is in a far better position than a family of day laborers to realize the inconveniences of early marriage and of excessive reproduction.


We speak, too, of "forms of philanthropy." For indeed, charity, while it can be of immediate and local benefit, can have only a very limited effect, if not, in fact, a bad effect, upon the permanent well-being of the working class; for it does not develop, may indeed paralyze, the very virtue most able to improve working-class conditions, namely, the virtue of foresight. The encouragement of wholesome attitudes, and above all of habits that indicate a certain amount of self-respect, is the greatest and most lasting service that can be rendered the lower classes.


The means of existence, we cannot repeat too often, are not a fixed quantity; they depend upon one's way of life, on public opinion, on habits. On every rung of the social ladder there is the same repugnance to moving a step down from the position to which one has become accustomed as can be felt by those on the lowest rung. Perhaps, indeed, the anguish experienced by the titled nobility at the sight of their scions' being lost among the bourgeoisie is keener than that felt by the bourgeois whose sons become manual laborers, or by the manual laborers whose children are reduced to beggary. The habit of certain comforts, of a certain dignity in one's way of life, is therefore one of the strongest of incentives for the exercise of foresight; and if the working class once rises to a certain level of satisfactions, it will be unwilling to descend, even though, in order to preserve its position and to maintain a wage scale in keeping with its new habits, it must resort to the infallible means of preventive limitation.


It is for this reason that I regard as one of the most admirable examples of real philanthropy the decision apparently made by many manufacturers and landowners in England to pull down their mud and thatch cottages and to erect in their place brick houses that are clean, spacious, well-lighted, well-ventilated, and appropriately furnished. If this measure were to be generally adopted, it would raise the tone of the working class and turn into real wants what are now only items of relative luxury; it would raise that limit which we call the means of existence, and, consequently, the wage scale at its lower level. Why not? The poorest class in civilized countries is far above the poorest class among savage peoples. It has risen so far; why should it not rise even higher?


Yet we must entertain no illusions. Progress can be made only slowly, for it must be, to some degree, general. We might imagine that it could be achieved rapidly in one part of the world, if different peoples did not influence one another. But such is not the case. There exists for the human race a great law of solidarity, which applies to progress as well as to decline. If in England, for example, the condition of the workers were to be noticeably improved as a result of a general rise in wages, French industry would have a better chance of outstripping its rival, and by its success would slow down the trend toward improved conditions on the other side of the Channel. It would seem that Providence is unwilling that one people should rise beyond certain limits above another. Thus, in the great whole of human society, as in its most minute details, we always find that there are admirable and unyielding forces that tend, in the last analysis, to turn over to the masses what were once individual or group advantages, and to bring all such special cases down to a common level, which, like the ocean when the tide is running, is both everywhere even and yet constantly rising.


In summary, given perfectibility, which is man's distinctive characteristic, and the action of competition and the law of limitation being known, the destiny of the human race, at least here on earth, may, it seems to us, be predicted in these terms: (1) a simultaneous rise in the level of all classes of society, or in the general level of mankind; (2) a gradual elimination of all class differences, as far as is consistent with absolute justice; (3) a reduction in the relative size of the highest and the lowest social strata, and an increase in the middle classes. One might say that these laws must bring about absolute equality. But they will not, any more than an asymptote, infinitely extended, would ever meet the curve which it constantly approaches.....**71

Notes for this chapter

[William Godwin (1756-1836), known as the author of The Adventures of Caleb Williams as well as of the essays in The Enquirer (1797), "Avarice and Profusion," "Riches and Poverty," and "Beggars," which dealt with "the general question of the future improvement of society." It was, of course, in answer to these that Malthus was first prompted to write his Essay on Population the following year. —Translator.]
[Pierre Leroux (1797-1871), French philosopher, publisher, and encyclopedist, a disciple of Saint-Simon. Editor of Le Globe.—Translator.]
[Alexandre Moreau de Jonnès (1778-1870), French statistician. Director of statistics for the French government (1834-1852).—Translator.]
[Bastiat prefers to call Malthus' "positive" check the "repressive" check (l'obstacle répressif). His preference is respected in the following pages.—Translator.]
[What follows was written in 1846.—Editor.]
[Félicité de Lamennais (1782-1854), French philosopher, Catholic priest, reformer, and ardent champion of the working classes.—Translator.]
[In French, la contrainte morale.—Translator.]
It is only fair to mention that Say recognized the means of existence as a variable quantity.
There are few countries whose populations do not tend to increase beyond the means of subsistence. So constant an increase as this must necessarily create distress among the lower classes and prevent any permanent amelioration in their condition. .... The principle of population.... will increase the number of people before the means of subsistence are increased. —Malthus, quoted by Rossi.*
[See chap. 11, pp. 336 ff.—Editor.]
[In French, le métayage, as distinguished from le fermage. Cf. chap. 1, p. 18.—Translator.]

Chapter 17

Which creates a need for the day laborer.
[The beginning of the preceding chapter is of recent date; the rest is an article that appeared in 1846 in the Journal des économistes. After this date the author's ideas on this important subject became more precise, and I hope I may be pardoned for undertaking, following certain notes, to complete the exposition of the doctrine.

At first, Bastiat recognized as the only check on the increase of population the action of the law so forcefully formulated by Malthus, according to which the immutable will of God and the free will of his intelligent creature enter, so to speak, to an equal extent, where man is active by virtue of his foresight, and passive only when he is punished for not choosing to exercise foresight or for not knowing how. For Bastiat, as well as for Malthus, what counteracts the physiological tendency to reproduction is the motive of individual responsibility: responsibility for labor, or property; and responsibility for procreation, or patrimony and family.

One could even say that in this respect Bastiat is more truly an economist than his predecessor; for, instead of placing the preventive check purely in the domain of morality, as the latter did, Bastiat established it scientifically on the basis of the feeling of self-interest, the progressive ambition for an improvement in one's well-being—in a word, on individualism—the foundation of a society of property owners, in irreconcilable opposition to socialism.

In the absence of this primary prerequisite of the social order, and with any arrangement that would suppress or weaken the feeling of personal responsibility by way of an artificial extension of social solidarity, the principle of the preventive check is destroyed, man falls back into a condition in which his destiny is governed by the fatal operation of the repressive check, and he finds himself enmeshed in that series of inevitable phenomena, that chain of crushing consequences, which Malthus triumphantly opposed to the communist systems of his time and of all time.*

As we live in an age when it is more than ever necessary to disarm one truth in order to arm another, we were anxious to establish, above all, the respects in which these two masters are in agreement against those who desire "the community of evil, the blame laid on society for all the faults of individual men, a common share in all the crimes committed by each one."

But from this common premise, namely, the moral effort by which man governs himself, each of the two economists has drawn quite different conclusions. For, according to the first, that effort reduces itself to nothing more than virtuous self-restraint, and he does not venture to place much hope in the imperfect morality of the human race. The second sees it above all in foresight, in that control over one's conduct which is developed by the desire for well-being and by the fear of losing what one has already gained, and which determines and supports the social customs, duties, and moral sentiments prevailing in the environment in which one lives. According to him, consequently, every step taken on the way toward well-being tends, by the need to go farther, to encourage this prudent self-control. Man, as life becomes easier for him, becomes more difficult and demanding in what he expects from life. Thus, the vicious circle in which Malthus seems to enclose mankind, Bastiat, by a hardly noticeable correction, opens up, so to speak, into a spiral of indefinite progress; and the problem of population, over which the sinister shadow of death appeared to have fallen, becomes, from his point of view, a law of social harmony and human perfectibility, like all other sociological laws.

There are in Bastiat's theory on this question two quite distinct parts.

In the first, he shows that Malthus failed to give sufficient significance to the preventive check in calling it moral restraint, and that the limit of the means of existence, which seems to present itself at first glance as a fatal and inflexible minimum, is, on the contrary, both in theory and in fact, a movable barrier that progress keeps constantly advancing—at least in every society founded on justice and liberty.

It would be pointless to reiterate here Bastiat's argument demonstrating this thesis, and, besides, it coincides with the admirable studies that Rossi has carried out on the same subject. In full agreement with Malthus that, "in view of the imperfect way in which the precept of moral restraint has hitherto been observed, it would be visionary to hope for any important improvement in this respect," one may be permitted, without being regarded as in any way visionary, to recognize and point out that men, once enjoying a condition of well-being, are very eager to avoid doing anything that might impair it, and that this principle of self-restraint manifests itself, quite unnoticed, to a great extent in the habits, ideas, and social customs of the upper classes. Of course, a young man of twenty-four beginning his career or just out of a school where he has received specialized training for his profession never gives a moment's thought to Malthus' law; all he is thinking of is making a place for himself before burdening himself with a family. A ship's captain who spends the whole year in the long voyage from Le Havre or Nantes to the Indies would laugh in your face if you complimented him on his virtue and will tell you that, having a good education, but little money, he is looking for a wife he can love, that is to say, one well brought up, like himself, with a certain refinement of mind and manners, etc. But for this he needs to attain some degree of affluence, and he proposes to devote five or six years of his youth to laboriously laying a foundation for his future happiness. Instead of five or six years only, it could well be ten or a dozen, and perhaps, taking a fancy to life at sea, he will end by remaining single. All this is hardly contestable.

But Bastiat goes farther than Rossi. The latter, although attributing to the upper classes, a preponderant concern with the preventive check, thinks nevertheless that among the working classes the repressive check is virtually the only one that operates.

This distinction is too sharp. No doubt the proletariat is, by and large, less prudent than the bourgeoisie. But, in fact, it is easy to demonstrate, as Bastiat does, a progressive diminution in that part of the proletariat which is thriftless and improvident and a constant improvement in the well-being of the poorest classes. Now, in order for this twofold effect to be produced among a multitude which not only has an inherent tendency to increase, but which, besides, receives into its ranks those of the upper strata who fall from their superior social position, and which serves in some sort as an outlet for their vices, the preventive check must necessarily have operated on the proletariat far more powerfully than appears at first sight. How does this come about? It is simply that the proletariat encounters, in the very conditions of labor open to it, a multiplicity of obstacles already established that keep its numbers within bounds without its even being aware of them. I may cite, for example, domestic service—the whole business of working as wet nurses, which seems destined to absorb a good part of the exuberant fecundity of country women, and, for the men, military service and life in the army camp and the barracks; the great emigration of workers, which, in breaking their natural ties with family and neighbors, keeps them isolated, because of differences in the customs and sometimes in the language of the country to which they go in search of employment; the crowding of workmen in great centers of industry, around factories, foundries, mines, etc., with the concomitant substitution of the comradeship of the workshop for the intimacy of the family; migratory labor among field hands; the nomadic existence of traveling salesmen and others engaged in commerce properly so called; etc., etc.

To these one might well add the years of apprenticeship and the ever more demanding conditions imposed by progress. "To attain the high standard of living of modern society," says Proudhon, "a prodigious scientific, aesthetic, and industrial development is required..... Twenty-five years of education no longer suffices to secure a position among the privileged classes. What will it be in the future? ...." Obviously the preventive check is imposed on the proletariat in countless unnoticed ways.

No great effort, then, either of analysis or of observation is required to establish the fact that the repressive check operates with continually diminishing force—a conclusion that becomes evidently and incontestably apparent from an examination of the statistics concerning population trends in Europe. The capital point brought out by these figures is the increase in the average span of life that has taken place within the last hundred years. In England, M. Finlaison has established that the general death rate, which in 1805 was 1/42, is at present 1/46. According to M. Farr, the probable life expectancy of a person at the age of 20, which in 1698 was only 29, is now 40. In France, Messrs. Moreau de Jonnès, Bienaymé, etc., have drawn analogous conclusions.

Now, an increase in the average span of life and a decrease in the operation of the repressive check are simply two ways of expressing one and the same economic fact.

Is it possible to say in specific terms what share each of the social classes enjoys in this common conquest over death? I do not know, but it is impossible that all should not have participated in it; and, in view of everything that has been accomplished for many years in France, and especially in England, to improve the hygienic conditions of the poor, to provide them with medical care and facilities, to do away with insanitary housing, to effect changes in unwholesome industries, to regulate child labor, to provide a special institution to minister to men's needs in every kind of danger, etc., etc., I think we are entitled to presume that this decrease in the death rate has manifested itself in the lower classes to a greater extent, perhaps, proportionately, than in any other.

The number of years of active life that a man can expect to enjoy has increased, on the average, by five or ten. I should like to demonstrate statistically, as I easily could, the enormous value of this magnificent achievement. I venture to say that of all the conquests that can be credited to the advance of civilization it is this that deserves, in the highest degree, the careful attention of economists. It is, indeed, a kind of epitome, a summation, of all the progress that has been made, as it is also the sure sign, the infallible source, of every new advance—both cause and effect operating in a never-ending cycle.

But we must resist the temptation to embark upon such a study, which would throw a vivid light on the basic question with which we are here concerned. Let us return to Bastiat.

In the first part, he has relied on facts to prove that progress is the dominant tendency. In the second, he resorts to a priori reasoning and theoretical laws to establish the same conclusion.

In this altogether new part of his system, Bastiat shows—or rather, alas! was to have shown—that the increase in population (provided always that it is contained within the natural limits imposed upon it by individual responsibility), is, in itself, a cause of progress, a stimulus to production. This is how he formulates this admirable law, in the chapter on exchange:

"Other things being equal, an increase in the density of the population means an increase in productive capacity."

This principle, which has appeared paradoxical to some overhasty economists, is really an unquestionable truth, a fundamental axiom already accepted in economics in another form, as can be seen from the following considerations.

Imagine a society consisting of a number of groups of people spread over a vast area and having no exchange relations with one another, and suppose, further, that the doubling of the population places between each of these isolated groups of people others equal in numbers and wealth, having no more relations among themselves than with the first groups. Certainly, then, the increase in what could be called the total population and the general wealth (mere "wealth" and "population" would be meaningless here in the absence of unity) would in no way change the relative affluence or individual well-being of each producer. But things are quite different in reality; exchange, communication, mutual relations exist within a nation between man and man, village and village, town and country, province and province, etc.

Now, suppose that in such an already existing network we have a proportional increase in population and capital, that we interpolate, so to speak, a second population altogether equal in number, with other tools, other houses, other cultivated fields, or the same fields yielding twice as much in the way of crops, etc. (which is what we mean by other things being equal). Is it to be believed that, because the population and the means of production stand in the same numerical relation as before, the absolute well-being of each of the workers will not have changed? To draw this conclusion would be a very serious error. I affirm, on the contrary, that, by virtue of the very density of the population, production is facilitated, that is to say, well-being and real wealth are increased in considerable proportion.

Even from the very outset, before any change takes place in the division of labor, "the sole fact of proximity immediately renders more advantageous the same apparatus of exchange."§

It is as clear as day, for example, that much of the cost of transportation and cartage is diminished by half. And certainly this in itself is already an enormous benefit to all concerned, for to what purpose do we expend such immense efforts to lay out roads, dig canals, construct railways, etc., if not to bring things and men closer together—to effect, in a word, an artificial density of population?

Consider, for example, a peddler who, in the course of a day's work, travels with his pack on his back a distance of some six or eight leagues among a number of small, isolated dairy farms. He sells some thread, ribbons, cotton goods, sweetmeats, and hardware. By the end of the day he will have made about a dozen separate trips. Now, suppose twice the population occupies the same area. One or the other of the following consequences will occur: either he will be satisfied to serve the same clientele, in which case he will find his twelve buyers in a circuit reduced to from three to four leagues and will have half the day remaining to him to do something else; or, within the same area, he will sell twice as much. On either hypothesis, the same pains will procure him double the profit; or, if you will, by retaining the same absolute profit, he can diminish by half the relative profit that he gets from each object he sells.

I lived in a town where a tailor, in order to make me a pair of duck trousers, and a poor shoemaker, in order to produce a pair of hunting shoes, were obliged to make a round trip of some three leagues and to lose a good third of their working day in the process. If the population doubled, there would be a tailor and a shoemaker in each of the two towns. I would have mine at my door, and the other would find within the radius of a kilometer the same clientele that he had formerly served. The worker would gain a third of a day, and I would gain the value of the bottle of poor wine that I had to pay for his pains—other things being equal.

Distance plays an important—indeed, an enormous—role in all the details of production. I know of a number of fields situated as far as three or four kilometers from the farm to which they are attached. Fields are cultivated with the help of oxen, plodding beasts that would require two hours to make the trip. Here, then, are four hours that would be lost from each day's labor—four hours a day for seeding, four hours a day for harvesting, etc. Needless to say, one would not dream of transporting cattle this distance, and these fields lie idle for five or six years. But if the population doubles, some farms will be situated close to these tracts of land, they will be cultivated without difficulty, they will be kept fertile, and, in saying that they will easily yield three, four, five times more under these conditions, I think that no agriculturist will contradict me. I could multiply such proofs indefinitely.

But this is not all. "The density of the population not only results in a better use of the existing apparatus of exchange; it permits this apparatus itself to increase and improve by virtue of the division of labor."**

What is the effect of isolation? The impossibility of achieving a division of labor. In a primitive society, a settler on the land cuts the trees in the forest, carts them off, saws them into logs, fashions them into doors, ax handles, sabots, etc.

Yet we have to take account not only of the time lost and expenses incurred, but also of all the tools, all the incompletely mastered skills involved in these different kinds of labor. If, instead of isolated settlements or cabins, a village springs up, woodcutters will establish themselves in the forest, carters will devote their full time to transporting the wood, sawyers will cut it up, and there will be wheelwrights, carpenters, sabot-makers, etc. The whole process will be continuous, regular, without loss of time or energy; it will involve a minimum number of tools and a better and shorter period of apprenticeship, and it will be carried on with the dexterity and skill that come of long habit—all of which constitutes an enormous saving.

I speak of isolation; I could have spoken of association. To come to grips with Nature, man has need of a power and a continuity of action that numbers alone make possible. Five workers could not put up a jetty in three hundred years; set five hundred to work on the job, and within six months you will have an entire pier. Men differ more or less in their abilities according to circumstances. The more they combine their efforts in an irresistible union, the more they are able to deploy their different aptitudes in a common attack on the details of every problem. And there is no limit to the benefits to be derived from this kind of co-operation. Virtually every year, if one takes the trouble to observe it, our capital is increased, by virtue of a further intensification of the division of labor or of a vast concentration of forces in a particular industry.

But, however unquestionable may be the benefits derived from the division of labor, whether on a limited or on a massive scale, the great—indeed, the supreme advantage—consists in technological progress, in the invention of tools and machines. Now, this improvement is possible only through the division of labor, and the division of labor is possible only by virtue of the density of the population.

How would the isolated settler of whom we have just spoken have, I do not say the possibility, but even the idea, of finding a way to improve the primitive means he employs to make himself a tool, a door, or a pair of shoes? But once the job is divided up, with one person doing nothing but cut boards, another hammering the nails, still another curing hides, etc., with twenty times less inventive ingenuity than that of the half-savage individual who was obliged to shift entirely for himself, each of the co-operating workers, intent exclusively on the accomplishment of a single, limited task fully within his capacity and command, brings to it all his skill and knowledge and gradually improves his techniques and his tools of production. He will invent the saw, the adze, the plane, the auger, the forge, the bellows, etc., and later machines driven by water power or steam, gigantic furnaces, and rotary shears and saws that cut iron bars or trees the way a knife slices fruit.

All this labor is sustained, accelerated, co-ordinated in an endless movement, involving continual contact between man and man, kept in a constant state of tension by competition, and enlightened by the interaction and convergence of the discoveries of science, that great common hearth to whose radiant light every isolated glimmer of experience makes its contribution. But we need go no further in our description, for—I admit it quite readily—we are simply repeating platitudes. The fact is that Bastiat's statement is nothing but a reformulation of the famous axiom of the division of labor: The productive power of the human race is due to the density of the population. This is, indeed, the definition of civilization itself.

Yes, to the end of time there will be a necessary, reciprocal relation between the two terms of God's great commandment: Multiplicamini et subjicite universam terram. Wherever man multiplies (in the desired conditions of his social development), his power to subdue Nature to his will must multiply even more rapidly.

If two adjacent provinces are separated for a long time by an insuperable obstacle and finally succeed in breaking through the barrier at two or three points, will the well-being of each be increased by the resulting communication between them? Every economist will agree that it will. Would not the mutual advantages be notably increased if, instead of two or three points of contact, ten or twenty were created, or if the two provinces were to envelop and interpenetrate each other? Would they not reap the maximum advantage if it were possible to superpose them, to join them together, so that communication, even in regard to the smallest details, would be established between town and town, house and house, and man and man? Now, this hypothetical superposition is precisely what is accomplished by the increasing density of the population, all other things being equal.

We may remark, in passing, that this diminution in the natural difficulties of labor brought about by an increase in the proximity and numbers of the workers not only profoundly modifies the pessimistic conclusion of Malthus but also suffices to upset Ricardo's dismal theory of rent. There can be no doubt that the errors or the terrors of these two contemporaneous economists reinforced each other. While Ricardo, concerned with the pressure of population on the means of subsistence, assumed a progressing increase in the value of food which nothing in fact justifies, Malthus, for his part, found in Ricardo's theory of rent, which he took seriously, a vindication of his own exaggerated apprehensions.

I believe that a better insight into these matters will lead us to quite opposite conclusions, and that the two collateral laws of population and of rent (or, more generally, of capital) will be seen for what they really are: the expression of mankind's constant approach toward the gratuitous enjoyment of goods and the improvement of well-being through the employment of ever more readily available and more powerful natural resources and forces of Nature.

When the science of statistics is in a position to make the necessary measurements, it will verify in all its details this conclusion of Bastiat: that a necessary concomitant of any increase in a nation's population is an infinitely superior development in its productive capacity. And, to cite only one proof of this proposition, M. Moreau de Jonnès has established that, as the population of France doubled after 1700, the per capita consumption of wheat rose from 472 to 541 litres, to which must be added around 240 litres of potatoes and cereals. And surely, if the consumption of food, which is least susceptible to increase in weight and volume, has nonetheless risen to such a notable extent, how prodigious must have been the rise in the consumption of industrial products, in the use and enjoyment of goods above the level of mere animal satisfaction!

England would furnish us with proofs even more powerful in the enormous increase, within half a century, that has taken place in its consumption of cereals, coal, metals, manufactured products, etc. But what we have said so far must suffice; it is but the echo of a loftier thought, and it is not our function to add anything further to it.

In summary, then, in opposition to the alleged population explosion, we have to take into account, first, the motive of self-interest, which impels each individual to improve his own well-being and that of his family; secondly, habit, which converts every already acquired improvement in his well-being into a need and a necessity of life, prevents him from falling back to a lower standard of living, and induces him, without his even being aware of it, to progress, if only because he remains in an environment that is itself progressive; thirdly, and finally, the indefinite increase in the capacity of each producer consequent upon the very increase in their total number.

Bastiat does indeed emphasize the unnoticed and naturally preventive role played by the motive of self-interest and individual responsibility—the increasing desire for a higher standard of living, the ambition for something better. He also shows how habit, which for every man turns each newly acquired luxury into a positive want, becomes a lower limit to the means of existence, below which no man is willing to allow his family to be reduced. But this, in a way, is only the negative side of the law; it merely shows that, in any society based on private property and family, population cannot be a danger.

It remained for him to show that population can in itself be a positive force, to demonstrate the inevitable increase in the power of production that results from the density of population. This, as the author himself says, is the important point that Malthus neglects, and the point that, if understood, will reveal to us harmony, and not the discord Malthus had seen.

We present below the completely anti-Malthusian conclusions that Bastiat drew from the premises he indicated in the chapter on "Exchange," pp. 59-98, and which he proposed to treat more fully in his discussion of population. The following are among the last notes that he wrote, and he stressed their importance:

"In the chapter on exchange we demonstrated that in isolation man's wants exceed his productive capacities, that in society his productive capacities exceed his wants.

"This excess of productive capacities over wants results from exchange, that is, the union of efforts, the division of labor.

"Hence the action and reaction of cause and effect in an endless cycle of progress.

"The excess of productive capacity over wants, creating for each generation a surplus of wealth, allows it to rear a new generation more numerous than itself. And a larger oncoming generation is in itself a better and more basic kind of division of labor; it represents a new degree of the excess of productive capacities over wants.

"This is an admirable harmony!

"Thus, at any given time, if the sum total of general wants is represented by 100, and the sum total of productive capacities at 110, the excess ten is distributed, for example, five to improve living conditions, to stimulate wants of a higher order, to foster the sense of human dignity, etc., and five to increase the population.

"For the second generation, the wants are 110: five more directed toward quantity, and five toward quality.

"But because of this very fact (both fuller physical, intellectual, and moral development and greater density of population, which facilitates production) the means of production have also increased their potential. They are now represented, for example, by the figures 120 or 130.

"A new excess, a new distribution, etc.

"And let us not fear an overabundance; a higher order of wants, which is merely an expression of the sense of human dignity, constitutes in itself a natural limit on population."

In conclusion, then, we may say that, wherever institutions are based on the natural prerequisites of social order: the family—which presupposes the ownership of property; private property—which presupposes liberty; and liberty, which is inseparable from individual responsibility; a numerical increase in the population will always be accompanied by a more rapid increase in well-being and productive capacity.

All that God does, he does well; and social science reveals one and the same pervasive harmony throughout its domain.—Editor.]


End of Notes

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