The Character and Logical Method of Political Economy

Cairnes, John Elliot
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Lecture VII

Of the Malthusian Doctrine of Population.


§1. I alluded in the opening lecture of this course to the present unsettled and unsatisfactory condition of Political Economy with regard to some of its fundamental principles, attributing this state of things, as you will probably remember, to the loose and unscientific views which prevail respecting the character of economic doctrines and the kind of proof by which they are to be sustained or refuted. This led me in the succeeding lectures to explain and illustrate at some length the character and method of the science. I now propose to vindicate the importance of the topics on which I have been insisting, by showing, in the instance of some fundamental doctrines, the manner in which unscientific views regarding the nature and method of the science have operated in producing those differences of opinion to which I have referred.


One of these doctrines, as I conceive quite fundamental in the science of Political Economy, though impugned and controverted in several recent publications, is the doctrine of population as expounded by Malthus. It would of course be quite impossible, within the compass of a single lecture, to notice, much less satisfactorily to answer, all the various objections that have been in times past, or may still be, urged against this doctrine; and it would be unnecessary were it possible; most of them having received as full an answer as they deserve either from Malthus himself or from succeeding writers. I shall therefore confine myself to those which, either from their novelty, or from the circumstance that they have been lately endorsed by some economists of position, or from their logical character, will be most suitable to the object which I have in view—the illustration of economic method.


In order, however, that you should appreciate the force of these objections, it will be necessary for me to state the doctrine against which they have been advanced.


The celebrated Malthusian doctrine is to the following effect, viz. that there is a 'constant tendency in all animated life to increase beyond the nourishment prepared for it;' or, with reference more particularly to the human race, that 'population tends to increase faster than subsistence.' From what I have already said of the character of an economic law, as well as from the terms of the proposition itself, you will at once perceive that it is not here asserted that population in fact increases faster than subsistence: this would of course be physically impossible. You will also perceive that it is not inconsistent with this doctrine that subsistence should in fact be increased much faster than population. It may also, perhaps, be worth remarking that the doctrine, as it is stated by Malthus, is not invulnerable to verbal criticism. The sentence, 'population tends to increase faster than subsistence,' is elliptical, and the natural way of supplying the ellipsis would be by reading it thus: 'Population tends to increase faster than subsistence tends to increase;' but it cannot with propriety be said that subsistence 'tends to increase' at all. I mention this verbal inaccuracy, not because I think it is likely that any candid or intelligent reader could be misled by it, but because I have seen it dwelt upon by anti-Malthusian writers. But, waiving verbal cavils, what Malthus asserted, and what it is the object of his essay to prove, is this—that, regard being had to the powers and propensities in human nature on which the increase of the species depends, there is a constant tendency in human beings to multiply faster than, regard being had to the actual circumstances of the external world, and the power which man can exercise over the resources at his disposal, the means of subsistence are capable of being increased.


The reasoning by which Malthus established this proposition was as follows. He had first to ascertain the capacity and disposition to increase inherent in mankind—in other words, the natural strength of the principle of population. Now, in order to discover the real character of any given principle, obviously the proper course is to consider that principle as it operates when unimpeded by principles of an opposite tendency. Malthus, accordingly, took an instance in which the external conditions were most favourable to the uncontrolled action of the principle of population. This was the case of new colonies, where a population with all the resources of civilization at their command are brought into contact with a new and virgin soil. In these he found that population from internal sources alone, and excluding immigration, frequently doubled itself in twenty-five years.*59 This rate of increase was evidently not owing to anything peculiar or abnormal in the physical or mental constitution of the inhabitants of such countries, but owing to the favourable character of the external circumstances under which the principle of population came into play. He, therefore, concluded that the ratio of increase, according to which population doubles itself in twenty-five years, represents the natural force of the principle—the rate at which population always tends to increase—the rate at which, if unrestrained by principles of an opposite character or by the physical incapacity of sustaining life, population always will increase.


On the other hand, on looking to the means placed at man's disposal for obtaining subsistence, Malthus found that it was physically impossible that subsistence could be increased at this rate. The surface of the globe is limited; the portions of it suitable to cultivation and accessible to human enterprise are still more limited; and the difficulty of obtaining food from a limited area increases as the quantity raised from it is increased.*60 If, e.g. 40,000,000 quarters of corn are produced annually in the united kingdom at present, it might be possible at the end of twenty-five years by means of improved agricultural processes to raise 80,000,000 quarters annually: it is perhaps conceivable that, by forcing to the highest degree every patch of cultivable land in the kingdom, at the end of fifty years 160,000,000 quarters might be raised: certain, however, it is that the annual production of corn in the united kingdom could not go on for ever at this rate; but it is no less certain, in view of the capacity of increase in human beings, that the population of the united kingdom could, and, in view of their natural propensities in the same direction, that they would, proceed at this rate for ever, till brought to a stop by the physical impossibility of obtaining food,—supposing, that is to say, that their natural power and disposition to multiply operated unchecked by principles of an opposite character.


The result, therefore, of the consideration of these facts by Malthus was the enunciation of the doctrine which I have just stated—that there is in human beings a tendency to multiply faster than subsistence—to increase faster than subsistence is capable of being increased. Population, however, as I have said, whatever might be its tendency, could not increase faster than subsistence, inasmuch as human beings cannot live without food; and further investigation showed that subsistence in most countries and in all improving countries, had in fact increased faster than population. Malthus, therefore, turned his attention to the discovery of those antagonizing principles which keep in check the natural power of population. These, he found, were reducible to two classes, which he designated the preventive and positive checks. The preventive checks included all causes which operated in restraining the natural power or disposition of mankind to increase their numbers, and were generally comprised under the two heads of prudence with regard to marriage, and vice, so far as it interfered with fecundity. The positive checks included those causes of premature death incident to a redundant population, of which the principal were insufficient food, famine, disease, and war.


§2. Such, in outline, is the doctrine of Malthus; and such the line of reasoning by which it was established. As to its importance, it is scarcely too much to say that, while throwing a strong light on not a few of the darkest passages of history, it in a short time revolutionized the current modes of thinking on social and industrial problems. The material well-being of a community mainly depends on the proportion which exists between the quantity of necessaries and comforts in that community and the number of persons amongst whom these are divided, of which necessaries and comforts by far the most important item is food. All plans, therefore, for improving the condition of the masses of mankind, in order to be effectual, must be directed to an alteration in this proportion, and to be permanent, must aim at making this alteration permanent. Now, Malthus showed that the strength of the principle of population is such that, if allowed to operate unrestrained, no possible increase of food could keep pace with it. It consequently followed that, in order to the permanent improvement of the masses of mankind, the development of principles which should impose some restraint on the natural tendency of the principle of population was indispensable; and that, however an increase in the productiveness of industry might for a time improve the condition of a community, yet this alone, if unaccompanied by the formation of habits of self-control and providence on the part of the people themselves, could not be relied upon as an ultimate safeguard against distress.


The same discovery*61 of Malthus—in his own language 'the constant pressure of population against subsistence,'—gave the key to many social and historic problems—disclosed, for example, the latent cause by virtue of which the world has been peopled; which forced the shepherds of Asia from the primitive birthplace of the human race; which led the Greeks to throw off numerous colonies; which compelled the great migrations of the northern barbarians; and which is now sending successive swarms of emigrants to carry the English race and language to the utmost corners of the earth.


Armed with the same principle Malthus was enabled to give a complete and philosophic answer to the communistic plans which were at that time ardently advocated by Godwin, Owen, and others, by showing that, as such schemes offered no inducement to the exercise of prudential restraint, and removed those which already existed, they were defective just in that point without which human improvement was impossible: they provided no security against a redundant population,—none, therefore, against the want and misery which a redundant population must occasion.


The practical lessons which Malthus deduced from the law of population were no less important. Up to the time when the essay on population was written, the prevailing opinion amongst statesmen of all shades of politics was that a dense population was the surest proof of national prosperity, and the encouragement of population the first duty of a statesman. As the gentle humourist put it, the honest man who married early and brought up a large family, was thought to do more real service than he who continued single and only talked of population. Under the influence of this delusion, colonization*62 was discouraged as tending to depopulate the mother country; while the poor-laws, over and above their indirect influence in undermining individual providence, placed a direct premium upon multiplication; and in general every plan for the improvement of society was approved and supported just in proportion to its supposed influence in augmenting the numbers of the people. The reasonings of Malthus went, as I have explained, to establish a conclusion directly opposite to this—to show that, as regards the number of a people, the danger lay on the side not of deficiency but of excess; and that, therefore, plans of social improvement were to be approved, not in proportion as they tended to encourage the increase of population, but in proportion as they tended to develop those qualities of self-control and providence on which its restriction within due limits depends.*63


Such were some of the consequences which resulted in social and political theory and practice from the great work of Malthus. It appears to me that, in following the course which led him to the result he reached, Malthus followed the only course by which important economic truths are to be discovered. You will observe, his method was strictly in conformity with that which I have been recommending in these lectures as the scientific method of Political Economy. He commenced by considering the nature and force of a known principle of human nature: he took account of the actual external conditions under which it came into operation: he traced the consequences which would result, supposing it to operate unrestrained under these ascertained conditions: he then inquired how far in fact the principle had been restrained; and lastly, investigated the nature of the antagonizing agencies, through the operation of which the restraint was effected. By these means he arrived at the ultimate causes in the principles of human nature and the facts of the external world on which the condition of the mass of mankind in the matter of subsistence depends, and furnished for the first time the solution of an important problem in the laws of the distribution of wealth.


§3. So much then for the doctrine of Malthus, and now for his opponents. One of the most prominent of the writers who have recently taken the field against him is Mr. Rickards, late Professor of Political Economy at Oxford. Of his work on 'Population and Capital,' the chief portion is devoted to an elaborate attack on the position of Malthus. The objections advanced by Mr. Rickards are not absolutely new,*64 but they are stated by him with greater fulness and clearness than I have seen them elsewhere, and I shall therefore avail myself of his statement of them. The following passage is taken from the work just referred to:—


"It is obvious that there are two methods by which the respective rates of increase of man and of subsistence may be compared. They may be regarded—I mean, of course, both the one and the other—either in the abstract or in the concrete; either potentially or practically. We may investigate, for instance, according to the laws of nature manifested by experience, what is the stated period within which a given society of human beings are physically capable of doubling their numbers, abstracting the operation of those checks, that impaired longevity and increased mortality, which may be found practically keeping down the number of any society. On the other hand, we may estimate the potential rate of increase of those animals or substances which are adapted for human subsistence, assuming no obstacle to their multiplication to arise from the difficulty of finding hands to rear, or space upon the earth to nourish them. By this method we may ascertain which of the two elements, population or subsistence, is physically capable of the greater expansion in a given time. Or we may adopt another mode of testing their relative rates of increase—we may compare the progress of man and of production in the actual state of any community, or of all communities together. In all existing societies there are checks in operation upon the multiplication of the human species. There are checks, likewise, upon the indefinite increase of the animal and vegetable world. We may take the operation of the checks into account on both sides of our calculation. In any given country, or in the world at large, if we like it better, we may compute, with reference to the actual state of things—looking to the experience of the past, and to the circumstances of the present, to all the causes, social, moral, or political, which restrain the propagation both of man and of his food—what has actually been, or what probably may be henceforward, the comparative rates of increase of population and of production. Either of these two methods of comparison would be fair and logical. I need scarcely add, that the latter will be more likely to conduce to a useful practical conclusion. But a third method, which cannot fail to lead us by the road of false logic to an utterly wrong result, is that of comparing the potential increase of mankind, according to the unchecked laws of nature, with the actual progress in any given country of production, excluding the operation of the counteracting forces on the one side, importing them into the estimate on the other. It is no wonder, when we use such a balance as this, if the scales are found to hang prodigiously unequal....


"But it requires nothing more than a careful attention to this point to bring out in a clear point of view the fundamental fallacy of the whole argument. What is that ratio in regard to the multiplication of subsistence which Mr. Malthus has placed in contrast with the potential increase of human beings? Not the potential increase of animal and vegetable existences proper for the food of men under the like favourable conditions; 'the power left to exert itself with perfect freedom,' limited by no check or obstacle,—which formed his datum in regard to population. He enters into no estimate as to the periods in which, according to the laws of nature, the fruits of the earth, the corn, the olive, and the vine, are capable—it is vain to talk of duplication in such cases, but—of multiplication, some thirtyfold, some sixtyfold, some an hundredfold. He omits to consider the almost marvellous fecundity of some of those animals which form, in civilized communities, the chief subsistence of the mass of the people.... His calculation as to the ratio in which subsistence may be multiplied is founded upon the state of things then actually existing in England. He compares the abstract with the concrete—nature, in the region of hypothesis, acting in "perfect freedom,' with nature obstructed by all the 'checks' which restrain production in the actual world."*65


The first point to be remarked upon in this is that Mr. Rickards does not here deny the doctrine of Malthus in the sense in which Malthus asserted that doctrine;—he admits that in this sense 'the scales' do 'hang prodigiously unequal;' nor does he impugn the reasoning by which Malthus deduced from the doctrine thus understood the conclusions which it was the object of his essay to establish; in short, he neither denies the premisses of the Malthusian argument, nor their sufficiency to establish the Malthusian conclusion. The passage, therefore, which I have quoted, if it be intended as anything more than a verbal criticism on the form in which the meaning of Malthus is expressed, must be regarded as an example of the fallacy called ignoratio elenchi; and if my object were simply to defend the Malthusian doctrine, I might at once pass by these objections as irrelevant. As an example, however, of the confused notions which prevail respecting economic method, it will be desirable to consider them somewhat more at length.


I propose, therefore, to show that, while the comparison instituted by Malthus is perfectly legitimate and logical, those suggested by Mr. Rickards are wholly irrelevant to the ends of economic science, inasmuch as, whether concluded in the affirmative or negative, they illustrate no economic principle whatever, and afford us no assistance in solving any problem presented by the phenomena of wealth.


And here I may remark in passing, that, granting for the moment that a comparison of the abstract with the concrete be inadmissible, the criticism may be at once obviated by substituting for the word 'subsistence,' the expression 'capacity of the soil to yield subsistence,' which equally well conveys the meaning of Malthus. We may then compare the abstract with the abstract, the 'potential fecundity' of man with the 'potential' fertility of the soil; and we may deduce from the proposition thus stated precisely the same conclusions which it was the object of Malthus to inculcate.*66


But why, let us ask, should a comparison of the abstract with the concrete be necessarily illogical? I know of no criterion by which to decide on the propriety of a comparison except by reference to the object for which the comparison is instituted. The object which Malthus had in view in writing his essay was to ascertain the influence of the principle of population upon human well-being;*67 to ascertain whether the natural force of the principle was such that, with a view to the happiness of mankind, it should be stimulated or restrained; whether it was desirable that inducements should be held out tending to encourage early marriages and large families; or, on the contrary, whether we should favour those institutions and usages of society of which the tendency is to develop the virtues of prudence and moral restraint in the relations of the sexes. This was clearly and properly an economic question—it was a question as to the influence of a given principle on the distribution of wealth; and it was one which, from the terms in which it is stated, evidently involved the very comparison to which Mr. Rickards objects—a comparison of the natural and inherent force of the principle of population with the actual means at man's disposal, situated as he is in the world, for obtaining subsistence—a comparison of "nature in the region of hypothesis, acting with perfect freedom, with nature obstructed by all the checks which restrain production in the actual world." Mr. Rickards, therefore, either must maintain that the problem which Malthus proposed to solve—the influence of the principle of population upon human well-being—upon the distribution of wealth—was not a legitimate problem; or he must admit that a comparison of the abstract with the concrete is not an improper comparison.


Indeed, if the consideration of the tendency of a given principle—its 'potential' capacity—in connection with the 'actual' circumstances under which it comes into operation, is to be proscribed as involving a comparison of the abstract with the concrete, it is difficult to imagine how the complex phenomena of nature are to be investigated, and traced to the various causes producing them.


But, further, I maintain that neither of the comparisons, insisted on by Mr. Rickards as being the only legitimate comparisons, can lead to the discovery of any economic principle whatever, or help us to the solution of any economic problem. The first of the comparisons suggested by Mr. Rickards as that which Malthus might properly have instituted is the comparison of population in the abstract with food in the abstract—the 'potential' increase of the one with the 'potential' increase of the other—in a word, the comparison of the fecundity of a human pair with the fecundity of a grain of wheat. Had he instituted this comparison, he would, says Mr. Rickards, have done that which at least 'was logical and fair,' and, we may safely admit, would have been led to no conclusion that could have disturbed the serenity of the most orthodox philosopher.


There can be no doubt that the capacity of increase in a grain of wheat (the conditions most favourable to its cultivation being assumed) is immeasurably greater than the capacity of increase in mankind (the conditions most favourable to their multiplication being also assumed); inasmuch as while population under the most favourable circumstances takes twenty or twenty-five years to double itself, a grain of wheat in rich soil may yield twenty or thirty or forty fold in a year; and it is quite possible that in a work on the comparative physiology of plants and animals this fact may possess some importance. But the question for a political economist is, what economic principle can be deduced from it? What light does it throw on the class of problems with which he has to deal? Mr. Rickards will perhaps reply—it follows from the comparison, that subsistence tends to increase faster than population. Understood in the sense Malthus affixed to the terms, this proposition would represent an important tendency influencing the phenomena of wealth—in other words, an economic law: were it true in this sense that 'subsistence tended to increase faster than population,' all the inferences which Malthus drew from the opposite principle, and, I may add, most of the doctrines of Political Economy as they are received at present, might be reversed; nay, the most important phenomena of society as it is at present constituted would be inexplicable. But, when understood as Mr. Rickards insists on understanding it, the bearing of the proposition on economic problems is not obvious. Let us test it by actual trial. Assuming, as is undoubtedly the case, that the abstract capacity of increase in a grain of corn is greater than the abstract capacity of increase in a human pair, and that in this sense subsistence tends to increase faster than population—in what manner does the fact here asserted affect human interests in their economic aspects? What phenomenon of wealth does it explain? What practical lesson does it afford? Does it throw any light on the causes on which the progress and physical well-being of society depend? Does it explain why rent tends to rise and profits to fall as society advances? Why the English labourer receives less than the American, and more than the Hindu? Why old countries import raw produce and export manufactured articles, while new countries reverse this process? Does it explain why, as civilization advances, the condition of the mass of the people generally improves? Not one of these questions can be completely answered without reference to the doctrine of population as Malthus stated and understood that doctrine; but if, with Mr. Rickards and those who agree with him, we are to understand the doctrine as expressing a comparison of the tendency to increase in human beings, not with the actual means at their disposal for obtaining subsistence, but with the capacity of increase in the vegetable world under impossible conditions, I cannot find that it helps us in any way to the solution of these or any other economic problems.


I defined an economic law (as you will probably remember) as a proposition expressing a tendency deduced from the principles of human nature and external facts, and affecting the production or distribution of wealth. The comparison instituted between population and subsistence by Mr. Rickards certainly expresses a tendency deduced from human nature and external facts, but is wanting in the other condition of an economic law, as I have ventured to define it: it expresses no tendency affecting the production and distribution of wealth. I cannot, therefore, see on what ground it is entitled to the place which Mr. Rickards would assign it.


The other comparison suggested by our author as one that might properly be instituted (and to it he appears to attach most importance) is the comparison of 'population in the concrete' with 'subsistence in the concrete'—the comparison, that is to say, of the progress which has actually taken place in the population of a given district during a given time, with the progress which, in the same district and during the same time, has taken place in subsistence. Now, I am far from saying that such a comparison may not bring to light facts of a valuable character—facts which, if duly reflected upon and interpreted by the light of economic science, may lead to important conclusions, and possibly to the discovery of some new economic principle; but I entirely deny that a proposition, embodying the crude results of this comparison, can be considered as a portion of Political Economy, or that it possesses any of the attributes of an economic law.


It is true indeed that the term 'law' is frequently applied to mere generalizations of complex phenomena—to propositions which simply express the order in which facts have been observed to occur; and provided the purely empirical character of such generalizations be borne in mind, there can be no objection to the name. Even in this sense, however, to entitle a proposition to the character of a 'law,' some degree of regularity and uniformity in the observed sequence is required. Now, with respect to the comparison which Mr. Rickards proposes to institute between the relative advances which have taken place in population and subsistence, no such uniformity or regularity is observable. In some nations subsistence has advanced more rapidly than population; in others population has advanced more rapidly than subsistence; and in the same nation at different times the results have been different, population and subsistence taking the lead by turns. The utmost that can be said with truth is that, on the whole, as nations advance in civilization, the proportion generally alters in favour of subsistence—a proposition which, I think, can scarcely pretend to the dignity of a 'law,' even in the loosest sense of that word.


But, even if we were to suppose the relative advance of population and subsistence to be constant and uniform, and the rate to be well ascertained, I should still deny that a proposition embodying the results of this comparison could correctly be called a doctrine of Political Economy; that is to say, I should deny that such a proposition could with propriety be placed in the same category of truths with those which assert that within the range of effective competition normal value is governed by cost of production; that fluctuations in value are governed by the conditions of demand and supply in relation to the particular commodity;; that the rate of profit varies inversely with proportional wages as understood by Ricardo; that 'economic rent' depends on the difference in the returns of the soil to different capitals; in a word with the most important principles of economic science. Each of these propositions expresses some tendency affecting the production and distribution of wealth; they have all been deduced from known principles of human nature and ascertained physical facts; and they are all available in explanation of the phenomena of wealth. But a proposition asserting the results (even supposing these results to be perfectly regular and uniform) of a comparison between population in the concrete and food in the concrete, possesses none of these attributes. It does not express any tendency influencing the phenomena of wealth, but exhibits the composite result and evidence of many tendencies; it is not deduced from the principles of human nature and external facts, but from the statistics of society, or from the crude generalizations of history; and, lastly, it is not a principle helping us to the solution of any of the problems of our complex civilization, but itself presents a complex problem for our solution.


I say that such a comparison will not help us to the solution of any of the problems of our complex civilization; for, granting the fact to be as Mr. Rickards asserts it to be, and as, on the whole, making large allowance for exceptional cases, I believe it is—granting that, as a general rule, the means of subsistence, and we may add the comforts and luxuries of life, have advanced in civilized communities more rapidly than population, what light does this throw either upon the influence of the principle of population on the one hand, or of the causes regulating the production of subsistence on the other—of their influence, I say, upon the progress of society and the phenomena of wealth? All that we are warranted in inferring from the state of things assumed, is the predominance on the whole in the given circumstances of the causes tending to advance over those tending to retard the social or economic condition of a nation; but it affords no ground for inference respecting the character or inherent strength of any particular cause affecting that condition—such as the principle of population. The fact of the arrival of a vessel in New York is no proof that she had the wind in her favour: she may have had recourse to steam to counteract its effects. The speed at which she travels and the direction of her course do not depend upon the force of the steam impelling, or of the winds assisting, or of the currents thwarting, or of the friction impeding, but is 'the last result and joint effect of all.' Such also is the progress of society. It represents the result of a vast number of forces, physical, intellectual, social, and moral; and it advances, or recedes, or oscillates; as one kind or other prevails. But from the mere consideration of the rough result, the general total, it would be as vain to attempt to deduce the character or tendency of any single cause affecting it—of any given economic principle—as it would be to elicit a theory of the Atlantic currents from the statistics of voyages between Liverpool and New York.


Mr. Rickards, however, holds that the comparison which we have been considering does throw light on the causes of economic phenomena. The actual advance which the various communities have made in material improvement, proves, according to him, 'the natural ascendency of the force of production over the force of population.' 'It can have emanated,' he says, 'from no other source. The primitive possessors of the earth were destitute of all things. The earth has been the source of all the wealth which has accumulated in the hands of their descendants.... If, while the number of cultivators has gone on increasing, this surplus has become greater and greater, and the whole people wealthier, it must follow that production has a tendency to increase more rapidly than population, and that the accumulation of wealth which accompanies the progress of society is attributable to this cause.*68


In order to the cogency of the argument it is obviously necessary that the terms 'force of production' and 'force of population' should include all the causes influencing the economic progress of society; and in this sense to say that the force of production is superior to the force of population, is only in other words to say that the causes tending to advance society are on the whole more powerful than the causes tending to retard it; the name 'force of production' being given to the one set of causes, and that of 'force of population' to the other. It is, in short, a mere reproduction of the fact of progress under another form, but does not advance us a step towards an explanation of that fact which is the problem to be solved. It is as if a person should argue that the fact of a train leaving Dublin and arriving in Belfast proves the ascendency in railways of the 'force of locomotion' over the 'force of immobility,' on the ground that the actual progress of the train could be due to no other cause; and the argument would be valid,—a similar assumption being made to that latent in the reasoning I have quoted, namely, that the 'force of locomotion' included all the causes propelling the train, and the 'force of immobility,' all the causes retarding it. The engineer, however, who should make the discovery would scarcely find that he had added much to his stock of useful knowledge.


§4. I have now endeavoured to show that the comparisons suggested by Mr. Rickards in lieu of that which Malthus instituted, lead to no economic principle whatever, and furnish no aid towards the solution of any problems connected with the phenomena of wealth. In further proof of the entire irrelevancy, with reference to the ends of the science, of Mr. Rickards' exposition of the laws of population, I may add that, having established these laws, apparently to his own satisfaction, he nevertheless does not apply them to the solution of any problems of wealth, nor does he attempt to make them the ground of any practical suggestions; on the contrary, such practical lessons as he does inculcate on the subject of population are directly at variance with his own theoretical conclusions.


You have seen that, while Malthus maintained that population tended to increase faster than subsistence, he held, consistently with this, that the principle of population was a power which it was desirable to restrain, and advocated, as a means to this end, the formation of habits of prudence and self-control. Mr. Rickards, as you have also seen, emphatically denies this doctrine: he maintains, on the contrary, that subsistence tends to increase faster than population—that it does so both in the 'abstract' and in the 'concrete,' both 'potentially' and 'actually'; and further that 'production' as compared with 'population' is 'the greater power of the two.' Mr. Rickards having thus given a direct negative to the principle of Malthus, it would be natural to suppose that in the practical treatment of the question he would be equally at variance with him. It would be natural to suppose that, as he maintains that subsistence both 'potentially' and 'actually' tends to outstrip population, he would be released from all apprehension as to the danger of population outstripping subsistence. If 'production' be the superior power,' there seems no reason,—provided only men be industrious, provided only the machinery of production be kept in motion—that mankind should not multiply without stay or limit, since, on this hypothesis, it is always competent to them to keep the means of physical comfort in advance of their increase. There seems no reason, in short, that the population of every country in Europe should not advance at the American rate, constantly doubling itself in periods of twenty-five years; or, at least, if there be any reason for restraining population, we should not expect to find it in the difficulty of procuring subsistence. You will, therefore, probably be surprised to find that Mr. Rickards, not only recognises the necessity of placing a restraint on the principle of population, but does so on the express ground of the limits placed by nature on the increase of subsistence.


"Individual prudence," he says,*69 "is the proper check to precipitate marriages; an appeal to the consequences which will recoil on the parties themselves and their innocent offspring, is the appropriate and cogent argument to deter them from rash engagements. Let it not be said," he continues, "that in thus arguing I am substituting a principle of selfishness for one of duty. It is not so: prudence is here an obligation of morality."... "Whatever fluctuations," he adds, "may betide the labour market, let each man, in forming his private connections, act with the forethought and discretion that become a responsible being, and society will have no cause of complaint against him, for over-population will be impossible." This is excellent advice. But what are the grounds of it?—why should 'over-population' be possible in the absence of forethought and discretion? why should prudence in respect to marriage be an obligation of morality? Simply, Mr. Rickards tells us, quoting the language of M. Say (not to refute but to adopt it), because "the tendency of men to reproduce their kind, and their means of doing so, are, we may say, infinite; but their means of subsistence are limited."*70


I must leave Mr. Rickards to reconcile his practical lessons with his theoretical conclusions—his advocacy of a restraint on population on the ground of the limitation of subsistence, with his doctrine that subsistence 'potentially' and 'actually' tends to increase faster than population. It appears to me that the conclusion is inevitable—either his doctrines, in the sense in which he understands them, are irrelevant to the purposes of Political Economy, or his precepts are in direct contravention of his doctrines.


Before concluding I must notice one more position of Mr. Rickards. In the preface to the work which I have been noticing he puts this dilemma: "If the conclusion of the Essay on Population be true, it seems to me to involve this inevitable consequence—that there has been a miscalculation of means to ends in the arrangements of the universe—either man has been made too prolific, or the earth too sterile."*71 Let us meet this argument frankly. The conclusion of Malthus does undoubtedly involve the consequence that the earth is too sterile for the fecundity of man—for the possible increase of mankind; the earth cannot for ever yield food as fast as human beings can multiply; neither in this case, nor in any other, has provision been made for the unlimited gratification of any human propensity. Not even the most amiable instinct, not even the instinct of compassion, can be released from the control of prudence and conscience without entailing injury, alike on the possessor and on society. Whether this be a ground for charging the Creator of the universe with a 'miscalculation of means to ends' it is not for me to say; but the fact, I apprehend, is indisputable. If it be an 'end' of creation that the human species should multiply unrestrained, the conditions under which man has been placed in the world do not, it must be confessed, seem well calculated for this purpose, and 'the arrangements of the universe' do certainly, on this hypothesis, seem liable to the charge conveyed in the passage I have quoted. For my part, I do not take this view of the 'ends' for which 'the arrangements of the universe' have been planned; but, as apparently Mr. Rickards does, I must leave him to reconcile it as he best can with those precepts of prudence, directed against 'over population,' which he has had the practical wisdom to inculcate.

Notes for this chapter

As a specimen of the intelligence exhibited in criticisms of Malthus, take the following from Blanqui's Histoire de l'Économie Politique:—"Le choix que Malthus a fait de l'Amérique, oł la population double tous les vingt-cinq ans, n'est pas plus concluant que celui de la Suède, oł, selon M. Godwin, elle ne double que tous les cent ans. Les sociétés ne procèdent point ainsi par périodes regulières, comme les astres et les saisons, etc." Malthus could find his opponents in arguments, but not in brains.
Against this it is urged that, however true the statement may be as an abstract proposition, yet, regard being had to the actual state of the world—the increased supplies of food which even the most advanced countries under an improved agricultural system are capable of yielding, as well as the vast districts in America, New Zealand, and elsewhere, which are yet to be brought under cultivation—the doctrine must, for ages to come, be destitute of all practical significance. In a review of 'Mansfield's Paraguay, Brazil, and the Plate,' in Frazers Magazine (Nov. 1856), the writer, after rather more than the usual misrepresentation of Malthusian views, puts the objection thus:—

"Meanwhile stood by, laughing bitterly enough, the really practical men—men such as the author of the book now before us: the travellers, the geographers, the experimental men of science, who took the trouble, before deciding on what could be, to find out what was; and, as it were, 'took stock' of the earth and her capabilities, before dogmatizing on the future fate of her inhabitants. And, 'What?' they asked, in blank astonishment, 'what, in the name of maps and common sense, means this loud squabble? What right has any one to dogmatize on the future of humanity, while the far greater part of the globe is yet unredeemed from the will beast and the wild hunter? If scientific agriculture be too costly, is there not room enough on the earth for as much unscientific and cheap tillage as would support many times over her present population? What matters it, save as a question of temporary make-shift, whether England can be made to give thirty-three bushels of wheat per acre instead of thirty-one, by some questionably remunerative outlay of capital, while the Texan squatter, without any capital save his own two hands, is growing eighty bushels an acre? Your disquisitions about the 'margin of productiveness' are interesting, curious, probably correct, valuable in old countries, but nowhere else. For is the question, whether men shall live, or even be born at all, to be settled by them, forsooth, while the valley of the Ottawa can grow corn enough to supply all England, the valley of the Mississippi for all Europe?—while Australia is a forest, instead of being, as it will be one day, the vineyard of the world?—while New Zealand and the Falklands are still waste; and Polynesia, which may become the Greece of the New World, is worse than waste?—while Nebraska alone is capable of supporting a population equal to France and Spain together?—while, in the Old World, Asia Minor, once the garden of old Rome, lies a desert in the foul and lazy hands of the Ottoman?—while the Tropics produce almost spontaneously a hundred valuable articles of food, all but overlooked as yet in the exclusive cultivation of cotton and sugar? and finally (asks Mr. Mansfield in his book), while South America alone contains a territory of some eight hundred millions of square miles, at least equalling Egypt in climate, and surpassing England in fertility; easy of access; provided, by means of its great rivers, with unrivalled natural means of communication, and 'with water-power enough to turn all the mills in the world;' and needing nothing but men to make it one of the gardens of the world."

There are travellers and travellers. The passage just quoted gives us the view of one class on the problem raised by Malthus: on the other hand, von Humboldt in his 'Essay on New Spain,' (vol. i. p. 107), characterises the work of Malthus as 'one of the most profound works on Political Economy which has ever appeared.' But to come to the reviewer's argument—

The objection, it will be observed, is a purely practical one. It is not denied that 'population tends to increase faster than subsistence;' that, however great be the quantity of food which the earth is capable of yielding, population may ultimately overtake it, and tends to do so; but it is said, of what practical moment is this to us living now, with the boundless resources of new worlds still at our disposal? The answer—the practical answer—is it is everything to us, if these resources, however extensive, are not in fact turned to account. It matters not whether the obstacles be physical or moral, whether absolute and insuperable, or the result simply of prejudice and ignorance, so long as they are effectual in preventing the cultivation of the countries in question. So long as this is the case, these countries, to all practical intents and purposes, may be said not to exist for us: they can no more be counted on as means of supporting population than the countries in the moon. Yet because forsooth 'the valley of the Ottawa can grow corn enough to support all England,' although it is admitted that it does not do so, and it is not asserted that there is any immediate prospect that it will, this 'really practical' reviewer holds that it is the height of absurdity to speak of the necessity of restraining population, and treats all those who do, as dreamers and lunatics!

A labourer, e.g., in Dorsetshire, on nine shillings a week is hesitating about marriage. The 'speculative' Malthusian advises him to wait a little while till he saves enough to form at least the nucleus of a support for his wife and family. 'The really practical man,' on the other hand says to him, Why hesitate? Is not the valley of the Ottawa capable of growing food for all England?

The immense food-producing capabilities of the earth yet available for us were not overlooked by Malthus, nor, so far as I know, have they been by those who accept his doctrine, nor is there any reason to suppose that either master or followers have underrated the importance of turning these capabilities to account. They have, however, urged that the existence of capabilities is no reason for weakening the restraints on population; because, whatever be the extent of these resources, the development of them must be a work of time, and population is found in fact to be always fully able to keep pace with the process. The instinct which holds people to their native land, in spite of the alluring prospects of other regions, the tardiness with which capital moves to new countries, and the ignorance, indolence, and barbarism of most of the races which occupy them, render the introduction of systematized industry into such regions a matter of much difficulty and of slow accomplishment. The greater part of India has now been under our rule for a century, and yet we know how difficult it is to attract capital thither without a government guarantee; and, notwithstanding all that has been written and spoken of the boundless resources of India, and the pressing needs of England for articles to the production of which her soil and climate are peculiarly suitable, how little has yet been done to turn these advantages to account! What would a Manchester cotton spinner think of the advice—not to hesitate about erecting new mills and machinery, because, though the supply of cotton be rather short just now, the plains of the Deccan are capable of producing more than he will be able to work up for half a century? Yet the reviewer who, in the somewhat more momentous affair of human existence, gives precisely analogous advice, takes credit to himself for pre-eminent practical wisdom.

With regard to the other point adverted to—the possibility of largely increasing the quantity of subsistence raised even in old countries, similar considerations apply. The fact is undoubtedly true; but more food is nevertheless not raised. If it be asked why this is so? the answer is because, while agricultural skill remains at its present point, an increased production of food would necessitate a fall in farmers' profits, and farmers do not choose to submit to a fall in profits. And if it be further asked as to the grounds of this necessity, the inquirer may be referred to 'the diminishing productiveness of the soil'—the impenetrable barrier against which all anti-Malthusian plans and arguments are ultimately shivered.

I say 'discovery,' because, although it is true that the fundamental fact on which Malthus's doctrine rested had frequently been noticed before (vide, for example, McPherson's 'Annals of Commerce, 1590,' where he quotes a passage from a work by a Piedmontese Jesuit, Botero, 'On the Causes of the Greatness of Cities,' in which the writer puts the question—'What is the reason that cities, once grown to greatness, increase not onwards according to that proportion?' and gives the Malthusian answer), its bearing and importance with reference to the interests of mankind were all but wholly unappreciated until Malthus wrote. He it was who first called attention to the vast consequences involved in a fact patent to every observer, and occasionally taken notice of in particular instances, but never before understood in its full significance. And this, I may observe, is the nature of almost all discoveries in the region of social inquiry, as well as to some extent also in the sciences of organic nature. For example, the facts which form the basis of the Darwinian doctrine of species had not only been often noticed before, but, as Mr. Darwin shows, had been systematically acted on by breeders and others—in fact made the basis of an art. No one, however, will say that this detracted from the originality of Darwin's discovery.
'Emigration,' says Doctor Johnson, 'is hurtful to human happiness, for it spreads mankind.' Dean Tucker, one of the few Englishmen who, during the American War of Independence, favoured separation, did so expressly on the ground that it would check emigration. See his Tracts, p. 206.
It by no means follows from anything that has been said above that paucity of population or the slowness of its advances is to be taken as a proof of national prosperity; or, vice versâ, that a numerous or rapidly increasing population is inconsistent therewith, as is almost invariably asserted or implied by anti-Malthusian writers. Mr. Rickards (e. g.) says:—"Mr. Malthus and the disciples of his school unite in representing the supposed pressure of population against food as increasing in intensity in direct proportion to the populousness of a community;" and, after giving the number of inhabitants to the square mile in some of the principal countries in the world, the result of the comparison being to show the greatest density of population in England, he adds, "England, therefore, is the country in which, according to the theory in question, the pressure of over-population ought to be most severe."—Population and Capital, p.p. 117, 118.

It is evident that the theory in question involves no such consequence; referring, as it does, to the relation subsisting between population and food, and asserting nothing whatever respecting the absolute amount of either. The statement, however, is not simply an unwarrantable inference; it amounts to a direct misrepresentation of Malthus, since it imputes to him an opinion which he has in terms disavowed. E.g. "It is an utter misconception of my argument to infer that I am an enemy to population. I am only an enemy to vice and misery, and consequently to that unfavourable proportion between population and food which produces these evils. But this unfavourable proportion has no necessary connection with the quantity of absolute population which a country may contain. On the contrary, it is more frequently found in countries which are very thinly peopled than in those which are more populous.... In the desirableness of a great and efficient population, I do not differ from the warmest advocates of increase. I am perfectly ready to acknowledge with the writers of old, that it is not extent of territory, but extent of population, that measures the power of states. It is only as to the mode of obtaining a vigorous and efficient population that I differ from them, and in thus differing, I conceive myself entirely borne out by experience, that great test of all human speculations." [See Appendix I of Malthus's 6th edition of his Essay.—Econlib Ed.]

The practical difference in the results to which Malthusian and anti-Malthusian views lead may be made clearer by considering how they would apply in a given case.

The stationary state of population in France, which has lately been made the subject of much remark, would probably be regarded by both schools as indicating something amiss in the social condition of that country. But while the anti-Malthusian would regard it as the source of the disease, the Malthusian would consider it as merely a symptom, and a symptom, as far as it went, alleviative of the disorder. According to the views of the former, the proper cure for the social malady would be to encourage population by offering premiums for large families, or by throwing the responsibility of providing for them on the State. I do not say that any one now would seriously recommend this policy; but I say it is a legitimate consequence from anti-Malthusian doctrines; it was universally accepted as such, and acted on as such, up to the close of the last century; and if the same policy is not still openly advocated, it is owing to the influence which the writings of Malthus have exercised even amongst those who affect to repudiate his teaching.

On the other hand, the Malthusian would regard the stationariness of population in France as an alleviative symptom of the social malady. That population does not advance is, indeed, in itself (apart from other considerations) an evil; it implies at all events a certain negation of human happiness; but it is better that population should not advance than that it should advance in increasing pauperism and wretchedness. The Malthusian, therefore, would consider how the material resources of France might be expanded, and her means of supporting population increased; but he would carefully abstain from encouraging population, because he would know that, owing to the natural strength of the principle, however great might be the expansion of her resources, population would advance at least as fast as was desirable. On the contrary, he would take care, while endeavouring to augment her means, not to weaken, but rather to strengthen, those prudential habits which at present exist. No possible immediate gain, if obtained by a relaxation in this respect, would be considered by him as an adequate compensation for the future evils which such relaxation would entail.

See 'Lawson's Lectures on Political Economy;' also 'Laing's Travels in Europe,' chap. iii.
'Population and Capital,' pp. 68-70, 73, 75.
Mr. Rickards in fact elsewhere states the question in this way:—"Now, precisely the same assumption—that of the diminishing productiveness of the land, as compared with the undiminished power of human fecundity—forms the basis of the Malthusian theory."—Population and Capital, p. 127.
"To enter fully into this question, and to enumerate all the causes that have hitherto influenced human improvement, would be much beyond the power of an individual. The principal object of the present essay is to examine the effects of one great cause intimately united with the very nature of man; which, though it has been constantly and powerfully operating since the commencement of society, has been little noticed by writers who have treated this subject."—Malthus, Essay on Population, p.2. Ed. 1807. [See Preface to the Second Edition.—Econlib Ed.]
P. 115.
P. 204.
P. 186.
" 'Wherever Providence brings mouths into the world, it will find wherewithal to feed them;' the profane form of the theory," says the Cambridge Don, "is, that you ought to marry, because your relations can't let you starve." .

End of Notes

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