An Essay on the Principle of Population

Thomas Robert Malthus
Malthus, Thomas Robert
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London: John Murray
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Book IV, Chapter XI

Different Plans of improving the Condition of the Poor considered.


In the distribution of our charity, or in any efforts which we may make to better the condition of the lower classes of society, there is another point relating to the main argument of this work, to which we must be particularly attentive. We must on no account do any thing which tends directly to encourage marriage, or to remove, in any regular and systematic manner, that inequality of circumstances which ought always to exist between the single man and the man with a family. The writers who have best understood the principle of population appear to me all to have fallen into very important errors on this point.


Sir James Steuart, who was fully aware of what he calls vicious procreation, and of the misery that attends a redundant population, recommends, notwithstanding, the general establishment of foundling hospitals; the taking of children under certain circumstances from their parents, and supporting them at the expense of the state; and particularly laments the inequality of condition between the married and single man, so ill proportioned to their respective wants.*34 He forgets, in these instances, that if, without the encouragement to multiplication of foundling hospitals, or of public support for the children of some married persons, and under the discouragement of great pecuniary disadvantages on the side of the married man, population be still redundant, which is evinced by the inability of the poor to maintain all their children; it is a clear proof that the funds destined for the maintenance of labour cannot properly support a greater population; and that, if further encouragements to multiplication be given, and discouragements removed, the result must be, an increase somewhere or other of that vicious procreation, which he so justly reprobates.


Mr. Townsend, who in his Dissertation on the Poor Laws has treated this subject with great skill and perspicuity, appears to me to conclude with a proposal, which violates the principles on which he had reasoned so well. He wishes to make the benefit clubs, or friendly societies, which are now voluntarily established in many parishes, compulsory and universal; and proposes as a regulation that an unmarried man should pay a fourth part of his wages, and a married man with four children not more than a thirtieth part.*35


I must first remark that the moment these subscriptions are made compulsory, they will necessarily operate exactly like a direct tax upon labour, which, as Adam Smith justly states, will always be paid, and in a more expensive manner, by the consumer. The landed interest therefore would receive little relief from this plan, but would pay the same sum as at present, only in the advanced price of labour and of commodities, instead of in the parish rates. A compulsory subscription of this kind would have almost all the bad effects of the present system of relief, and, though altered in name, would still possess the essential spirit of the poor-laws.


Dean Tucker, in some remarks on a plan of the same kind, proposed by Mr. Pew, observed that, after much talk and reflection on the subject, he had come to the conclusion, that they must be voluntary associations, and not compulsory assemblies. A voluntary subscription is like a tax upon a luxury, and does not necessarily raise the price of labour.


It should be recollected, also, that in a voluntary association of a small extent, over which each individual member can exercise a superintendence, it is highly probable that the original agreements will all be strictly fulfilled, or, if they be not, every man may at least have the redress of withdrawing himself from the club. But in an universal compulsory subscription, which must necessarily become a national concern, there would be no security whatever for the fulfilment of the original agreements; and when the funds failed, which they certainly would do, when all the idle and dissolute were included, instead of some of the most industrious and provident, as at present, a larger subscription would probably be demanded, and no man would have the right to refuse it. The evil would thus go on increasing as the poor-rates do now. If indeed the assistance given were always specific, and on no account to be increased, as in the present voluntary associations, this would certainly be a striking advantage; but the same advantage might be completely attained by a similar distribution of the sums collected by the parish rates. On the whole, therefore, it appears to me that, if the friendly societies were made universal and compulsory, it would be merely a different mode of collecting parish rates; and any particular mode of distribution might be as well adopted upon one system as upon the other.


With regard to the proposal of making single men pay a fourth part of their earnings weekly, and married men with families only a thirtieth part, it would evidently operate as a heavy fine upon bachelors, and a high bounty upon children; and is therefore directly adverse to the general spirit in which Mr. Townsend's excellent dissertation is written. Before he introduces this proposal, he lays it down as a general principle, that no system for the relief of the poor can be good, which does not regulate population by the demand for labour;*36 but this proposal clearly tends to encourage population without any reference to the demand for labour, and punishes a young man for his prudence in refraining from marriage, at a time, perhaps, when this demand may be so small, that the wages of labour are totally inadequate to the support of a family. I should be averse to any compulsory system whatever for the poor; but certainly if single men were compelled to pay a contribution for the future contingencies of the married state, they ought in justice to receive a benefit proportioned to the period of their privation; and the man who had contributed a fourth of his earnings for merely one year, ought not to be put upon a level with him who had contributed this proportion for ten years.


Mr. Arthur Young, in most of his works, appears clearly to understand the principle of population, and is fully aware of the evils which must necessarily result from an increase of people beyond the demand for labour, and the means of comfortable subsistence. In his Tour through France he has particularly laboured this point, and shewn most forcibly the misery which results in that country from the excess of population occasioned by the too great division of property. Such an increase he justly calls merely a multiplication of wretchedness. "Couples marry and procreate on the idea, not the reality, of a maintenance; they increase beyond the demand of towns and manufactures; and the consequence is, distress, and numbers dying of diseases arising from insufficient nourishment."*37


In another place he quotes a very sensible passage from the Report of the Committee of Mendicity, which, alluding to the evils of overpopulation, concludes thus, "If faudroit enfin nécessairement que le prix de travail baissât par la plus grande concurrence de travailleurs, d'oł résulteroit une indigence complette pour ceux qui ne trouveroient pas de travail, et une subsistence incomplette pour ceux mêmes auxquels il ne seroit pas réfusé." And in remarking upon this passage, he observes, "France itself affords an irrefragable proof of the truth of these sentiments; for I am clearly of opinion, from the observations I made in every province of the kingdom, that her population is so much beyond the proportion of her industry and labour, that she would be much more powerful and infinitely more flourishing, if she had five or six millions less of inhabitants. From her too great population she presents in every quarter such spectacles of wretchedness, as are absolutely inconsistent with that degree of national felicity which she was capable of attaining, even under the old government. A traveller much less attentive than I was to objects of this kind must see at every turn most unequivocal signs of distress. That these should exist, no one can wonder, who considers the price of labour and of provisions, and the misery into which a small rise in the price of wheat throws the lower classes.*38


"If you would see," he says, "a district with as little distress in it as is consistent with the political system of the old government of France, you must assuredly go where there are no little proprietors at all. You must visit the great farms in Beauce, Picardy, part of Normandy and Artois, and there you will find no more population than what is regularly employed, and regularly paid; and if in such districts you should, contrary to this rule, meet with much distress, it is twenty to one but that it is in a parish, which has some commons which tempt the poor to have cattle—to have property—and in consequence misery. When you are engaged in this political tour, finish it by seeing England, and I will shew you a set of peasants well clothed, well nourished, tolerably drunken from superfluity, well lodged, and at their ease; and yet amongst them, not one in a thousand has either land or cattle."*39 A little farther on, alluding to encouragements to marriage, he says of France, "The predominant evil of the kingdom is the having so great a population, that she can neither employ nor feed it; why then encourage marriage? Would you breed more people, because you have more already than you know what to do with? You have so great a competition for food, that your people are starving or in misery; and you would encourage the production of more, to increase that competition. It may almost be questioned, whether the contrary policy ought not to be embraced; whether difficulties should not be laid on the marriage of those who cannot make it appear that they have the prospect of maintaining the children that shall be the fruit of it? But why encourage marriages, which are sure to take place in all situations in which they ought to take place? There is no instance to be found of plenty of regular employment being first established, where marriages have not followed in a proportionate degree. The policy therefore, at best, is useless, and may be pernicious."


After having once so clearly understood the principle of population, as to express these and many other sentiments on the subject, equally just and important, it is not a little surprising to find Mr. Young, in a pamphlet, entitled The Question of Scarcity plainly stated, and Remedies considered (published in 1800,) observing, that "the means which would of all others perhaps tend most surely to prevent future scarcities so oppressive to the poor as the present, would be to secure to every country labourer in the kingdom, that has three children and upwards, half an acre of land for potatoes; and grass enough to feed one or two cows.*40 *** If each had his ample potatoe-ground and a cow, the price of wheat would be of little more consequence to them than it is to their brethren in Ireland."


"Every one admits the system to be good, but the question is how to enforce it."


I was by no means aware that the excellence of the system had been so generally admitted. For myself I strongly protest against being included in the general term of every one, as I should consider the adoption of this system as the most cruel and fatal blow to the happiness of the lower classes of people in this country that they had ever received.


Mr. Young, however, goes on to say, that "The magnitude of the object should make us disregard any difficulties, but such as are insuperable: none such would probably occur, if something like the following means were resorted to.


"I. Where there are common pastures, to give to a labouring man having children, a right to demand an allotment proportioned to the family, to be set out by the parish officers, &c., *** and a cow bought. Such labourer to have both for life, paying 40s. a year till the price of the cow, &c. was reimbursed: at his death to go to the labourer having the most numerous family, for life, paying shillings a week to the widow of his predecessor."


"II. Labourers thus demanding allotments by reason of their families to have land assigned and cows bought, till the proportion so allotted amounts to one of the extent of the common."


"III. In parishes where there are no commons, and the quality of the land adequate, every cottager having children, to whose cottage there is not within a given time land sufficient for a cow, and half an acre of potatoes, assigned at a fair average rent, subject to appeal to the sessions, to have a right to demand shillings per week of the parish for every child, till such land be assigned; leaving to landlords and tenants the means of doing it. Cows to be found by the parish under an annual reimbursement."*41


"The great object is, by means of milk and potatoes, to take the mass of the country poor front the consumption of wheat, and to give them substitutes equally wholesome and nourishing, and as independent of scarcities, natural and artificial, as the providence of the Almighty will admit."*42


Would not this plan operate, in the most direct manner, as an encouragement to marriage and a bounty on children, which Mr. Young has with so much justice reprobated in his travels in France? and does he seriously think that it would be an eligible thing to feed the mass of the people in this country on milk and potatoes, and make them as independent of the price of corn and demand for labour as their brethren in Ireland?


The specific cause of the poverty and misery of the lower classes of people in France and Ireland is, that from the extreme subdivision of property in the one country, and the facility of obtaining a cabin and potatoes in the other, a population is brought into existence, which is not demanded by the quantity of capital and employment in the country; and the consequence of which must therefore necessarily be, as is very justly expressed in the Report of the Committee of Mendicity before mentioned, to lower in general the price of labour by too great competition; from which must result complete indigence to those who cannot find employment, and an incomplete subsistence even to those who can.


The obvious tendency of Mr. Young's plan is, by encouraging marriage and furnishing a cheap food, independent of the price of corn, and of course of the demand for labour, to place the lower classes of people exactly in this situation.


It may perhaps be said, that our poor-laws at present regularly encourage marriage and children, by distributing relief in proportion to the size of families; and that this plan, which is proposed as a substitute, would merely do the same thing in a less objectionable manner. But surely, in endeavouring to get rid of the evil of the poor-laws, we ought not to retain their most pernicious quality; and Mr. Young must know as well as I do, that the principal reason why poor-laws have invariably been found ineffectual in the relief of the poor is, that they tend to encourage a population, which is not regulated by the demand for labour. Mr. Young himself, indeed, expressly takes notice of this effect in England, and observes that, notwithstanding the unrivalled prosperity of her manufactures, "population is sometimes too active, as we see clearly by the dangerous increase of poor's rates in country villages."*43


But the fact is, that Mr. Young's plan would be incomparably more powerful in encouraging a population beyond the demand for labour, than our present poor-laws. A laudable repugnance to the receiving of parish relief, arising partly from a spirit of independence not yet extinct, and partly from the disagreeable mode in which the relief is given, undoubtedly deters many from marrying with a certainty of falling on the parish; and the proportion of births and marriages to the whole population, which has before been noticed, clearly proves that the poor-laws do not encourage marriage so much as might be expected from theory. But the case would be very different, if, when a labourer had an early marriage in contemplation, the terrific forms of workhouses and parish officers, which might disturb his resolution, were to be exchanged for the fascinating visions of land and cows. If the love of property, as Mr. Young has repeatedly said, will make a man do much, it would be rather strange if it would not make him marry; an action to which, it appears from experience, that he is by no means disinclined.


The population, which would be thus called into being, would be supported by the extended cultivation of potatoes, and would of course go on without any reference to the demand for labour. In the present state of things, notwithstanding the flourishing condition of our manufactures and the numerous chocks to our population, there is no practical problem so difficult, as to find employment for the poor; but this difficulty would evidently be aggravated a hundred fold, under the circumstances here supposed.


In Ireland, or in any other country, where the common food is potatoes, and every man who wishes to marry may obtain a piece of ground sufficient, when planted with this root, to support a family, prizes may be given till the treasury is exhausted for essays on the best means of employing the poor; but till some stop to the progress of population naturally arising from this state of things takes place, the object in view is really a physical impossibility.*44


Mr. Young has intimated, that, if the people were fed upon milk and potatoes, they would be more independent of scarcities than at present; but why this should be the case I really cannot comprehend. Undoubtedly people who live upon potatoes will not be much affected by a scarcity of wheat; but is there any contradiction in the supposition of a failure in the crops of potatoes? I believe it is generally understood that they are more liable to suffer damage during the winter than grain. From the much greater quantity of food yielded by a given piece of land when planted with potatoes, than under any other kind of cultivation, it would naturally happen that, for some time after the introduction of this root as the general food of the labouring classes of people, a greater quantity would be grown than was demanded, and they would live in plenty. Mr. Young, in his Travels through France, observes, that, "In districts which contain immense quantities of waste land of a certain degree of fertility, as in the roots of the Pyrenees, belonging to communities ready to sell them, economy and industry, animated with the views of settling and marrying, flourish greatly; in such neighbourhoods something like an American increase takes place, and if the land be cheap little distress is found. But as procreation goes on rapidly under such circumstances, the least check to subsistence is attended with great misery; as wastes becoming dearer, or the best portions being sold, or difficulties arising in the acquisition; all which circumstances I met with in those mountains. The moment that any impediment happens, the distress of such a people will be proportioned to the activity and vigour, which had animated population."*45


This description will apply exactly to what would take place in this country, on the distribution of small portions of land to the common people, and the introduction of potatoes as their general food. For a time the change might appear beneficial, and of course the idea of property would make it, at first, highly acceptable to the poor; but, as Mr. Young in another place says, "You presently arrive at the limit, beyond which the earth, cultivate it as you please, will feed no more mouths; yet those simple manners, which instigate to marriage still continue; what then is the consequence, but the most dreadful misery imaginable?"*46


When the commons were all divided, and difficulties began to occur in procuring potatoe-grounds, the habit of early marriages, which had been introduced, would occasion the most complicated distress; and when, from the increasing population, and diminishing sources of subsistence, the average growth of potatoes was not more than the average consumption, a scarcity of potatoes would be, in every respect, as probable as a scarcity of wheat at present; and, when it did arrive, it would be beyond all comparison more dreadful.


When the common people of a country live principally upon the dearest grain, as they do in England on wheat, they have great resources in a scarcity; and barley, oats, rice, cheap soups and potatoes, all present themselves as less expensive, yet at the same time wholesome means of nourishment; but when their habitual food is the lowest in this scale, they appear to be absolutely without resource, except in the bark of trees, like the poor Swedes; and a great portion of them must necessarily be starved.


The wages of labour will always be regulated mainly by the proportion of the supply of labour to the demand. And as, upon the potatoe system, a supply more than adequate to the demand would very soon take place, and this supply might be continued at a very cheap rate, on account of the cheapness of the food which would furnish it, the common price of labour would soon be regulated principally by the price of potatoes instead of the price of wheat, as at present; and the rags and wretched cabins of Ireland would follow of course.


When the demand for labour occasionally exceeds the supply, and wages are regulated by the price of the dearest grain, they will generally be such as to yield something besides mere food, and the common people may be able to obtain decent houses and decent clothing. If the contrast between the state of the French and English labourers, which Mr. Young has drawn, be in any degree near the truth, the advantage on the side of England has been occasioned precisely and exclusively by these two circumstances; and if, by the adoption of milk and potatoes as the general food of the common people, these circumstances were totally altered, so as to make the supply of labour constantly in a great excess above the demand for it, and regulate wages by the price of the cheapest food, the advantage would be immediately lost, and no efforts of benevolence could prevent the most general and abject poverty.


Upon the same principle it would by no means be eligible that the cheap soups of Count Rumford should be adopted as the general food of the common people. They are excellent inventions for the public institutions, and as occasional resources; but if they were once universally adopted by the poor, it would be impossible to prevent the price of labour from being regulated by them; and the labourer, though at first he might have more to spare for other expenses, besides food, would ultimately have much less to spare than before.


The desirable thing, with a view to the happiness of the common people, seems to be, that their habitual food should be dear, and their wages regulated by it; but that, in a scarcity, or other occasional distress, the cheaper food should be readily and cheerfully adopted.*47 With a view of rendering this transition easier, and at the same time of making an useful distinction between those who are dependent on parish relief and those who are not, I should think that one plan, which Mr. Young proposes, would be extremely eligible. This is, "to pass an act prohibiting relief, so far as subsistence is concerned, in any other manner than by potatoes, rice and soup; not merely as a measure of the moment, but permanently."*48 I do not think that this plan would necessarily introduce these articles as the common food of the lower classes; and if it merely made the transition to them in periods of distress easier, and at the same time drew a more marked line than at present between dependence and independence, it would have a very beneficial effect.


As it is acknowledged that the introduction of milk and potatoes, or of cheap soups, as the general food of the lower classes of people, would lower the price of labour, perhaps some cold politician might propose to adopt the system, with a view of underselling foreigners in the markets of Europe. I should not envy the feelings which could suggest such a proposal. I really cannot conceive any thing much more detestable than the idea of knowingly condemning the labourers of this country to the rags and wretched cabins of Ireland, for the purpose of selling a few more broad cloths and calicoes.*49 The wealth and power of nations are, after all, only desirable as they contribute to happiness. In this point of view, I should be very far from undervaluing them, considering them, in general, as absolutely necessary means to attain the end; but if any particular case should occur, where they appear to be in direct opposition to each other, we cannot rationally doubt which ought to be preferred.


Fortunately, however, even on the narrowest political principles, the adoption of such a system would not answer. It has always been observed that those, who work chiefly on their own property, work very indolently and unwillingly when employed for others; and it must necessarily happen, when, from the general adoption of a very cheap food, the population of a country increases considerably beyond the demand for labour, that habits of idleness and turbulence will be generated, most peculiarly unfavourable to a flourishing state of manufactures. In spite of the cheapness of labour in Ireland, there are few manufactures which can be prepared in that country for foreign sale so cheap as in England: and this is in a great measure owing to the want of those industrious habits which can only be produced by regular employment.

Notes for this chapter

Political Economy, vol. i. b. i. c. xiii.
Dissertation on the Poor-Laws, p. 89, 2d edit. 1787.
p. 84.
Travels in France, vol. i. c. xii. p. 408.
Travels in France, vol. i. c. xvii. p. 469.
Travels in France, vol. i. c. xvii. p. 471.
P. 77.
P. 78.
P. 79.
Travels in France, vol. i. c. xvii. p. 470.
Mr. Crumpe's Prize Essay on the best means of finding employment for the people is an excellent treatise, and contains most valuable information; but till the capital of the country is better proportioned to its population, it is perfectly chimerical to expect success in any project of the kind. I am also strongly disposed to believe that the indolent and turbulent habits of the lower Irish can never be corrected, while its potatoe system enables them to increase so much beyond the regular demand for labour.
Travels in France, vol. i. c. xvii. p. 409.
Travels in France, vol. i. c. xvii. p. 409.
It is certainly to be wished that every cottage in England should have a garden to it well stocked with vegetables. A little variety of food is in every point of view highly useful. Potatoes are undoubtedly a most valuable assistance, though I should be very sorry ever to see them the principal dependence of our labourers.
Question of Scarcity, &c. p. 80. This might be done, at least with regard to workhouses. In assisting the poor at their own homes, it might be subject to some practical difficulties.
In this observation I have not the least idea of alluding to Mr. Young, who, I firmly believe, ardently wishes to improve the condition of the lower classes of people; though I do not think that his plan would effect the object in view. He either did not see those consequences which I apprehend from it; or he has a better opinion of the happiness of the common people in Ireland than I have. In his his Irish Tour he seemed much struck with the plenty of potatoes which they possessed, and the absence of all apprehension of want. Had he travelled in 1800 and 1801, his impressions would by all accounts have been very different. From the facility which has hitherto prevailed in Ireland of procuring potatoe-grounds, scarcities have certainly been rare, and all the effects of the system have not yet been felt, though certainly enough to make it appear very far from desirable.

Mr. Young has since pursued his idea more in detail, in a pamphlet entitled, An Inquiry into the Propriety of applying Wastes to the better Maintenance and Support of the Poor. But the impression on my mind is still the same; and it appears to be calculated to assimilate the condition of the labourers of this country to that of the lower classes of the Irish. Mr. Young seems, in a most unaccountable manner, to have forgotten all his general principles on this subject. He has treated the question of a provision for the poor, as if it was merely, How to provide in the cheapest and best manner for a given number of people. If this had been the sole question, it would never have taken so many hundred years to resolve. But the real question is, How to provide for those who are in want, in such a manner as to present a continual accumulation of their numbers? and it will readily occur to the reader, that a plan of giving them land and cows cannot promise much success in this respect. If, after all the commons had been divided, the poor-laws were still to continue in force, no good reason can be assigned why the rates should not in a few years be as high us they are at present, independently of all that had been expended in the purchase of land and stock. .

End of Notes

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