The Wages Question: A Treatise on Wages and the Wages Class

Francis A. Walker
Walker, Francis A.
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London: Macmillan and Co.
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Part I, Chapter VI


To the situation reached at the close of the last chapter let us now apply the law of population known by the name of the English writer who, if he did not discover the principles underlying it, at least called and compelled general attention to them.


The reader will have noted that in tracing the gradual increase in numbers of the agricultural community whose experiences formed the subject of the last chapter, the additional laborers for whom room and work were found were in all cases called in from abroad, and that these laborers were taken as without families, or at least that women and children were in no way introduced into the narrative. This was because we were then only concerned with the industrial capabilities of the square-mile tract under consideration.


But now let us change the supposition. The addition of laborers shall be through the growth to maturity of the children of the first residents. All the conditions will remain substantially the same, through the whole course of settlement and improvement, until we reach the stage of "diminishing returns." Here the difference between the two modes of accession begins, and here Malthusianism applies for the first time. In the last chapter our supposition was that when the point was reached where the number of laborers was as great as could be employed upon the land to advantage—that is, without a reduction of the per-capita crop—the existing body of laborers would refuse to receive further accessions, and thus stop at the limit of the highest individual product. But how will it be if the accessions are by the arrival at maturity of the children of the laborers themselves? Will that mode of increase be checked so easily, surely, and, one might say, automatically, when the real interests of the laborer demand that no more shall be admitted to the land now tilled to its highest per-capita capability? Mr. Malthus answers, No; and his great reputation rests on his searching investigation of the principles of population, and his conclusive statement that population has tended, at least under past human conditions, to disregard the moral inhibition contained in the fact of diminishing returns, and to increase thereafter faster than subsistence, and even to persist in that increase, while food became more scant, meagre, and unnourishing, until at last the one sufficient check was applied by disease and famine.


Population, said Mr. Malthus, increases in a geometrical ratio, while subsistence increases in an arithmetical ratio only. What, now, is the characteristic of geometrical as contrasted with arithmetical increase? It is that the increase itself increases. Thus, in a series of seven terms, we might have:

Arithmetical, 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, 14.
Geometrical, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128.


Here, in the former series, the actual difference between the sixth and seventh terms is the same as that between the first and second, namely, 2. In the latter series, the difference between the first and second terms is also 2, while between the sixth and seventh it is 64. This tremendous leap from term to term is due to the fact that the increase between the first and second terms becomes itself the cause of increase between the second and third terms; and this increase, in turn, becomes the cause of corresponding increase between the third and fourth, and so on to the end. Whereas in the arithmetical series we may say that the entire increase comes out of the original first term, and all the successive increments remain themselves barren.


Mankind, like every other species of animals, said Mr. Malthus, tend to increase in a geometrical ratio. Speaking broadly, every human pair, no matter in what term of the series appearing, has the same capability of reproduction as the original pair, and has the same likelihood of an equally numerous offspring, after the same number of generations, as Adam and Eve are credited with. It is in this fact of a reproductive capability in the descendant equal to that of the ancestor that Mr. Malthus found the possibilities of perpetual poverty, misery, and vice among the human race. At this point, however, it needs to be observed that the mere fact of children being born to every human pair on earth does not of itself meet the conditions of Mr. Malthus's reasoning. Mr. Greg, in his Social Enigmas, has written as if Malthusianism presented the issue whether people should have children or not. But it is plain—almost too plain, indeed, to be formally stated—that every human pair might have one child, and yet the race become extinct in a few generations; might have two children, yet no increase of population result, the children only supplying the parents' places in the social and industrial order; nay, as a large proportion of those who are born do, and seemingly must, in the present state of sanitary and medical science, die before reaching maturity, and as many who survive do, from one cause or another, remain single, every married pair might have three children, and yet there be no increase. Surely these facts dispose of Mr. Greg's sentimental grievance.


The doctrine of Malthus, then, assumes an average number of children to a family sufficient, after allowance for infant mortality, celibacy, and exceptional sterility, to yield a net increase in each generation. As matter of fact, Mr. Malthus*90 assumes in excess of four children to a family as the average under conditions where neither "vice, misery, nor moral restraint" appear to check the natural progress of population. The validity of the theory does not, however, depend on the specific ratio taken. Given only a number of children sufficient to yield a net increase, however slight, in each generation, with an undiminished reproductive capability in each married pair, we have the conditions of a geometrical progression. And the capabilities of a geometrical progression when persisted in are simply tremendous. "The elephant," says Mr. Darwin, "is reckoned the slowest breeder of all known animals, and I have taken some pains to estimate its probable minimum rate of natural increase. It will be safest to assume that it begins breeding when thirty years old, and goes on breeding till ninety years old, bringing forth six young in the interval, and surviving till one hundred years old; if this be so, after a period of from seven hundred and forty to seven hundred and fifty years there would be alive nearly nineteen million elephants descended from the first pair....Even slow-breeding man has doubled in twenty-five years, and at this rate in a few thousand years there would literally not be standing-room for his progeny."*91


But how would it be meanwhile with subsistence? In saying that this tends to increase in an arithmetical ratio only, Mr. Malthus did not deny an inherent capability in vegetable life to reproduce itself far more rapidly than it is given to most species of animals to do. "Wheat, we know," says Prof. Senior, "is an annual, and its average power of reproduction perhaps about six for one; on that supposition, the produce of a single acre might cover the globe in fourteen years.*92" Here, surely, is geometrical and geographical progression with a vengeance! Why, then, assert for vegetable life a power of arithmetical progression only? The justification of this will be found in the last words of the extract just given: the globe would be covered,*93 and that in fourteen years, by the increase of a single acre of this comparatively unprolific cereal. There are weeds, and even useful plants, whose rate of increase would allow them to overspread the earth in half that time. Mr. Malthus's theory assumes the earth generally occupied and cultivated, in its fertile parts at least. From this point on, all increase of vegetable food must be made against an increasing resistance, and hence can only be obtained through the expenditure of constantly-increasing force. After the condition of "diminishing returns" described in the preceding chapter has been reached, every addition to the crop is obtained at the cost of more than a proportional amount of labor. Thus the share of each laborer becomes smaller and still smaller, as, through the persistence*94 of the sexual instincts, population continues to increase. "The diminishing productiveness of the land, as compared with the undiminished power of human fecundity, forms the basis of the Malthusian theory."*95


From my own analysis of the doctrine of Mr. Malthus, I should say he reached in succession three results: first, the power of population to increase faster than subsistence; secondly, the tendency of population so to increase—that is, he proved that the mere fact of passing into the stage of "diminishing returns" in production has of itself no necessary effect whatever to check propagation; thirdly, the determination, the strong and urgent disposition, of population so to increase, due to the power and persistence of the sexual instincts, under the force of which human reproduction will go forward in spite of the plain warnings of prudence, in spite of increasing discomfort, squalor, and hunger. "Moral restraint" might, Mr. Malthus admitted, intervene to stay the fatal progress; but this required too much virtue to be reasonably expected of large masses of people. Hence the limit to population must be looked for mainly in "vice" (a preventive check to population) or in "misery" (a positive check). Prostitution might enter in disparagement of marriage; fœticide and abortion might enter to diminish the average number of children to a marriage; such were the methods of vice in limiting population by diminishing births. On the other hand, misery—that is, privation and excessive exertion—by aggravating infant mortality and shortening the duration of mature life, has been found, and is likely through an indefinite future to be found, the chief agency in keeping down the numbers of mankind.


Of this last result it may be said that it was a not very extravagant generalization of the experiences of most of the countries of Europe to which Mr. Malthus, writing before the French Revolution had fully wrought its mighty work, could look to ascertain the comparative strength of the principle of increase and the restraints of prudence. He might—indeed he did—look away to a country beyond the ocean, where a popular tenure of the soil, popular education, and a popular control of government might be expected to bring out the virtues of self-respect and self-restraint; but here it chanced that the political and the industrial interests of the people coincided in encouraging the most rapid development of population.


Such being the three successive but distinct results which make up Mr. Malthus's body of doctrine, it should be noted that they are not all of the same validity. The first result comes directly out of facts in the physical conditions of the earth and of man, which can not be impugned. The second, for all that is known of human physiology, would seem to be equally indisputable. Prof. Senior has, indeed, in terms, while admitting the power, denied the tendency; but I must think that his denial should be taken as extending not to the tendency, but to what I have called the determination, of population to increase unduly. It seems incredible that Prof. Senior should have intended to question that population tends to increase faster than subsistence, so long, at least, as subsistence remains adequate to physical well-being, for it must be remembered that the condition of diminishing returns may begin when the per-capita product is still ample to afford a liberal support to all. Now, a country may proceed a long time with diminishing returns, diminishing, it may be, very slowly, before squalor and hunger become the necessary concomitants of an increase of population. So that, considering a people on the verge of that condition, it is certainly safe to say that subsistence can not thereafter increase as fast as before, because the constitution of the soil forbids; while yet population may, for a longer or a shorter time, continue to increase as fast as before, since the reproductive capability*96 is undiminished and the sexual instinct remains as active and strong as ever. Hence, I believe Prof. Senior must have meant to deny this tendency only in the degree of force and persistency which Mr. Malthus attributed to it.


It is then against Mr. Malthus's last result, namely, the determination, the strong and urgent disposition, of population to increase in spite of reason and prudence, and in spite of privation and squalor, that all valid criticism must be directed. Many of Mr. Malthus's opponents have considered that they have demolished Malthusianism when they have shown to their own satisfaction that the impulse to propagation is somewhat less strong, or that the motives and physiological tendencies which work against increase of population are somewhat stronger, than he represented them to be. Malthusianism, however, stands complete and inexpugnable on the demonstration of the power and the tendency of population to increase faster than subsistence. The gloomy forebodings of the amiable clergyman who promulgated the doctrine are not at all of its essence. Malthusianism would survive a demonstration, on the largest scale, of the power of prudence and social ambition to hold the impulses to propagation firmly in check.

Notes for this chapter

The Principle of Population, i. 474-6.
The Origin of Species, chap. iii.
Pol. Econ., p. 30.
"Throughout the animal and vegetable kingdoms nature has scattered the seeds of life abroad with the most profuse and liberal hand, but has been comparatively sparing in the room and the nourishment necessary to rear them."—Malthus, The Principle of Population, i. 3.

"L'accroisement des moyens d'existence et l'accroisement du capital ont nécessairement des limites dans un espace de temps donné. Au contraire, l'accroisement de la population est pour ainsi dire illimité.... Si donc, entre ces deux productions extrêmement inégales, la prévoyance humaine ne s'interpose, une calamité est imminente."—M. Chevalier, 7ème Discours, d'Overture du cours de l'année, 1846-7.

"The same power that doubles the population of Kentucky, Illinois, and New South Wales every five-and-twenty years, exists everywhere, and is equally energetic in England, France, and Holland."—J. R. McCulloch, Pol. Econ. 226.
Prof. Rickards, Population and Capital, p. 127.
Indeed, the reproductive capability might even be increased during the first stages of diminishing returns. This would doubtless be so if the previous returns to labor had been so liberal as to encourage luxuriousness and some degree of effeminacy. In this case the first effects of diminished returns might be to induce a greater physical and nervous vigor.

Part I, Chapter VII

End of Notes

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