By Nassau Senior
Definition of the Science.–
We propose in the following Treatise to give an outline of the Science which treats of the Nature, the Production, and the Distribution of Wealth. To that Science we give the name of Political Economy. Our readers must be aware that that term has often been used in a much wider sense. The earlier writers who assumed the name of Political Economists avowedly treated not of Wealth but of Government. Mercier de la Riviere entitled his Work The Natural and Essential Organization of Society, and professed to propose an organization “which shall necessarily produce all the happiness that can be enjoyed on earth.” Sir James Steuart states, that “the principal object of the Science is to secure a certain fund of subsistence for all the inhabitants, to obviate every circumstance which may render it precarious, and to provide everything necessary for supplying the wants of the society.” The modern continental writers have in general entered into an equally extensive inquiry. “Political Economy,” says M. Storch, “is the Science of the natural laws which determine the prosperity of nations, that is to say, their wealth and their civilization.” M. Sismondi considers “the physical welfare of man, so far as it can be the work of government, as the object of Political Economy.” “Political Economy,” says M. Say, “is the economy of society; a Science combining the results of our observations on the nature and functions of the different parts of the social body.” The modern writers of the English school have in general professed to limit their attention to the theory of Wealth; but some of the most eminent among them, after having expressed their intention to confine themselves within what appears to us to be their proper province, have invaded that of the general legislator or the statesman. Thus Mr. M’Culloch, after having defined Political Economy to be “the Science of the laws which regulate the production, accumulation, distribution, and consumption of those articles or products that are necessarily useful or agreeable to man, and possess exchangeable value” or, “the Science of Values;” adds, that “its object is to point out the means by which the industry of man may be rendered most productive of wealth, to ascertain the circumstances most favourable to its accumulation, the proportions in which it is divided, and the mode in which it may be most advantageously consumed.” [From the Introduction]
First Pub. Date
London: Richard Griffin and Co.
The text of this edition is in the public domain. Picture of Nassau Senior courtesy of The Warren J. Samuels Portrait Collection at Duke University.
- Chapter 1, Introduction
- Chapter 2, Nature of Wealth
- Chapter 3, Statement of the Four Elementary Propositions of the Science of Political Economy
- Chapter 3, Statement of the Four Elementary Propositions of the Science of Political Economy, continued
- Chapter 4, Distribution of Wealth
- Chapter 4, Distribution of Wealth, continued
- Chapter 4, Distribution of Wealth, continued
STATEMENT OF THE FOUR ELEMENTARY PROPOSITIONS OF THE SCIENCE OF POLITICAL ECONOMY.
We have already stated that the general facts on which the Science of Political Economy rests, are comprised in a few general Propositions, the result of observation or consciousness. The Propositions to which we then alluded are these:—
That every man desires to obtain additional Wealth with as little sacrifice as possible.
That the Population of the world, or, in other words, the number of persons inhabiting it, is limited only by moral or physical evil, or by fear of a deficiency of those articles of wealth which the habits of the individuals of each class of its inhabitants lead them to require.
That the powers of Labour, and of the other instruments which produce wealth, may be indefinitely increased by using their Products as the means of further Production.
That agricultural skill remaining the same, additional Labour employed on the land within a given district produces in general a less proportionate return, or, in other words, that though, with every increase of the labour bestowed, the aggregate return is increased, the increase of the return is not in proportion to the increase of the Labour.
The first of these Propositions is a matter of consciousness, the three others are matter of observation. As the first and second involve little use of the peculiar abstractions of Political Economy, except those implied in the term Wealth, and may therefore be explained with little recourse to its peculiar nomenclature, we shall consider them immediately; leaving the third and fourth for discussion in a subsequent part of this Treatise. They are, however, so nearly self-evident, that we will venture in the mean time to assume their truth. No one who reflects on the difference between the unassisted force of man, and the more than gigantic powers of capital and machinery, can doubt the former proposition; and, to convince ourselves of the other, it is necessary only to recollect that, if it were false, no land except the very best could ever be cultivated: since if the return from a single farm were to increase in full proportion to any amount of increased labour bestowed on it, the produce of that one farm might feed the whole population of England.
Development of the First Elementary Proposition of the Science, namely, that on
The General Desire for Wealth.
In stating that every man desires to obtain additional wealth with as little sacrifice as possible, we must not be supposed to mean, that every body, or indeed any body, wishes for an indefinite quantity of every thing; still less as stating that wealth, though the universal, either is, or ought to be, the principal object of human desire. What we mean to state is, that no person feels his whole wants to be adequately supplied: that every person has some unsatisfied desires which he believes that additional wealth would gratify. The nature and the urgency of each individual’s wants are as various as the differences in individual character. Some may wish for power, others for distinction, and others for leisure; some require bodily, and others mental amusement; some are anxious to produce important advantage to the public; and there are few, perhaps there are none, who, if it could be done by a wish, would not benefit their acquaintances and friends. Money seems to be the only object for which the desire is universal; and it is so, because money is abstract wealth. Its possessor may satisfy at will his ambition, or vanity, or indolence, his public spirit or his private benevolence; may multiply the means of obtaining bodily pleasure, or of avoiding bodily evil, or the still more expensive amusements of the mind. Any one of these pursuits would exhaust the largest fortune within the limits of individual acquisition; and as all men would engage in some of them, and many in all, the desire for wealth must be insatiable, though the modes in which different individuals would employ it are infinitely diversified.
An equal diversity exists in the amount and the kind of the sacrifices which different individuals, or even the same individual, will encounter in the pursuit of wealth. And not only is the same sacrifice more severe to one than to another, as some will not give up ease or leisure for study, others good air and a country life, and others recreation and society, but the absolute desire for wealth on the one hand, and the absolute will to encounter toils or privations in its pursuit on the other, are stronger in some men than in others. These differences form some of the principal distinctions in individual and national character. Experience however, shows, and indeed it might have been predicted
à priori, that the greatest and longest continued sacrifices will be made in those Countries in which property is most secure, and the road to social eminence is the most open. The inhabitants of Holland and of Great Britain, and of the Countries that have derived their institutions from Great Britain, the nations which up to the present time have best enjoyed those advantages, have up to the present time been the most ardent and the most successful in the pursuit of opulence. But even the Indians of Mexico, though their indolence makes them submit to poverty under which an Englishman would feel life a burden, would willingly be rich if it cost them no trouble.
It may be necessary, however, to explain our motives for dwelling on so much that is self-evident. Our first reason is, that the proposition in question, though we are not aware that any one has thought that it required to be formally stated, is assumed in almost every process of economical reasoning. It is the corner-stone of the doctrine of wages and profits, and, generally speaking, of exchange. In short, it is in Political Economy what gravitation is in Physics, or the
dictum de omni et nullo in Logic: the ultimate fact beyond which reasoning cannot go, and of which almost every other proposition is merely an illustration. In an attempt to state the evidence on which the Science rests, it appeared to us improper to omit its foundation, though at the hazard of appearing to take up our reader’s time in defending what it may be supposed that nobody ever thought of questioning.
But, in the second place, this proposition, apparently self-evident,
has been impliedly questioned. It is directly opposed to a doctrine of considerable popularity, and supported by great names,—we mean the doctrine of over-production or
By the word glut is meant the production of a given commodity in an abundance, either absolutely beyond the desires of its intended consumers, or beyond the amount for which they are able and willing to offer in exchange equivalents sufficient to induce the producer to continue his operations. Books are, perhaps, the commodities most subject to gluts. The proportionate expenses of printing and advertising increase so rapidly, if the number of copies printed be much reduced, and authors are so little subject to underrate the probable demand for their labours, that scarcely any edition consists of less than two hundred and fifty copies, and very few of less than five hundred. But we have seen calculations showing that not in one case out of two hundred are all the copies sold off at the price at which they originally came out. In ordinary cases, from fifty to one hundred are sold in the first year, and thirty or forty in the second; by the end of which time the book has been forgotten, and the unsold copies are put up to sale at periodical auctions among the booksellers. The best that can happen to them is to be purchased on this occasion in order to be again offered to the public; but the majority of Works are found to be worth purchase, not as books, but as paper. They are unsold at the trade sales, and find their way
In ricum vendentem thus et odores
Et piper, et quidquid chartis amicitur ineptis.
We have selected books as affording an illustration of a glut arising from a miscalculation not of the ability, but of the willingness of purchasers. The opening of a new trade is generally followed by gluts occasioned by miscalculations of both. Every one must recollect, when Brazil and Spanish America first became accessible, our exports of skates, and fire-irons, and warming pans to the tropics. And, until their real poverty was known, we continued to fill their warehouses with cargoes, adapted indeed to their wants, but far beyond their means. Miscalculations of this kind must obviously be of frequent occurrence; and perhaps what ought to excite our surprise is, not the extent to which they prevail, but the degree in which they are avoided. But it appears clear that they can arise only from one or the other of two causes: either from the articles of wealth, with respect to which the glut exists, having been prepared for persons who do not want them, or from those persons not being provided with other articles of wealth, suited to the desires of the producers of the first-mentioned articles of wealth, to offer in exchange for them. Partial gluts, occasioned by the one or the other of these causes, are among the most ordinary commercial occurrences. But the opinion to which our doctrine is opposed is that which admits the possibility not only of partial but of
universal gluts, which supposes it possible that there may be at the same time a glut of services and commodities in general,—that we may have too much of everything; a doctrine not only of frequent occurrence in conversations on commercial subjects, but even maintained by some distinguished writers. Now as by the assumed hypothesis of a universal glut all the articles of wealth exist not only in abundance, but in superabundance, an absolute deficiency of equivalents cannot be one of its causes. And it can scarcely be supposed that there can be such a general state of commercial cross-purposes as to prevent, in the majority of cases, the proper sellers and purchasers from meeting. It can scarcely be supposed that when A has what B wants, and B what A wants, A and B should, in the majority of instances, instead of finding out and exchanging with one another, offer their respective commodities to Y and Z, who, having also each reciprocal wants and supplies, neither wish to purchase from A or B, nor have discovered the means of exchanging with one another. But if it be absurd to suppose that a general glut could be occasioned by such an universal spirit of blundering as this, the only remaining hypothesis on which the existence of a general glut can be supposed, is that of a general satiety, that all men may be so fully provided with the precise articles which they desire as to afford no market for each other’s superfluities. And this doctrine is opposed to the proposition with which we set out, that every man desires to obtain additional wealth.
Development of the Second Elementary Proposition of the Science, namely, that on
The Causes which Limit Population.
Having explained the sense in which we use the word wealth, and stated, or rather recalled to the recollection of our readers, the general desire to obtain additional wealth with the least possible sacrifice, we now proceed to consider the second of the four elementary propositions on which the Science of Political Economy is founded; namely, that the population of the world, or, in other words, the number of persons inhabiting it, is limited only by moral or physical evil, or by fear of the deficiency of those articles of wealth which the habits of the individuals of each class of its inhabitants lead them to require.
It is now generally admitted, indeed it is strange that it should ever have required to be pointed out, that every species of plant or animal which is capable of increase, either by generation or by seed, must be capable of a constantly increasing increase; every addition to its numbers being capable of affording a source of still further additions; or, in other words, that wherever there is a capacity of increase, it must be a capacity of increase not by mere addition, but by multiplication; or, to use the short form in which the proposition is usually stated, not in an arithmetical, but in a geometrical ratio. The rate at which any species of plant or animal is capable of increasing, must depend on the average power of reproduction, and the average period of existence of the individuals of which it is constituted. Wheat, we know, 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. The rate at which the human race is capable of increasing has been determined by observation. It has been ascertained that, for considerable periods and in extensive districts, under temperate climates, it has doubled every twenty-five years.
The power of reproduction in the human race must, under similar climates, be always the same. We say, under similar climates, because the acceleration of puberty, which has been sometimes observed in tropical climates, unless checked, as is probably the case, by an earlier cessation of child-bearing, would occasion increased fecundity. Now, the United States of America, the districts in which the rate of increase which we have mentioned has been most clearly ascertained, are not remarkable for the longevity of their inhabitants. We may infer, therefore, that such is the average power of reproduction and average duration of life in the individuals constituting the human species, that their number may double every twenty-five years. At this rate the inhabitants of every Country would, in the course of every five centuries, increase to above a million times their previous number. At this rate the population of England would, in five hundred years, exceed fifteen million millions: a population which would not allow them standing room. Such being the human powers of increase, the question is, By what checks is their expansion controlled? How comes it that the population of the world, instead of being now a million times as great as it was five hundred years ago, apparently has not doubled within that time, and certainly has not quadrupled?
Mr. Malthus has divided the checks to population into the preventive and the positive. The first are those which limit fecundity, the second those which decrease longevity. The first diminish the number of births, the second increase that of deaths. And as fecundity and longevity are the only elements of the calculation, it is clear that Mr. Malthus’s division is exhaustive. The positive check to population is physical evil. The preventive checks are promiscuous intercourse and abstinence from marriage. The first is moral evil; the second is, with a very few exceptions, so few indeed that they do not affect the result, founded on an apprehended deficiency of some of the things to which we have given the general appellation of wealth. All the preventive and positive checks may therefore be distributed under prudence, moral evil, and physical evil. We will first consider the positive check.
We have seen that this check includes all the causes which tend, in any way, prematurely to shorten the duration of human existence; such as unwholesome occupations, severe labour, or exposure to the seasons, bad or insufficient food or clothing, bad nursing of children, excesses of all kinds, the corruption of the air from natural causes, or from large towns, wars, infanticide, plague, and famine. Of these, some arise from the laws of nature, and others from the crimes and follies of man: all are directly and immediately felt in the form of physical evil, though many of them are the result, more or less remotely, of moral evil.
The final and irresistible mode in which physical evil operates is the want of the necessaries of existence: death produced by hardship or starvation. This is almost the only check to the increase of the irrational animals; and as man descends towards their condition, he falls more and more under its influence. In the lowest savage state it is the principal and obvious check; in a high state of civilization it is almost imperceptible; but is unperceived only in consequence of the operation of its substitutes.
We have already stated that, as a general rule, additional labour employed in the cultivation of the land, within a given district, produces a less proportionate return. And it has appeared that such is the power of reproduction and duration of life in mankind, that the population of a given district is capable of doubling itself at least every twenty-five years. It is clear, therefore, that the rate at which the production of food is capable of being increased, and that at which population, if unchecked, would increase, are totally different. Every addition made to the quantity of food periodically produced, makes in general a further periodical addition more difficult. Every addition to the existing population diffuses wider the means of still further addition. If neither evil, nor the fear of evil, checked the population of England, it would amount in a century to above two hundred millions. Suppose it possible that we might be able to raise or to import the subsistence of two hundred millions of people; is it possible that one hundred and twenty-five years hence we should be able to support four hundred millions? or, in one hundred and fifty years, eight hundred millions? It is clear, however, that long before the first century had elapsed, long before the period at which, if unchecked, we should have attained two hundred millions, no excellence in our institutions, or salubrity of climate, or unremitting industry, could have saved us from being arrested in our progress by a constantly increasing want of subsistence. If all other moral and physical checks could be got rid of, if we had neither wars nor libertinism, if our habitations, and employments, and habits were all wholesome, and no fears of indigence or loss of station prevented or retarded our marriages, famine would soon exercise her prerogative of controlling, in the last resort, the multiplication of mankind.
But though it be certain that the absence of all other checks would only give room for the irresistible influence of famine, it is equally certain that such a state of things never has existed and never will exist.
In the first place the absence of all the other moral and physical evils which retard population implies a degree of civilization not only high, but higher than mankind have as yet enjoyed. Such a society cannot be supposed to want sagacity sufficient to foresee the evils of a too rapidly increasing population, and prudence sufficient to avoid them. In such a state the preventive check would be in full operation, and its force is quite sufficient to render unnecessary even the approach of any positive check.
And, secondly, it is impossible that a positive check, so goading and so remorseless as famine, should prevail without bringing in her train all the others. Pestilence is her uniform companion, and murder and war are her followers. Whole bodies of men will not tamely lie down to die, and witness, while they are perishing, their wives, and children, and parents, starving around them. Where there is a diversity of fortunes, famine generally produces that worst form of civil war, the insurrection of the poor against the rich. Among uncivilized nations it produces those tremendous hostile migrations, in which a whole people throws itself across a neighbouring frontier, and either perishes in the attempt to obtain a larger or more fertile territory, or destroys the former possessors, or drives them out to be themselves aggressors in turn.
In fact, almost all the positive checks, by their mutual reaction, have a tendency to create and aggravate one another; and the destruction of those who perish immediately by one, may generally be found to have been remotely occasioned or promoted by one or more of the others. Among nations imperfectly civilized, the widest and the most wasting of the positive checks is predatory war. A district exposed to it is likely to suffer all the others. Mere fear of invasion must generally keep the great body of its inhabitants pent up in crowded and consequently unwholesome towns; it must confine their cultivation to the fields in the immediate neighbourhood of those towns, and, if it does not destroy, must so much impede their commerce as to render it useless as a source of subsistence; and when the invasion does come, it is often followed by the complete extirpation of the invaded community. This is the check which has kept Africa, and the central parts of Asia, in their comparatively unpeopled state.
In his journey from Abyssinia to Sennaar, Bruce crossed the territory of Atbara, subject to the incursions of the Daveina Arabs. The whole seems to have been a scene of desolation. He passed a night at Garigara, a village, of which they had destroyed the crops a year before. The inhabitants had all perished with hunger, and their remains were unburied and scattered over the ground where the village had stood. The travellers encamped among the bones: no space could be found free from them. His next stage was Teawa. “Its consequence,” he observes, “was to remain only till the Daveina should resolve to attack it, when its corn fields being burnt and destroyed in a night by a multitude of horsemen, the bones of its inhabitants scattered upon the earth would be all its remains, like those of the miserable village of Garigara.”
Among the positive checks to the population of uncivilized, or partially civilized, nations, the next in importance to war is famine. When a people depends principally on that subsistence which is most easily obtained, and such is the case among the nations in question, the mere variations of the seasons must, from time to time, produce destructive want. Where society is better constituted, the evil of these variations is mitigated, partly from the superfluity of the more opulent classes, partly by importation, and principally by a recurrence to a less expensive diet; but in a barbarous, and consequently a poor and non-commercial people, they are among the most frightful forms of national calamity. The histories which we possess of such Countries always particularize periods of dearth as among the most memorable events recorded. They seem in a constant oscillation between the want endured by a population that has increased to the utmost limits of subsistence, and the plenty enjoyed by the survivors after that population has been thinned by war, pestilence, or famine. The remainder of the positive checks, such as infanticide and unwholesomeness of climate, habits, or situation, appear rather to facilitate early marriages than to produce any actual diminution, or prevent any actual increase of population. Infanticide has been supposed to be rather favourable to population, by opposing to the prudential check to marriage a mode of disposing of its offspring, which may appear easy in contemplation, but from which the feelings of the parents eventually recoil. The unwholesomeness of some districts is unquestionably such as to keep them totally unpeopled, or inhabited by strangers, whose numbers must be constantly recruited. Such, for instance, appears to be the case in the most unhealthy parts of Italy. Such is the case with large manufacturing towns even in the most favourable climates, unless great skill and great care are directed towards their cleanliness and ventilation. And in a newly colonized Country like the back settlements of America, where the abundance of land and the constantly increasing means of subsistence would render any preventive check unnecessary, any cause diminishing longevity must retard increase. But with these exceptions, unhealthiness rather causes the successive generations to pass more rapidly away, than diminishes the actual number of inhabitants. In some of the healthiest districts of Switzerland, the average annual mortality does not exceed one in forty-eight. In many of the marshy villages of Holland it exceeds one in twenty-three. But it would be rash to expect the population of the former to be more dense or to increase more rapidly than that of the latter. The case is, in fact, the reverse. In the Swiss villages of which we have been speaking, the births are as rare as the deaths; the population is thin and stationary. Among the Dutch the births somewhat exceed the deaths; the population is dense and is increasing. It is obvious, indeed, that the proportion of annual births to the whole number of people being given, the rate of increase must depend on the proportion borne by the annual deaths. And again, the proportion of deaths to the whole number of people being given, it must depend on the proportion borne by the births; or, to use a shorter form of expression—given the longevity, it must depend on the fecundity; and given the fecundity, it must depend on the longevity. If both are given, the rate of increase may be calculated; but from only one, the conclusion must be in the disjunctive. If the annual births bear a large proportion to the existing number of people, we may conclude either that the population is rapidly increasing, or that the positive checks are in powerful operation. On the other hand, from a small proportion of annual deaths may be inferred either a rapid increase of numbers, or a strong influence of the preventive checks. The average duration of life in England is greater than in the United States of America; but so much greater is the force of the preventive checks, that the rate of increase in America is about double that in England. Again, the average duration of life in the Swiss villages to which we have referred, is the same as it is in England; but the preventive check in England, strong as it appears when compared with its force in America, is so much weaker than it is in some districts in Switzerland, that, with the same annual mortality, the population is in the one Country stationary, in the other rapidly progressive.
But although the average longevity in a Country affords no decisive evidence as to the increasing or stationary number of its inhabitants, it is among the least deceitful tests of their prosperity; far less so than that on which legislators formerly relied, the number of births. There is not an evil, moral or physical, which has not a tendency, directly or indirectly, to shorten life, but there are many which have a direct tendency to increase fecundity. The extraordinary duration of life in Great Britain, exceeding, as it does, the average of any other equally populous district, is a convincing proof of the general excellence of our climate, our institutions, and our habits.
We now proceed to consider the preventive checks to the increase of population. We have seen that they are Promiscuous Intercourse and Abstinence from Marriage.
The first does not appear to be of sufficient importance to require much consideration. It is said to produce some effect in checking the increase of the higher classes in some of the South Sea Islands; and it appears to have produced the same effect to a considerable extent among the West Indian negroes. But the nobility of the South Seas scarcely deserve to be separately considered. And, while the other forms of moral and physical evil were accumulated, as they were among the West Indian slaves, it is probable that the removal of this evil alone would have done little to promote the increase of their population.
But, with these exceptions, there are scarcely any females whose fecundity is prevented or diminished by promiscuous intercourse, except those unhappy individuals whose only trade is prostitution. And they form so small a proportion of the population of the whole world, that the check to population, occasioned by their unfruitfulness may safely be disregarded.
The only remaining check is Abstinence from Marriage. Our readers are of course aware that, by the word “marriage,” we mean to express not the peculiar and permanent connection which alone, in a Christian Country, is entitled to that name, but any agreement between a man and woman to cohabit under circumstances likely to occasion the birth of progeny. We have already observed that abstinence from marriage is almost uniformly founded on the apprehension of a deficiency of some of the things which we have denominated by the general term Wealth, or, in other words, on prudence. Some cases certainly occur in which men remain unmarried, although their fortunes are so ample that the expenses of a family would be unperceived. But the number of persons so situated is so small, that they create an exception which would scarcely deserve attention, even if this conduct were as common among them as it is, in fact, rare.
We shall scarcely, therefore, be led into error, if, in considering the preventive checks, we confine our attention to Prudence, and assume that, as nothing but physical evil directly and immediately diminishes the longevity of mankind, nothing but an apprehended deficiency of some of the articles of wealth prevents their fecundity.
But though an apprehended deficiency of some of the articles of wealth is substantially the only preventive check to the increase of population, it is obvious that fear of the want of different articles operates, with all men, very differently; and even that an apprehended want of the same article will affect differently the minds of the individuals of different classes. An apprehended want of corn would produce on the minds of all Englishmen a very different effect from an apprehended want of silk. An apprehended want of butcher’s meat would affect very differently the minds of Englishmen of different classes. It appears to us, therefore, convenient to divide, for this purpose, the articles of wealth into the three great classes of Necessaries, Decencies, and Luxuries, and to explain the different effects produced by the fear of the want of the articles of wealth falling under each class. We must begin, however, by stating, as precisely as we can, what we mean by the words
Necessaries, Decencies, and
Luxuries; terms which have been used ever since the Moral Sciences first attracted attention, but with little attention to precision or to consistent use.
It is scarcely necessary to remind our readers that these are relative terms, and that some person must always be assigned with reference to whom a given commodity or service is a Luxury, a Decency, or a Necessary.
Necessaries, then, we express those things, the use of which is requisite to keep a given individual in the health and strength essential to his going through his habitual occupations.
Decencies, we express those things which a given individual must use in order to preserve his existing rank in society.
Every thing else of which a given individual makes use, or, in other words, all that portion of his consumption which is not essential to his health and strength, or to the preservation of his existing rank in society, we term
It is obvious that when consumed by the inhabitants of different Countries, or even by different individuals in the same Country, the same things may be either luxuries, decencies, or necessaries.
Shoes are necessaries to all the inhabitants of England. Our habits are such that there is not an individual whose health would not suffer from the want of them. To the lowest class of the inhabitants of Scotland they are luxuries: custom enables them to go barefoot without inconvenience and without degradation. When a Scotchman rises from the lowest to the middling classes of society, they become to him decencies. He wears them to preserve, not his feet, but his station in life. To the highest class, who have been accustomed to them from infancy, they are as much necessaries as they are to all classes in England. To the higher classes in Turkey wine is a luxury and tobacco a decency. In Europe it is the reverse. The Turk drinks and the European smokes, not in obedience, but in opposition both to the rules of health and to the forms of society. But wine in Europe and the pipe in Turkey are among the refreshments to which a guest is entitled, and which it would be as indecent to refuse in the one Country as to offer in the other.
It has been said that the coal-heavers and lightermen, and some others among the hardworking London labourers, could not support their toils without the stimulus of porter. If this be true, porter is to them a necessary. To all others it is a luxury. A carriage is a Decency to a woman of fashion, a Necessary to a physician, and a Luxury to a tradesmen.
The question, whether a given commodity is to be considered as a decency or a luxury, is obviously one to which no answer can be given, unless the place, the time, and the rank of the individual using it be specified. The dress which in England was only decent a hundred years ago, would be almost extravagant now, while the house and furniture which now would afford merely decent accommodation to a gentleman, would then have been luxurious for a peer. The causes which entitle a commodity to be called a necessary are more permanent and more general. They depend partly upon the habits in which the individual in question has been brought up, partly on the nature of his occupation, on the lightness or the severity of the labours and hardships that he has to undergo, and partly on the climate in which he lives.
Of these causes we have illustrated the two first by the familiar examples of shoes and porter. But the principal cause is climate. The fuel, shelter, and raiment, which are essential to a Laplander’s existence, would be worse than useless under the Tropics. And as habits and occupations are very slowly changed, and climate suffers scarcely any alteration, the commodities which are necessary to the different classes of the inhabitants of a given district may, and generally do, remain for centuries unchanged, while their decencies and luxuries are continually varying.
Among all classes the check imposed by an apprehended deficiency of mere luxuries is but slight. The motives, perhaps we might say the instincts, that prompt the human race to marriage, are too powerful to be much restrained by the fear of losing conveniences unconnected with health or station in society. Nor is population much retarded by the fear of wanting mere necessaries. In comparatively uncivilized Countries, in which alone, as we have already seen, that want is of a familiar occurrence, the preventive check has little operation. They see the danger, but want prudence and self-denial to be influenced by it. On the other hand, among nations so far advanced in civilization as to be able to act on such a motive, the danger that any given person or his future family shall actually perish from indigence, appears too remote to afford any general rule of conduct.
The great preventive check is the fear of losing decencies, or, what is nearly the same, the hope to acquire, by the accumulation of a longer celibacy, the means of purchasing the decencies which give a higher social rank. When an Englishman stands hesitating between love and prudence, a family actually starving is not among his terrors; against actual want he knows that he has the fence of the poor-laws.
But however humble his desires, he cannot contemplate without anxiety a probability that the income which supported his social rank, while single, may be insufficient to maintain it when he is married; that he may be unable to give to his children the advantages of education which he enjoyed himself; in short that he may lose his caste. Men of more enterprise are induced to postpone marriage, not merely by the fear of sinking, but also by the hope that in an unincumbered state they may rise. As they mount, the horizon of their ambition keeps receding, until sometimes the time has passed for realizing those plans of domestic happiness which probably every man has formed in his youth.
It is by this desire of decencies, as distinguished from necessaries, that long-settled civilized Countries are preserved from the evils of a population greatly exceeding the means of comfortable subsistence. There are few triter subjects of declamation than the contrast between ancient simplicity and modern luxury. Few virtues, however useful, have received more applause than the contented and dignified poverty, the indifference to display, and the abstinence from unnecessary expense, which all refined nations attribute to their ancestors. Few vices, however mischievous, have been more censured than the ostentatious expenditure which every succeeding generation seems to consider its own characteristic.
It certainly seems at first sight that habits of unnecessary expenditure, as they have a tendency to diminish the wealth of an individual, must have the same effect on the wealth of a nation. And, separately considered, it appears clear that each act of unproductive consumption, whatever gratification it may afford to the consumer, must,
pro tanto, impoverish the community. It is so much taken from the common stock and destroyed. And as the national capital is formed from the aggregate savings of individuals, it is certain that if each individual were to expend to the utmost extent of his means, the whole capital of the Country would be gradually wasted away, and general misery would be the result. But it appears equally certain that if each individual were to confine his expenditure to mere necessaries, the result would be misery quite as general and as intense.
We have seen that the powers of population, if not restrained by prudence, must inevitably produce almost every form of moral and physical evil. In the case which we are supposing, the wants of society would be confined to the food, raiment, and shelter essential to the support of existence; and they would all consist of the cheapest materials. At present, among civilized nations, the cultivation of the land employs only a portion of its inhabitants, and, generally speaking, as a nation increases in wealth, a smaller and smaller proportion; in England not one third; and a great part of the labourers so employed are producers of luxuries. Indeed, as potatoes afford a food five or six times as abundant as corn, and more than twenty times as abundant as meat, and, as far as can be judged by the appearance and powers of the lower Irish, quite as wholesome, meat and corn may be considered luxuries, to the extent in which they are more expensive than potatoes. Nor, consistently with the existence of private property, and of the desire of wealth, can the mode of cultivation be directed to the obtaining the largest possible return. The object is to obtain the largest return that is consistent with profitable farming; but, in the pursuit of this object, quantity of produce must often be sacrificed to economy of labour or time.
If there were no desire for any thing beyond necessaries, both the existing partition of the land, and the existing division of labour, would be varied. No family would wish to occupy more land than the small plot necessary to afford them potatoes and milk. Supposing them to give to it the utmost nicety of garden cultivation, its management would still leave them time to produce the coarse manufactures necessary for their own use. The whole of the population would be agricultural. 761,348 families so employed at present in England, although their labour is far from being directed to the production of the greatest possible amount, provide, without much assistance from importation, subsistence for the whole of our 2,745,336 families. If all were so employed, and if quantity of produce were their sole object, it is probable that in ordinary seasons the soil of England, instead of fifteen millions, could feed at least sixty millions of people; and that of Europe, instead of two hundred, eight hundred millions. And that, in the absence of any checks more powerful than those experienced in the United States of America, the population of Europe might in fifty years amount to eight hundred millions. Indeed it is probable that, under the circumstances which we are supposing, the increase in Europe would be for a considerable time rather more rapid than that which has taken place in America. Preventive checks would not exist; marriages could not be hindered or even delayed by prudence, since there could be no reason to anticipate want; the habit of early marriages would put an end to profligacy; and, as all our habits would be eminently healthy, the positive checks would be reduced to their minimum.
So far the picture is rather pleasing; it exhibits a state of society, not rich certainly, nor refined, but supporting a very numerous population in health and strength, and in the full enjoyment of the many sources of happiness connected with early marriage. But it is obvious that this could not last for ever; it could not last indeed for two hundred and fifty years. By that time the population of Europe would amount to above three million millions, a number which the wildest imagination cannot conceive capable of existing simultaneously in the whole earth.
Sooner or later, therefore, the increase must be checked; and we have seen that prudence is the only check that does not involve vice or misery. But such is the force of the passions which prompt to marriage, and such is each man’s reliance on his own good conduct and good fortune, that the evils, whatever they may be, the apprehension of which forms the prudential check, are frequently incurred. Where that evil is the loss of luxuries, or even of decencies, it is trifling in the first case, and bearable in the second. But in the case which we are supposing, the only prudential check would be an apprehended deficiency of necessaries; and that deficiency, in the many instances in which it would actually be incurred, would be the positive check in its most frightful form. It would be incurred not only in consequence of that miscalculation of chances to which all men are subject, and certainly those not the least so who are anxious to marry, but through accidents against which no human prudence can guard. A
single bad harvest may be provided against, but a succession of unfavourable seasons (and such successions do occur) must reduce such a people to absolute famine. When such seasons affect a nation indulging in considerable superfluous expenditure, they are relieved by a temporary sacrifice of that superfluity. The grain consumed in ordinary years by our breweries and distilleries is a store always at hand to supply a scarcity, and the same may be said of the large quantity of food raised for the support of domestic animals, but applicable to human subsistence. To these resources may be added the importation from abroad of necessaries instead of luxuries and the materials of luxury, of corn, for instance, instead of wine.
It may be said, however, and indeed it has been said, that while the globe remains in its present irregularly occupied and irregularly cultivated state, emigration affords to all comparatively thickly-peopled nations a resource so ample and so easy as to render every prudential check to population unnecessary.
It is obvious that if capital and skill equal to those bestowed on the best parts of Flanders, or of the Scotch Lowlands, could be applied to the whole habitable world, a population ten times, perhaps one hundred times, perhaps even five hundred times as large, could be maintained, as well, perhaps far better, than the one thousand millions now supposed to exist on its surface. It is possible, we will not say even that it is improbable, that in the course of centuries, or rather of hundreds of centuries, these splendid visions may be realized. But all experience shows, that no numerous and civilized nation, surrounded by other civilized nations, can venture to rely on emigration as a permanent and adequate check to population. We say no numerous and civilized nation surrounded by other civilized nations; for we are aware that the hordes of Central Asia and of the Northern parts of Europe, and the surplus inhabitants of some small communities, such as the petty States of ancient Greece and Phœnicia, appear to have found, the one in colonization, the others in armed migrations, a periodical outlet; and that the Americans of European descent have enjoyed for centuries, and for centuries to come may enjoy, in the immense continent behind them, room for as rapid an increase of their numbers as the most unchecked propagation can supply. But these are not examples which Europe, as now constituted, can imitate. When all the land frontier is appropriated,—when invasion for the purpose of settlement is impossible, and the solitary traveller is repelled by a different language, different laws, different arts, and often a different religion,—when the other alternative is an expensive and distant voyage, and either an unsettled, and therefore in general an unwholesome country, or equal obstacles from variations of laws, language, religion, and arts, in a previously settled district,—when these are the difficulties to be encountered, no extensive and systematic emigration will be persisted in. Even the different parts of the same empire afford little assistance to one another, if difference of language, or habits, or considerable distance be interposed. The Austrian dominions contain some of the most thinly and some of the most thickly-peopled portions of Europe; but Hungary is not colonized from the plains of Lombardy. If any European nation could hope to make emigration a complete substitute for prudence, that hope might be entertained by the inhabitants of the British Islands. We have the command of unoccupied continents in each hemisphere, the largest navy that the world ever saw to convey us to them, the largest capital that ever has been accumulated, to defray the expense, and a population remarkable not merely for enterprise, but for enterprise of this particular description. These advantages we have enjoyed for centuries; almost from the times of the Tudors we have possessed a large outskirt of empire far exceeding in extent our European possessions. And yet during this long period how little effect has emigration produced on our numbers! The swarms which we have sent out, and which we now send out, seem to be instantaneously replaced. We have founded one empire, and probably shall found many; but, after once a colony has been planted, its principal increase arises, not from the comparatively scanty recruits whom it receives from home, but from the unrepressed force of human fecundity.
In a future portion of this Treatise we shall explain with more detail the causes which impede emigration; at present we shall only repeat that all experience shows its inability to keep down the population of any large, well peopled, and tolerably civilized Country, such as Europe, China, or Hindostan. It appears, therefore, that habits of prudence in contracting marriage, and of considerable superfluous expenditure, afford the only permanent protection against a population pressing so closely on the means of subsistence as to be continually incurring the misery of the positive checks. And as the former habits exist only in a civilized, and the latter only in an opulent society, it appears equally clear that, as a nation advances in civilization and opulence, the positive checks are likely to be superseded by the preventive. If this be true, the evil of a redundant population, or, to speak more intelligibly, of a population too numerous to be adequately and regularly supplied with necessaries, is likely to diminish in the progress of improvement. As wealth increases, what were the luxuries of one generation become the decencies of their successors. Not only a taste for additional comfort and convenience, but a feeling of degradation in their absence, becomes more and more widely diffused. The increase in many respects of the productive powers of labour must enable increased comforts to be enjoyed by increased numbers; and as it is the more beneficial, so it appears to be the more natural course of events that increased comfort should not only accompany but rather precede increase of numbers.
But although we believe that, as civilization advances, the pressure of population on subsistence is a decreasing evil, we are far from denying the prevalence of this pressure in all long-settled Countries; indeed in all Countries except those which are the seats of colonies applying the knowledge of an old Country to an unoccupied territory. We believe that there are few portions of Europe the inhabitants of which would not now be richer if their numbers were fewer, and would not be richer hereafter if they were now to retard the rate at which their population is increasing. No plan for social improvement can be complete unless it embrace the means both of increasing the production of wealth and of preventing population from making a proportionate advance. The former is to be effected by legislative, the latter by individual prudence and forethought. The former must be brought about by the governing classes of society; the latter depends almost entirely on the lower. As a means of improvement, the latter is, on the whole, more efficient. It may be acted upon or neglected by almost every one. But, in the present state of public opinion and of commercial and fiscal policy in Europe, perhaps a greater progress may be made by insisting on the former. The statesman who neglects either considers only a portion of the subject.
But we must admit that ours are not the received opinions; or perhaps we ought to say, that our statement is opposed, on the one side or on the other, to the language used by almost every writer who has directly treated the subject of population. Almost every Economist will be found, in that part of his writings in which what has been called
the principle of population is the immediate and principal question considered, to range himself under one of two hostile banners, each opposed not only to the other, but also to the doctrines which we have endeavoured to explain. On one side are those who believe that an increase of numbers is necessarily accompanied, not merely by a positive, but by a relative increase of productive power; that density of population is the cause and the test of prosperity; and that, “were every nation under the sun to be released from all the natural and artificial checks on their increase, and to start off breeding at the fastest possible rate, many, very many generations must elapse before any necessary pressure could be felt.”
On the other side are those who maintain that population has a tendency (using the word tendency to express likelihood or probability) to increase beyond the means of subsistence; or, in other words, that, whatever be the existing means of subsistence, population is likely fully to come up to them, and even to struggle to pass beyond them, and is kept back principally by the vice and misery which that struggle must produce.
The whole of our previous remarks afford an answer to the first-mentioned class of writers. We shall not therefore recur to them. The opinions of the other class we shall consider at some length; and we will begin by the following quotations from Mr. M’Culloch, Mr. Mill, and Mr. Malthus.
Among the valuable notes which Mr. M’Culloch has appended to his edition of the
Wealth of Nations, one of the most interesting treats of population; and one of the objects of that note is to show that the population of the United States of America cannot continue to increase for any very considerable period at the rate at which it has increased during the last hundred years. We are perfectly convinced of the correctness of this anticipation; and we make the following extract, not with any intention to oppose Mr. M’Culloch’s opinions as to America, but because we are anxious to express our dissent to the form in which he lays down the general doctrine of population.
“It may be said, perhaps,” says Mr. M’Culloch, “that allowance must be made for the effects of the improvements which may be supposed to take place in agricultural science in the progress of society, or the possible introduction, at some future period, of new and more prolific species of crops. But it is easy to see that the influence of such improvements and changes must, supposing them to be realized in the fullest manner, be of very temporary duration; and that it cannot affect the truth of the principle,
that the power of increase in the human species must always, in the long run, prove an overmatch for the increase in the means of subsistence. Suppose by some extraordinary improvement the quantity of food and other articles required for the subsistence and accommodation of man annually produced in Great Britain were suddenly doubled; the condition of all classes being in consequence signally improved, there would be less occasion for the exercise of moral restraint; the period of marriage would therefore be accelerated, and such a powerful stimulus would be given to the principle of increase,
that in a very short period the population would be again on a level with the means of subsistence; and there would also, owing to the change that must have been made in the habits of the people with respect to marriage, during the period that the population was rising to the level of the increased supply of food, be an extreme risk lest it should become too abundant, and produce an increased rate of mortality. Although, therefore, it is not possible to assign any certain limits to the progress of improvement, it is notwithstanding evident that it cannot continue for any considerable period to advance in the same proportion that population would advance supposing food were abundantly supplied. The circumstance of inferior lands, which require a greater outlay of capital and labour to make them yield the same supply as those that are superior being invariably taken into cultivation in the progress of society, demonstrates, what is otherwise indeed sufficiently obvious to every one, that, in despite of improvements, the difficulty of adding to the supplies of food is progressively augmented as population becomes denser.”
Mr. Mill’s views are to be found in his discussion of wages.
Principles, &c. Ch. ii. s. 2. “If it were,” he observes, “the natural tendency of capital (by which term Mr. Mill designates the instruments of labour, the materials on which they are to be employed, when produced by labour, and the subsistence of the labourer) to increase faster than population, there would be no difficulty in preserving the prosperous condition of the people. If, on the other hand, it were the natural tendency of population to increase faster than capital, the difficulty would be very great. There would be a perpetual tendency in wages to fall; the progressive fall of wages would produce a greater and a greater degree of poverty among the people, attended with its inevitable consequences, misery and vice. As poverty, and its consequent misery, increased, mortality would also increase: of a numerous family born, a certain number only, from want of the means of well-being, would be reared. By whatever proportion the population tended to increase faster than capital, such a proportion of those who were born would die; the ratio of increase in capital and population would then remain the same, and the fall of wages would proceed no further. That population
has a tendency to increase faster than, in most places, capital has actually increased, is proved incontestably by the condition of the population in most parts of the globe. In almost all Countries the condition of the great body of the people is poor and miserable. This would have been impossible, if capital had increased faster than population. In that case wages must have risen; and high wages would have placed the labourer above the miseries of want. This general misery of mankind is a fact which can be accounted for upon one only of two suppositions: either that there is a natural tendency in population to increase faster than capital, or that capital has, by some means, been prevented from increasing so fast as it has a tendency to increase. This, therefore, is an inquiry of the highest importance.”
As the result of that inquiry, Mr. Mill decides the second alternative in the negative; and consequently conceives himself to have established the former, namely, that there is a natural tendency in population to increase faster than capital.
Mr. Malthus’s opinions appear to have been considerably modified during the course of his long and brilliant philosophical career. In his first edition of his great Work, the principle of population was represented as an insurmountable obstacle to the permanent welfare of the mass of mankind. And even in the last edition, the following passages are open to the same construction.
“There are few States in which there is not a constant effort in the population to increase beyond the means of subsistence. This constant effort as constantly tends to subject the lower classes of society to distress, and to prevent any great permanent amelioration of their condition. These effects, in the present state of society, seem to be produced in the following manner:—We will suppose the means of subsistence in any country to be just equal to the easy support of its inhabitants. The constant effort towards population, which is found to act even in the most vicious societies, increases the number of people before the means of subsistence are increased. The food, therefore, which before supported eleven millions, must now be divided between eleven millions and a-half. The poor consequently must live much worse, and many of them be reduced to severe distress. The number of labourers also being above the proportion of work in the market, the price of labour must tend to fall, while the price of provisions would at the same time tend to rise. The labourer therefore must do more work to earn the same than he did before. During this season of distress the discouragements to marriage and the difficulty of rearing a family are so great that the progress of population is retarded. In the mean time the cheapness of labour, the plenty of labourers, and the necessity of an increased industry amongst them, encourage cultivators to employ more labour upon their land, to turn up fresh soil, and to manure and improve more completely what is already in tillage, till ultimately the means of subsistence may become in the same proportion to the population as at the period from which we set out. The situation of the labourer being then again tolerably comfortable, the restraints to population are in some degree loosened; and after a short period the same retrograde and progressive movements with respect to happiness, are repeated.”
Population, Book i. Chap. ii. “According to the principle of population the human race
has a tendency to increase faster than food. It has, therefore,
a constant tendency to people a Country fully up to the limits of subsistence; meaning, by these limits, the lowest quantity of food which will maintain a stationary population.” Book iii. Chap. i. note.
But when the opposite doctrine, namely, that, in the absence of disturbing causes, subsistence is likely to increase more rapidly than population, was brought before him by Mr. Senior, he appears to have disavowed, we will not say his former expressions, but the inferences to which they lead.
“The meaning,” says Mr. Malthus, “which I intended to convey by the expression to which you object” (that population has a tendency to increase faster than food) “was, that population was always ready and inclined to increase faster than food, if the checks which repressed it were removed; and that though these checks might be such as to prevent population from advancing upon subsistence, or even to keep it at a greater distance behind, yet that, whether population were actually increasing faster than food or food faster than population, it was true that except in new colonies, favourably circumstanced, population was always pressing against food, and was always ready to start off at a faster rate than that at which the food was actually increasing.”
“We are quite agreed that, in the capacity of reason and forethought, man is endowed with a power naturally calculated to mitigate the evils occasioned by the pressure of population against food. We are further agreed that, in the progress of society, as education and knowledge are extended, the probability is that these evils will practically be mitigated, and the condition of the labouring classes be improved.”
So explained, Mr. Malthus’s opinions are opposed to the expressions of Mr. Mill and Mr. M’Culloch; his admission that, “in the progress of society, the probability is that the evils occasioned by the pressure of population against food will be mitigated,” is opposed to Mr. M’Culloch’s statement, “that the power of increase in the human species must always, in the long run, prove an overmatch for the increase in the means of subsistence;” and to Mr. Mill’s, “that the tendency of population to increase faster than, in most places, capital has actually increased, is proved incontestably by the condition of the population in most parts of the globe.” Archbishop Whately, with his usual acuteness, has in the following passage traced the question to a verbal ambiguity.
“The doctrine, that, since there is a tendency in population to increase faster than the means of subsistence, hence the pressure of population against subsistence may be expected to become greater and greater in each successive generation, (unless new and extraordinary remedies are resorted to,) and thus to produce a progressive diminution of human welfare—this doctrine, which some maintain in defiance of the fact that all civilized Countries have a greater proportionate amount of wealth now than formerly, may be traced chiefly to an undetected ambiguity in the word ‘tendency,’ which forms a part of the middle term of the argument. By a ‘tendency’ towards a certain result is sometimes meant, the existence of a cause which, operating unimpeded, would produce that result. In this sense it may be said, with truth, that the earth, or any other body moving round a centre, has a tendency to fly off at a tangent; (
i.e.) the centrifugal force operates in that direction, though it is controlled by the centripetal; or, again, that man has a greater tendency to fall prostrate than to stand erect; (
i.e.) the attraction of gravitation and the position of the centre of gravity are such that the least breath of air would overset him, but for the voluntary exertion of muscular force: and, again that population has a tendency to increase beyond subsistence; (
i.e.) there are in man propensities which, if unrestrained, lead to that result.
“But sometimes, again, ‘a tendency towards a certain result’ is understood to mean ‘the existence of such a state of things that that result may be expected to take place.’ Now it is in these two senses that the word is used, in the two premises of the argument in question. But in this latter sense, the earth has a greater tendency to remain in its orbit than to fly off from it; man has a greater tendency to stand erect than to fall prostrate; and (as may be proved by comparing a more barbarous with a more civilized period in the history of any Country) in the progress of Society, subsistence has a tendency to increase at a greater rate than population. In this Country, for instance, much as our population has increased within the last five centuries, it yet bears a far less ratio to subsistence (though still a much greater than could be wished) than it did five hundred years ago.”
It is obvious that if the present state of the world, compared with its state at our earliest records, be one of relative poverty, the tendency of population to increase more rapidly than subsistence must be admitted. If the means of subsistence continue to bear precisely the same proportion to the number of its inhabitants, it is clear that the increase of subsistence and of numbers has been equal. If its means of subsistence have increased much more than the number of its inhabitants, it is clear not only that the proposition in question is false, but that the contrary proposition is true, and that the means of subsistence have a natural tendency (using these words as expressing what is likely to take place) to increase faster than population. Now what is the picture presented by the earliest records of those nations which are now civilized, or, which is the same, what is now the state of savage nations?—a state of habitual poverty and occasional famine. A scanty population, but still scantier means of subsistence. Admitting, and it must be admitted, that in almost all Countries the condition of the great body of the people is poor and miserable, yet, as poverty and misery were their original inheritance, what inference can we draw from the continuance of that misery as to the tendency of their numbers to increase more rapidly than their wealth? But if a single Country can be found in which there is now less poverty than is universal in a savage state, it must be true that, under the circumstances in which that Country has been placed, the means of subsistence have a greater tendency to increase than the population. Now this is the case in every civilized Country. Even Ireland, the Country most likely to afford an instance of what has been called the tendency of things, poor and populous as she is, suffers less from want with her eight millions of people than when her only inhabitants were a few septs of hunters and fishers. In our own early history, famines, and pestilences, the consequences of famine, constantly recur. At present, though our numbers are trebled or quadrupled, they are unheard of.
The United States of America afford the best ascertained instance of great and continued increase of numbers. They have afforded a field in which the powers of population have been allowed to exhaust their energy; but, though exerted to their utmost, they have not as yet equalled the progress of subsistence. Whole colonies of the first settlers perished from absolute want; their successors struggled long against hardship and privation; but every increase of their number seems to have been accompanied or preceded by increased means of support. If it be conceded that there exists in the human race a natural tendency to advance from barbarism to civilization, and that the means of subsistence are proportionably more abundant in a civilized than in a savage state, and neither of these propositions can be denied, it must follow that there is a natural tendency in subsistence to increase in a greater ratio than population.
But although Mr. Malthus himself, in his earlier publications, has perhaps fallen sometimes into the exaggeration which is natural to a discoverer, the error, if he has committed one, does not affect the practical conclusions which place him, as a benefactor to mankind, on a level with Adam Smith. Whether, in the absence of disturbing causes, it be the tendency of subsistence or of population to advance with greater rapidity, is a question of slight importance, if it be acknowledged that human happiness or misery depends principally on their relative advance, and that there are causes, and causes within human control, by which that advance can be regulated. These are propositions which Mr. Malthus has established by facts and reasoning which, opposed as they were to long-rooted prejudice, and assailed by every species of sophistry and clamour, are now admitted by the majority of reasoners, and even by a large majority of those who take their opinions upon trust.
To explain what are the causes of the relative increase of subsistence and population is rather the business of a writer on politics than of a Political Economist. At present we will only say that knowledge, security of property, freedom of internal and external exchange, and equal admissibility to rank and power, are the principal causes which at the same time promote the increase of subsistence, and, by elevating the character of the people, lead them to keep at a slower rate the increase of their numbers. And that restrictions on exchange and commerce, artificial barriers excluding the great majority of the community from the chance of social eminence, and above all, ignorance, and insecurity of person and property, are the general causes which both diminish the productiveness of labour, and tend to produce that brutal state of improvidence in which the power of increase, unchecked by prudence, is always struggling to pass the limits of subsistence, and is kept down only by vice and misery. We use the expression
general causes, to exclude those causes which, being peculiar to certain nations, require separate consideration. Such are the superstitious desire of offspring in China, the political motives which formerly occasioned the creation of freeholders in Ireland, and the administration of the poor-laws in some parts of England. But, omitting these details, it may be generally stated that all that degrades the character, or diminishes the productive power of a people, tends to diminish the proportion of subsistence to population, and
vice versâ. And consequently that a population increasing more rapidly than the means of subsistence is generally speaking, a symptom of misgovernment indicating deeper-seated evils, of which it is only one of the results.
And, notwithstanding the passages which we have cited, we believe these to be also the opinions of Mr. Mill and of Mr. M’Culloch. We believe that neither of these eminent writers doubts that the situation of the inhabitants of Europe has been gradually improving during the last 500 years. We believe that neither of them considers the improvement as having reached its limit, or as having any definite limit whatever. When they speak of the probable destinies of mankind, they teach the same doctrine as ourselves. It is only when separately discussing the subject of population that they have used the language to which we have ventured to object. We believe that they have used it without being misled by it themselves, and, perhaps on that very account, without perceiving its tendency to mislead others. But that those whose acquaintance with Political Economy is superficial (and they form the great mass of even the educated classes)
have been misled by the form in which the doctrine of population has been expressed, appears to us undeniable. When such persons are told that “it is the tendency of the human race to increase faster than food”—”to people a country fully up to the means of subsistence,” they infer that what
has a tendency to happen is to be expected. Because additional population
may bring poverty, they suppose that it necessarily
will do so: because increased means of subsistence
may be followed and neutralized by a proportionate increase in the number of persons to be subsisted, they suppose that such
will necessarily be the case. And unhappily there are many whom indolence, or selfishness, or a turn to despondency, make ready recipients of such a doctrine. It furnishes an easy escape from the trouble or expense implied by every project of improvement. “What use would it be,” they ask, “to promote an extensive emigration? the whole vacuum would be immediately filled up by the necessary increase of population. Why should we alter the Corn Laws? If food were for a time more abundant,
in a very short period the population would be again on a level with the means of subsistence, and we should be just as ill off as before.”
There are many also, particularly among those who reason rather with their hearts than their heads, who are unable to assent to these doctrines, and yet believe them to be among the admitted results of Political Economy. Such persons apply to the whole Science the
argumentum ab absurdo; and, instead of inquiring into the accuracy of the reasoning, refuse to examine the premises from which such objectionable conclusions are inferred.
It is because we believe these misconceptions to be extensively prevalent that we have ventured to detain our readers by this long discussion,—a discussion which some may think a mere dispute about the more convenient use of a word, and others an attempt to prove a self-evident fact.
Principles of Political Economy, 1853, p. 276.
Lectures on Population, p. 61-82.
Lectures on Political Economy. Lecture 9.