Sunday, June 21, 2009
Thomas Malthus - An Essay on the Principle of Population
The work of the Reverend Thomas Malthus can easily be said to have had a major influence on subsequent thought. Indeed, it must rank up there with works like the Communist Manifesto as books that have shaped the thoughts of entire generations. This is a shame for several reasons. Firstly, Malthus is unashamedly a partisan of the establishment. Secondly, a through reading of the various editions of his most famous work “An Essay On the Principle of Population” will demonstrate that his arguments are flawed and don't argue what is commonly believed.
For those who use Malthus' name as shorthand for a particular argument – that the world has only enough resources for a set number of people, will find themselves baffled by the content of the Essay. At the core of his work is the idea that human populations will always outstrip the available food supply. But his work isn't really about that problem. It is a series of polemics against a much more dangerous idea to the rich and privileged members of Malthus' class.
Malthus is taking up arms again those dangerous radicals who, inspired by the French Revolution of a few years previously, believed that it would be possible for humans to live in a just and equal society. While understanding that the lot of the poor and lower classes wasn't pleasant, his belief was that the lower orders were inherently greedy. Increasing the amount of money for the poor wouldn't improve their lives, it would simply make them lazy
“The receipt of five shillings a day, instead of 18 pence, would make every man fancy himself comparatively rich and able to indulge himself in many hours or days of leisure..... in a short time, not only the nation would be poorer, but the lower classes themselves would be much more distressed than when they received only 18 pence a day.”
This cynical attitude to the “lower orders” filters through into his views on population growth. If a utopian society was to exist, it would soon collapse, “from the inevitable laws of our nature.... into a class of proprietors and a class of labourers”. But such a society couldn't exist anyway, because if the abundance available in such a society were to come true, then human nature would rapidly destroy it. With no worries on childcare women would simply have more and more children for instance, rapidly driving society beyond its means of sufficiency.
Malthus' views of people are perhaps summed up by his view of the life of a “savage”, who would;
“slumber for ever under his tree unless he were roused from his torpor by the cravings of hunger or the pinching of cold... the exertions that he makes to avoid these evils are the exercises which form and keep in motion his faculties, which otherwise would sink into listless inactivity”.
And those who would create a society with more free time for the hardest working run into a further problem according to Malthus,
"Leisure is, without doubt, highly valuable to man, but taking man as he is, the probability seems to be that in the greater number of instances it will produce evil rather than good."
Of course there is reason to all this.
“The principle, according to which population increases, prevents the vices of mankind, or the accidents of nature, the partial evils arising from general laws, from obstructing the high purpose of creation.”
In other words, the check on the growth of human population exists to ensure that the amount of vice created by man is kept to a minimum.
Malthus believed in three checks on population growth. The first Moral Restraint, was obviously a good thing for the Reverend (how he wails about those who marry early and thus must have more children). The second was Vice. Malthus believed, like many of his time, that increased sexual behaviour reduced birth rates - but obviously, increased sex, drinking and other leisure pursuits of the lower orders was not a good thing. Finally, Misery was the largest check – famine, war, plague and so on.
Despite the impact of his work, Malthus had many critics. Not least because of the lack of evidence for many of his most central observations – that human population growths geometrically while food production only increases arithmetically for instance. Some of his most consistent critics were radicals like Marx and Engels who understood that Malthus' work was an assault on the very idea that you could improve the lot of the poor. I will deal with their criticisms elsewhere, but I would direct readers who want a brief introduction to the Marxist arguments against Malthus to the essay written on the 200th anniversary of its first publication in John Bellamy Fosters book “Ecology Against Capitalism”. [My review of that book here.]
Malthus lived in changing times. Much of the beliefs he held true would be swept away as the industrial revolution continued to transform society. The United Kingdom can easily support a population in excess of 56 million, even though he believed it impossible. There are other checks on population growth – contraception and abortion were words that the morally restrained author couldn't even consider. But the truth is, that the more educated and richer a society the lower birthrates are likely to be.
Today, Malthus is claimed by those who argue that environmental crisis can only be solved by a reduced population. But we must argue that the problem is not the number of individuals, but a social and economic system that delivers not in the interests of those people, but for the needs of big business. The biggest polluting nations per capita, are not necessarily the most highly populated. But even if they were, the danger with these neo-Malthusian arguments is that we blame the poorest in society for the situation the world is in, rather than challenging an inherently irrational system.