A Fable for Malthusians

A Fable for Malthusians

[Liberty, July 31, 1886.]

Of all the outstanding arguments developed by the interesting Malthusian discussion now in progress in Lucifer and Liberty the most singular, surprising, and short-sighted is that advanced by E. C. Walker in maintaining the identity of political and domestic economy so far as the problem of population is concerned.(162 ¶ 1)

The prosperity of the whole, he tells Miss Kelly, exists only because of the prosperity of the parts.(162 ¶ 2)

To speak of domestic economy, he tells Mr. J. F. Kelly, as though it were something that could be considered apart from so-called national economy, is confusing and unautonomistic. There can be no public good which is secured at the expense of the individual, at the sacrifice of the private good. The population question is nothing but a question of the wisdom or unwisdom and the consequent happiness or unhappiness of individuals and of families,—primarily, of course, of individuals. Were Mr. Kelly and his confrères not standing upon State Socialistic ground, they would never think of advancing such a collectivist argument. Should any governmentalist say to Mr. Kelly that the public good required so and so, and that the individual must waive his rights when confronted with the greater right of the majority, that gentleman would proceed to show his opponent that there was no such thing as the public good, save as it was the aggregation of the individual goods, and what was required to augment the public good was to jealously preserve the rights and liberties of the individual.(162 ¶ 3)

This indicates the most blissful ignorance on Mr. Walker’s part of the real bearing of the point originally made against him,—a point as indisputable as the sunlight, and which he had only to admit frankly and unreservedly in order to stop the leak in the dykes that confined the waters of anti-Malthusian eloquence, and thereby save himself the necessity of counteracting this leak by opening his own flood-gates. The point referred to is this: that, in consequence of the iron law of wages which prevails wherever monopoly prevails, a reduction of population cannot benefit the masses of laborers, and hence, while monopoly lives, can be of little or no value in political economy, although, if confined to a few families, it may benefit the families in question, and therefore be good domestic economy; the explanation of this being that small families means a reduction in the cost of living for those families, and a reduction in the cost of living for even one family means, under a monopolistic system, a reduction in the rate of wages paid to all laborers. If Mr. Walker had understood this, he never would have attempted to meet it with the specious statement (which to all Anarchists is the merest truism) that the public good is only the aggregation of the individual goods. Can he suppose that the Kellys and myself are so stupid that, if we believed that Malthusianism would make all individuals comfortable and happy, or would largely contribute to that end, we would not be as ardent Malthusians as himself? Mr. Walker begs the question. He bases his argument on an unproven assumption of the very point which we dispute and believe we disprove. The Kellys have expressly denied that Malthusianism can benefit the aggregation of individuals, and therefore the public. They have nowhere admitted that it would benefit the individual; they have only admitted that it might benefit a few individuals; and between these admissions there is a vast and vital difference.(162 ¶ 4)

Concerning the rights of the individual and the majority, neither Mr. Kelly nor Mr. Walker would say that what was required to augment the public good was to jealously preserve the rights and liberties of a few individuals at the expense of others. So, in the matter of population, Mr. Kelly does not say that the public welfare is to be enhanced by reducing the size of a few families and thus making the individuals belonging to them more comfortable at the expense of others. But Mr. Walker virtually does say so, and precisely there is his mistake. Thus Mr. Walker’s own analogy convicts him of error.(162 ¶ 5)

If he can be made to really see that under the present system small families must benefit at the expense of others if at all, I think he will be obliged in honesty to abandon his position that Malthusianism is good political economy. Will he excuse me, then, if I try to make this plain in a rather simple way?(162 ¶ 6)

I will suppose A, B, C, etc. to and including Y, to be day laborers, each having five children and each employed at wages barely sufficient to sustain such life as they are willing to endure rather than resort to forcible revolution and expropriation. Z is out of employment. He has four children, and sees the possibility of a fifth. Suddenly a happy thought strikes him. As long as I have only four children, I can get work, for I can afford to work for less than Y with his five children. I will become a Malthusian,—no, a Neo-Malthusian,—and apply the preventive check. Counting the few dollars and cents still left in his pocket, he finds that he can keep his family in bread for two days longer and still have enough left to buy a copy of Dr. Foot’s Radical Remedy in Social Science and a syringe of the most improved pattern. He makes these prudential purchases, and presents them to his good wife. Mrs. Z’s eyes fairly dance with delight at the new vistas of joy that open before her, and I, for one, am sincerely glad for her. That night witnesses a renewal of the Z’s honeymoon. The next day, buoyant and hopeful, Z presents himself at the office of Mr. Gradgrind, Y’s employer. Y, says he, works for you at a dollar and seventy-five cents a day; I will do the same work at a dollar and a half. You’re the very man I’m after, says Gradgrind, rubbing his hands; come to work to-morrow. When Y puts on his coat to go home, he is handed the envelope containing his pay and his discharge.(162 ¶ 7)

Y, who has never been out of work long enough to read Malthus, and to whom that famous person’s gospel would now come all too late, lies awake all night discussing the dismal prospect with Mrs. Y. Far from experiencing a second honeymoon, they begin to wish they had never known a first. But we must live somehow, finally concludes Y; half a loaf is better than no bread; to-morrow I will go to Mr. Gradgrind and offer to work for a dollar and a half. He carries out his resolve. This time Gradgrind’s glee knows no bounds; he takes Y back into his employ, and resolves thereafter to worship at the shrine of Parson Malthus. That night X finds himself in Y’s predicament of the night before. Time goes on. Y’s five children, not getting enough to eat, grow paler and thinner, and finally the youngest and frailest is carried off to the cemetary. The preventive check in the Z family has resulted in a positive check in the Y family.(162 ¶ 8)

Meanwhile there has been no interruption of the movement started by Z. A fate similar to Y’s has overtaken X, W, V, and all their alphabetical predecessors, till now A, most unfortunate of all, finds himself thrown on a cold world with five starving children. What happens then? Driven from half loaf to quarter loaf, A tries to underbid Z, and that prudent individual, who has enjoyed a temporary prosperity at the expense of his fellows, is at last forced down again to the general level in order to hold his place. The net result of his Malthusian experiment is that A is out of employment instead of himself, one child has not been born, twenty-four have died from hunger, wages have fallen to a dollar and a half, and Gradgrind, richer than ever, begins to think that cranks amount to something, and is shaking hands with Walker over the approaching millennium.(162 ¶ 9)

Ah! a bloody millennium it will be, Mr. Gradgrind, if you and Mr. Walker keep on. Do you see what A is about? Too proud to go to the poor-house, too honest to steal, he has wandered in despair over to the Haymarket (I forgot to say that Chicago is the scene of my tragedy), and there has learned from one Parsons that all wealth belongs to everybody, that each should seize what he can, and that he, A, and his hungry children, with twenty-five cents’ worth of dynamite, may live and loaf like princes and Gradgrinds forever. Straightway some one hands him a bomb, and he flings it into a squad of police. What then? The earth is but shivered into impalpable smoke by that Doom’s-thunderpeal; the sun misses one of his planets in space, and thenceforth there are no eclipses of the moon.(162 ¶ 10)

To what stern, ay! to what singular realities has my allegory brought us! A bloody revolution, and Malthusianism to blame! Walker, the Malthusian, sharing with Gradgrind, the robber, the responsibility for Parsons, the dynamiter! Loud as Mr. Walker may declaim against forcible revolution (and he can do so none too loud for me), his voice is sounding deeper tones, which will push the people to it. I call the attention of the authorities to his incendiary Malthusian utterances.(162 ¶ 11)

Is it to be inferred, then, that I discountenance small families? By no means. I highly approve them. Z’s conduct was right and wise. He acted within his right. And his act was perfectly innocent in itself. It was not his fault that it injured others; it was the fault of the monopolistic system which shrewdly manages to keep the demand for labor below the supply. Z could not be expected to damage himself in order to refrain from damaging others, as long as his conduct was of such a character that it would not have damaged others except for the existence of an economic system for which he was in no special sense to blame. Nevertheless it will not do to wink out of sight the fact that he did damage others, or to fail to learn from it the folly of supposing that any reform is fundamental in political economy except the achievement of Liberty in our industrial and commercial life.(162 ¶ 12)