A Plea for Parson Malthus

A Plea for Parson Malthus.

To the Editor of Liberty:

In one of your recent articles about Malthusianism I see my own name, together with certain reflections which prompt me to rise and explain. In my humble opinion Malthus was one of the first of social philosophers. The doctrine which bears his name is worthy to be understood by every radical, and the prejudice against it which prevails among radicals, though not unnatural, is misleading, as all prejudices are. X says: Parson Malthus thought pestilences which swept away millions of the victims of a few score of despots were wise providences whereby to check surplus population. This is a mistake. Gertrude B. Kelly says: The true Malthusian does assume the wage system to be eternal; the fundamental doctrine of Malthusianism is that the working people would be better off, everything else remaining unchanged, if their numbers were diminished. These are mistakes. Malthus's Theory of Population was written in answer to Condorcet's Esquisse des Progrès de l'Esprit Humain and Godwin's Political Justice. This is true, but irrelevant. Malthus’s motives have nothing to do with the truth or importance of his doctrine. If his doctrine is true and important, then he was a great social philosopher, no matter how bad his motives may have been; and if it was not true or important, then he was not a great philosopher, however good his motives. The Malthusian doctrine—that doctrine to which Malthus fully and finally committed himself—is this. Population tends to increase faster than the means of subsistence. But for evident reasons it cannot outrun the means of subsistence except for a very short time during actual famine. There is, therefore, a principle which equalizes population and food. What is it? It may be divided into two agencies,—positive checks, which increase the proportion of deaths, and preventive checks, which diminish the proportion of births. Whatever one of these gains must be at the expense of the other.

This is not only true, but it is so nearly self-evident that some of Malthus's critics represent it as a bald truism on which no system can be built. But, in truth, it is no truism, but a very complicated equation, from which have been deduced the most important conclusions in history, morals, politics, and biology. In history, it explains such surprising facts as that war, when not accompanied by devastation, does not diminish the population of a country. The gain of the positive check is the loss of the preventive. The increase in the number of deaths while the food supply remains constant stimulates trade, raises wages, promotes marriage; and the births soon make up for the deaths. But when a country is invaded and ravaged, the population does diminish, for it cannot outrun the supply of food. In morals Malthusianism strikes a deadly blow at the infamous doctrine which makes women mere breeders. When Miss Kelly says: Condorcet has shown that with improved conditions, the increased morality necessarily resulting from this improvement, the population question would settle itself (which, by the bye, is only in a measure true), she ought to see that, so far as it is true, Condorcet has merely anticipated Malthus in stating a truth of vital importance to her sex,—a truth which abuse of Malthus can serve no purpose but to obscure. To revile Malthus is to defend marriage. To defend marriage is to degrade woman. The phrase increased morality necessarily resulting from improved conditions wants a little defining. Brutes are not subject to rent, usury, etc., but brutes multiply until positive checks cut down their numbers. So do men in the barbarous state. So would men in any state, even if women were free, unless at least one sex had learned that there are objects more worthy than the immediate gratification of passion. And this knowledge comes from experience of the evils of this gratification, which is simply self-taught Malthusianism. In politics Malthus and the Malthusians are resolute opponents of that insulting foolish charity according to law which, like the vampire's wing, lulls into fatal slumber those whose blood is being sucked by the noble and wealthy. It must be added that Malthus was a staunch advocate of State education, of which I, as an Anarchist, do not approve; but I think he may be pardoned for this error, since its source was his zeal for education in general. In biology Malthus was the forerunner of Darwin, and to a great extent anticipated his ideas. But Darwin's discoveries are the most important and revolutionary of the century, not only because of their endless applications in pure and applied science, but because they have given the death-blow to theological superstition, and established correct views of the creative process.

It may be added that Malthus was not so bad a man as it is the fashion to represent him. The leading features of his character were, in phrenological language, causality, combativeness, and benevolence. He loved disputation, but he loved truth, and loved his fellow-men. His original pamphlet contained the substance of some private arguments with his father, who swore by William Godwin, and it seems to have been prompted by no deeper motive than the disputatiousness of a young man. It made him famous at once. In the second edition, five years later, the polemical tone has disappeared. Godwin is no longer made a consideration of any importance, and the argument deals not with the future, but only the past and present. Instead of considering war, pestilence, and famine providential arrangements for the restriction of population, Parson Malthus would have said that they are the natural punishment of certain follies, which he wanted people to avoid by substituting the preventive check for the positive,—few births and long lives for the double agony of too many births and a proportionate number of early deaths. Instead of assuming, as Miss Kelly says, that population was always too great for the food supply, it was almost his fundamental thesis that population could not become too great for the food supply, except in case of famine, and it was from the rarity of famine in civilized countries that he argued the entire practicability of his great remedy,—continence,—and its tendency to come in with, but not without, the progress of civilization, which, he thought, depended on the sense of personal responsibility, and therefore thought (wrongly as I believe) to require laws for the protection of property rights. In his later days he departed widely from the orthodox school of political economy, or perhaps I should say that they departed from him. Ricardo, who was intellectually as well as naturally younger than Malthus, set out with his premises, but added to them entirely novel conclusions. Ricardo attributed the rise of rent solely to the taking up of inferior land, which, he held, must result from the increase of population. The wages of the common laborer gravitate to the lowest point at which life can be sustained, because the increase of population would induce competition which must drive it down to that. This was developing the views of Malthus into what is incorrectly called by many the Malthusian theory. Incorrectly, for it is Ricardian and not Malthusian. Malthus rejected with emphasis these improvements on his system. Population cannot increase beyond the means of subsistence. The rise of rent depends on a variety of causes, but increase of population will not raise rents without first raising prices, which it does not necessarily do. The laborer's wages gravitate, not to the lowest point at which he can live, but the lowest at which he will consent to live, and iti s not at all necessary that this should be a condition of squalid poverty. The victory for the time remained with Ricardo, but since Mill's day there has been a decided reaction towards the views of Malthus, though very few people have read enough of him to be aware that they are his. The wage-fund dogma, which Miss Kelly mentions, was a further improvement on Ricardo's deductive economy, introduced by MacCulloch, and, like much else, is sometimes put to the praise and sometimes to the blame of Malthus, although he repudiated it altogether.

C. L. James

411 Pine Street, Eau Claire, Wis., June 24, 1886.