Malthus’s “Main Principle”

To the Editor of Liberty:

Having read Miss Kelly's reply to my letter on Malthus, I fail to see that she has noticed my statement of his doctrine. The ignoratio elenchi is always the argument of prejudice. I said, the fundamental propositions of Malthus—the main principle, as he called them, which he always distinguished from mere obiter dicta, though Ingram and other authors of popular misinformation may not, are as follows: Population tends to increase faster than the means of subsistence. But, of course, it cannot outrun them, except for a very short time during actual famine. The checks which reduce it to equality with them are either positive, which increase the proportion of deaths, or preventive, which diminish the proportion of births. Whatever one of these gains is at the expense of the other.

Now, I should like Miss Kelly, who justly says we have not given the subject one-twentieth part the attention it requires, to answer these questions. Can she deny that this is a succinct and correct statement of Malthus's main principle? Can she find any flaw in the argument itself? If not, does it not involve certain important consequences, among them these,—that high mortality does not diminish a population while the food supply remains constant; that the old ideas about the duty of propagating the species, and the danger of nations becoming extinct, are great mistakes; that early marriage and rapid increase are not, as a rule, to be recommended; that marriage and maternity are not the greatest duties to which women ought to subordinate everything else; that there must (in the absence of preventive checks) arise, from time to time, a struggle for existence (Malthus's own phrase), in which every peculiarity, individual, national, or special, which favors any competitor must be preserved and intensified by natural selection? Now if Miss Kelly has to answer these questions in the manner their form suggests, I do not see how she can deny that Malthus was an epoch-making discoverer. There is much in her letter that I could answer, but it refers to side issues. I keep myself, and would like to keep her, to the main principle, which is what I wrote about in the first place.

C. L. James

411 Pine Street, Eau Claire, Wis., July 25, 1886.