Front Page Titles (by Subject) Chapter IV.: LOOKING BEFORE AND AFTER. - Illustrations of Political Economy, vol. 2
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Chapter IV.: LOOKING BEFORE AND AFTER. - Harriet Martineau, Illustrations of Political Economy, vol. 2 
Illustrations of Political Economy (3rd ed) in 9 vols. (London: Charles Fox, 1832). Vol. 2.
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LOOKING BEFORE AND AFTER.
None of the party left the station without having seen the face of the magistrate. He was in the store-house when Fergus went to make his application for nets.
“What makes you want so many feet of netting at once?” asked Mr. Mackenzie; “and in such a hurry too. I hope yours have not been destroyed?”
“Indeed but they have, your honour; and another such loss would destroy me.”
“The law must be put in force in its utmost rigour,” declared the magistrate; — whereupon Rob hastily withdrew to the cooperage, where he might be out of sight. “Scarcely a day passes,” continued Mr. Mackenzie, “without information of some act of violence or another. How do you suppose this happens, Mr. Angus?”
“Through jealousy, I believe, sir. We seldom hear of thefts——”
“I beg your pardon, Mr. Angus. I have had several complaints within a few days of depredations on the fishing grounds in the locks where the cod are just showing themselves.”
“I rather think even these thefts must arise from revenge more than from a desire of gain; for there is or ought to be no want at present through the whole extent of the fishery. Some, like my brother Fergus, are reduced to difficulty by the destruction of their implements; but in such a season as this, there can be no absolute distress for any who are willing to work.”
“I scarcely know which is the most painful,” replied the magistrate; “to see men snatching bread out of one another's mouths through jealousy and spite, or under the impulse of pressing want. The worst of it is, the last usually follows the first. This enemy of your brother's, who has been injuring him now without a pretence, may plead starvation in excuse for some other act of violence hereafter.”
“I trust you are mistaken, sir,” replied Angus. “I trust the miseries of poverty that I have seen elsewhere are far from our shores.”
“The first sign of their approach, Angus, is when men begin to fancy their interests opposed to each other,—which the interests of men in society can never be. Fair competition leads to the improvement of the state of all; but the jealousy which tempts to injure any interest whatever is the infallible token that distress is at hand. You have seen enough of the world to know this to be a general truth, Angus. Why do you dispute it in the present case?”
“Perhaps my own interest in the issue blinds me,” returned Angus. “I have seen enough in other countries of what you describe to make me melancholy when I witness men pulling one another's fortunes “to pieces instead of building up the prosperity of the whole by labouring together at that of every part. Whether I hear of different classes in a commercial country petitioning for impediments to be thrown in one another's way, or see (as I saw in Canada) jealous neighbours levelling one another's fences in the dark, or laying siege to them in the day-time, I feel sure that destruction is ready to step in and beggar them all, whether it be in the shape of a prohibitory duty imposed by government, or of wild cattle that come to trample down the corn on which the quarrellers depend.”
“You once told us of some who united to make a road,” said Ella, who had now joined her husband. “That was wiser than pulling down fences.”
“Where all helped to give each other the fair advantage of a road,” replied her husband, “a flourishing settlement presently arose among the fertile fields. Where the fences were levelled, there was soon no need of fences. Some who had dwelt within them lay under the sod, hunger having cut short their days, and others were gone in search of food, leaving their fields to grow into a wilderness once more.”
“Theirs was indeed the lowest degree of folly that can be conceived.”
“Not quite,” observed Mr. Mackenzie. “I can fancy a lower, though I do not ask you to receive it as fact. This letting in of wild cattle to trample the corn took place when but few wanted to be fed, and those few had immediate resources. If, instead of this act of folly, the perpetrators had waited till hundreds and thousands were in expectation, with an appetite which the most ample harvests could not satisfy, and had set fire to the produce at the very season when it was most wanted, under the idea of vexing the holders of the land, what would you say then?”
“There is nothing to be said, sir, but that such would be an act of mere madness,—too evidently madness to be committed by more than an individual, and that individual an escaped maniac.”
“The school of ignorance is the innermost court of Bedlam,” replied Mr. Mackenzie; “and while there are any patients remaining in it, it is possible that corn-stacks may be burned by discontented people with the notion of revenging the wrongs of the starving. But I put it only as a possibility, you know.—Can it be, Angus, that you do not see the tendency of the acts of violence that are disturbing this very district? Do you not see distress and ruin in full prospect if they are not checked, and if, moreover, the temper of the people be not directly reversed?”
“Our resources are so improved that I would fain hope the best; and yet our numbers increase in full proportion, so that we had not need waste any of our capital.”
“I think not indeed. I have been visiting every station on the coast and in the islands, and I find the same state of things everywhere,—-a prosperity so unusual in these districts, that the people think their fortune secure for ever, while they are hastening, by every possible means, the approach of distress.”
“I hope you find the farms and pastures improving with the fishery?” observed Angus.— “Everything depends upon the food keeping pace with the employment.”
“The farms are improving to the utmost that skill and labour can make them improve. There is the powerful stimulus of an increasing demand, while there are increasing facilities of production. There is more manure, there are better implements, and more cattle; so that some farms produce actually double what they did when the fishery began.”
Angus shook his head, observing that this was not enough.
“They have done their best already in the way of increase,” said he. “They may be improved for some time to come, and to a great degree; but each improvement yields a less return: so that they will be further and further perpetually from again producing double in ten years; and all this time the consumers are increasing at a much quicker rate.”
“Not double in ten years surely?” said Ella.
“Certainly not; but say twenty, thirty, fifty, a hundred, any number of years you choose;— still, as the number of people doubles itself for ever, while the produce of the land does not, the people must increase faster than the produce. If corn produced corn without being wedded to the soil, the rate of increase might be the same with that of the human race. Then two sacks of barley might grow out of one, and two more again out of each of those two—proceeding from one to two, four, eight, sixteen, thirty-two, sixty-four, and so on.”
“If capital could be made to increase in this way, I see, Angus, that there could never be too many people in the world, or in our little world, Garveloch.”
“Or if, on the other hand, human production could be kept down to the same rate with the production of our fields, we need have no fear of a deficiency of food. If the number of producers increased only in proportion to the increase of food, there would be no distress of the kind our islands were formerly afflicted with, and may be afflicted with again. But nobody thinks of establishing such a proportion; and in the meanwhile, food is yielded, though in larger quantities, in less and less proportions, while the eaters go on doubling and doubling their numbers perpetually.”
“Then, to be sure, it is madness to destroy one another's means of living,” cried Ella. “It seems the first duty of everybody to increase the production of food; and yet, here we are, cutting one another's nets to pieces, and driving the fish away on which we depend for our subsistence!”
“You do not wonder now,” said Mr. Mackenzie, “at my grief for the ignorance of the people, and my disgust at the quarrels that have such consequences. I assure you the season is actually lost in some of the northern lochs; for, not only are some fishers left without nets or lines, but the fish have made no stay, being alarmed by tumult; and it is but too probable that they will not return.”
“And all this time,” continued Angus, “these very quarrellers go on marrying early, and raising large families—that is, they bring offspring into the world while they are providing as fast as possible for their future starvation.”
“There is no need to do here as the Romans did,” said Mr. Mackenzie, “and as many other nations have done—no need to offer bounties for the increase of population.”
“I think not indeed,” said Ella. “It seems a thing to be checked, rather than encouraged.”
“All depends on time and circumstances, Ella. When Noah and his little tribe stepped out of the ark into a desolated world, the great object was to increase the number of beings, who might gather and enjoy the fruits which the earth yielded, in an abundance overpowering to the few who were there to consume. And the case is the same with every infant nation which is not savage.”
“Savages do not value or subsist upon the fruits of the earth so much as upon the beasts of the field,” said Ella;—” at least so Angus told me of those who have retreated from before us in America.”
“Savages care for little beyond supplying the pressing wants of the moment,” replied Angus. “They make no savings; they have no capital; and their children die off as fast as poverty and disease can drive them out of the world. There is no growth of either capital or population among savages.”
“Those have indeed a poor chance for life and health,” said Mr. Mackenzie, “whose parents feed at the best on raw roots and berries, who sometimes keep themselves alive by swallowing grubs and worms, and at other times fast for a week together. Shrunk, deformed, and weakly themselves, their offspring are little likely to survive a scarcity, even if it were possible to rear them under the most favourable circumstances.”
“It is absurd,” said Angus, “to doubt the rate at which the human race increases on account of the decrease of numbers among savages. The whole question is concerning the proportion which capital and population bear to each other; and it cannot therefore be tried where no capital exists.”
“I suppose,” observed Ella, “that flocks and herds are the first capital which a tribe possesses in any large quantity. How do numbers increase among people who seek pasture but do not till the ground?”
“Such tribes are most numerous where pastures are fine, and weak where the natural produce of the earth is scanty. But each continues a tribe, and cannot become a nation while following a pastoral life. Their flocks cannot multiply beyond a certain point unless the food of the flocks is increased; and they who subsist upon the flocks cannot, in like manner, multiply beyond a certain point, unless the flocks on which they feed are multiplied.”
“But they not only do not increase,” observed Mr. Mackenzie, “they are lessened perpetually by one or another of the unfortunate accidents to which their condition subjects them. Pastoral tribes are particularly prone to war. Instead of keeping possession of a certain territory on which they always dwell, they rove about from one tract of country to another, leaving undefended some which they call their own;—another tribe takes possession; and then comes a struggle and a destructive war, which reduces their numbers. Many of these tribes live in a state of continual hostility, and therefore dwindle away,”
“But when they begin to settle and till the ground,” said Ella, “I suppose their numbers increase again.”
“Yes; the Jews, after they were established in Canaan, became an agricultural nation, and multiplied very rapidly. It was made, both by their laws and customs, a point of duty to marry and to marry young; and when the check of war was removed, their small territory became very thickly peopled.”
“I suppose it was to repair the waste of war,” said Ella, “that the bounty on population was offered among the Romans.”
“Not only from this cause,” replied Mr. Mackenzie, “but to repair the breaches made in other ways. In the early days of Rome, the population was too large for the capital in intervals of peace, as appears from the law of their king Romulus, that no child should be exposed to die in the desert before three years of age—a proof that it had been the previous practice to expose children under that age. In after times —in the days of Roman glory—the population was apt to decrease, even in times of peace, from the faults in the distribution of property. The land had fallen into the hands of a few great proprietors, and was not tilled by free labour. Swarms of slaves were brought in from all conquered countries, and they alone were employed where free labour should have claimed a share of labour and reward; and there was therefore no subsistence for a middling and lower class of free people. Their numbers dwindled so as to alarm their rulers and give occasion to express laws for the encouragement of population. If, instead of passing laws to promote early marriages, and offering privileges to those who had a certain number of children, the Roman emperors had allowed liberty to the people they governed to labour and subsist, there would have been no complaint of a deficiency of numbers, but rather an inquiry, as there is among us, how all that are born are to be fed?”
“But do you mean, sir,” said Angus, “that there were not children born to the lower classes of the Romans, or that they were born and died through want?”
“Multitudes that were born died immediately, from being exposed; and besides this, marriage was less practised during these ages of the Roman empire than among the same number of people in any other country.”
“The laws were not of much use then.”
“And how can we wonder, when it was actually the custom to give away corn gratis to thousands upon thousands who had no means of earning it! What inducement has a man to marry, when he must either expose his children, or see them die at home, or take his chance of a gratuitous dole of food for them? The laws, if they acted at all, would not act upon these large classes, but upon those of a higher rank, who would marry if there were no law.”
“If in any country,” observed Ella, “there are no laws to encourage or to check marriage, it seems as if that country ought to afford a fair example of the natural increase of numbers.”
“Nay,” said her husband, “human laws have little influence in this case, while the natural laws which regulate the production of life and of capital are seldom suffered to act unchecked. Leave the people of any country as free as you please to marry or not as they like, still, if capital is controlled in any way, the population is controlled also.”
“Where then,” inquired Ella, “does capital act the most freely? Where in the world may we see an example of the natural proportions in which men and subsistence increase?”
“There has never been an age or country known,” replied Mr. Mackenzie, “where at once the people have been so intelligent, their manners so pure, and their resources so abundant, as to give the principle of increase an unobstructed trial. Savage life will not do, because the people are not intelligent. Colonies will not do, because they are not free from vicious customs. An old empire will not do, because the means of subsistence are restricted.”
“A new colony of free and intelligent people in a fertile country affords the nearest approach to a fair trial,” observed Angus. “In some of the best settlements I saw in America, the increase of capital and of people went on at a rate that would scarcely be believed in an old country.”
“And that of the people the fastest, I suppose?”
“Of course; but still capital was far a-head, though the population is gaining upon it every year. When the people first went, they found nothing but capital—all means of production and no consumers but themselves. They raised corn in the same quantity from certain fields every year. There was too much corn at first in one field for a hundred months; but this hundred became two, four, eight, sixteen hundred, and so on, till more and more land was tilled, the people still spreading over it, and multiplying perpetually.”
“And when all is tilled and they still multiply,” said Ella, “they must improve their land more and more.”
“And still,” said Angus, “the produce will fall behind more and more, as every improvement, every outlay of capital yields a less return. Then they will be in the condition of an old country like England, where many are but half fed, where many prudent determine not to marry, and where the imprudent must see their children pine in hunger, or waste under disease till they are ready to be carried off by the first attack of illness.”
“May this never be the case in Garveloch!” cried Ella.
“The more waste of capital there is,” said Mr. Mackenzie, “the sooner will that day come.”
“But our islands are now in the state of a new colony, like that Angus was speaking of,” said Ella. “Want must be far from us at present.”
“Except that we have not a fertile soil or a good climate,” replied her husband. “It is true we do not depend entirely on corn;—we had not need for our home supply can never be large. We have the resource of fish, but it is so precarious a resource, that we ought to keep some means of subsistence in reserve. If the herrings should desert us for a season or two, and the harvest fail, some of us must starve, or all be half-starved, unless we have a stock in reserve.”
“Poor Fergus!” exclaimed Ella. “No wonder he was grieved and angry this morning! Five children and no capital stored up! He may well watch the seasons and tremble at a storm.”
“I am sorry,” observed Mr. Mackenzie, “that he will not give up the name of the offender who has injured him. It is necessary to the public safety that this wanton destruction of property should be put an end to; and I give it in charge to you, Angus, to see that full compensation is made, or that the culprit is delivered into my hands to be made an example of. If it had been generally known that I am here to administer the law, I would not have yielded this much; but as I have only just arrived, and am but beginning to make known the law, I do not insist on an information being laid this time. Henceforward I always shall; for connivance at an offence is itself an offence.”