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CHAPTER III.: general views as to the alleged increase of mankind. - William Godwin, Of Population. An Enquiry concerning the Power of Increase in the Numbers of Mankind 
Of Population. An Enquiry concerning the Power of Increase in the Numbers of Mankind, being an Answer to Mr. Malthus’s Essay on that Subject (London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, 1820).
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general views as to the alleged increase of mankind.
TO take a just view of any subject, one rule that is extremely worthy of our attention is, that we should get to a proper distance from it. The stranger to whom we would convey an adequate image of the city of London, we immediately lead to the top of St. Paul's Church. And, if I may introduce an allusion to the records of the Christian religion, the devil took our Saviour “up into an exceeding high mountain,” when he would “shew him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them.”
Mr. Malthus has taken his stand upon the reports of Dr. Franklin, and Dr. Ezra Styles. He repairs with them to the northern parts of the United States of America, and there he sees, or thinks he sees, “the population doubling itself, for above a century and a half successively, in less than twenty-five years,” and that “from procreation onlya .” He does not discover an ample population even in this, his favourite country. Far from it. The reason why the population goes on so rapidly in North America is, according to him, because there is “ample room and verge enough” for almost all the population that can be poured into it. He sees, in his prophetic conception, that country, some centuries hence, full of human inhabitants, even to overflowing, and groaning under the multitude of the tribes shall dwell in it.
Would it not have been fairer to have taken before him the globe of earth at one view, and from thence to have deduced the true “Principle of Population,” and the policy that ought to direct the measures of those who govern the world?
How long the race of man has subsisted, unless we derive our opinions on the subject from the light of revelation, no man knows. The Chinese, and the people of Indostan, carry back their chronology through millions of years. Even if we refer to the Bible, the Hebrew text, and the Samaritan which is perhaps of equal authority, differ most considerably and fundamentally from each other. But Mr. Malthus is of opinion, that, in reasoning on subjects of political economy, we are bound to regulate our ideas by statistical reports, and tables that have been scientifically formed by proficients in that study, and has accordingly confined himself to these.
But, though we know not how long the human race has existed, nor how extensive a period it has had to multiply itself in, we are able to form some rude notions respecting its present state. It has by some persons been made an objection to the Christian religion, that it has not become universal. It would perhaps be fairer, to make it an objection to the “Principle of Population,” as laid down by Mr. Malthus, that the earth is not peopled.
If I were to say that the globe would maintain twenty times its present inhabitants, or, in other words, that for every human creature now called into existence, twenty might exist in a state of greater plenty and happiness than with our small number we do at present, I should find no one timid and saturnine enough to contradict me. In fact, he must be a literal and most uninventive speculator, who would attempt to set bounds to the physical powers of the earth to supply the means of human subsistence.
The first thing therefore that would occur to him who should survey “all the kingdoms of the earth,” and the state of their population, would be the thinness of their numbers, and the multitude and extent of their waste and desolate places. If his heart abounded with “the milk of human kindness,” he would not fail to contrast the present state of the globe with its possible state; he would see his species as a little remnant widely scattered over a fruitful and prolific surface, and would weep to think that the kindly and gracious qualities of our mother earth were turned to so little account. If he were more of a sober and reasoning, than of a tender and passionate temper, perhaps he would not weep, but I should think he would set himself seriously to enquire, how the populousness of nations might be increased, and the different regions of the globe replenished with a numerous and happy race.
Dr. Paley's observations on this head are peculiarly to the purpose. “The quantity of happiness,” he says, “in any given district, although it is possible it may be increased, the number of inhabitants remaining the same, is chiefly and most naturally affected by alteration of the numbers: consequently, the decay of population is the greatest evil that a state can suffer; and the improvement of it is the object, which ought in all countries to be aimed at, in preference to every other political purpose whatsoeverb .”
Such has been the doctrine, I believe, of every enlightened politician and legislator since the world began. But Mr. Malthus has placed this subject in a new light. He thinks that there is a possibility that the globe of earth may at some time or other contain more human inhabitants than it can subsist; and he has therefore written a book, the direct tendency of which is to keep down the numbers of mankind. He has no consideration for the millions and millions of men, who might be conceived as called into existence, and made joint partakers with us in such happiness as a sublunary existence, with liberty and improvement, might impart; but, for the sake of a future possibility, would shut against them once for all the door of existence.
He says indeed, “The difficulty, so far from being remote, is imminent and immediate. At every period during the progress of cultivation, from the present moment to the time when the whole earth was become like a garden, the distress for want of food would be constantly pressing on all mankindc .” He adds it is true in this place, “if they were equal.” But these words are plainly unnecessary, since it is almost the sole purpose of his book to shew, that, in all old established countries, “the population is always pressing hard against the means of subsistence.”
This however—I mean the distress that must always accompany us in every step of our progress—is so palpably untrue, that I am astonished that any man should have been induced by the love of paradox, and the desire to divulge something new, to make the assertion. There is no principle respecting man and society more certain, than that every man in a civilized state is endowed with the physical power of producing more than shall suffice for his own subsistence. This principle lies at the foundation of all the history of all mankind. If it were otherwise, we should be all cultivators of the earth. We should none of us ever know the sweets of leisure; and all human science would be contained in the knowledge of seed-time and harvest. But no sooner have men associated in tribes and nations, than this great truth comes to be perceived, that comparatively a very small portion of labour on the part of the community, will subsist the whole. Hence it happens that even the farmer and the husbandman have leisure for their religion, their social pleasures, and their sports; and hence it happens, which is of infinitely more importance in the history of the human mind, that, while a minority of the community are employed in the labours indispensibly conducive to the mere subsistence of the whole, the rest can devote themselves to art, to science, to literature, to contemplation, and even to all the wanton refinements of sensuality, luxury, and ostentation.
What is it then, we are naturally led to ask, that causes any man to starve, or prevents him from cultivating the earth, and subsisting upon its fruits, so long as there is a portion of soil in the country in which he dwells, that has not been applied to the producing as much of the means of human subsistence, as it is capable of producing? Mr. Malthus says, it is “the Law of Nature.” “After the public notice which I have proposed, if any man chose to marry, without a prospect of being able to support a family, he should have the most perfect liberty to do so. Though to marry, in this case, is in my opinion clearly an immoral act, yet it is not one which society can justly take upon itself to prevent or punish. To the punishment of Nature therefore he should be leftd .” And elsewhere, “A man who is born into a world already possessed, if he cannot get subsistence from his parents, and if the society do not want his labour, has no claim of right to the smallest portion of food, and in fact has no business to be where he is. At Nature's mighty feast there is no vacant cover for him. She tells him to be gone, and will quickly execute her own orderse .”
Never surely was there so flagrant an abuse of terms, as in this instance. Mr. Malthus is speaking of England, where there are many thousands of acres wholly uncultivated, and perhaps as many more scarcely employed in any effectual manner to increase the means of human subsistence; for these passages occur in chapters of his Essay where he is treating of our Poor-laws, and the remedies that might be applied to the defects he imputes to them. I grant him then, that it is Law which condemns the persons he speaks of to starve. So far we are agreed. This Law Mr. Malthus may affirm to be just, to be wise, to be necessary to the state of things as we find them. All this would be open to fair enquiry. Great and cogent no doubt are the reasons that have given so extensive a reign to this extreme inequality. But it is not the Law of Nature. It is the Law of very artificial life. It is the Law which “heaps upon some few with vast excess” the means of every wanton expence and every luxury, while others, some of them not less worthy, are condemned to pine in want.
Compare this then with Mr. Malthus's favourite position, in opposition to what he calls “the great error under which Mr. Godwin labours,” that “political regulations and the established administration of property are in reality light and superficial causes of mischief to society, in comparison with those which result from the Laws of Naturef .”
But to return, and resume the point with which this chapter commenced. If Mr. Malthus's doctrine is true, why is the globe not peopled? If the human species has so strong a tendency to increase, that, unless the tendency were violently and calamitously counteracted, they would every where “double their numbers in less than twenty-five years,” and that for ever, how comes it that the world is a wilderness, a wide and desolate place, where men crawl about in little herds, comfortless, unable from the dangers of free-booters, and the dangers of wild beasts to wander from climate to climate, and without that mutual support and cheerfulness which a populous earth would most naturally afford? The man on the top of St Paul's would indeed form a conception of innumerable multitudes: but he who should survey “all the kingdoms of the world,” would receive a very different impression. On which side then lies the evidence? Do the numbers of mankind actually and in fact increase or decrease? If mankind has so powerful and alarming a tendency to increase, how is it that this tendency no where shews itself in general history? Mr. Malthus and his followers are reduced to confess the broad and glaring fact that mankind do not increase, but he has found out a calculation, a geometrical ratio, to shew that they ought to do so, and then sits down to write three volumes, assigning certain obscure, vague, and undefinable causes, why his theory and the stream of ancient and modern history are completely at variance with each other.
[a]Essay on Population, vol. I. p. 9.
[b]Moral and Political Philosophy, Book VI. Chap. xi.
[c]Vol. II. p. 220.
[d]Vol. III. p. 180.
[e]This passage, which occurs in the Second Edition in quarto, p, 531, is not to be found in the Fifth Edition of the Essay. But I beg leave once for all to observe, that those sentences of our author, the sense of which he has never shewn the slightest inclination to retract, and the spirit of which on the contrary is of the essence of his system, I do not hold myself bound to pass over unnoticed, merely because he has afterwards expunged them, that he might not “inflict an unnecessary violence on the feelings of his renders [Quarterly Review for July 1817.],” or that he might “soften some of the harshest conclusions of the first Essay [Malthus, Preface to the Second Edition.].”
[f]Vol. II. p. 245.