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CHAPTER I.: FUTILITY OF MR. MALTHUS's DOCTRINE RESPECTING THE CHECKS ON POPULATION. - 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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FUTILITY OF MR. MALTHUS's DOCTRINE RESPECTING THE CHECKS ON POPULATION.
In the preceding Book I have taken for the subject of my enquiry the possible progress of mankind under peculiarly favourable circumstances, as to the increase of their numbers. I have produced the example of Sweden, as the most advantageous specimen of the kind that is contained in the records of history. I have not contented myself with this, but have proceeded in the endeavour to establish certain principles on the subject. From the example of Sweden, corroborated by views drawn from all other countries of Europe, in which any progress has been made in collecting Tables that have reference to population, I have sought to fix certain maxims which may be of use to guide us in our speculations on the subject. To this I have added some general reasonings, built upon the nature of marriage, and the numbers and fruit-fulness of human females, calculated to confirm these facts, and to shew from the nature of things why they should be found such as they are.
But there is another question behind, which will be of scarcely less importance in enabling us to settle our opinions on the subject of this work. This is (to borrow the language of Mr. Malthus), “What is it that checks population?”
Or, I should rather chuse to express the enquiry upon which 1 am about to enter thus:
Population has been found, under peculiarly favourable circumstances, for example in Sweden, to have a tendency to double itself in a little more than one hundred years. But the history of the world is not in accord with the example of Sweden. We have no reason to suppose that the globe of the earth, at least so far as it was then known, was at all less populous three thousand years ago, than it is now.
The inference therefore, in the point of view in which we are here considering the subject, is, first, from the example of Sweden, that population, or the numbers of mankind, has a natural tendency to increase under particularly favourable circumstances, at the rate of a doubling in a little more than one hundred years; and, secondly, from the history of the world, that this increase is perpetually counteracted, so that we have no reason to believe that the earth is now more populous than at any past period of authentic history, or, from any thing that is at present going on on the face of the globe, that it has any likelihood to become-so.
Population is kept down. This truth we learn from the history of mankind: and in this proposition I agree with Mr. Malthus.
But, in announcing this proposition, two questions occur to me. First, how is it kept down? Secondly, is it necessary for the common good, that any special attention should be given by governments and national councils, in the way of taking care that it should be kept down, or that the increase of the numbers of mankind should not be encouraged?
On the first question, [How does it happen that the population of the earth does not go on in a course of perpetual increase?] Mr. Malthus advances two propositions interchangeably, substituting the one for the other at his pleasure, as if they were only two ways of expressing the same thing: first, that population is kept down by the intervention of vice and misery: secondly, that it is kept down, because the numbers of mankind are, every where and incessantly, tending to increase beyond the limits of the means of subsistence.
Now these propositions are so far from being synonimous, and if I may apply the word somewhat out of its usual meaning, tautological, that one of them may be true, and the other totally and entirely false.
That vice and misery have a share in keeping down the numbers of mankind, I will not deny. There may also be other causes, as yet little adverted to, which may be concerned in producing the same effect.
The most obvious causes which all history forces upon our attention, are war, pestilence and famine. And here I would distinguish between the two agents which in Mr. Malthus's book are perpetually coupled, vice, and misery; or, as I would rather denominate them, vice, and the visitation of calamity. Pestilence is not vice; famine can scarcely deserve to be called by that name. War therefore, of these three, is the agent for thinning the ranks of mankind, which is best entitled to be denominated vice.
But how far are any of these concerned with a scarcity of the means of subsistence? Famine indeed is a sweeping name, which expresses that scarcity in its most aggravated degree. But pestilence—is that only a lack of the means of subsistence under another form? Is the plague produced by hunger? Is the yellow fever produced by hunger? When our devoted country in former centuries was so often visited with the plague, were Englishmen in greater comparative want of the means of subsistence than at present?
War is, of almost any example that could be devised, well adapted to shew that Mr. Malthus's two propositions are of very different import. Do men go to war because they want the means of subsistence? Far otherwise. War in civilized countries is the offspring of pride, of wantonness, and an artificial method of thinking and living. War cannot be carried on in such countries without a previous accumulation of the means of subsistence. Money, it has often been said, is the sinew of war. It would be more accurate to say, that provisions [munition de bouche] are the sinews of war. The first care of a power going to war is to establish magazines. I may add, that money itself is nothing, except so far as it can purchase the conveniences, and, a fortiori, the necessaries of life.
So far therefore as war is concerned, I allow that the numbers of mankind are thinned by vice: So far as famine and pestilence enter into the question, I admit that the same effect may be attributed to calamity.
But I totally reject Mr. Malthus's vice and misery in their obscure details. I affirm, that we in the favoured countries of Europe have no more of them, than have occurred in the annals of the United States of Americaa . This will be sufficiently evinced in the subsequent divisions of this volume. The proper and ultimate appeal on this question is to the Bills of Mortality; and it must for ever redound to the disgrace of the followers of Mr. Malthus, that they have blindly adopted his propositions, without once having had recourse to so obvious a means of ascertaining the fact.
But the grand question, which embraces at once all the lucubrations of Mr. Malthus, is this, Does population require to be kept down?
All the legislators of antiquity, with one voice, and in the most authentic way, by their uniform practice, affirm the contrary.
To which I may add, first, that the proposition is absurd on the face of it; since the first element of civilization lies in this truth, that every human creature (except in cases of extraordinary corporeal imbecility) is endowed by nature with the power of producing a much greater quantity of that which nourishes human life, than' is necessary for his individual subsistence.
After the experience, and the recorded history of several thousand years, we know that the population ot countries is for the most part in a state of flux and reflux. As to the increase, in nations where it cannot be ascribed to the Junction and mingling of the people of one country with the people of another,, I will grant with Mr. Malthus that it is to be imputed to the power of procreation. But what is the cause of the decrease? Of this we know little; and Mr. Malthus has taught us nothing. War, famine, and pestilence are real causes. It is natural enough to think, that the race of mankind will have a tendency in some measure to increase where they are happy, and to decrease where they are unhappy. But, as to Mr. Malthus's convenient aud gratuitous causes, never to be defined, and never to be methodically traced by the lucubrations or the pen of the calculator or the political economist, but which he has always at hand to bring forward wherever he may happen to want them, these are wholly unworthy of a moment's serious consideration. Why have so many cations and races of men wholly perished from the face of the earth? Why have the natives of Mexico and Peru continually decreased, notwithstanding all the efforts and anxieties of government to keep up their numbers? Why are the tribes of North American Indians to all appearance verging towards extinction? These are questions which the Essay on Population affords us no assistance to answer.
What is the past history of mankind relatively to the question of population? I grant, that those countries of antiquity where most attention was given by governments to encourage the increase of population, were from time to time exposed to the calamity (the vice, if Mr. Malthus pleases) of war. They were all very probably visited by pestilence and contagious diseases, carrying off their thousands and tens of thousands. If the author of the Essay on Population had confined his enquiry to the consideration of what would become of the numbers of mankind, when all vice and calamity shall have been abolished, and when every country of the earth shall be amply stocked with inhabitants, his argument would have taken a very different turn, and, if I had felt impelled to examine it, my reasonings would have been arranged in a different manner.
But Mr. Malthus knew, that if he had raised no other difficulty than this, his book would quietly have reposed on the shelves of the curious, and there would have been few, even of the most ardent speculators on the future improvement of mankind, who would not have contented themselves, as he expresses it, with leaving “an event at such a distance to the care of Providenceb .” It was therefore necessary for his purpose to affirm, that in old countries the population is every where and at all times pressing hard against the limits of the means of subsistence.”
The fact however seems to be the reverse of this. All the legislators and governments of past ages, in proportion as they were supposed to be enlightened, and animated with a genuine zeal for the welfare of their subjects, were anxious to encourage population. Could they all be blind to the truth in this respect? Could they all be so obstinate and headstrong, that experience itself could never enlighten them?
Let Mr. Malthus produce a single instance among these celebrated legislators, and in these famous countries, where that terrible reaction occurred which his hypothesis requires. According to him, the present administrators of Egypt and Syria ought to be considered as the genuine benefactors of mankind, while the efforts of those ardent patriots who directed their views to the increasing the numbers of their countrymen, would be seen to draw a long train of calamity and misery after them. I am unable to discern this. I cannot see the blessings and prosperity which attend upon and attest the wisdom of the existing governments of Egypt and Syria. And I must patiently wait for Mr. Malthus's information, as to whether the policy of Lycurgus, or Numa, or Zoroaster, or Confucius, affords the most apposite example of the misery that arises from encouraging population. In some instances he says “not thirty years would elapsec ,” before the most fatal and heartsickening consequences would be produced. And the whole tendency of his book is to prove, that the expected disasters would be as rapid, as they were irresistible in their manifestation and their progress.
The inference certainly from all history is, that population does not challenge the vigilance of governments to keep it down. The inference from all history is, that those countries, other things equal, have been happiest, where the increase of mankind has been most encouraged, and those the most miserable, in which the power of depopulation has most fully displayed itself. If an author, in the beginning of the nineteenth century of the Christian era, comes forward, to teach us a new creed, and to persuade us to abandon that which the concurrent wisdom of ages had taught us, he should surely not attempt to do this by the sole aid of a few dogmatical maxims, but should have gone through the annals of antiquity, and have shewn us where in all famous nations and states the evil crept in. The fact is completely against him. The fact is, according to the evidence of all history, that population does not require the vigilance of governments to keep it down.
When once we have discarded this cardinal error, the rest of the subject becomes a topic of laudable speculation. What tendency is there in the human species to increase their numbers? It cannot be disputed, that in some countries (Sweden for example) there appears to be a power in mankind to increase their numbers by procreation only. Under what circumstances, and for how long a time, may this power be supposed to exert itself? Under the most favourable circumstances, what would be the degree of the increase? What are the causes that check the increase, and that produce a progress in the opposite direction? for the instances appear to be much more numerous and striking of a rapid depopulation. At all events this is certain, that no governments, previously to the publication of Mr. Malthus's book, ever set themselves up for patrons of depopulation, and to “stop the propagation of mankind:” and it is scarcely less certain, that the population of the earth is not greater now than it was three thousand years ago.
If Mr. Malthus's doctrine were sound, and his novelties constituted a real discovery, the history of the population of the earth would be very different from the thing that it is. But his theory sustains the common fate of every mere hypothesis ingeniously contrived to account for the phenomena around us. It may look in some degree plausible in itself; but it will never truly tally with the facts it is brought to explain. It pays us with words; but it does not clear up a single difficulty.
The population of every old country, according to Mr. Malthus, is kept down by “pressing hard against the limits of the means of subsistence.” If this were true, what would be the real state of the case in the history of all the nations of the earth? A periodical fluctuation.— That there is a change I admit, and that nations from time to time increase and decrease in the numbers of their people. But the cause of these changes has never yet been fully explained; and least of all do they square with Mr. Malthus's hypothesis—To proceed in the statement and refutation of the views exhibited in the Essay on Population. Every country, as well as North America, in the proportion of its area and its soil is capable of subsisting a given number of inhabitants. When this capacity has been used, and the country has been replenished with men, that district or portion of the globe will refuse to receive a greater number. But it is perhaps the nature of every check or reaction, to operate somewhat beyond the extent of the impulse that gave it birth. Hence, we will say, comes the depopulation, which forms so memorable a portion of the records of universal history. That we may not fall into the error, so incident to the limited faculties of man, of confounding ourselves amidst the complication of very large numbers, let us take a district or an island fully competent to the subsistence of one thousand human inhabitants. The power of procreation, we will assume, continually tends to increase the numbers of mankind. The population of this district therefore, having arrived at one thousand, has an abstract tendency to extend itself further. But here it is stopped by the most powerful of all causes. Calamity invades this devoted race of men, poverty, examples of terrible distress, and the want of the means of subsistence. Hereupon follows, we will suppose, depopulation. No man need look far for the most impressive examples of depopulation. We will imagine the number of inhabitants reduced to five hundred. What will be the consequence of this? The area and the soil were fully competent to subsist twice that number. Strips and acres of land now seem to call loudly for the hand of the cultivator. The whole country pines and is sick for the ploughshare and the spade. Nothing therefore is more evident, upon Mr. Malthus's scheme, than that this region will speedily recover its lost population. Want of the means of subsistence put it down: that want being removed, the principle of increase inherent in the human species will raise it up again.
But is this really the case in the history of the earth? Let us look through all the depopulated countries enumerated by Montesquieu. They have been amply blessed in the remedy prescribed by Mr. Malthus, the reduction of the numbers of those who cried out for the means of subsistence. Why are they at present unconscious of their happiness, and why do they not diligently apply themselves to increase their numbers? I think I may venture to say that in no one instance has the thing happened as Mr. Malthus's theory requires. Wherever depopulation has once set up its standard, the evil goes on. In these countries we do not find, as according to the dicta of the Essay on Population we ought to find, a periodical flux and reflux of the number of their inhabitantsd , an elasticity by means of which, as soon as the pressure had operated to a certain point, the principle resumes its sway, and the energies mount again. On the contrary, wherever depopulation has operated to a great extent, and for a considerable length of time, I believe we shall never find that country resuming its preceding prosperity and populousness, unless by an actual planting and settling of a new race of inhabitants within its limits.
Hence it appears, that it is something else, and not merely or principally a rise and fall in the means that nature affords us for obtaining provisions and subsistence, that limits the population of a country, and causes that country in many instances to produce so much smaller a proportion of human beings, than it could boast in some preceding generation, or in some remote age of the world.
I would observe by the way, that a want of the means of subsistence, and a want of the means which nature affords to man for obtaining provisions and subsistence, are by no means synonimous. Much of Mr. Malthus's strength lies in his ambiguities. When the whole earth has been “cultivated like a gardene ” we will suppose for a moment that this state of things puts a bar on the multiplication of mankind. But it is a very different question, and is well worthy of the enquiry of the political economist, Why Turkey in Europe, Turkey in Asia, Persia, Egypt, and a multitude of other countries, are so thinly inhabited now, to what they were in the renowned periods of their ancient history. Certainly it is not because their soil is exhausted. Certainly it is not because another blade of corn refuses to grow on their surface. We may venture, even in the infancy of the enquiry, to assert, that the cause is to be found in the government and political administration of these countries. If a beneficent sovereign, the father of his people, were to arise among them, if a great genius, who loved his fellow-men, and in whom the ardour of his love generated enlightened attention, and fertilised the field of intellectual resources, were to mount the throne, if such a one were to apply all his energies to make his country what it formerly was, when it seemed to be the granary of the world, we may reasonably believe that his labours would not be in vain. The great mass of the people in that country would no longer be oppressed. Their sovereign, and inspired by him a long train of men in power inferior to the throne, would make it their ambition, that each father of a family who desired it, should have a portion of land subject to his own providence and discretion, and should possess the means of rendering the land he owned available to the purposes of human prosperity. The energies of the inhabitants of the country would be called forth, and men from other regions would be invited to settle on this advantageous soil. Hence it appears, that it is ill government, and not a want of the means of subsistence, that renders these countries a permanent scene of desolation.
But Mr. Malthus, that dark and terrible genius that is ever at hand to blast all the hopes of all mankind, will tell us, that Egypt, or whatever other territory we take for our example, will one day be “cultivated like a garden,” and will refuse itself to any further increase of inhabitants. Be it so: we will not dispute that for the present. But is that any reason why, out of a generous care for a distant posterity, we should refuse the vast accession of happiness that shall be offered to us? “Take the good the Gods provide thee.” I am disposed, like Mr. Malthus, to say, “An event at such a distance,”as that of a whole country, or the whole earth, having more inhabitants than its soil will maintain, “may fairly be left to Providencef .” We have disarmed the Essay on Population of all its sting, when we have proved that, “at every period during the progress of cultivation, the distress for want of food will [not] be constantly pressing on all mankind,” or, in other words, that the population of Europe, and the other parts of the Old World, is not necessarily “always pressing hard against the limits of the means of subsistence.”
[a]Is it necessary to observe, that I would apply this to Great Britain as it was previous to the last peace, and not to the years of extraordinary calamity that have followed?
[b]Vol. II, p. 220
[c]Vol. II, p. 260
[d]This remark perhaps stands in need of explanation. I acknowledge a flux and reflux in the population of countries, as, for example, in Sweden. But I affirm that there is no instance of a country abundantly peopled, then reduced in its numbers through a scarcity of the means of subsistence, and afterwards from the depths of depopulation becoming populous again purely because the superabundance of its citizens was taken away.
[e]Essay on Population, Vol. II, p. 220.
[f]Vol. II, p. 220.