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Chapter V.: causes of the scarcity of the means of human subsistence continued. - 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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causes of the scarcity of the means of human subsistence continued.
let us resume for a moment, and endeavour to set in a still clearer light this proposition of Mr. Malthus, The population of the earth is continually kept down in all old countries by a want of the means of subsistence.
The weakness and folly of this idea seem to exceed every thing that could previously have been imagined of the extent of human credulity. A man must be lost beyond redemption in a labyrinth of sophistry, before he can become its victim.
The eunuch of the queen of Ethiopia said to the apostle, Lo, here is water; what hinders that I be baptised? In the same manner we may represent to ourselves an unsophisticated man of plain understanding saying, Lo, here is land; what hinders that I cultivate it? To make the case a fair one, the plot of earth concerning which his question is framed, shall be one of those many portions to be found in our native country, which have never felt the plough, and have scarcely in any degree worth mentioning, been applied to the purposes of human subsistence.
The merest driveller can answer this question, What hinders me, is civil institutions, and the law of the country.
What can be plainer? If I cultivate this land for my own use and the use of those most closely connected with me, I shall hardly rob any one of the means of subsistence, more than I should have done by cultivating a few acres in the wildest parts of North America. And this plot of land that I speak of, is a thousand times more easily to be improved by me, than a similar plot in the back-settlements of America. It will want a certain degree of preparation, before it can be rendered productive. But the correspondent plot in North America is first to be cleared of its native woods, the aborigines of the soil. The implements of husbandry in the one case are to be transported across the Atlantic; in the other they are to be procured at the same price, and without any expence of freight, at the adjacent market-town. The capital which is required for inclosing a farm and rendering the soil available in America, might equally suffice to the cultivator in his native country, but for the prohibition that hangs over him, and the impossibility under which he labours of buying or hiring the portion of land he wants at home. Divers authors have reasoned learnedly respecting the origin of property. The explanation given by Locke has been exceedingly admired; and there is a very striking passage of Rousseau in his Emilius on the same subject. Mr. Malthus has set aside all the speculations of his predecessors on this momentous topic. He says, or rather his argument requires him to say, The law of property originates in the geometrical ratio. The founders of nations had an intuitive feeling of the unlimited and rapid multiplication of mankind, and therefore set up this fence in time, to keep down the population of the earth. It is true, that it must be civil institutions after all, that cause the soil of this island to be so inadequately cultivated, in a degree, according to Mr. Malthus, which is unequal to the wholesome and competent nourishment of all its inhabitants. But then, if we admit the theory of the Essay on Population, civil institutions may justly stand discharged of all blame on the subject, for this reason; because they are guilty of no caprice, they exercise no discretion; they are the blind and necessary instruments of a higher power, of the great, inherent and indefeasible law of the multiplication of mankind. The great axiom of Mr. Malthus will therefore still remain unimpeached: “Human institutions, however erroneous or oppressive, though they may appear to be the causes of much mischief to society, are in reality light and superficial, mere feathers that float on the surface, in comparison with those deeper-seated causes of evil, which result from the laws of nature and the passion between the sexes.”
The more closely we look into the Essay on Population, the greater reason shall we find to be convinced, that it exhibits a theory of the most airy and unsubstantial nature that was ever obtruded on the public. It sets out in a grand style with the arithmetical and geometrical ratios, and undertakes to shew that, let the earth be cultivated and improved to however great a degree of perfection, the produce could never suffice to supply the wants of all the human beings that, by the principle of multiplication in man, would be engendered upon it.
This is the shewy and dazzling part of Mr. Malthus's theory, set forth to amaze his readers; and with this he has contrived to delude and mislead a countless multitude of followers. But this has nothing to do with the practical part of his doctrines, the essence of which lies simply in one proposition, viz. that “in all old countries, where the land is already appropriated, the population is at all times pressing hard against the limits of the means of subsistence.”
Now, if in all old countries the population is at all times pressing hard against the limits of the means of subsistence, it must be so in countries where population is at a stand, for it is at a stand probably in most countries of Europe. Nay, which is more, and which Mr. Malthus has been at great pains to make out, it must be so in countries where population is actually on the decline.
The arithmetical and geometrical ratios therefore of the Essay on Population, are upon a par with the curls of the wig of Sterne's Parisian barber. “Immerge them in the ocean, exclaimed he, and they will stand.”
“What a great scale,” says Sterne, “is every thing upon in this city! The utmost stretch of an English perriwig-maker's ideas could have gone no further than to have ‘dipped it into a pail of water.’ The pail of water standing beside the great deep, makes certainly a pitiful figure in speech; but, it will be said, it has one advantage; it is in the next room, and the truth of the buckle may be tried in it without more ado in a single moment.”
What Mr. Malthus advances on the subject of population in his Essay, is the exact counterpart of this. “If a beautiful scheme of social happiness,” says he, “were in other respects practicable, I cannot think that our ardour in the pursuit of such a scheme ought to be damped by the contemplation of so remote a difficulty, as might arise when the whole earth had been cultivated like a garden, and was incapable of any further increase of produce. An event at such a distance might fairly be left to Providence. But the truth is, that, at every period from the present moment, the distress for want of food will be constantly pressing on all mankind.”
If then the truth is, that in all old countries, there is at all times, when the question is fairly weighed, a dearth of the means of subsistence, and at no time a sufficient supply for the full and wholesome nourishment of all, then the smallest assignable increase in the number of those who claim a share will be a serious calamity. A way then with the pompous procession of Mr. Malthus's ratios, which serve in this matter for parade only, and to perplex the minds of the readers! The true practical difficulty, the only question worthy the consideration of those whose concern is with the affairs of real life, is whether any remedy can be found for this disparity between the amount of the means of subsistence in all old countries, and the claims of those, who, being in existence, naturally desire to subsist. Mr. Malthus says, the remedy is in keeping down the population, the number of claimants. Another man may, with equal plausibility and appearance of right, say, that the remedy lies in increasing the amount of the means of subsistence, in a different administration of those capacities which the earth holds forth for the subsistence of man. It is between these two schemes of reasoning that we are called upon to decide.
The question does not, as Mr. Malthus unjustly endeavours to make us believe, depend in the smallest degree upon the extent to which the power of multiplication in man might possibly be carried. This has nothing to do with the matter. The geometrical ratio is a mere ignis fatuus, serving to no purpose but to lead us astray, through “fens, bogs, dens, and shades of death—a universe of death.” Be the power of multiplication in man whatever it may, its actual operation is arrested, if arrested, by something else than the effects of its own excessive rapidity. The chariot of Nature has not yet been set on fire by the velocity of its motion. Let the principle of increase in man be the smallest that can be imagined, still, according to Mr. Malthus, that minute increase is for ever “pressing hard against the limits of the means of subsistence.” Let us then, undazzled and undismayed by the prodigious prologue which the Essay on Population sets before this dry and simple proposition, enquire into the truth of the proposition itself.
Mr. Malthus's great practical proposition is, The population in all established states always presses hard against the limits of the means of subsistence; or, in other words, the excessive tendency there is in human nature to increase in numbers, renders every attempt to increase the means of human subsistence, that is, provisions, abortive at least, if not rather pernicious.
Now there are three very simple reasons which may be assigned to prove that this is not the case.
First, because, in many such states, there is no increase, but the population is at a stand: in some it actually decreases, without any public benefit arising from that circumstance.
Secondly, because, according to Mr. Malthus's famous doctrine of the parallel ratios, the two first terms in each coincide. The population, he informs us, has a tendency to double itself in twenty-five years; but then he grants that the means of subsistence may in the same time be increased by a quantity equal to itself. Thus far the arithmetical and geometrical ratios coincide. For the period of the first duplication of population in any country, all is safe. The fears of Mr. Malthus, and the fears which can reasonably be entertained by those who espouse his principles, are for the subsequent periods. Well then, let us grant the first period. Upon Mr. Malthus's own shewing, during all the time that We are advancing towards the first doubling things may go on tranquilly and prosperously. The population increases; but then the means of subsistence (unless Mr. Malthus's concessions are hollow and treacherous, promising us all good and desirable things, like the song of the Sirens, the better to destroy) may be expected equally to increase.
The express doctrine of the Essay on Population, when stripped of all false colours, and separated from the false prophecies, the accomplishment of which we have certainly no present reason to expect, is that the country of England, for example, where Mr. Malthus and I have written our treatises, may go on well, till the population it now contains, say, ten millions, becomes doubled, becomes twenty millions. Take the words of the Essay on Population “In the first twenty-five years the population would be twenty millions [he says, twenty-two millions], and the food being also doubled, the means of subsistence would be equal to this increasea .”This is no trivial statement thrown out at random. This is the arithmetical and geometrical ratios themselves. This is the very basis of all Mr. Malthus's speculations, “which except every one do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt”he is a mere interloper and impostor in the school of the Essay on Population.
But let us suppose that the population of England does not become twenty millions in so short a period as twenty-five years. For every thing in Mr. Malthus's ratios, simple as they may appear to a cursory observer, depends upon time. If mankind do not double in every generation, the venom of the doctrine of the Essay on Population is extracted, the poison is neutralised. The improvements in the art of producing the means of subsistence, the very foundation of the arithmetical ratio, are intimately bound up with the consideration of time. Mr. Malthus's express doctrine is, “Be it allowed that the subsistence for man which the earth affords might be increased every twenty-five years by a quantity equal to what it at present producesb .” It is so written down in the bond. If then mankind do not double their numbers in twenty-five years, if they only double in fifty, or seventy-five, or a hundred years [or, if, as we know from experience in the Old World, they do not double at all; for it is with a real and not a possible doubling that we are concerned; possible men do not eat, though real men do], the increase in the means of subsistence by additions of its own quantity every twenty-five years may go on, and the geometrical ratio, advancing by different periods of time, may be a long, an indefinite period, in overtaking the arithmetical.
Nothing therefore can be more clear than that the doctrine of Mr. Malthus, as laid down in the Essay on Population, is the farthest in the world from being a practical doctrine. It is a theory in the clouds, for the amusement of those who delight to dwell in an element remote from the affairs of men. It is on a par with Dr. Price's illustration of the inherent power of'the principle of Compound Interest. “One penny,” says this author, “put out at our Saviour's birth to five per cent, compound interest, would, in the year 1791, have increased to a greater sum than would be contained in three hundred millions of earths, all solid goldc .” Now it would be as reasonable for us to take the alarm at the despotic and uncontrolable power over all mankind, that might be supposed to fall to the rightful heir by primogenitureship of the man who put out one penny to compound interest at our Saviour's birth, as that we should disquiet ourselves about the issue of Mr. Malthus's ratios. I should say to him who felt terrified at the first, Wait, till you have seen in sober earnest the penny become one thousand or ten thousand pounds. And I should say to the man, the tranquillity of whose repose was seriously disturbed by the dream of the geometrical ratio, wait at least, till you have seen the ten-million population of this island become twenty millions; for up to that period we have the authority of the Essay on Population to say, “The food being also doubled, the means of subsistence would be equal to this increase.” Till we see the first step of the geometrical ratio in England realised, we have no reason to be discomposed; and Mr. Malthus's statements have in the mean time as much to do with the realities of life, as the old adage which says, “When the sky falls, we shall catch larks.”
Thirdly, let us consider a little attentively how it is that the increase of population, by procreation only, is to produce the effect of making provisions too scanty. The first start of this increase must be by an addition to the number of infants. But infants do not in their first years consume any great quantity of animal or vegetable food. The increasing demand therefore for the means of subsistence can only come upon us gradually. And the means of subsistence, by the doctrines of the Essay on Population, are susceptible of an increase, regular, progressive and unlimited, though only in an arithmetical ratio. It is not therefore any actual increase in the number of candidates, that renders the means of subsistence in an old country too limited for the fair supply of its inhabitants. But, if it is not any thing actual, then it is something apprehended. To this conclusion we must come at last. If it is the tendency to increase in population beyond the practicable increase in the means of subsistence that keeps down the numbers of mankind, then it must be the apprehension of that increase. But how can that be, since Mr. Malthus in the year 1798 had the honour to discover the geometrical ratio, and since all the statesmen of ancient and modern times up to that memorable era, were persuaded, with Dr. Paley, that “the decay of population is the greatest evil that a state can suffer,” and considered the main desidcratum in politics as being, to increase the number of their fellow-citizens? Thus it has been no reality, but the apprehension of what no man apprehended, that has carried on the most extensive system of infanticide, and strangled the progeny of the human race, to an amount which it is difficult to conceive, but which any man who will be at the trouble of applying the geometrical ratio from the first planting of this island, or peopling of the world, may easily put down, if he can procure a sheet of paper large enough to contain the figures that represent it.
To help the imagination of the reader in this point, I will present him with two authentic calculations on the subject.
The first is to be found in Morse's American Gazetteer. Under the article, “New York City,” he has the following words: “Should the population of this city proceed in the same ratio through this century, as it has the last twenty years, the number of its inhabitants will be 5,257,493:“thus raising by anticipation, in the course of less than a century, a comparatively humble town, with a population, at the moment of the. author's writing his book, as it appears, of 83,500 persons, to somewhat towards the double of the computed population of Pekin.
My next example shall be taken from the pen of Mr. Malthus himself, who, in a book just published, entitled, Principles of Political Economy Considered, has the following passage.
“If any person will take the trouble to make the calculation, he will see that, if the necessaries of life could be obtained without limit, and the number of people could be doubled every twenty-five years, the population, which might have been produced from a single pair since the Christian era, would have been sufficient, not only to fill the earth quite full of people, so that four should stand upon every square yard, but to fill all the planets of our solar system in the same way, and not only them, but all the planets revolving round the stars which are visible to the naked eye, supposing each of them to be a sun, and to have as many planets belonging to it as our sun hasd ,”
And this is the doctrine, which has seriously deluded the gravest statesmen of England and of Europe for the last twenty years, has reared its motley front in courts and parliaments, and been judged worthy to be made the foundation of legislative measures, and of codes of practical administration and jurisprudence to mankind!
The spirit of Mr. Malthus's theory bears a striking resemblance to the policy employed in training coach-horses, upon whose heads their manager is accustomed to fasten a pair of blinkers, that they may attend to nothing on either side, but see only straight before them. It is surely worth while that we should endeavour to trace the effects of the geometrical ratio, as it must have operated in ages past. We live, as I have often had occasion to repeat, in an unpeopled world. How comes this, upon the principles of the Essay on Population? What was it that stopped the increase of population in ancient times before the existence of records?
I have abundantly shewn, if population is kept down by the narrow limits within which the means of subsistence are at present confined, that this restraint arises out of civil institutions, the inequality of mankind, and the accumulation of property, landed property especially, in few hands. But this system of policy had a beginning. It is the offspring of refinement. The soil of the earth was once as free, once probably a great deal freer, than it is now in the territory of the United States of North America. Every man might have land at a very cheap rate. Every man might have land perhaps for nothing. And then, by the principle I have already explained, that each man in civilised society is born with the power of producing a much greater quantity of food than is necessary for his own subsistence, I see nothing that upon the principle of the Essay on Population should have arrested the progress of population, till the earth, the known world, was “cultivated like a garden.” I call on Mr. Malthus to explain this phenomenon. I call on Mr. Malthus to account for what we see, an unpeopled world.
But perhaps the disciples of the geometrical ratio will say that, in this state of things, population was not arrested, as the fundamental principle of the Essay on Population affirms that the operation of this ratio is not stopped in North America. Perhaps the whole world once “swarmed with human beings,” as the eyewitnesses of the first discovery of South America affirm of that quarter of the world, “as an ant-hill swarms with ants.”If this is true, surely the thought of it is enough to make one serious. The earth might easily, upon our present systems of husbandry and cultivation, be made to subsist thirty times the number of human creatures that now inhabit it. Therefore it did contain thirty times the number of its present inhabitants. Therefore twenty-nine thirtieths of the human race have already been struck out of the catalogue of the living. And it is in this wreck of a world, almost as desolate as if a comet from the orbit of Saturn had come too near us, that Mr. Malthus issues his solemn denunciations, warning us on no consideration to increase the numbers of mankind.
The reader is aware that he is not to take the above statements as the enunciation of my own opinions. I give them only as the fair consequences of the theory of the Essay on Population. I give them only as results which Mr, Malthus must either account for or elude. And I therefore give them as considerations to which I might have trusted singly for the overthrow of Mr. Malthus's positions, if the world had not appeared so infatuated on the subject, as to impose on me the necessity of an elaborate refutation of the most groundless paradoxes that ever were started.
[a]Vol. I, p. 14.
[c]Observations on Reversionary Payments, Vol. I, p. 314.
[d]Principles of Political Economy, p. 227.