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CHAPTER V.: Of the doctrines of the essay on population as they affect the condition of the rich. - 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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Of the doctrines of the essay on population as they affect the condition of the rich.
The principle of population is no less pregnant with conclusions in favour of the riot and wastefulness of the rich, than for the oppression of the poor. Mr. Malthus is no mean follower of the celebrated precept of Horace,
which, being translated into the language of the Essay on Population, is, He may claim to have produced a perfect system, who judiciously blends the squandering of the rich with the starving of the poor.—But let us take the idea in Mr. Malthus's own words.
The first point then to be noticed under this head is our author's denunciations against private charity, or the pecuniary donations of the rich in aid of the poor.
“A man who is born into a world already possessed, if he cannot get subsistence from his parents on whom he has a just demand, 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 nasture's mighty feast there is no vacant cover for him. She tells him to be gone, and will quickly execute her own orders, if he do not work on the compassion of some of the guests. If these guests get up, and make room for him, the order and harmony of the feast is disturbeda ,” and the worst consequences will follow.
“When Nature will govern and punish for us, it is a very miserable ambition to wish to snatch the rod from her hands. To the punishment of Nature therefore he should be left, the punishment of want. He should be taught to know, that the laws of Nature, which are the laws of God, have doomed him and his family to suffer, that he has no claim of right to the smallest portion of food, and that, if he and his family are saved from starving, he will owe it solely to the pity of some kind benefactorb ,” acting in disobedience to the laws of Nature.
In reality, when Mr. Malthus said, “The poor have no right to support,” his design was to deliver a moral principlec , however much it may be in opposition to the principles of those systems, which heretofore have gained the most gracious acceptance in the world. He bottomed himself upon the great law of utility. That the poor should be supported otherwise than by the labour of themselves or their near kindred, was, in his view of the case, a great evil, inasmuch as it tended to encourage population. The poor-laws of England were therefore “an evil, in comparison of which the national debt, with all its magnitude of terror, is of little moment.” And, by parity of reason, the kind-hearted individual, who is prompted by the softness of his disposition to give to the starving and the distressed, is an offender. To support the poor generally, is the highest enormity Mr. Malthus is able to conceive: if we support them a little, we shall do a little evil. It is all a part of the same great law of the Essay on Population; and each member and shred of its violation partakes of the attributes of the whole.
Mr. Malthus however informs us, that the impulse of benevolence is not to be classed in mischievous effects with the passion between the sexes: that is, it is not that “deep-seated evil, in comparison with which human institutions, however they may appear to be the causes of much mischief “to society, are, light and superficial, mere feathers that float on the surface.”
“The passion between the sexes and the impulse of benevolence are both,” according to the Essay on Population, “natural passions, excited by their appropriate objects, and to the gratification of which we are prompted by the pleasurable sensations which accompany themd .” But “there is less danger to be apprehended from the indulgence of the latter than of the formere ,” of benevolence than of the sexual appetite, because the one is comparatively strong, and the other weak. And yet there is this other difference between them: that I believe Mr. Malthus would not in all cases disapprove the indulgence of the appetite of procreation; whereas, “if we act at all,” in the affairs of relieving the poor, “we must necessarily encourage marriage and populationf ,” and by that means be the authors of mischief to mankind.
Well then, since the rich, if they act at all in the relief of the poor, must necessarily produce a certain degree of mischief, the question obviously occurs, What shall they do with the remainder of their income, when their own simpler wants as partakers of an animal nature, and their more refined wants as partakers of the higher endowments of intellect, have been fully supplied? And upon this point Mr. Malthus does not leave them without instruction.
“Among other prejudices,” says he, “that have prevailed on the subject of population, there have existed some against the waste among the rick, and the horses kept by them merely for their pleasure. But these things have in reality a little of the same effect as the consumption of grain in distilleries, which was noticed before. On the supposition that the food consumed in this manner, may be withdrawn on the occasion of a scarcity, and be applied to the relief of the poor, they operate certainly, as far as they go, like granaries, which are only opened at the time that they are most wanted, and must therefore tend rather to benefit than to injure the lower classes of societyg .”
Again. “If the diffusion of luxury, by producing the check sooner, tends to diminish the distress, it is surely desirableh .”
Never certainly was there so comfortable a preacher as Mr. Malthus. No wonder that his book is always to be found in the country-seats of the court of aldermen, and in the palaces of the great. Very appropriately has a retreat been provided for him by the commercial sovereigns of the regions of the East. What a revolution does his theory produce in the interior sentiments of the human breast! There were vices on the earth before Malthus. Men abounding in the good things of this world, indulged themselves unsparingly in all those caprices, which they well knew the mass of their species condemned, and which they more than suspected were worthy of condemnation. But they had a monitor, not only on their shelves, but in their bosoms, which said: “Rejoice, O thou rich man, in thy wealth; and let thy heart cheer thee in the multitude of thy possessions; wall; thou in the ways of thy heart, and in the sight of thy eyes: but know, that for all these things God will bring thee into judgment.”
Mr. Malthus has reversed all this. He has undertaken to shew, that while they thought they were giving way to their vices, and were drawing down the “curses, not loud, but deep.” of the bystanders, they were in reality public benefactors, and that the more they wasted, the more they saved. He has encouraged them to persist in their generous plan of conduct, undismayed by the lamentable misconstructions of their starving fellow-creatures. Nature [not Mr. Malthus's Nature] had planted within us a secret monitor, which, when we wandered from the path of decency and duty, admonished us with a soft and gentle, but articulate voice, and bade us recollect ourselves. But Mr. Malthus stimulates us to drive away this better genius. He reconciles us to the worst and most prodigal appetites of our sensual faculty, and bids us call them by the names of patriotism and philanthropy. It is sufficiently remarkable that, when he enumerates the eleven ways in which vice and misery act to keep down the excess of populationi , he does not betray his cause, or put the extravagance of the rich and great into his catalogue. It is true, for this it seems is not vice.
Yes: there were vices before Malthus. But woe to the age and the country, “that shall call evil good, and good evil, that shall put darkness for light, and light for darkness.” As long as the sentiments of our moral nature are uncorrupted, there is hope even in our vices. We are not entirely turned, by the enchantments, of pleasure, into beasts. There is still a corner in our souls reserved for better thoughts. There are times when the whirl of temptations hurries us into guilt; but there are also times when recollection resumes her seat. Our actions, it may be, are wrong; but our written monitors, our books, the great fathers of intellect, tell us truth. But, when we shall once be persuaded, that all we waste is only “like a granary, and tends rather to benefit than to injure our inferiors,” our hearts will become seared indeed.
Mr. Malthus however is unwilling altogether to proscribe private charity, though the principles of the Essay on Population are clearly hostile to it in every form it can assume. As a clergyman of the established church, this might have seemed not altogether consistent with decorum: and, as a friend to the present constitution of things, he would have been thus cutting off the higher orders of the community from one of those modes of action, by which they can best secure their ascendancy over their inferiors. After therefore having solemnly pronounced of the poor man, “To the punishment of Nature he should be left, the punishment of want,” he adds a feeble and irresolute postscript, “If however he and his family are saved from perishing, he must owe it solely to the pity of some kind benefactor, to whom therefore he ought to be bound by the strongest ties of gratitude.”
What ignorant babble is this! When this “kind benefactor” saved this man and his family from absolute want and the actually perishing with hunger, he either did a right or a wrong, he did his duty or the contrary: for every thing, in our treatment of our fellow-creatures, that is not duty, is of the nature of evil. If what he did was wrong, what sort of gratitude do I owe him, for this splendid wrong to the general interests of society, by which indeed I was the gainer? This is a gratitude which tramples upon all moral distinctions. This gratitude, with its “strongest ties,” while the poor famished wretch is stammering out his thanks, teaches him a memorable lesson indeed! It teaches him the entire futility of all questions of right and wrong: it teaches him to admire an action, not because it is useful or just, not because it accords with the uncorrupted sentiments of the human heart, but because, whatever are its intrinsic merits or demerits, he at least has got something by it.
Mr. Malthus has here made a great stride, as I suppose many of them would be apt to think, in behalf of the more favoured part of the community. A certain bishop, standing in his place in the Upper House of the English Legislaturek , delivered the extraordinary aphorism, that” the people of this country have nothing to do with the laws, but to obey them.” But Mr. Malthus, if he could carry the point now in hand, would gain a still more considerable step, and one that has long been anxiously desired. His doctrine is, that [the people of this country, or at least that portion of its inhabitants who have any chance of ever standing in need of the assistance of others, are to think only of their own duties, and never pry into those of their betters.] These would be happy times indeed! They would be halcyon clays, in which our inferiors, whatever were the decisions of the rich, should submit without repining if they were unfavourable, and be conscious to those peculiar emotions of gratitude, which might arise when they got something upon which they, had not the smallest right in law, morality or religion, if they gained. The opinion of the world is one of the greatest sanctions of the moral law, and it is to be feared, as society is at present constituted, that affairs would go but ill, were it not for its mighty control. But why should not the rich, like our members of the house of lords, be judged only by their peers, without being subject to the censure of a vulgar jury? Let the common people of England learn, that they “have no eyes to see, nor tongue to speak,” but as their superiors command them!
No just exception can be taken to this construction of Mr. Malthus's doctrine, unless it shall be answered that, when he said, the rich “have a right to do what they will with their own,” he virtually denied that they had any duties whatever.
Fortunately however for all that is most valuable in human society, Mr. Malthus will never be able to carry this point. It is true, as has already been stated, that the rich man cannot be brought under the jurisdiction of a court of justice, for any breach of the moral law he may commit in the disposal of his property. But there is another court, the authority of which no man is stout enough to contemn, and whose decisions are regarded with more deference and awe by the honourable and well-disposed mind, than the technical decisions of a court of justice. The presiding authority in this court, is placed in the sober judgment of his neighbours. When a country-gentleman with an estate of a few thousands a year, dwells in the midst of a neighbourhood of an inferior class, it is of no small importance to him, that he should be popular among them, and that his conduct should meet their approbation. To encounter their view in that case is a delight to him; while, if in their honest judgments they condemn him, he would travel by a thousand circuitous routes rather than meet the expression of their hatred. There is no man that cannot read the smiles of his fellow-creatures; and there is a tongue in their silent aversion, that speaks with a voice louder than that of a trumpet. He must be a man of no common fortitude, who can anticipate with indifference, that the hearse which conveys him to the grave will be covered with mud, and the mourners pelted with stones, by the sincere indignation of the vicinity. I know that the judgment of the lower orders of the community is often exercised in too indiscriminate and peremptory a style, that it is frequently not well informed, and that it is apt to be under the empire of caprice. I know too that it is liable to be corrupted, and that a few shewy actions will often in this court buy out the censure that is due to a series of misdemeanours. But, with all these imperfections, the empire of opinion is still of high value. The truly virtuous man stands in no need of this check. But there are thousands, who, in the intoxication of their unearned and unmerited elevation over the heads of their fellow-creatures, would be guilty of atrocities now unheard of, were it not for this salutary restraint which feelingly convinces them, that the rich man has no “right to do what he will with his own.”
[a]See above, p. 553.
[b]Vol. Ill, p. 181.
[c]To what department of didactic science his second law belongs, that the rich man “a right to do what he will with his own,” in another question.
[d]Vol. III, p. 214.
[e]P, 213, 214,
[g]Vol III, p. 50. 51.
[h]P. SO1, note.
[i]See above, Book III, Chapter V.
[k]Samuel Horsley, Bishop of St. Asaph.