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CHAPTER VII.: A few contradictions in the essay on population stated. - 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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A few contradictions in the essay on population stated.
It has not been the purpose of this work, to expose Mr. Malthus's contradictions. Never book afforded greater advantage in this way to an adversary, than the Essay on Population. Almost every page would be found upon a strict analysis to contain an answer to the page that went, before. But I have had higher objects in view. It has been my purpose to assail his theory at the foundation. I have taken the main propositions of his volumes; and, without troubling myself with the question how often he has betrayed his cause, and thrown down the fabric he has raised, I have gone straight to the consideration of the truth or error of his principles.
There are however one or two points, immediately connected with the question now under consideration, where this spirit of contradiction is so glaring, that I am tempted by them to deviate for a moment from my general rule.
In vol. II, p. 309, Mr. Malthus expressly remarks, “No possible sacrifices of the rich could for any time prevent the recurrence of distress among the lower members of society.” What becomes then of the patriotism and philanthropy, to be displayed in living sumptuously and keeping horses for pleasure, which we have just been considering? Indeed it is observable, that when he was expressly contending for this point, his voice somewhat faltered. The words in which he announces his position are, “The waste among the rich, and the horses kept for pleasure, have a little the effect of the consumption of grain in distilleries.”
Mr. Malthus is an experienced pleader. He knows how to sustain his temporary character to a proper extent, and when it is becoming to lay it aside. Just now he appeared before us as an advocate for the poor. His theme was to shew how much they were [ultimately gainers by the luxuries of the rich. But, having made a specious appearance with that argument, he presently shews us what was his real object. The business was to establish an apology for luxury, and to furnish another corollary to his memorable theorem, that “Every man,” by which he plainly means, every man that has something that is worth calling his own, “has a right to do what he will with it.”—His plea for the poor in this case, is exactly of the same complexion, as the plea he elsewhere sets up for God Almighty, of which he says, “The chief reason why I allowed myself to suppose the universal prevalence of this virtue, was that I might endeavour to remove any imputation on the goodness of the Deity,” by supposing something, respecting which “no man could be less sanguine than he is,” that it would ever take place.
The same contradiction that I have just shewn in what Mr. Malthus says respecting the luxuries of the rich, occurs in a still more striking manner in his observations respecting the poorlaws.
He sets out with the thundering position, that the poor-laws are “an evil, in comparison of which the national debt, with all its magnitude of terror, is of little momenta .” If I at all understand the Essay on Population, the reason they are concluded to be such an evil, is because of their tendency to encourage marriage, and thus introducing some approximation towards the tremendous geometrical ratio.
Elsewhere however Mr. Malthus takes a very different view of the subject. “There are many ways,” he says, “in which our poor-laws operate in counteracting their first obvious tendency to increase populationb .” Again: “The obvious tendency of the poor-laws is certainly to encourage marriage; but a closer attention to all their indirect as well as direct effects, may make it a matter of doubt to what extent they really do thisc .” And further on: “It will readily occur to the reader, that owing to these causes, it must be extremely difficult to ascertain, with any degree of precisian, what has been their effect on populationd .”
The author at length winds up what he has to say on the subject with a most extraordinary note.
“The most favourable light, in which the poor-laws can possibly be placed, is to say that under all the circumstances with which they have been accompanied, they do not much encourage marriage; and undoubtedly the returns of the Population Act seem to warrant the assertion. Should this be true, many of the objections which have been urged in the Essay against the poor-laws will be removed; but I wish to press on the attention of the reader, that they will in that case be removed, in strict conformity to the general principles of the work, and in a manner to confirm, not to invalidate, the main positions which it has attempted to establishe ”
If this were told, would it be believed? If Mr. Malthus had delivered the substance of what he has said on the poor-laws at a county meeting, and I had thus attempted to arrest and record his “winged words,” it cannot be but I should have been universally set down for a calumniator. Well and wisely did the patriarch Job conceive that memorable wish of his, “Oh, that mine enemy had written a book!”
Mr. Malthus sets out with pronouncing the poor-laws “an evil, incomparably greater than that of the national debt.” He then proceeds with perfect consistency, in the strongest manner to urge their abolition. The subject however, he says, must be tenderly handled: the abolition must be “a very gradual abolition.” We must begin with proclaiming that we are “bound in justice and honour formally to disclaim the right of the poor to support.” And that for this reason, because, if they conceived they had any such right as is expressly recognised by our poor-laws, it would shortly become physically impossible, from the rapid multiplication of the species, to make this right the rule of our practice. The proposition, we are informed, is not less absurd, than if we were to say, “Every man has a right to live a hundred yearsf .”
Having thus given to the poor “a fair, distinct and precise notice” of what they are to expect, we are next to proceed to put our gradual abolition into execution. “Every child that is born from any marriage, taking place after the expiration of a year from the date of this notice, and every illegitimate child born two years from the same date, “is to be for ever and in all cases cut off from the right to support.” Mr. Malthus has discovered, that” no person could have a just right to complain” of this. “In the great lottery of life this child has drawn a blank.” “The laws of Nature, which are the laws of God, have doomed him to surfer.” “At Nature's mighty feast there is no vacant “cover for him. She tells him to be gone; and if he does not make haste, she will quickly execute her own orders.”
These are strong measures; but who can help it? The poor-laws, which are “an evil incomparably greater than that of the national debt,” require to be abolished; and Mr. Malthus is persuaded that, “the principle, if not the plan,” of the scheme he has delineated, is what we shall be “compelled by a sense of justice to adoptg .”
This plan must necessarily make a great ravage of our species. The revolution is so considerable, that Mr. Malthus, “albeit unused to the melting mood,” recommends that it be “very gradually” made. The sorrows, the agonies, the nakedness, the famine, that must come upon “the shorn lamb” of human society, before he has learned to bear the nipping blasts that shall blow upon him, are such, as I should not like to trust my pen to describe.
At length Mr. Malthus turns round to contemplate the devastation he has made; and he ultimately comes to more than suspect there was no need of this. All the passages I have here quoted lie in the small compass of two hundred pages: and the whole of this pro and con on the poor-laws was published to the world on the same day. When, though late, the author had discovered that, upon a supposition, which he is inclined to believe to be “true, many of the objections he had urged.against the poor-laws would be removed,” and none of the sad consequences he had predicted would follow, this does not induce him to cancel or revise his preceding sheets: and he consoles himself for all the inflictions he had recommended in his chapter of “gradual abolition” by the curious remark, that if the poor-laws do little or no harm, and if these inflictions were unnecessary, still this happens” in strict conformity to the general principles of his work, and in a manner to confirm, not to invalidate, the main positions which he has attempted to establish.” There was a maxim imputed to the celebrated and excellent Mr. Windham, “Perish commerce! Live the constitution!” and I confess I do not much differ from him in preferring the liberties of mankind to the wealth of nations. In the same grand and magnificent style, but with some difference of impulse and character, I hear Mr. Malthus ex-claiming, “Perish the human species! Live the Essay on Population!”
[a]Vol. Ill, p. 175.
[b]P. 294, note.