Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER 33: VOLITIONAL DOCTRINE OF POPULATION - Economics, vol. 1: Economic Principles
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CHAPTER 33: VOLITIONAL DOCTRINE OF POPULATION - Frank A. Fetter, Economics, vol. 1: Economic Principles 
Economics, vol. 1: Economic Principles, (New York: The Century Co., 1915).
Part of: Economics, 2 vols.
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VOLITIONAL DOCTRINE OF POPULATION
§ 1. Volitional control; beginning and development. § 2. Volitional control and private property. § 3. Class differences in volitional control. § 4. The standard of life. § 5. The quality of population. § 6. Decrease of the successful elements. § 7. The menace to progress. § 8. The net resultant of population. § 9. Volitional control decentralized. § 10. Conclusion on Malthusianism.
§ 1. Volitional control; beginning and development. The action of mankind with relation to population gradually changes from merely instinctive to volitional control. By volitional control is meant any purposeful act of mankind by which the effects of the biologic factors determining the birth and survival of children are weakened. This may be done directly or indirectly in a great variety of ways, by individual men or women or by social customs, beliefs, and institutions which individuals share and which influence their actions. One of the crudest, earliest, and most general methods is the destruction of offspring before or after birth. The student of savage races finds in the methods applied to prevent the birth of children an almost inconceivable brutality. Infanticide was practised in ancient times among the most advanced peoples, as, for example, in Sparta and Rome, where not only deformed and weak children, but unwelcome ones, were destroyed. The practice is permitted even to-day by public opinion among some classes in the densely populated districts of the world. It is one of the dark spots on our own civilization.
In all savage tribes marriage is surrounded by ceremony and in many by economic obstacles. Usually the young man is unable to marry until he has become skilled in all the arts and learned in all the traditions of the tribe, and has proved his prowess in the hunt and in battle. It is the merit system with a qualifying examination for matrimony. Even then the young man must have enough pelf to buy a wife from her family, or (in exogamy) must steal her from a neighboring tribe or clan (not being allowed to marry within the clan). In modern days every artificial taste and sentiment that encourages bachelorhood or spinsterhood is an element in volitional control. Postponement of marriage (as recommended by Malthus) beyond the natural mating time, is one of the chief methods of volitional control. It is rare that the motive for postponing or altogether avoiding marriage is directly and immediately the wish to escape parenthood; now it is religious zeal (monasticism and celibacy of the priesthood); again it is disappointed sentiment; here it is conflicting duty (education, family ties); and there it is the individual’s selfish wish to retain an undivided income for his own enjoyment. By countless strands of motive in the form of sentiments, social institutions, and interests the primitive impulses of humanity are firmly bound; and in varying degrees, in different classes, the enormous possibilities of reproduction are controlled by human volition.
§ 2. Volitional control and private property. Along with enmity for other tribes is found in many early societies an approximation to tribal communism. A condition of communism means that all enjoy together when food and wealth are abundant, and all starve together when food becomes scarce. In truly communistic conditions, if population increases all must sink together into want. Private property alters the nature of the struggle for subsistence and of the motives for limiting population. Society divides into a number of partially independent classes or family groups, each holding its share of wealth apart, not in common with the tribe. The pressure of increasing numbers upon resources is confined by individual industry and by private property to special portions of the population. A society with private property is like a ship divided into a number of water-tight compartments. The worst effects of famine, the growing want of food due to growth of numbers, the increased disease and starvation, are confined to the propertyless members. Both the rewards of industry and the penalties of idleness, incompetence, and improvidence are made more definite and calculable. This affects volitional control of population in two ways: it strengthens the motives for the production of wealth and for abstinence by individuals and in family groups; it gives a motive for the limitation of the number in the family, the consumers of the wealth. A smaller family with larger resources means a wider margin between numbers and misery, and less “pressure of population upon subsistence.” This converts the problem of population from a material one of a balance of food and physical needs, to a psychic one of a balance of motives in the minds of men. When this stage is reached, the extreme objective limits either of the birth rate or of increase of population are no longer attained in the well-to-do classes; and at length every class down to the most improvident becomes in some measure affected by these motives.
§ 3. Class differences in volitional control. No wonder then that volitional control is effective in very different degrees in different families and industrial classes. The possession of property is both a sign of forethought and an incentive to it. Concern for the welfare of children is one of the most powerful motives, especially after social distinctions become marked. It may become abnormally strong, leading parents to sacrifice their own welfare or their own lives foolishly for their children, as is done often in the accumulation of property. Among the classes with property the provision for the children depends not only upon the amount of wealth, but upon the number among whom it is to be divided. It is simple division: wealth the dividend, number of children the divisor.
Among the poorer classes very different motives operate. After the first few years of the children’s lives the parents’ incomes are increased by the earnings of the children, both on the farm and in the factory districts if the laws do not prohibit child labor. Moreover, when the children are grown, their incomes (wages) will depend on the general labor market, not on the number of their brothers and sisters. So according as the family income is mainly from capital or from labor, the motives of the parents differ.
This view is supported not only by general observation but by many statistical studies wherein the marriage rates, birth rates and survival rates of different states, districts, territorial divisions of cities, and industrial classes have been compared with the economic forethought as indicated by some phenomenon such as per capita wealth, taxes, savings, education, etc. The correlation between volitional control and the economic factor is remarkable when large numbers are involved. Those detailed studies have shown that volitional control is not as clearly dependent on the amount of accumulated riches as it is on frugality, prudence, or abstinence, as one may prefer to call it. The middle class of shopkeepers, artists, professional workers, and small capitalists, striving to get ahead, and to give their children a good education and a start in life, show as a class the maximum of restraint of population, having smaller families than either the richest classes or the poorest.
§ 4. The standard of life. The phrase, “standard of life,” expresses the complex thought of that measure of necessities, comforts, and luxuries considered by any individual to be indispensable for himself and his children; that measure which he will make great sacrifices to secure. This standard differs from land to land, from class to class, and from time to time. In the Asiatic countries it is so low that it touches in large classes the minimum of subsistence. Despite adverse influences and a remarkable series of famines, the population of India in the last century under English rule increased from two hundred millions to three hundred millions. Such a population “lets out all the slack” of income, and never takes up any. The great public works of irrigation, forestry, and transportation, and the development of industry under English rule increased production, made it more regular, and gave an opportunity for a higher standard of living; but much of this opportunity was used instead to permit the existence of a greater number of men in the same old misery. These facts have a bearing upon the question of Oriental immigration to America. The emigration of millions of the lower class laborers of China and of India from their native lands would leave no void in their numbers. Those races, while peopling their own lands constantly down to their own standard of living, have the power, if they are tempted hither in great numbers, to people this continent also to the same density. On the other hand, a people accustomed to a goodly income and to a large measure of comfort of surroundings is restrained from early marriage and large families by far different motives than the fear of starvation. When the increase of population ceases to be actually limited by objective restraints and is limited by psychic means, there is no telling how strong the new forces will become or where they will cease to operate.
The desire to maintain and raise the standard of life is the most effective motive limiting population in our society. The American standard of living, while it differs in different classes, is on the whole the highest found anywhere in the world. The increasing appeal to individual selfishness, the greater ease of travel and taste for it, the multiplied and costly pleasures and pastimes, make children a greater and greater burden. The conditions of city life call for greater sacrifice to support children, and give less value to their services in the home. In the greater cities are large areas where no family with a child can rent an apartment. Despite the increasing incomes of the masses of the population, the number of childless homes is increasing, and while the standard of comfort grows, the size of the average family dwindles.1
§ 5. The quality of population. The quality of population is of quite as great import as its quantity, alike in its economic, its social, and its ethical results. The productive force of a population is not measured merely by numbers. “Who” make up the population at any moment is no more a matter of indifference than “how many.” One new-born child, unintelligent, incapable, foredoomed to become a burden, represents a negative addition to society; another, with energy, thrift, inventive genius, comes to enrich and uplift his fellow men. Quality counts for much. Social progress is not necessarily the biological betterment of the native ability of men. The education of the average member of society is becoming yearly better; it is doubtful whether the innate capacity of a new-born babe in Europe and America to-day is greater than it was among our Germanic ancestors in Roman times. Indeed, the progress of the past two thousand years has been in social organization, in the enlargement and simplifying of the mass of knowledge which has to be reappropriated by each new individual, rather than in racebreeding and in quality.
Few thoughtful persons now hold the view that the race can be improved biologically, rapidly if at all, by the process of educating the individual. Education is cumulative in so far as it builds up a better environment into which other children will be born, but the betterment is not due to the inheritance by the child of the acquired knowledge and skill of the parent. If this question is open to dispute among biologists, it is only as regards a minute increment of improvement. Practically, selection preserves the better variations as they appear, and to eliminate the bad variations is the only means of improving the innate capacity of any species in any large measure. Many forces were at work in the past to lift man above the brute, and especially to increase the average brain-power of the human race. The weak, the ignorant, the incapable, in primitive societies were ruthlessly killed off. The strong, the sagacious, and the enterprising left the largest numbers of descendants.
§ 6. Decrease of the successful elements. Under modern conditions, volitional control is acting with the greatest force in the more capable classes and thus threatens to reduce the quality of the population. The successful elements of society are the less prolific. Large families were the rule among the capable pioneers of America; now they are rare except in the lower industrial ranks. The average number of children reaching maturity in the families of the American colonists was six; the average number to-day in families of colonial ancestry is about two, except in the rural districts of parts of the South and West. Since many of these children do not live to maturity, and of those who do survive many do not marry, the stock does not maintain itself in numbers. Much larger families are found among the poor whites of the mountains, the newly arrived immigrants in the cities, the negroes in the black belt of the South,2 and, in general, those in the lower ranks of labor. Forces are at work to sterilize or reduce in number the elements of the population that are more prosperous and enterprising. The “new woman” movement, tempting into “careers,” takes away from family life many of the women most worthy to become the mothers of succeeding generations. Self-interest is at war with the social interest. The individual asks, “Am I bound to sacrifice my comfort and happiness to the general good?” The effect of this is a steady decline in the proportion of the population (referring, of course, only to general averages and not to particular cases) born of the successful strains of stock, and a steady increase of the descendants of the mediocre and duller-witted elements. This is a paradox, that the fittest to succeed industrially are, by that very fact, beaten in the race for biologic survival.
Democracy and opportunity favor this process of increasing the mediocre and reducing the excellent strains of stock. Caste and status in the past kept successive generations of capable men in humble social ranks from which only by chance some remarkable individual could rise. In a democracy, those of marked ability can more easily move into the better-paid callings and professions. This individual good fortune, however, reduces the probability of offspring. In the higher ranks of business and the professions are more bachelors and old maids than in the lower ranks, and fewer children are born to each marriage. It has been found that one fourth of the graduates of Harvard in the last generation remained single, and the average number of children of the married graduates is two. That group of men, therefore, has left only three fourths enough descendants to maintain its numbers, and as the population has doubled within the same generation, that class represents only three eighths as large a proportion of the American stock as in the preceding generation.
§ 7. The menace to progress. This sterilization of ability has cumulative results. If society were composed in equal parts of two distinct strains of stock, not intermarrying; if the total population remained unchanged in numbers from one generation to another (say each period of thirty years) but the superior strain contributed only three fourths of its own number, at the end of five generations it would have sunk from one half to a little more than one eighth of the population. A period brief in the life of nations would serve to leave it an almost negligible factor in the community. There can hardly be a doubt that at present our society is on the average increasing more from the less provident, less enterprising, less intelligent classes. There has not yet been time for many of the cumulative effects of this process to appear. Progress is threatened unless social institutions can be so adjusted as to reverse this process of multiplying the poorest and of extinguishing the most capable families. The object of the eugenics movement is to introduce an element of rational direction into the process of perpetuating the race, so that disease, weakness, and degeneracy may be diminished, and health, strength, and superior capacity shall be increased.
§ 8. The net resultant of population. Whether the population on the whole shall grow, stand still, or diminish depends on the relative strength of contending forces making for life or death; on the one hand, those favoring a high birth rate and low death rate, and on the other those limiting births and survival. This control of the movement of population loses its cruder aspect and is waged in the realm of motive. More and more it is volition that controls in human society the growth of population; less and less it is the objective limit of the food-supply. Dire need resulting in ill-health and even in starvation is still acting in some portions of society, but less to-day than ever before. The growth of population in this stage is not “fatalistic,” as there is no inevitable tendency to increase or to decrease. It depends on the interaction of a number of forces, clearly distinguishable, by which population actually is kept far within the limits of food resources. Human choice is the guiding influence, choice shared by every normal member of the community.
§ 9. Volitional control decentralized. Volitional control is not exercised by a central and unified despotism determining human action, but it is effected by motives of the most complex sort, diffused throughout society and acting upon every member of it. Volitional control, in its very nature, is decentralized. Each individual and family group, by its own choice, places limits upon its addition to numbers, decides how much margin shall be left between its standard of life and bare subsistence, and how it shall use the income which would permit earlier marriage and larger families on a lower standard of living. The whole population, it is true, is an arithmetic resultant of the population changes within the separate family groups; but large classes and districts show certain average differences, which continue for long periods with little change (e.g., the rural peasantry has a higher birth rate than the city artisans; French Brittany higher than the departments near Paris). There are easily observable causes for these differences among classes and districts, yet there is no organic connection between the parts, such as, for example, might make it necessary for Brittany to make up the deficit of the Parisian neighborhood in order to maintain a stationary population in France. In any community with a population stationary because of volitional control (e.g., France between 1900-1914) and not from objective checks (war, famine, etc.), it is both possible and probable that the population will begin to decrease. This must happen when the ideas, customs, ambitions, and practices of the groups which do not maintain their numbers, gradually spread to the groups which only a little more than maintain their numbers. The opening up of opportunities for young men to marry as population declines (as by farms becoming tenantless, houses vacant, etc.) retards the decrease of population, but the standard of living and individualistic desires may advance more rapidly than the incomes, and cause population to go on decreasing. A check to this movement can come, it would seem, only through changes in ideals as to social duties and race culture already foreshadowed, but too complex to be foreseen in detail.
§ 10. Conclusion on Malthusianism. In the light of the preceding discussion what is to be the judgment on the doctrine of Malthus? Can the question, “Was Malthus essentially right?” be answered with yes or no? It is best to decline to answer the question put in that way. His outlook on the matter was so different from ours, and the doctrine involved various elements some of which have stood and others have fallen. Let us distinguish. He was right in his assumption that the physiological maximum birth rate is excessive for modern conditions. The purely biologic parts of the doctrine of population have since his day been given a much broader justification. Man is physically an animal, and if he were not more than an animal mentally and morally, the adjustment of population to resources would be no different from the struggle of animals for existence. He was right in this hypothetical conclusion, and there are those who take this to be the most essential part of the Malthusian doctrine.
But Malthus himself did not look upon this as his principle—but only as a premise, a fundamental fact from which he reasoned. His “principle” was that there actually is and must be this pressure of population against subsistence. It involved the notion that the food supply, as a thing somehow outside of the power of men to control, determined the size of the population. It was offered as an explanation of misery, and as a prophecy of inevitable misery to come. This does not accord with past experience or with present conclusions of reasoning. Indeed, Malthus never rightly adjusted his idea of “moral restraint” to his ideas of objective checks. He never adequately comprehended the rôle of the volitional factor. He thought of it as modifying in certain circles, but not as transforming for whole populations the process of the adjustment of numbers to resources. He tried to keep his doctrine on a material basis, as the ancient philosophers put the earth upon a giant and a tortoise. He did not conceive of population as removed from this material basis, suspended in space, held (as is the earth by gravitation) by the intangible forces of volitional control.
Finally, Malthus had no conception of the importance of quality of population and the way that quality modifies the relation of numbers to material resources. He did not appreciate the dynamic influence which the very pressure of population and its necessities may have in stimulating effort and invention. He conceived of population movements as rhythmic, but essentially static. His was a static doctrine of population. Only in his somewhat crude biologic doctrine (no small matter, however) has he stood the test of time. In all other regards his views have had to be greatly modified, corrected, and developed to fit the needs of modern thought.
[1 ]Size of the census family in the United States. (Census, 1910, vol. pop. p. 1286.)
[2 ]But not in the other parts of the country, from well recognized causes. See Figure 58.