Lincoln’s Inn, March 15, 1829.
My dear Sir,
You perceive that I have used your kind permission to lay before you my Lectures on Population.
One of the principal objects of the Statute requiring from the Professor of Political Economy an annual publication, must have been that the public might know the sort of doctrines inculcated at Oxford. I have thought it my duty, therefore, to publish them without alteration. Under other circumstances, I should have made some change in the language in which I have attempted to represent your opinion. They were written, and indeed delivered, before I had had the advantage of conversing with you on the subject of Population; and I was misled by your use of the word “tendency.” I supposed you to believe, that the desire of marriage, which tends to increase Population, is a stronger principle, or, in other words, a principle more efficacious in its results than the desire of bettering our condition, which tends to increase subsistence; and, consequently, that in an old country, with a people so fully supplied with necessaries as to make it possible for population to increase in a greater ratio than food, such an increase would, in the absence of disturbing causes, be a more probable event than the opposite event; namely, than an increase of subsistence in a greater ratio than that of population. I believe that I was led into this error principally by the conduct of all those writers who, since the appearance of your work, have written on Population. The multitudes who have followed, and the few who have endeavoured to oppose you, have all assumed this to be your opinion. And yet when I recur to your writings, I see how inconsistent it is with your uniform statement, that the pressure of population upon subsistence is almost always the most severe in the rudest states of society, where the population is the least dense, and the means of procuring subsistence, supposing they were employed, would be the greatest in proportion to that population.
As the subject is of the utmost importance, I will venture to state, for your correction, my present impression as to your doctrine. I conceive you to hold, that an increase of population in a greater ratio than that of subsistence, is a probable event only under peculiar circumstances. Such as those of America, where the knowledge of an old people has, for a considerable time, been applied to a continent previously almost unoccupied; or those of France, when the confiscation of the greater part of the land operated like an agrarian law, and the conscription falling on bachelors only, made early marriage a precaution instead of an improvidence. But that in an old country, under wise institutions, in the absence, in short, of disturbing causes, though population is likely to increase, subsistence is likely to increase still faster. In short, that the condition of a people so circumstanced is more likely to be improved than to be deteriorated. If I am right in this view, the only difference between us is one of nomenclature. You would still say, that in the absence of disturbing causes, population has a tendency to increase faster than food, because the comparative increase of the former is a mere compliance with our natural wishes, the comparative increase of the latter is all effort and self-denial. I should still say, that, in the absence of disturbing causes, food has a tendency to increase faster than population, because, in fact, it has generally done so, and because I consider the desire of bettering our condition as natural a wish as the desire of marriage.
After all, if I rightly understand you, the difference between us is almost entirely verbal. As to the facts of the case we are agreed. And we agree too in believing, that an increase of population in a greater proportion than that of food so far from being, as before the appearance of your Work it was supposed to be, a remote evil, to occur only when the world shall be a garden, is a danger constantly besetting human society in every stage of social existence, and much the most so in the rudest stages, and warded off only by constant exertion and constant self-denial; and that the rate at which capital can be made to increase faster than population, or, in other words, the rate at which social improvement can proceed, principally depends upon the amount of that exertion and self-denial.
Believe me, my dear Sir,
Yours very sincerely,
NASSAU WILLIAM SENIOR.
Rev. T. R. Malthus.
East India College,
March 23, 1829.
My dear Sir,
I am much obliged to you for giving me the opportunity of seeing your Lectures on Population, which I have read with great interest.
The difference between us, as you justly observe, is chiefly verbal; though there is still some difference remaining as to facts.
To begin with the verbal difference. I was certainly not aware, that in saying that population had a tendency to increase faster than food, I should be considered as denying that it might practically at times increase slower. If I had looked forward to such an interpretation, I should certainly not have used the expression; because, as you remark, there are numerous passages in my work, in which I state, that the pressure of population upon food is often the most severe in the rudest stages of society, where the population is the least dense. The meaning which I intended to convey by the expression to which you object was, that population was always ready, and inclined, to increase faster than food, if the checks which repressed it were removed; and that though these checks might be such, as to prevent population from advancing upon subsistence, or even to keep it at a greater distance behind; yet, that whether population were actually increasing faster than food, or food faster than population, it was true that, except in new colonies, favourably circumstanced, population was always pressing against food, and was always ready to start off at a faster rate than that at which the food was actually increasing.
This constant pressure of population against food, which I have always considered as the essence of the principle which I endeavoured to explain in my work, appeared to me to be distinctly proved by the universally acknowledged fact, that whenever improvements in agriculture, or the effects of some destructive plague, loosened the restraints which kept down the population, it made a start forward at a greater rate than usual; and that further, notwithstanding the operation of the desire of bettering our condition, there were the strongest reasons to believe that the pressure in question occasioned premature mortality in every old country with which we were acquainted.
The cause of this pressure, I thought, might be described by saying, that the human race had a tendency to increase faster than food; and I own it appears to me, that in this position, which it was the great object of my work to prove, not only is the term tendency applied in its most natural and ordinary sense; but it conveys a more instructive and useful meaning than the one which you would substitute for it, namely, that food has a tendency to increase faster than population; a position which, without further explanation, seems to convey an incorrect impression of the laws which regulate the increase of the human race.
Your reasons for adopting this position are, first, because you consider it as a fact, that population has generally so increased; and, secondly, because you consider the desire of bettering our condition to be as natural a wish as the desire of marriage. Your first reason rests upon the assumption of a fact, which by no means admits of being stated so generally as you have stated it, as will be shown presently; and it is obvious, that a partial relief from a pressure does not imply that a tendency to press is overcome. In regard to your second reason, it appears to me that the desire of bettering our condition, as far as it affects the direct increase of food, is perfectly feeble, compared with the tendency of population to increase. The most intense desire of bettering our condition, can do nothing towards making food permanently increase, at the rate at which population is always ready to increase; and, in fact, this desire, in reference to the increase of food, operates in a very trifling degree upon the great mass of the labouring classes. They are not the persons who accumulate farming capital, and employ it in agricultural improvements, and the increase of subsistence. In this respect they are almost entirely passive. In another respect, indeed, they are most powerful. Though they cannot much accelerate the increase of food, they are the only body of people who can essentially retard the increase of population. But as this cannot be effected without restraint and self-denial, to which there is certainly a much less tendency than to marriage, the practical result is such as might be expected, namely, that although this restraint and self-denial may prevent more misery and vice at one period than at another; though they are often more efficient in civilized and populous countries, than in ignorant and thinly peopled countries; and though we may hope that they will become still more efficient as knowledge advances, yet as far as we can judge from history, there never has been a period of any considerable length, when premature mortality and vice, specifically arising from the pressure of population against food, has not prevailed to a considerable extent; nor, admitting the possibility, or even the probability of these evils being diminished, is there any rational prospect of a near approach to their entire removal.
In all countries, and at all times, the food wages of labour must be determined by the demand and supply of labour compared with the demand and supply of food. In no old country that I have yet heard of, have the wages of labour, so determined, been for any length of time such as to maintain with ease the largest families. Consequently, in all old states there will always be a constant pressure specifically arising from the tendency of food to increase not being so great as the tendency of population to increase.
And this brings me to our difference in regard to facts. Taking your own application of the term tendency, which I cannot think the most natural one, I am compelled to say that both in your present impression of my doctrine, as given in your letter, and when you state as a fact, that food has generally increased faster than population, I am unable to go along with you. If food had increased faster than population, would the earth have been overspread with people since the flood? Would the great migrations and movements of nations of which we read have ever taken place? Would the shepherds of Asia have been engaged in such a constant struggle for room and food? Would the northern nations have ever overrun the Roman empire of the west? Would the civilized Greeks have been obliged to send out numerous colonies? Would these colonies have increased with great rapidity for a certain period, and then have become comparatively stationary? Would history, in short, have been at all what it is?
America is by no means the only instance of the knowledge of an old state being applied to the comparatively unoccupied land of a new one. And in all instances of this kind, where the food has once been abundant, an actual increase of population faster than food is not only probable, but absolutely certain. In fact, such countries never could be well peopled, if this did not take place.
In old states, the relative increase of population and food has always been found to be practically very variable. It is no doubt true that, in every stage of society, there have been some nations, where, from ignorance and want of foresight, the labouring classes have lived very miserably, and both the food and population have been nearly stationary long before the resources of the soil had approached towards exhaustion. Of these nations, it might safely have been predicted, that in the progress of civilization and improvement, a period would occur when food would increase faster than population. On the other hand, if, from favourable circumstances at any time, the people of a country were very abundantly supplied, it might as safely be predicted that, in their progress towards a full population, a period would occur when population would increase faster than food. It is absolutely necessary, therefore, to know the actual condition in which a people is living, in regard to subsistence, before we can say whether food or population is likely to increase the fastest. And this condition is certainly not determined exclusively by the state of civilization and population; but is very different in the same nation at different times; and sometimes food is comparatively more abundant at an early period, and sometimes at a later period. Taking only the last five or six hundred years in Europe, it may be remarked, that the States of this more improved part of the world have been exposed to great losses of people by plague, pestilence, famine, and war; and invariably after these losses, population has increased faster than food. In this country, for sixty years during the latter half of the fifteenth century, and the early part of the sixteenth, the labourer appears to have earned nearly two pecks of wheat a-day. At the end of the sixteenth century, he did not earn so much as three-fourths of a peck. During the sixteenth century, therefore, population must practically have increased much faster than food. From 1720 to 1750 the labourer earned about a full peck of wheat a-day. Since that period, I believe, he has never for five years together earned so much as a peck, hardly, indeed, so much as five-sixths of a peck. Notwithstanding the poverty and misery of Ireland at an early period, I am strongly disposed to believe, that about the time when Arthur Young made his tour in that country (1776 and 1778) food was decidedly more abundant than it has been of late years. With regard to what may be called the present state of the nations of the Continent, many of them seem to have increased their food very rapidly since the revolutionary war; and this increase has been followed by so very rapid an increase of population, that it seems quite impossible it should continue. There is some reason, indeed, to think from the accounts of Mr. Jacob, that population is now increasing faster than food. It appears, then, that it cannot safely be assumed as a fact, that food has generally increased faster than population.
If the population of Great Britain were to go on increasing for two hundred years at the rate at which it increased during the twenty years between the census of 1800 and that of 1820, it would be sixteen times as great as at present. It is not easy to believe that this is possible. A retardation in the rate of increase seems to be absolutely inevitable. And the question is, whether we are entitled from past experience to expect that this will take place without some diminution of corn wages, and some increased difficulty of maintaining a family. At all events, it is quite certain, that no desire, however great, of increasing our subsistence can keep us out of the reach of the most miserable poverty, if we do not, at the same time, exercise the more efficient power we possess of restraining the progress of population by prudential habits.
The rate at which social improvement proceeds, does not depend exclusively upon the rate at which subsistence can be made to increase faster than population. I look forward to the possibility, and even the probability of the labouring classes of society being altogether in a better situation than they are now, when the means of a further increase of food shall be nearly exhausted, and both subsistence and population shall have come nearly to a stand. But, it is obvious, that if this improvement should be accomplished, it cannot be by exertions to increase food, but by the moral restraint which will diminish the misery and vice constantly occasioned by the tendency of population to press against subsistence. Consequently, in discussing our future prospects of social improvement, it cannot but lead to error, to lay down positions calculated to direct the attention towards means which must of necessity be inefficient, while the nature of the difficulty to be contended with, and the only efficient means of contending with it successfully, and of improving the condition of society, are kept in the back ground. Your position, that food has a tendency to increase faster than population, appears to me, to be open to this objection, and therefore I cannot approve of it.
I know you will excuse the frankness with which I have stated my opinions. We do not, of course, differ in the ends which we are desirous of promoting; the diminution of misery and vice, and the increase of happiness and virtue. We only differ in the mode of treating the subject. The main part of the question with me, relates to the cause of the continued poverty and misery of the labouring classes of society in all old states. This surely cannot be attributed to the tendency of food to increase faster than population. It may be to the tendency of population to increase faster than food.
Believe me, my dear Sir,
Very truly yours,
T. R. MALTHUS
N. W. Senior, Esq.
March 26, 1829.
My dear Sir,
Pray accept my sincerest thanks for the reply with which you have honoured my letter, and for the instruction which it has afforded me.
I find, however, that the differences between us, though still I hope not great, are rather greater than I had imagined. I will venture again to intrude on your attention, in the hope of making them still smaller.
First, as to the facts.
I must have expressed myself ill, if I have led you to suppose that I assert any thing like an universal increase of the proportion of subsistence to population. When I say that subsistence has generally increased in a greater ratio than population, I mean, that if we look back through the history of the whole world, and compare the state of each country at distinct periods of two hundred or three hundred years, the cases in which food has increased during the preceding period of two hundred or three hundred years, in a greater ratio than population, will be found to be more numerous than those in which population has increased during the preceding period in a greater ratio than food. I admit that this increase has not been steady; it has been subject to the oscillations which you have so well described. The cessation of a civil war, the acquisition of a new and abundant material of food, mechanical inventions, enabling the importation of a considerable supply of food at a less expense of labour than must have been employed to produce it at home, improved modes of cultivation and transport, and the change from a restricted to a free internal corn trade—each of these causes would be sufficient to occasion an immediate increase of food. In this country every one of them has been experienced. As each has begun to act, it has, no doubt, been followed by an increase of population; an increase which, in many cases, cannot have fully shown itself until some time after the cause increasing the supply of food had been in full operation. Under such circumstances a retrograde movement must have taken place. Still I apprehend that, in the absence of disturbing causes, the retrogression would not be to the point at which food and population relatively stood, before the first improvement took place. I conceive the progress of human society to resemble the children’s puzzle of a snail, which we are told every day crawled up the wall four feet and fell back three. If we had always fallen back the whole four, we should still be ill-fed savages, earning a scanty subsistence by the chase. And yet in England we have many disturbing causes. We have the poor laws to increase our numbers, the corn laws to prohibit, under ordinary circumstances, the importation of subsistence, and a commercial code by which the perverse ingenuity of centuries has laboured to fetter and misdirect our industry.
Secondly. As to the accuracy of our respective forms of expression.
I fully admit, that in all old countries, perhaps in all countries whatever, population is always pressing against food; and that the pressure not only prevents the increase which would take place, if it could be removed, but occasions premature mortality. But as society advances in what appears to me to be our natural course, for it is the course for which nature has fitted us, this pressure generally, though not universally, diminishes. The proportion of those who now die in England from want, is probably less than it was two hundred years ago; it certainly is less than it was six hundred years ago. I still think myself, therefore, justified in saying, that there is a tendency in the pressure to diminish. I admit that human nature tends to marriage directly, and to the increase of subsistence only indirectly, and through the intervention of forethought. It may be said that, strictly speaking, man has no natural tendency to produce food, or to better his condition, but to consume food, and to have his condition bettered, and, through the intervention of reason, to the accomplishment of these results. But reason, in some degree or other, is as natural to man as passion. On this ground I speak of man as a rational animal, as having a tendency towards the ends, which he pursues through the intervention of forethought, as well as towards those which he pursues at the dictates of passion. In this sense I speak of any people as having a desire to increase their subsistence, (for that is what I mean when I speak of the tendency of subsistence to increase,) stronger than the desire which leads them to increase their numbers.
The third, and by far the most important question, is the effect which your mode, or my mode, of stating the law of population, is likely to produce on the reader’s mind.
I fully agree with you, that a statement which should imply that the increase of food can, in the absence of constant vigilance, restraint, and self-denial, exceed or even keep pace with that of population, would lead to the most mischievous error. I am grateful to you for having drawn my attention to the possibility of such a consequence being inferred from my expressions, and I certainly shall take care to prevent it for the future. I do not think that any thing which I have said would lead an attentive reader to such a conclusion; but after all the number of attentive readers is so small, that no writer is justified in neglecting the idle and the careless.
But while I admit that false and dangerous inferences may be drawn from the naked and unexplained proposition that food has a tendency to increase faster than population, I must add that inferences as false and as dangerous may be drawn, and in fact have been drawn, from the proposition that population has a tendency to increase faster than food. Nothing can be more accurate than your statement, “that population is always ready and inclined to increase faster than food, if the checks which repress it are removed.” But many, perhaps the majority of your readers, adopt the proposition without the qualification. They seem to believe that the expansive power of population is a source of evil incapable not only of being subdued, but even of being mitigated. They consider man not as he is, but as he would be if he had neither forethought nor ambition; neither the wish to rise, nor the fear to sink, in society. They deny the possibility of permanent improvement, and regard every partial amelioration as a mere Sisyphæan labour.
- Α’λλ’ ὅτε μέλλοι
- ἄκϱον ὑπεϱβαλέειν, τότ ἀποστϱέψασκε κραταιίς.
“Were the whole mass of human sustenance,” observes a distinguished writer, “produced by the soil now under cultivation to be increased twofold by the efforts of human ingenuity and industry, we may assert, as an undoubted truth, that the only effect, after the lapse of a few years, would be found to have been the multiplication in a like proportion of the number of its occupants, with, probably at the same time, a far increased proportion of misery and crime.”
No one can doubt the anxiety of the eminent person whom I have quoted, to promote the welfare of mankind; but the tendency of this passage is to damp every attempt to make labour more productive.
Unhappily there are many whom indolence or selfishness, or a turn to despondency, make ready recipients of such a doctrine. It furnishes an easy escape from the trouble or expense implied by every project of improvement. “What use would it be,” they ask, “to promote an extensive emigration? the whole vacuum would be immediately filled up by the necessary increase of population. Why should we alter the corn laws? If food were for a time more abundant, there would be a proportionate increase of population, and we should be just as ill off as before.”
There are many also, particularly among those who reason rather with their hearts than their heads, who are unable to assent to these doctrines, and yet believe them to be among the admitted results of political economy. Such persons apply to the whole science the argumentum ab absurdo; and instead of enquiring into the accuracy of the reasoning, refuse to examine the premises from which such objectionable conclusions are inferred.
Undoubtedly these opinions are not fair inferences from your work; they are, indeed, directly opposed to the spirit of the greater part of it; but I think they must be considered as having been occasioned by a misconception of your reasonings. They are prevalent now: before the appearance of your writings, they were never hinted at. I trust, however, that, unsupported as they are by your authority, they will gradually wear away; and I anticipate from their disappearance not merely the extinguishment of an error, but the removal of an obstacle to the diffusion of political knowledge.
My dear Sir,
Yours, very sincerely,
N. W. SENIOR.
Rev. T. R. Malthus.
East India College,
March 31, 1829.
My Dear Sir,
We do not essentially differ as to facts, when they are explained as you have explained them in your last letter. We are also quite agreed that in the capacity of reason and forethought, man is endowed with a power naturally calculated to mitigate the evils occasioned by the pressure of population against food. We are further agreed that, in the progress of society, as education and knowledge are extended, the probability is, that these evils will practically be mitigated, and the condition of the labouring classes be improved.
But is the passage which you have quoted in your last letter, when taken with the context, essentially inconsistent with these our opinions? It must be allowed, that it is not expressed with sufficient caution. In pronouncing as an undoubted truth, that the only effect of doubling the quantity of food in a country, would, after the lapse of a few years, be found to have been the multiplication in a like proportion of the number of its occupants, with probably a far increased proportion of misery and crime, the author has evidently gone too far; but in what appears to me to be the intended conclusion of the passage, I am disposed to agree with him.
The two main propositions which I have endeavoured to prove from history and experience, are, “That population invariably increases when the means of subsistence increase, unless prevented by powerful and obvious checks;” and, “That these checks, and the checks which keep the population down to the level of the means of subsistence, are, moral restraint, vice, and misery.”
Now I cannot but allow that it is a fair inference from these propositions, that, if in any country means of doubling the quantity of food were suddenly discovered, population would increase with extraordinary rapidity, so as to overtake, or nearly to overtake, the food; and that the permanent condition of the labouring classes would not depend upon such discovery, but exclusively on the question of the final increase of moral restraint, or the moral condition of the population; which I think is nearly the substance of the passage which you have quoted, when taken with the context.
In the same manner I must allow that it follows from my principles, that if by a free trade, corn were obtained much cheaper, and a labouring family could really command a much larger quantity of it, population would unquestionably increase with greater rapidity than before, so as to reduce the increased corn wages; and that the final condition of the labouring classes would not depend on this change which had taken place in the law, but upon the greater or less prevalence of the moral checks to population after the peculiar stimulus to its increase had subsided; and repeated experience has shown that the facility of obtaining food at one period is not necessarily connected with the formation of more general habits of prudence subsequently.
It does not by any means follow from these principles, that we should not use our utmost endeavours to make two ears of wheat grow where one grew before, or to improve our commercial code by freeing it from restraints. An increase of population is in itself a very decided advantage, if it be not accompanied by an increased proportion of vice and misery. And the period during which the pressure of population is lightened, though it may not be of long duration, is a period of comparative ease, and ought by no means to be thrown out of our consideration. It is further to be observed, that the experience of such a period may sometimes operate in giving to the labouring classes a taste for such a mode of living as will tend to increase their prudential habits. But it is obvious, that without this latter effect, the pressure of poverty cannot be permanently lessened. And when the principal question is distinctly respecting the permanent condition of the great mass of the labouring classes, as in the latter part of my Essay, the interests of that body, which ought to be considered as the main interests of society, imperiously require that we should not call off their attention to the chances of a great increase of food, but endeavour by every proper means to direct their view to the important and unquestionable truth, that they can do much more for themselves than others can do for them, and that the only source of an essential and permanent improvement of their condition, is the improvement and right direction of their moral and religious habits.
I am, my dear Sir,
Very truly yours,
T. ROBT. MALTHUS.
N. W. Senior, Esq.
April 9, 1829.
My dear Sir,
Our controversy has ended, as I believe few controversies ever terminated before, in mutual agreement. I think, however, that it may be well to close it by a few remarks on the circumstances by which it was occasioned.
It is obvious that the principal causes by which the situation of a people can be improved, are those which occasion the amount of what is provided for their use to be in a greater proportion than before to their numbers. It seems a consequence equally obvious, that the principal means of improvement are those which promote the production of subsistence and prevent a corresponding multiplication of consumers.
But the old doctrine was, that an increase of numbers is necessarily accompanied, not merely by a positive, but by a relative increase of productive power. Density of population was supposed to be the cause and the test of prosperity; its increase to be the chief object of our exertions, and depopulation to be a danger constantly besetting us. And statesmen and legislators were urged to stimulate population with as much earnestness, and about as much good sense, as they are now urged to stimulate consumption.
Your work effected a complete revulsion in public opinion. You proved that additional numbers, instead of wealth, may bring poverty. That in civilized countries the evil to be feared is not the diminution, but the undue increase of inhabitants. That population, instead of being a torpid agent, requiring to be goaded by artificial stimulants, is a power almost always stronger than could be desired, and producing, unless restrained by constant prudence and self-denial, the worst forms of misery and vice.
These views are as just as they are important. But they have been caricatured by most of your followers. Because additional numbers may bring poverty, it has been supposed that they necessarily will do so. Because increased means of subsistence may be followed and neutralized by a proportionate increase in the number of the persons to be subsisted, it has been supposed that such will necessarily be the case.
These were the doctrines which I found prevalent when I began my Lectures.
The points of view in which we have respectively considered the subject, have, perhaps, been materially influenced by the state of public opinion at the periods when we began to write. You found the principle of population disregarded, or rather unkown; and justly thinking the prevalent errors most mischievous, you bestowed on them an almost exclusive attention. I found that principle made the stalking-horse of negligence and injustice, the favourite objection to every project for rendering the resources of the country more productive; and it is possible, that in replying to those who appeared to me to exaggerate the probable effects of its powers, and to neglect the benefits to be derived from increased production, I may sometimes have undervalued the former, and overrated the latter.
But, in fact, no plan for social improvement can be complete, unless it embrace the means both of increasing production, and of preventing population from making a proportionate advance. The former is to be effected chiefly by the higher orders in society; the latter depends entirely on the lower. As a means of improvement, the latter is, on the whole, the more efficient. It may be acted upon, or neglected by every individual. But, in the present state of public opinion, and of our commercial and fiscal policy, perhaps more good is to be done by insisting on the former. The economist who neglects either, considers only a portion of his subject.
Believe me, my dear Sir,
Yours very truly,
N. W. SENIOR.
Rev. T. R. Malthus.