Front Page Titles (by Subject) Section IV.—: Of the Fertility of the Soil, considered as a Stimulus to the continued Increase of Wealth. - Principles of Political Economy
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Section IV.—: Of the Fertility of the Soil, considered as a Stimulus to the continued Increase of Wealth. - Thomas Robert Malthus, Principles of Political Economy 
Principles of Political Economy (London: W. Pickering, 1836).
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Of the Fertility of the Soil, considered as a Stimulus to the continued Increase of Wealth.
In speaking of the fertility of the soil as not affording with certainty an adequate stimulus to the continued increase of wealth, it must always be recollected that a fertile soil gives at once the greatest natural capability of wealth that a country can possibly possess. When the deficient wealth of such a country is mentioned, it is not intended to speak positively, but comparatively, that is with reference to its natural capabilities; and so understood, the proposition will be liable to few or no exceptions. Perhaps, indeed, it may be said that no instance has occurred, in modern times, of a large and very fertile country having made full use of its natural resources; while there have been many instances of small and unfertile states having accumulated within their narrow limits, by means of foreign commerce, an amount of wealth very greatly exceeding what could be expected from their physical capabilities.
If a small body of people were possessed of a rich and extensive inland territory, divided into large portions, and not favourably situated with respect to markets, a very long period might elapse before the state became wealthy and populous, notwithstanding the fertility of the soil and the consequent facility of production. The nature of such a soil would make it yield a profit or rent to the owner in its uncultivated state. He would set a value therefore upon his property, as a source of profit as well as of power and amusement; and though it was capable of yielding much more raw produce than he and his immediate dependents could consume, he would by no means be disposed to allow others to seize on it, and divide it at their pleasure. He would probably let out considerable portions of it for small rents. But the tenants of these portions, if there were no foreign vent for the raw produce, and the commodities which contribute to the conveniences and luxuries of life were but little known, would have but small incitement to call forth the resources of his land, and give encouragement to a rapid increase of population. By employing ten families he might perhaps, owing to the richness of the soil, obtain food for fifty; but he would find no proportionate market for this additional food, and would be soon sensible that he had wasted his time and attention in superintending the labour of so many persons. He would be disposed therefore to employ a smaller number; or if, from motives of humanity, or any other reason, he was induced to keep more than were necessary for the supply of the market, upon the supposition of their being tolerably industrious, he would be quite indifferent to their industry, and his labourers would naturally acquire the most indolent habits. Such habits would probably be generated both in the masters and servants by such circumstances, and when generated, a considerable time and considerable stimulants are necessary to get rid of them.
It has been said, that those who have food and necessaries at their disposal will not be long in want of workmen, who will put them in possession of some of the objects most useful and desirable to them.* But this appears to be directly contradicted by experience. If the establishment, extension, and refinement of domestic manufactures were so easy a matter, our ancestors would not have remained for many hundred years so ill supplied with them, and been obliged to expend the main part of their raw produce in the support of idle retainers. They might be very ready, when they had the opportunity, to exchange their surplus raw produce for the foreign commodities with which they were acquainted, and which they had learnt to estimate. But it would be a very different thing, and very ill suited to their habits and degree of information, to employ their power of commanding labour in setting up manufactures on their own estates. Though the land might be rich, it might not suit the production of the materials most wanted; and the necessary machinery, the necessary skill in using it, and the necessary intelligence and activity of superintendance, would all unavoidably be deficient at first, and under the circumstances supposed, must be of very slow growth; so that after those ruder and more indispensable articles were supplied, which are always wanted and produced in an early stage of society, it is natural enough that a great lord should prefer distinguishing himself by a few splendid foreign commodities, if he could get them, and a great number of retainers, than by a large quantity of clumsy manufactures, which involved great trouble of superintendance.
It is certainly true, however, taking as an instance an individual workman, and supposing him to possess a given degree of industry and skill, that the less time he is employed in procuring food, the more time will he be able to devote to the procuring of conveniences and luxuries; but to apply this truth to whole nations, and to infer that the greater is the facility of procuring food, the more abundantly will the people be supplied with conveniences and luxuries would be one among the many rash and false conclusions which are often made in the application of a proposition without due attention to all the parts of the premises on which it rests. In the present case, all depends upon the supposition of a given degree of industry and skill, and the encouragement to employ them. But if, after the necessaries of life were obtained, the workman should consider indolence as a greater luxury than those which he was likely to procure by further labour, the proposition would at once cease to be true. And as a matter of fact, confirmed by all the accounts we have of nations, in the different stages of their progress, it must be allowed that this choice seems to be very general in the early periods of society, and by no means uncommon in the most improved states.
Few indeed and scanty would be the portion of conveniences and luxuries found in society, if those who are the main instruments of their production had no stronger motives for their exertions than the desire of enjoying them. It is the want of necessaries which mainly stimulates the labouring classes to produce luxuries; and were this stimulus removed or greatly weakened, so that the necessaries of life could be obtained with very little labour, instead of more time being devoted to the production of conveniences, there is every reason to think that less time would be so devoted.
At an early period of cultivation, when only rich soils are worked, as the quantity of corn is the greatest, compared with the quantity of labour required to produce it, we might expect to find a small portion of the population engaged in agriculture, and a large portion engaged in administering to the other wants of the society. And there can be little doubt that this is the state of things which we really should see, were it true, that if the means of maintaining labour be found, there can be no difficulty in making it produce objects of adequate value; or that when food can be obtained with facility, more time will be devoted to the production of conveniences and luxuries. But in examining the state of unimproved countries, what do we really see?—almost invariably, a much larger proportion of the whole people employed on the land than in those countries where the increase of population has occasioned the necessity of resorting to poor soils; and less time instead of more time devoted to the production of conveniences and luxuries.
Of the great landed nations of Europe, and indeed of the world, England, with hardly an exception, is supposed to have pushed its cultivation the farthest; and though the natural qualities of its whole soil by no means stand very high in the scale of comparative richness, there is a smaller proportion of the people employed in agriculture, and a greater proportion employed in the production of conveniences and luxuries, or living on monied incomes, than in any other agricultural country of the world. According to a calculation of Susmilch, in which he enumerates the different proportions of people in different states, who live in towns, and are not employed in agriculture, the highest is that of three to seven, or three living in towns to seven in the country;* whereas in England the proportion of those engaged in manufactures and commerce, and other employments not connected with the land, compared with those engaged in agriculture is as much as three to two.†
This is a very extraordinary fact, and affords a striking proof how very dangerous it is, in political economy, to draw conclusions from the physical quality of the materials which are acted upon, without reference to the moral as well as the physical qualities of the agents.
It is undoubtedly a physical quality of very rich land, if worked by people possessing a given degree of industry and skill, to yield a large quantity of produce, compared with the number of hands employed; but, if the facility of production which rich land gives has the effect, under certain circumstances, of preventing the growth of industry and skill, the land may become practically less productive, compared with the number of persons employed upon it, than if it were not distinguished for its richness.
Upon the same principle, the man who can procure the necessary food for his family, by two days labour in the week, has the physical power of working much longer to procure conveniences and luxuries, than the man who must employ four days in procuring food; but if the facility of getting food creates habits of indolence, this indolence may make him prefer the luxury of doing little or nothing, to the luxury of possessing conveniences and comforts; and in this case, he may devote less time to the working for conveniences and comforts, and be more scantily provided with them than if he had been obliged to employ more industry in procuring food.
Among the crowd of countries which tend more or less to illustrate and confirm by their present state the truth of these positions, none perhaps will do it more strikingly than the Spanish dominions in America, of which M. Humboldt has given so valuable an account.
Speaking of the different plants which are cultivated in New Spain, he says of the banana, “Je doute qu’il existe une autre plante sur le globe qui, sur un si petit espace de terrain, puisse produire une masse de substance nourrissante aussi considérable.”* He calculates in another place more particularly, that “dans un pays éminemment fertile un demi hectare, ou un arpent légal cultivé en bananes de la grande espèce, peut nourrir plus de cinquantes individus, tandis qu’en Europe le même arpent ne donneroit par an, en supposant le huitième grain, que 576 kilogrammes de farine de froment, quantité qui n’est pas suffisante pour la subsistance de deux individus: aussi rien ne frappe plus l’Européen récemment arrivé dans la zone torride que l’extrême petitesse des terrains cultivés autour d’une cabane qui renferme une famille nombreuse d’indigènes.”†
It appears further, that the banana is cultivated with a very trifling quantity of labour, and “se perpétue sans que l’homme y mette d’autre soin que de couper les tiges dont le fruit a mûri, et de donner à la terre une ou deux fois par an un léger labeur en piochant autour des racines.”‡
What immense powers of production are here described! What resources for unbounded wealth, if effectively called into action? Yet what is the actual state of things in this fertile region. M. Humboldt says, “On entend souvent répéter dans les colonies Espagnoles, que les habitans de la région chaude (tierra caliente) ne pourront sortir de l’état d’apathie dans lequel ils sont plongés depuis des siècles, que lorsqu’une cedule royale ordonnera la destruction des bananiers. Le remède est violent; et ceux qui le proposent avec tant de chaleur ne déploient généralement pas plus d’activité que le bas-peuple qu’ils veulent forcer au travail en augmentant la masse de ses besoins. Il faut espérer que l’industrie fera des progrès parmi les Mexicains sans qu’on emploie des moyens de destruction. En considérant d’ailleurs la facilité avec laquelle l’homme se nourrit dans un climat où croissent les bananiers, on ne doit pas s’étonner que dans la région equinoctiale du nouveau continent la civilisation ait commencé dans les montagnes, sur un sol moins fertile, sous un ciel moins favorable au développement des êtres organisés où le besoin même réveille l’industrie.
“Au pied de la Cordillère dans les vallées humides des Intendances de Vera-Cruz, de Valladolid, ou de Guadalaxara, un homme qui employe seulement deux jours de la semaine à un travail peu pénible peut fournir de la subsistance à une famille entière.”*
It appears then, that the extreme fertility of these countries, instead of affording an adequate stimulus to a rapid increase of wealth and population, has produced, under the actual circumstances in which they have been placed, a degree of indolence which has kept them poor and thinly peopled after the lapse of ages. Though the labouring classes have such ample time to work for conveniences and comforts, they are almost destitute of them. And, even in the necessary article of food, their indolence and improvidence prevent them from adopting those measures which would secure them against the effects of unfavourable seasons. M. Humboldt states that famines are common to almost all the equinoctial regions; and observes that, “sous la zone torride, où une main bienfaisante semble avoir répandu le germe de l’abondance, l’homme insouciant et phlegmatique éprouve périodiquement un manque de nourriture que l’industrie des peuples cultivés éloigne des régions les plus stériles du Nord.”*
It is possible, however, that the heat of the climate in these lower regions of New Spain, and an inferior degree of healthiness compared with the higher regions, though by no means such as to preclude a full population, may have assisted in keeping them poor and thinly peopled. But when we ascend the Cordilleras, to climates which seem to be the finest in the world, the scene which presents itself is not essentially different.
The chief food of the lower classes of the inhabitants on the elevated plains of the Cordilleras, is maize; and maize, though not so productive, compared with the labour employed upon it, as the banana, exceeds very greatly in productiveness the grains of Europe, and even of the United States. Humboldt states, that “La fécondité du thaolli, ou maïs Mexicain, est au-delà de tout ce que l’on peut imaginer en Europe. La plante, favorisée par de fortes chaleurs et par beaucoup d’humidité, aquiert une hauteur de deux à trois mètres. Dans les belles plaines qui s’étendent depuis San Juan del Rio à Quiretaro, par exemple, dans les terres de la grande métairie de l’Esperanza, un fanègue de maïs en produit quelquefois huit cents; des terreins fertiles en donnent, année commune, trois à quatre cents. Dans les environs de Valladolid on regarde comme mauvaise une récolte qui ne donne que 130 ou 150 fois la semence. Là où le sol est le plus stérile, on compte encore soixante ou quatre-vingt grains. On croit qu’en général le produit du maïs peut être évalué dans la région equinoctiale du royaume de la Nouvelle Espagne à cent cinquante pour un.”*
This great fertility produces, as might be expected, its natural effect of making the maintenance of a family in ordinary times extremely easy.
In the town of Mexico itself, where provisions are very considerably dearer than in the country, on account of the badness of the roads, and the expense of carriage, the very dregs of the people are, according to Humboldt, able to earn their maintenance by only one or two days’ labour in the week.† “Les rues de Mexico fourmillent de vingt à trent mille malheureux (Saragates Guachinangos), dont la plûpart passent la nuit à la belle étoile, et s’étendent le jour au soleil, le corps tout nu enveloppé dans une couverture de flanelle. Cette lie du peuple, Indiens et Metis, présentent beaucoup d’analogie avec les Lazaronis de Naples. Paresseux, insoucians, sobres comme eux, les Guachinangos n’ont cependant aucune férocité dans le caractère; ils ne demandent jamais l’aumône: s’ils travaillent un ou deux jours par semaine, ils gagnent ce qu’il leur faut pour acheter du pulque, ou de ces canards qui couvrent les lagunes Mexicaines, et que l’on rôtit dans leur propre graisse.”
But this picture of poverty is not confined to the dregs of the inhabitants of a large town. “Les Indiens Mexicains, en les considérant en masse, présentent le tableau d’une grande misère. Relégués dans les terres les moins fertiles; indolens par caractère, et plus encore par suite de leur situation politique, les natifs ne vivent qu’au jour le jour.”‡
With these habits they are little likely to make provision against the occasional failures in the crops of maize, to which these crops are peculiarly liable; and consequently, when such failures take place, they are exposed to extreme distress. Speaking generally of the immediate obstacles to the progress of population in New Spain, Humboldt seems to consider famine and the diseases which it produces, as the most cruel and destructive of all. “Les Indiens Américains,” (he says) “comme les habitans de l’Indostan, sont accoutumés à se contenter de la moindre quantité d’alimens qu’exige le besoin de la vie; ils augmentent en nombre sans que l’accroissement des moyens de subsistance soit proportionel à cette augmentation de population. Indolens par caractère, et surtout à cause de la position dans laquelle ils se trouvent sous un beau climat, sur un sol généralement fertile, les indigènes ne cultivent en maïs, en pommes de terre, et en froment que ce qu’il leur faut pour leur propre nourriture, ou tout au plus ce que requiert la consommation des villes et celle des mines les plus voisines.” And further on, he says, “le manque de proportion qui existe entre les progrès de la population et l’accroissement de la quantité d’alimens produite par la culture, renouvelle le spectacle affligeant de la famine chaque fois qu’une grande sécheresse ou quelque autre cause locale a gâté la récolte du maïs.”*
These accounts strikingly shew the indolence and improvidence which prevail among the people. Such habits must necessarily act as formidable obstacles in the way of a rapid increase of wealth and population. Where they have been once fully established, they are not likely to change, except gradually and slowly under a course of powerful and effective stimulants. And while the extreme inequality of landed property continues, and no sufficient vent is found for the raw produce in foreign commerce, these stimulants will be furnished very slowly and inadequately.
That the indolence of the natives is greatly aggravated by their political situation, cannot for a moment be doubted; but that, in spite of this situation, it yields in a great measure to the usual excitements is sufficiently proved by the rapid cultivation which takes place in the neighbourhood of a new mine, where an animated and effective demand is created for labour and produce. “Bientôt le besoin réveille l’industrie; on commence à labourer le sol dans les ravins, et sur les pentes des montagnes voisines, par tout où le roc est couvert de terreau: des fermes s’établissent dans le voisinage de la mine: la cherté des vivres, le prix considérable auquel la concurrence des acheteurs maintient tous les produits de l’agriculture, dédommagent le cultivateur des privations aux-quelles l’expose la vie pénible des montagnes.”*
When these are the effects of a really brisk demand for produce and labour, we cannot be at a loss for the main cause of the slow cultivation which has taken place over the greatest part of the country. Except in the neighbourhood of the mines and near the great towns, the effective demand for produce is not such as to induce the great proprietors to bring their immense tracts of land properly into cultivation: and the population, which, as we have seen, presses hard at times against the limits of subsistence, evidently exceeds in general the demand for labour, or the number of persons which the country can employ with regularity and constancy in the actual state of its agriculture and manufactures.
In the midst of an abundance of fertile land, it appears that the natives are often very scantily supplied with it. They would gladly cultivate portions of the extensive districts held by the great proprietors, and could not fail of thus deriving an ample subsistence for themselves and families; but in the actual state of the demand for produce in many parts of the country, and in the actual state of the ignorance and indolence of the natives, such tenants might not be able to pay a rent equal to what the land would yield in its uncultivated state, andin this case they would seldom be allowed to intrude upon such domains; and thus lands which might be made capable of supporting thousands of people, may be left to support a few hundreds of cattle.
Speaking of a part of the Intendency of Vera Cruz, Humboldt says, “Aujourd’hui des espaces de plusieurs lieues carrées sont occupés par deux ou trois cabanes, autour desquelles errent des bœufs à demisauvages. Un petit nombre de familles puissantes, et qui vivent sur le plateau central, possèdent la plus grande partie du littoral des Intendances de Vera Cruz, et de San Luis Potosi. Aucune loi agraire ne force ces riches propriétaires de vendre leurs majorats, s’ils persistent à ne pas vouloir défricher eux-mêmes des terres immenses qui en dépendent.”*
Among proprietors of this description, caprice and indolence might often prevent many from cultivating their lands. Generally, however, it might be expected, that these tendencies would yield, at least in a considerable degree, to the more steady influence of self-interest. But a vicious division of territory prevents the motive of interest from operating so strongly as it ought to do in the extension of cultivation. Without sufficient foreign commerce to give value to the raw produce of the land; and before the general introduction of manufactures had opened channels for domestic industry, the demand of the great proprietors for labour would be very soon supplied; and beyond this, the labouring classes would have nothing to give them for the use of their lands. Though the landholders might have ample power to support an extended population on their estates, the very slender increase of enjoyments, if any, which they might derive from it, would rarely be sufficient to overcome their natural indolence, or overbalance the possible inconveniences or trouble that might attend the proceeding. Of that encouragement to the increase of population, which arises from the division and subdivision of land as new families are brought into being, the country is deprived by the original state of property, and the feudal customs and habits which it necessarily tends to generate. And under these circumstances, if a comparative deficiency of commerce and manufactures, which great inequality of property tends rather to perpetuate than to correct, prevents the growth of that demand for labour and produce, which can alone remedy the discouragement to population occasioned by this inequality, it is obvious that Spanish America may remain for ages thinly peopled and poor, compared with her natural resources.
And so, in fact, she has remained. For though the increase of population and wealth has been considerable, particularly of late years, since the trade with the mother-country has been more open, yet altogether it has been far short of what it would have been, even under a Spanish government, if the riches of the soil had been called forth by a better division of landed property, or a greater and more constant demand for raw produce.
Humboldt observes that “Les personnes qui ont réfléchi sérieusement sur la richesse du sol Mexicain savent que, par le moyen d’une culture plus soignée, et sans supposer des travaux extraordinaires pour l’irrigation des champs, la portion de terrain déjà défriché pourroit fournir de la subsistance pour une population huit à dix fois plus nombreuse.” He then adds, very justly, “Si les plaines fertiles d’Atalisco, de Cholula et de Puebla ne produisent pas des récoltes plus abondantes, la cause principale doit être cherchée dans le manque des consommateurs, et dans les entraves que les inégalités du sol opposent au commerce intérieur des grains, surtout à leur transport vers les côtes qui sont baignées par la mer des Antilles.”* In the actual state of these districts, the main and immediate cause which retards their cultivation is indeed the want of consumers, that is, the want of power to sell the produce at such a price as will at once encourage good cultivation, and enable the farmers to give the landlords something that they want, for the use of their land. And nothing is so likely to prevent this price from being obtained, as any obstacles natural or artificial to internal and external commerce.
That the slow progress of New Spain in wealth and population, compared with its prodigious resources, has been more owing to want of demand than want of capital, may fairly be inferred from the actual state of its capital, which, according to Humboldt, is rather redundant than deficient. Speaking of the cultivation of sugar, which he thinks might be successfully carried on in New Spain, he says, “La Nouvelle Espagne, outre l’avantage de sa population, en a encore un autre très important, celui d’une masse énorme de capitaux amoncelés chez les propriétaires des mines ou entre les mains de négocians qui se sont retirés du commerce.”*
Altogether the state of New Spain, as described by Humboldt, clearly shews—
1st. That the power of supporting labour may exist to a much greater extent than the will.
2dly. That the time employed in working for conveniences and luxuries is not always great in proportion as the time employed in working for food is small.
3dly. That the deficient wealth of a fertile country may be more owing to want of demand than want of capital.
And, in general, that fertility of soil alone is not an adequate stimulus to the continued increase of wealth.
It is not necessary, however, to go so far as the Spanish dominions in America, to illustrate these propositions. The state of the mother-country itself, and of most of the countries of Europe, would furnish the same conclusions. We need not indeed go farther than Ireland to see a confirmation of them to a very considerable extent.
The cultivation of the potatoe, and its adoption as the general food of the lower classes of the people in Ireland, has rendered the land and labour necessary to maintain a family, unusually small, compared with most of the countries of Europe. The consequence of this facility of production, unaccompanied by such a train of fortunate circumstances as would give it full effect in the increase of wealth, is a state of things resembling, in many respects, countries less advanced in civilization and improvement.
The prominent feature of Ireland is, the power which it possesses and actually exercises, of supporting a much greater population than it can employ, and the natural and necessary effect of this state of things, is the very general prevalence of habits of indolence. The landed proprietors and principal tenants being possessed of food and necessaries, or at least of the ready means of procuring them, have found workmen in abundance at their command; but these workmen not finding sufficient employment in the farms on which they had settled, have rarely been able to put their landlords in possession of the objects “most useful and most desirable” to them. Sometimes, indeed, from the competition for land occasioned by an overflowing population, very high rents have been given for small portions of ground fit for the growth of potatoes; but as the power of paying such rents must depend, in a considerable degree, upon the power of getting work, the number of families upon an estate, who can pay high money rents, must have an obvious limit. This limit, there is reason to believe, has been often found in the inability of the Irish cotter to pay the rent which he had contracted for; and it is generally understood that the most intelligent Irish landlords, influenced both by motives of humanity and interest, are now endeavouring to check the progress of that redundant population upon their estates, which, while it generates an excessive degree of poverty and misery as well as indolence, seldom makes up to the employer, in the lowness of wages, for the additional number of hands which he is obliged to hire, or call upon for their appointed service in labour. He is now generally aware that a smaller number of more industrious labourers would enable him to raise a larger produce for the consumption of towns and manufacturers, and at the same time that they would thus contribute more largely to the general wealth of the country, would be in a more happy condition themselves, and enable him to derive a larger and more certain rent from his estates.
The indolence of the country-labourers in Ireland has been universally remarked. And whether this arises from there being really little for them to do in the actual state of things,* or from a natural tendency to idleness, not to be overcome by ordinary stimulants; it is equally true that the large portion of time of which they have the command, beyond what is employed in providing themselves with necessaries, does not certainly produce the effect of making them abound in conveniences and luxuries. The poor clothing and worse lodging of the Irish peasant are as well known as the spare time which it might be expected would be the means of furnishing him amply with all kinds of conveniences.
In defence, however, of the Irish peasant, it may be truly said, that in the state or society in which he has been placed, he has not had a fair trial; he has not been subjected to the ordinary stimulants which produce industrious habits. In almost every part of the island, particularly in the south and west, the population of the country districts is greater than the actual business to be done on the land can employ. If the people, therefore, were ever so industriously inclined, it is not possible for them all to get regular employment in the occupations which belong to the soil. In the more hilly parts of the country which are devoted chiefly to pasture, this impossibility is more particularly striking. A small farm among the Kerry mountains may support perhaps a large family, among whom are a number of grown-up sons; but the business to be done upon the farm is a mere trifle. The greatest part of it falls to the share of the women. What remains for the men cannot occupy them for a number of hours equal to a single day in the week; and the consequence is, they are generally seen loitering about, as if time was absolutely of no value to them.
They might, one should suppose, with all this leisure, employ themselves in building better houses, or at least in improving them, and keeping them neat and clean. But with regard to the first, some difficulties may occur in procuring materials; and with regard to the second, it appears from experience, that the object is either not understood, or not considered as worth the trouble it would cost.
They might also, one should suppose, grow or purchase the raw materials of clothing, and work them up at home; and this in fact is really done to a certain extent. Most of the linen and wollen they wear is prepared by themselves. But the raw materials, when not of home growth, cannot be purchased without great difficulty, on account of the low money prices of labour; and in preparing them for wear, the temptations to indolence will generally be too powerful for human weakness, when the question is merely about a work which may be deferred or neglected, with no other effect than that of being obliged to wear old clothes a little longer, where it can be done certainly without any violation of the customs of the country.
If the Irish peasant could find such a market for the result of his in-door occupations as would give him constant employment at a fair money price, his habits might soon change; but it may be doubted whether any large body of people in any country ever acquired regular and industrious habits, where they were unable to get regular and constant work, and when, to keep themselves constantly and beneficially employed, it was necessary to exercise a great degree of providence, energy, and self-command.
It may be said, perhaps, that it is capital alone which is wanted in Ireland, and that if this want were supplied, all her people might be easily employed. That one of the greatest wants of Ireland is capital will be readily allowed; but I conceive it would be a very great mistake to suppose that the importation of a large quantity of capital, if it could be effected, would at once accomplish the object required, and create a quantity of wealth proportioned to the labour which seems ready to be employed in its production. The amount of capital which could be laid out in Ireland in preparing goods for foreign sale, must evidently depend upon the state of foreign markets; and the amount that could be employed in domestic manufactures, must as evidently depend upon the domestic demand. An attempt to force a foreign market by means of capital, must necessarily occasion a premature fall of profits, and might, after great losses, be quite ineffectual; and with regard to the domestic demand, while the habits of the great mass of the people are such as they are at present, it must be quite inadequate to take off the products of any considerable mass of new capital. In a country, where the necessary food is obtained with so little labour, and the population is still equal or nearly equal to the produce, it is perhaps impossible that the time not devoted to the production of food should create a proportionate quantity of wealth, without a very decided taste for conveniences and luxuries among the lower classes of society, and such a power of purchasing as would occasion an effective demand for them. But it is well known, that the taste of the Irish peasant for articles of this description is yet to be formed. His wants are few, and these wants he is in the habit of supplying principally at home. Owing to the cheapness of the potatoe, which forms the principal food of the lower classes of the people, his money wages are low; and the portion which remains, after providing absolute necessaries, will go but a very little way in the purchase of conveniences. All these circumstances are most unfavourable to the increase of wealth derived from manufactures destined for home consumption. But the tastes and habits of a large body of people are extremely slow in changing; and in the mean time the application of capital in larger quantities than was suited to the progress of the change, would certainly fail to yield such profits as would encourage its continued accumulation and application in the same way. In general it may be said that demand is quite as necessary to the increase of capital as the increase of capital is to demand. They mutually act upon and encourage each other, and neither of them can proceed with vigour if the other be left far behind.
In the actual state of Ireland, I am inclined to believe, that the check which the progress of her manufactures has received, has been as much owing to a want of demand as a want of capital. Her peculiar distress upon the termination of the late war had unquestionably this origin, whatever might have been the subsequent destruction of capital. And the great checks to her manufactures formerly were the unjust and impolitic restrictions imposed by England which prevented, or circumscribed the demand for them.
There is indeed in Ireland a fatal deficiency in one of the greatest sources of prosperity, the perfect security of property; and till this defect is remedied, it is not easy to so pronounce upon the degree in which the redundant capital of England would flow into Ireland with the best effect. Such a change could not fail to produce a great increase in the effectual demand for capital, as well as its supply; but in the actual state of things, there is reason to think that advances of capital have sometimes been made with little beneficial result. A certain definite assistance in particular establishments, or in facilitating the communications between one part of the country and another, may be given by government with advantage; but any thing approaching to a forced supply of capital with a view to the general employment of the people in the extension of cultivation, would infallibly create an unnatural demand for labour which could not be maintained, would tend to paralyse individual efforts, and terminate in increased poverty and distress among the labouring classes.
The state of Ireland in respect to the time and labour necessary to the production of her food is such, that her capabilities for manufacturing and commercial wealth are prodigious. If under a state of things where all kinds of property were secure an improved system of agriculture were to raise the food and raw materials required for the population with the smallest quantity of labour necessary to do it in the best manner, and the remainder of the people, instead of loitering about upon the land, were engaged in manufactures and commerce carried on in great and flourishing towns, Ireland would be beyond comparison richer than England. This is what is wanted to give full scope to her great natural resources; and to attain this state of things an immense capital is undoubtedly required; but it can only be employed to advantage as it is gradually called for; and a premature supply of it would be much less beneficial and less permanent in its effects, than such a change in the tastes and habits of the lower classes of people, such an alteration in the mode of paying their labour and such an improvement in the structure* of the whole society as would give both the lower and middle classes a greater will and power to purchase domestic manufactures and foreign commodities.
The state of Ireland then may be said to lead to nearly the same conclusions as that of New Spain, and to shew—
That the power of employing labour on the part of landholders may often exist to a much greater extent than the will;
That the necessity on the part of labourers of employing only a small portion of time in producing food does not always occasion the employment of a greater portion of time in procuring conveniences and luxuries;
That the deficiency of wealth in a fertile country may be more owing to want of demand than to want of capital;
And, in general, that the fertility of the soil alone is not an adequate stimulus to the permanent increase of wealth.
[* ] Ricardo’s Princ. of Polit. Econ. ch. xxi. p. 342, 3rd edit.
[* ] Susmilch, vol. iii. p. 60. Essay on Population, vol. i. p. 459. edit. 5th. In foreign states very few persons live in the country who are not engaged in agriculture; but it is not so in England.
[† ] Population Abstracts, 1811.
[* ] Essai Politique sur la Nouvelle Espagne, tom. iii. l. iv. c. ix. p. 28.
[† ] Id. p. 36.
[‡ ] Id. p. 28.
[* ] Humboldt’s Nouvelle Espagne, tom. iii. l. iv. c. ix. p. 38.
[* ] Id. tom. i. l. ii. c. v. p. 358.
[* ] Essai Politique sur la Nouvelle Espagne, tom. iii. l. iv. c. ix. p. 56.
[† ] Nouvelle Espagne, tom. ii. l. ii. c. vii. p. 37.
[‡ ] Tom i. l. ii. c. vi. p. 429.
[* ] Nouvelle Espagne, tom. i. liv. ii. c. v. pp. 355 et 356.
[* ] Nouvelle Espagne, tom. iii. liv. iv. c. ix. p. 12.
[* ] Nouvelle Espagne, tom ii. l. iii. c. viii. p. 342.
[* ] Tom. iii. l. iv. c. ix. p. 89.
[* ] Tom. iii. l. iv. c. x. p. 178.
[* ] In applying labour as a rough measure of wealth, or in measuring value in Ireland we must remember, as before intimated, that we must take the price of the labour which is actually, and with average constancy engaged, and not the price at which it may be occasionally offered by a half employed population. The caution which Adam Smith has given about the labour of cotters, already referred to in this work, must be particularly attended to.
[* ] There is nothing so favourable to effectual demand as a large proportion of the middle classes of society.