The Problem of Population
We may take it as a truism that population is limited by the means of subsistence. Means of subsistence consist, in the first place, of those employments which furnish—in whatever guise—profits, interests, dividends, appointments, the entire income of the world; secondly, of the annual sum available for the maintenance of those members of society who possess no means, or insufficient means, of subsistence, and who consequently depend more or less on public or private charity.
When population outgrows the means of subsistence derivable from these two sources the surplus is infallibly condemned to perish, and Malthus has shown that Nature is not slow to enforce her sentence. Sexual appetite is, however, so urgent that abstention and restraint are the sole guarantees against this disaster, and it is essential for the multitude, in any society, to individually regulate their exercise of these powers according to the means of subsistence possessed by the community.
Among the older societies, indeed up to very recent times, this necessary regulation was a matter of compulsion—at all events as regards a majority of the people. Communities still in the savage state, or belonging to an inferior type of humanity, secured their end by the barbarous customs of infanticide and the putting to death of those who had become too aged to care for themselves. Next, in more advanced societies, but where the bulk of the people were still in a state of servitude or serfdom, masters carefully regulated the procreation of serfs or slaves, adjusting it to the opportunities for their employment. Corporate and local regulations replaced these systems among the commercial and industrial communities where the middle and lower classes had emerged from servitude or serfdom and obtained the right of more or less complete self-government. In the sovereign oligarchies and so-called free classes which controlled the government of States the fear of losing caste and the supposed shameful nature of marriages "below one's rank" continued in the same direction, nor is it admissible to ignore the effects of prostitution, whether upon them or their inferiors. So effective, indeed, were these direct and subsidiary agencies that the progeny of the upper class was frequently insufficient to fulfil all its functions, and was consequently compelled to reinforce its numbers by admitting members from a lower social stratum or even from outside the borders of the State.
Systematic state-restriction upon population has disappeared from almost all civilised societies. Every man in every class is free to beget children at will, and such checks as exist depend upon the individual. But the classes, lately emancipated or only partially instructed, incapable of restraining their appetites, have multiplied out of all proportion to their means of subsistence. Whether their livelihood be insecure, expanding under the influence of industrial progress, restricted by artificial obstacles, taxation or protection, these communities procreate in blind obedience to the dictates of appetite. Imprudent development of public charities, particularly in England, has still further added to the numbers of the most numerous class. Abnormal enlargement of the ranks of labour results, supply outruns demand, and the worker is at the mercy of the employer. Wages fall and the hours of labour are increased, with the inevitable concomitants of heavy infant mortality and a generally reduced expectation of life among the lowest classes. These results, or, in the characteristic phrase of Malthus, "repressive obstacles," tend to maintain equilibrium between the supply of labour and the means of subsistence. The middle and upper classes have meanwhile pushed restriction to excess, and, prostitution furthering the consequences, they have, in nearly every country, survived only by the continual admission of recruits and the infusion of new blood from lower strata of the population.
Such rough-and-ready agents maintain an approximate equilibrium between population and the means of subsistence, but their action has involved a decline in the quality of the people. The lower classes suffered from excessive hours of labour, inadequate wages, too early employment of children whose pitiful earnings must supplement those of the parents, neglect, improper care of health, vicious abuses of the fiscal system, and—last, but by no means least—alcoholic excess. The decadence of the upper classes is almost solely due to a marriage system, which forms their connections according to fortune and convention rather than physical and intellectual affinity. All classes pay heavy toll to the widespread habit of prostitution with its inevitable adjunct of disease.
But individual characteristics are the chief factor in the power of any society, and physical and moral vigour decide the battle of competition far more certainly than fruitful soil or perfect machinery. When a State of War placed the very existence of the proprietary association in the State in dependence upon the warlike qualities of the individual, institutions and customs were all directed to its preservation. Marriages, menacing purity of blood or the qualities required of a soldier and ruler, were forbidden, and education was solely directed to the fortification and development of those qualities. But a State of Peace, involving incessant competition between the nations possessing or disputing the world's markets, brings other considerations into the forefront. Success no longer depends on the fitness of a single class, but upon the physical and moral qualities of the entire people. Competition under the new order may proceed by less brutal and less violent methods, but societies, lagging in the race, will still become decadent and perish. The removal of each obstacle to the natural and irresistible advance of international progress will therefore entail a correspondingly careful adjustment of means, in order that power may not be lost through excess or lack of population, or through deficiency in its quality. The adjustment of population to the means of subsistence, and the physical and moral perfection of man, will then appear even more important than now; more important to the survival and progress of a nation, indeed, than any increase of its machinery or weapons.
We have already attempted—in our book entitled Viriculture—to show how the society of the future will adjust population to subsistence, to the opportunities of employment for labour and capital, and to point out by the use of all available knowledge, how the physical and moral welfare of the race may be best assured. We shall here confine our considerations to a question frequently argued, but argued with an ignorance of economic law which has permitted the most foolish solutions. This question is the future population of our globe.
Population is limited by the means of subsistence, and these means depend more and more upon the number of employments furnished by the immense field of industrial production. These employments supply members of civilised communities with the means of purchasing the material supports of life and no rational attempt to resolve the problem of future population can, therefore, be made without some knowledge of the potential development of productive employments. Industrial progress must, in fact, be the sole basis of such a forecast.
Industrial progress has two opposite effects. It tends to displace physical by mechanical power in every branch of productive industry; in other words, it increases the proportion of the material to that of the personal factor. A given quantity of products or services is produced at the cost of less labour, and the quality of the product is also improved. A thousand railwaymen, engineers, mechanics, stokers, &c., transport with ease more material than a million porters could move; or a thousand spinners and weavers by mechanical process manufacture stuffs which an incomparably larger number of handworkers could not produce in a lifetime. It is even no dream to prophesy that science will one day so perfect our knowledge of agriculture that a hundred thousand men—ploughmen, reapers, sowers, &c.—will harvest a quantity of corn which a million labourers could not so much as sow. Granting, therefore, that the scale of every industry has reached its limits, each improvement in machinery or methods means so much less room for human labour, and so many less opportunities for earning a livelihood; the process must continue until industry has achieved its highest possible development, and the population of the globe will suffer a continual and corresponding restriction.
But the same progress which reduces the labour involved in producing a given product also decreases the value of this product, places it within reach of a larger number of consumers, and therefore increases the demand for it. This increase follows that of the capacity of the consumer, and this, in turn, results from:—
(1) The improved quality of labour and a consequent rise in the rate of its remuneration, therefore an increased capacity for consuming every kind of product.
(2) A fall in the necessary price inducing a corresponding fall in the price-current, which again increases the consuming capacity of all other producers, and this whether their savings on the purchase price of this particular article are devoted to buying a greater quantity of it or to purchasing other articles. Every improvement which increases the productivity of an industry enlarges the output obtainable at the same cost of production, and this increase partly benefits the actual producer, partly the general consumer. The extra return to the producer, and the enlarged capacity of the general consumer, naturally enlarge the scale of production, therefore the number of persons to whom the industry gives employment. Industrial progress, then, diminishes the number of persons employed according to the reduction which it effects in the sum of human power necessary for production, but it also increases the number of persons employed by the measure of the additional capacity for consumption which follows a lower cost of production. We must now compare the relative restriction and expansion of employment, and therefore of population, which are the consequences of this double movement.
We can only conjecture the economy of human power which progress is to hereafter achieve, or what expansion in the number of employments will accompany the greater capacity for consumption resulting from those economies. The economy of labour—even when we include that which is expended in producing labour-saving machinery, has already effected a saving of 90 per cent. in the costs of production of certain industries, but the capacity for consumption of the immense majority of those engaged in productive occupations is extremely low, so low that it call often barely satisfy the first needs of life, not seldom quite fails to do so. We know, on the other hand, that increased productivity can so reduce prices, and so increase wages, as to multiply consumption ten times. Thus the demand of a middle-class Englishman is ten, even twenty, times as effective as that of an Egyptian fellah or an Indian coolie—can, that is to say, command ten and twenty times the amount of labour. It only remains to grant that the potential consumption of any human being is equivalent to the amount necessary to replace the physical and moral forces consumed in productive efforts, and it is clear that consumption will exert the maximum demand when production has been developed to the highest possible extent.
Whether the increased human powers required by the growing demand of consumption will more than balance the economy of labour achieved by improved industrial methods, time must show. We can only assume that they will balance, and that the future population of our globe will not be more, if it be not less, than at the present time. But we may affirm that the capacity for consumption and the capacity of production will advance in the same measure as man's capacity for progress, and that the race of to-morrow may, humanly speaking, be no less superior to that of to-day than the latter is superior to its prototype of prehistoric ages.