Front Page Titles (by Subject) 27.: QUESTION OF POPULATION  BLACK DWARF, 27 NOV., 1823, PP. 748-56 - The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXII - Newspaper Writings December 1822 - July 1831 Part I
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27.: QUESTION OF POPULATION  BLACK DWARF, 27 NOV., 1823, PP. 748-56 - John Stuart Mill, The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXII - Newspaper Writings December 1822 - July 1831 Part I 
The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXII - Newspaper Writings December 1822 - July 1831 Part I, ed. Ann P. Robson and John M. Robson, Introduction by Ann P. Robson and John M. Robson (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1986).
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QUESTION OF POPULATION 
This letter is the first of four by Mill to Thomas Jonathan Wooler (1786?-1853), editor and publisher of the populist weekly Black Dwarf, an opponent of the Malthusian principles and practices that Mill had adopted to the point of being arrested for distribution of birth-control literature (probably in May 1823). Mill takes exception to the second part of Wooler’s “Inquiry into the Principles of Population,” printed in two instalments: the first (including a letter by Francis Place, who was responsible for the printing of the Neo-Malthusian literature Mill had distributed) in Black Dwarf, 12 Nov., 1823, pp. 661-3, and the second ibid., 19 Nov., pp. 693-706. The page references in the text are to this second part. For further stages in the controversy, see Nos. 28, 31, and 32. The letter, headed as title, is described in Mill’s bibliography as “A letter on the necessity of checking population, which appeared in the Black Dwarf of November 20th [sic] 1823, signed A.M.”
(MacMinn, p. 4).
Although I do not agree in the view which you take of the important subject of population, I cannot sufficiently applaud your liberality in leaving your pages open to the discussion of the question; a degree of toleration, which, I am sorry to say, few persons who take your side of this question, can be prevailed on to allow. I hasten to avail myself of this liberty of discussion, for the purpose of combating the objections which you stated in your last number against the plan of checking population [pp. 695-9]; objections which appear to me founded on a mistaken view of the circumstances upon which the condition of the labouring classes depends.
It is unnecessary for me to prove, that the working people are in a state of miserable poverty, since you admit this, and have long been exerting yourself for the benevolent purpose of improving their condition. We differ only as to the cause of the distress; which I maintain to be, excess of population, as compared with the means of subsistence. You, on the contrary, affirm, that population has no tendency to increase beyond the means of subsistence; and that misgovernment is the only cause of the distressed condition of the working classes.
I should be very sorry to extenuate the miseries of misgovernment. I am, equally with yourself, a friend to a Radical Reform in the Commons House of Parliament;—and if I could believe, as you appear to do, that such a Reform can only be effected by keeping the people in poverty, I should perhaps hesitate to urge the plan of checking population, until after a Reform should have been obtained. But I cannot agree with you, that the working classes will not reform the government unless they are miserable. On the contrary, I think that so long as they are in poverty, Reform may be delayed for an unlimited period; but if they were in the receipt of high wages, they would have leisure to turn their attention to the abuses of government; and those abuses could not fail of being speedily reformed.
I.—You maintain that population has no tendency to increase beyond the means of subsistence. [Pp. 694-6.] I feel convinced that you are entirely mistaken; but this is a question of some complication; and although I shall be ready to discuss it whenever you please, the practical conclusion, as far as regards the poor man may be shown without making it depend on this question; and to this point attention is now requested.
You admit the fact of the distress; but you ascribe it to misgovernment [pp. 697-8, 703, 705]; meaning, I presume, over-taxation. Now over-taxation cannot lower wages. It may, indeed, you will say, raise the prices of the necessaries of life. It will thus injure the working classes as much as if it operated directly to reduce wages. I shall not enter into this question at present. I shall concede the point. But I hope to convince you that it does not affect the question. I admit, for argument’s sake, that the present rate of wages is such as would enable the labourer to live in comfort and happiness, but for the pressure of taxation.
My argument remains the same:—the labourer is now in distress. If he had double his present wages, with only the same amount of taxation, he would be in distress no longer. Now each man would have double his present wages, if the numbers of the people had not been too rapidly increased.
Does not every working man know, that his employer would give him higher wages, if he were not sure of obtaining as many men as he wants at the present rates? And is it not clear that he could not obtain men, if men in sufficient quantity and out of employment, were not to be had?
There is now a certain quantity of employment. There are as many men as can be employed, and more; for there is a great number of men out of work. These men, who are out of work, must either starve, or agree to take lower wages than their neighbours. The consequence is, that wages are low, and employment being regarded as a favor, the working man is often compelled to submit to incivility and insolence from his employer.
Suppose that, instead of excess, there was a deficiency of labourers. At present a capitalist can always obtain workmen, but a workman cannot always find an employer. Suppose this order of things reversed: suppose that there were fewer men than are wanted for the purpose of production. All the labourers would then be fully employed, and as more would be wanted than it would be possible to procure, some capitalists, in order to allure the men from their former employers, would offer high wages; this would compel the former employers to do the same. Wages would therefore be high, and employment would no longer be considered as a favor, but on the contrary, a labourer would be doing a favor to a capitalist, by working for him, and the capitalists would be compelled to treat their workmen well.
I infer that it is always wise in the labourers, to keep down their numbers a little below the means of employment. No men would then be ever out of work; the difficulty of procuring workmen would compel the capitalists to offer high wages, and this they would do in spite of any law to the contrary, however severe that law might be.
If then so much good is to be done by keeping down the numbers of the working people, the only question is, between one mode of keeping them down, and another. It is for the people themselves to decide. For my own part, I consider the plan of checking population, to be that which unites the most advantages with the fewest disadvantages.
All this, you see, does not depend in any degree upon the tendency of population to increase beyond the means of subsistence. It depends upon nothing but what every working man must know: that if there were fewer men, there would not be any men out of work; and that if there were no men out of employment, the men who are in employment could make their own terms with the capitalists.
II.—You say, that it would be better to take off the taxes than to diminish the population.1 I too am desirous that the taxes should be taken off: but if there were no taxes upon the working classes at all, there would be as many men out of employment as before: although they who are employed would be better off as long as their present wages continued; but, as there would still be more labourers than could obtain employment, the same process of bidding at lower wages against one another would continue, and wages speedily be reduced again to the lowest possible amount; reduced too, observe, by the competition of the working people themselves. Besides, when a mode of benefiting the working classes, viz. by limiting their numbers, is pointed out, it is no answer to point to another mode of benefiting them, viz. by taking off the taxes: for this, unfortunately, you have not yet in your power, (and yet there is no reason why the people should be kept miserable in the interim:) and besides, if you had, why not do both?
I cannot agree in the sentiments which you express in the following sentence; “We do not wish men to be comfortable, if they could be so for a period under a bad system.” [P. 705.] I do wish men to be comfortable, whether under a bad system or a good one. What is it that constitutes a bad system, if it is not the discomfort which it produces. Good government is not the end of all human actions. Though a highly important means, it is still only a means, to an end: and that end is happiness.
I admit that I should desire for the people something more than merely good clothing and plenty of food. But it remains to be shewn that their chance of obtaining that something more, will be in any degree diminished by their being well fed and clothed. I feel confident that it will be increased. Until they are well fed, they cannot be well instructed: and until they are well instructed, they cannot emancipate themselves from the double yoke of priestcraft and of reverence for superiors.
Placed as is your observation, just quoted, among many others of similar import, I cannot but view it as a sort of acknowledgment, that the people would be made more comfortable by limiting their numbers. If they, too, can be convinced of this, I have no fear of their hesitating to adopt the means from apprehension of its retarding the epoch of a Radical Reform.
A circumstance which appears to weigh with you, is, that you think the plan of checking population a device of the rich to oppress the poor. [P. 705.] So far is this from being the case, that it is entirely contrary to the interests of the rich that any check to population should come into general adoption.
It is the interest of the master manufacturers, that a great number of hands should readily offer themselves at low wages. Now I have shewn, that if the numbers of the people were limited to a sufficient degree, wages would be high, and workmen could not always be readily obtained.
III.—You say, “Wages have decreased in England, in a ratio with the accumulation of capital; not because there are too many labourers, but because capital, being the ruling principle, can compel them to labour upon its own conditions.” [P. 701.] It is true, that when the population is excessive, the capitalist can lose nothing by dismissing him—that another man, of equal bodily powers, will immediately offer himself at the same, or even lower wages,—he is forced to cringe to his master, and submit to any indignity rather than be turned out. If labourers were few in comparison to the demand for them—if labour, and not employment for labour, were the article in request:—if every working man knew that when dismissed he could easily obtain employment, while his master could not so readily obtain another labourer, he would then be as independent as his employer.
Look at North America! Is the labourer there the slave of the capitalist? You will say, this is owing to good government. To prove the contrary, I refer you to the English colonies, to Nova Scotia, for instance; and the English colonies are among the worst governed countries in the universe. Yet in Nova Scotia the labourer is highly paid, and perfectly independent; nor does any rich man dare to oppress or insult him. This is only because there is a deficiency of labourers, below the number which capitalists wish to employ.
In some parts of the south of France, the working people are well paid, and well provided with necessaries and comforts. This I affirm from my own observation.2 There however, population is regulated. Yet there the government is not good. The same is the case is some parts of the Austrian dominions, under one of the most despotic governments upon record. In both these countries the people are kept, through the efforts of bad government, in a state of great mental degradation, and consequently unable to avail themselves of the advantages they might otherwise possess, which in time they will possess, and which the people of this country might almost immediately possess.
Not only the master manufacturer but the landowner also, has an interest in over-population. A large population implies a high state of cultivation, and dear corn. Now a high price of corn is the cause of high rents; an highly cultivated farm will yield an increased rent at the expiration of the lease. Both sections of the rich—the landowners and manufacturers—are thus interested in the excessive population; the former for high rents; the latter for low wages, and high profits.
Nor is this all. Both landlords and manufacturers have an obvious interest in keeping the working classes in a state of abject poverty. These gentlemen know that while the great body of the people are compelled to work fourteen hours a day, they cannot turn their attention to the abuses of the government. They can neither instruct themselves, nor send their children to be instructed. From want of leisure, their thinking powers can never be sufficiently developed, to repel the prejudices which make them the slaves of priests and kings.
So long as excess of population was regarded as an irremediable evil, the doctrine was taken up and patronized by the aristocracy: who wished the people to infer, that misgovernment was but a trivial evil, and that it was idle to oppose it, since the lower classes must always be in poverty, under a good, or under a bad government. But now that remedy is pointed out, for excess of population; a remedy, which, if adopted, would produce high wages, and would enable the people to instruct themselves, and to reform their government; I venture to predict that the rich, but above all, the clergy will do all in their power to prevent the adoption of the plan, so well calculated to elevate the scale of being. As soon as they shall perceive that it is coming into use, they will rail against it in the pulpit, will persecute in every possible way, and without mercy all whom they suspect to have made use of it. But all their efforts will be useless; and if the superstitions of the nursery are discarded, we may hope ere long to see the English people well paid, well instructed, and eventually well governed.
IV.—I have only room to say a few words against the objection that this plan is a violation of the laws of nature. [Pp. 700, 705.] Those laws are no more violated by checking population than by any other mode of turning to useful purposes the properties of matter. It is not in the power of man, a being of limited faculties, to violate the laws of nature. But he can avail himself of one law to counteract another. It is a law of nature that the sexual intercourse, if not artificially prevented, occasions the generation of children. But it is also a law of nature, that man shall seek happiness; and that he shall avail himself, for that purpose, of other laws of nature.
You say, in a former article; “With all due deference to those who wish to keep down the population to the means of subsistence, I think this might be very safely left to Providence which has spread so plentiful a table for all his creatures:”3 and in a later article; “We can trust the Ruler of all things, not only with ‘his sky’ but all the principles which he has called into action, to regulate themselves.”4
You do not trust the Almighty with “his sky.” You do not indeed prevent the rain from falling at unseasonable times: the true reason of which I take to be that you cannot. But you do all in your power to shelter yourself from its fall: you put up an umbrella, and cover your house with a roof, to prevent the rain, which Providence has sent, from injuring your person or your property. The charge of violating the laws of nature may thus be retorted upon yourself. To check population is not more unnatural than to make use of an umbrella. If either of these operations is a counteraction of the designs of Providence, both are equally so. Again, when you speak of leaving to Providence the care of checking population, you seem not to be aware of the length to which this argument may be carried. A man who leaves every thing to Providence, will not succeed in many of his undertakings. “God helps those who help themselves:” and you might as well leave to Providence the care of producing food, as that of preventing either the waste or useless consumption of it.
[1 ]Wooler, “Inquiry into the Principles of Population, No. 1,” Black Dwarf, 12 Nov., 1823, p. 662.
[2 ]Mill is referring to his stay in the South of France with Samuel Bentham’s family in 1820-21. The journal and notebook recording that period will be found in CW, in the first volume of Journals and Speeches.
[3 ]Wooler, “Practical Endeavours to Apply the System of Mr. Malthus, in Checking Population,” Black Dwarf, 17 Sept., 1823, p. 405.
[4 ]Wooler, “Inquiry . . ., No. 1,” p. 661.