Front Page Titles (by Subject) 28.: QUESTION OF POPULATION  BLACK DWARF, 10 DEC., 1823, PP. 791-8 - The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXII - Newspaper Writings December 1822 - July 1831 Part I
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28.: QUESTION OF POPULATION  BLACK DWARF, 10 DEC., 1823, PP. 791-8 - 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 is the second of Mill’s responses to the opinions of Thomas Wooler (see No. 27). Wooler had replied to No. 27 in “The Black Dwarf to ‘A.M.’ against the Preventive System,” Black Dwarf, 3 Dec., 1823, pp. 772-83, to which the interpolated page numbers refer. Headed “Question of Population / Arguments of the Anti-Populationists,” the letter is subheaded “To the Editor of the Black Dwarf,” and is described in Mill’s bibliography as “A second letter on the same subject which appeared in the Black Dwarf of December 10th 1823, signed A.M.”
(MacMinn, p. 5).
I have perused with attention your reply to my former letter on the plan of regulating the numbers of the people; and I proceed to state the reasons which induce me, notwithstanding all which you have said, to adhere to my former opinion, that any increase of population beyond the actual increase of the means of subsistence and employment, would be highly injurious to the labouring classes, by whatever circumstances the increase of the subsistence may be promoted or retarded.
Before replying, however, to your objections, I think it necessary to correct two mistakes into which you have fallen in your statement of my views. You observe, that it is not the labourer alone who multiplies the candidates for labour; and you quote the instances of Mr. T. Courtenay, and Mr. Canning.1 You then observe, “It is only those who are poor, who are recommended to abstinence. A class almost as numerous, namely, those who may become so, are never taken into the calculation.” [P. 776.] Now, Sir, I have to remark, that I do take into the calculation not only the poor, but all men; and I think it highly unwise in any person, rich or poor, to have more than a certain number of children. But I certainly think it still more unwise in a poor man to have a family whom he cannot maintain, than in a rich man to have a family which he can.
The other instance of misinterpretation to which I allude, is the following:—You say, “you would be satisfied if the people could be made comfortable under a bad system; and while no discomfort is actually felt, you seem to infer that it ought not to be feared, no matter how certain to result from a bad system.” [Pp. 777-8.] Now, Sir, on turning to my former letter, I do, indeed, find these words: “I wish the people to be comfortable under any system, good or bad;” but I also find the following words: “I admit that I should desire something more for the people than merely good clothing and plenty of food. But it rests with you to prove, that their chance of obtaining that something more will be in any degree diminished by their being well fed and clothed.”2 I also avowed myself,3 and again avow myself, a friend to a Radical Reform in the Commons House of Parliament. So much for my views and your misinterpretations. I now proceed to comment upon your arguments.
You say that I have avoided the discussion of the question whether population has ever pressed against the means of subsistence; and yet you say this is the only ground upon which my arguments in favour of keeping down the numbers of the people can be maintained. [P. 783.]
It may, perhaps, be necessary to inform you, that when population is said to press against the means of subsistence, the meaning is, that it presses against the means of employment; in short, that there are more men in existence than can be employed and maintained, in comfort, by the productive capital of the country. That such is the fact, is sufficiently proved, by the universal prevalence of low wages.—There is no country on the earth, if we except America and other newly cultivated countries, where (if no check is in use) the labourer is not underpaid. Now, I ask, how could this possibly be the case, if the population did not press on the means of employment? If there had been fewer workmen than the capital of the world is able to employ, the capitalists would have found great difficulty in obtaining men; they would have been eager to obtain them almost at any cost, and would have bid against one another until wages were raised very high. This, however, is very far from being the case. In every old country, the lowest class of labourers are barely provided with the necessaries of life. This could never be the case, if there were not more than the capital of the country could employ; in consequence of which they bid against one another, and obtain lower wages: nor can they all be employed, even at a low rate, for many are constantly out of work. If now they would adopt means for regulating their numbers, they would have it in their power to make their own terms with their employers; for they could always keep their number below that which can be employed with the present capital. Labour would then always be in request, and wages high.
But you affirm (if I understand you rightly), that even in this case, the employers could keep down wages. [P. 775.] I feel no such apprehensions. The capitalists have been enabled, hitherto, to keep down wages, only by the mutual competition of the labourers. Slaves are at the mercy of their employers, and will be worked as it may suit the convenience of those employers. They can be forced to work. Free labourers cannot.
When there is no excess of population—no competition among the labourers, they are not at the mercy of their employers. Among many proofs of this fact which our history affords, I shall only quote one. After the great plague, in the reign of Edward III, by which the numbers of the people were greatly reduced, complaints were made of a deficiency of workmen, and it was found that they would no longer work without high wages. On this an Act of Parliament was made to prohibit them from taking higher wages than they took before the plague: this Act being found ineffectual, the penalties were raised higher and higher, until, at last, the offence was made capital; and still it was all in vain.4 A striking proof of the disposition of the higher classes to keep down wages, but an equally striking proof of their inability to do so. It may serve as an answer to your assertion, that if half the population of Ireland were cut off by a pestilence, the remainder would not be benefited. I think it very clear that they would be benefited; as the English people were benefited by the plague in the time of Edward III.
I have your own authority, to corroborate my assertion,5 that it is the competition of the labourers which enables their employers to keep down wages. You say
no labour was ever long profitable to the labourer in this country. All sorts of labour, at the same period, cannot be so, particularly in manufactures; the demand for which is influenced by fashions; and the labourer must eat or starve as fashion pleases. When a trade is supposed to be profitable, a rush is made on the part of the rising population to partake of its advantages. This destroys them. Another is rising and the crowd turns in that direction.
Is it not clear, from your own statement, that if the “rising population” were not so numerous—if the “crowd” were smaller, their “rush” to partake of high wages would not, as at present, have the effect of lowering those high wages? Is it possible to admit more explicitly than you do, that the lowness of wages is owing to the competition among the people, from which it is a necessary inference, that if the people were less numerous, the competition would be much smaller, and wages would not be so much reduced?
I do not think it necessary to reply to any of the arguments which you have adduced to show that this “check to population”6 would not have the effect of checking population. Whatever other objections may be urged against it, this, at least, is a merit which certainly must be allowed to it. I do not see how you can well doubt that if the people could be prevailed upon to use the method of keeping down their numbers, they would infallibly succeed.
You endeavour to shew that I am wrong in asserting that it is the interest of the landowners and manufacturers, that the country should be over-peopled;7 you do not, however, deny, either that low wages are favourable to the manufacturer, or high rents to the landlord: and it is clear that when there are many mouths to feed, a high state of cultivation is required, which implies dear corn, and high rents. Your only argument is, that Dennis Browne says, that Ireland could spare two millions of its inhabitants.8 Now I cannot hold it to be any proof, that some thousands of men will not see and act according to their interest, because one man, and he, not one of the wisest, either does not see it, or seeing it, affects to preach against it. But without pushing this argument farther, I admit that Ireland is rather too much over-peopled, even for the aristocracy; for their own persons and property are endangered by the despair of a starving people.
You still think that the people will not effect reform until they are driven to desperation by poverty; and you quote the apathy and indifference of the middle classes. [P. 773.] I might quote the apathy and indifference of the agricultural labourers, who are by far the poorest of the working people. Notwithstanding all that you have said, I really cannot admit that the middling classes of this country are more indifferent than the working classes to the blessings of good government; and I am sure that in every other country of Europe the middle classes alone feel any desire for a better government than they possess.
As to the condition of the people in the South of France, and in the Austrian States, you do not deny the truth of my statement, that they regulate their numbers, and that they are well paid and comfortable.9 But you say they are in a state of great mental degradation. [P. 779.] This is true. But who ever asserted, that superstition and mis-government will not brutalize a people? They are the slaves of the priests; and, moreover, the Government, which knows what it has to fear from their mental improvement, discourages the introduction of schools and other means of instruction among them. Our working classes are, by no means, equally priest-ridden, and have much greater facilities for instructing themselves.—You say, “it remains to be proved, that until men are well fed they cannot be well instructed.” [P. 778.] In support of which you quote Shakspeare, rather an extraordinary authority in a question of philosophy. I reply, that if fat paunches make lean pates;10 still it is not the less true, that so long as men stand in need of all the money which they can command, to secure a bare subsistence, they are not likely to spend much, either upon books or upon the instruction of their children. Nor is this all. A man who is compelled to work fourteen hours out of the twenty-four to obtain bread, has no time to instruct himself, and is too much harassed and fatigued to turn his attention to important affairs. How can it be otherwise?
A few words more on the specific plan which has been proposed for the regulation of population. You see in it a tendency to moral evils of the most aggravated description; and you insinuate, that it would lead to infanticide, and even to murder. [P. 780.] You might as well say, that to give true evidence before a Court of Justice, might lead to perjury; that to write your name would lead to forgery; or, in fact, that any useful act might terminate in any mischievous one, if some insignificant collateral circumstance is, in both cases, the same. This looks very like a reason made to justify a feeling. Can you discover any but a fantastic resemblance between checking population, and committing murder? Do you think, that what deters people from committing murder, is an aversion to reduce the population of the country? for this is the only deterring motive, which would be removed by checking population. As to infanticide, I leave you to judge, whether a parent, who has a larger family than it is possible to maintain, or a parent who has only a small family, is most likely to be tempted to destroy a child. I thus retort upon yourself your remark, that men should keep as far as possible from the temptation to commit any crime. [P. 780.]
In my last letter, I replied to the objection, that to check population is to violate the laws of nature, by observing that it is equally a violation of the law of nature to hold up an umbrella.11 This you deny; and you say “I am no party to the operation of the law; and I cannot violate it. The law is, that rain should descend; and I only avoid its descending upon my own head.” [P. 782.] The law is, that rain shall descend upon every man’s head, and every where. But if you do not like this illustration, I will give you another. It is a law of nature that man should go naked. He is born naked; like other animals, all of whom go naked. To put on clothes is clearly a counteraction of the designs of Providence, if Providence intended that we should not violate the laws of nature. Accordingly, upon this principle, some self-called philosophers have written in defence of the savage state, and have exclaimed against every step in the progress of civilization as being an infraction of the laws of nature.
You also say that there is “a great difference between the different laws of nature: and that you do not suspect me of asserting that you have an equal right to hold up an umbrella, and to procure abortion, or to kill a fellow creature.” [P. 782.] This is precisely what I want. You have now brought your doctrines to the same test with myself. I too, affirm, that “there is a great difference between different laws of nature.” The difference is this, there are two sets of actions both of which you chuse to call violations of the law of nature. By the one set misery is inflicted, by the other set, no evil whatever is occasioned. Thus by killing a fellow-creature, pain is inflicted on the murdered person and his connexions, and other persons are alarmed for their own safety. By checking population, no pain is inflicted, no alarm excited, no security infringed. It cannot, therefore, on any principles, be termed immoral; and if the above arguments be correct—if it tends to elevate the working people from poverty and ignorance to affluence and instruction, I am compelled to regard it as highly moral and virtuous; nor can I agree with you in treating as “heartless,” [p. 781] the desire of seeing so inestimable a benefit conferred upon mankind; unless, indeed, the word heartless, be one of the engines of a sentimental cant, invented to discourage all steady pursuit of the general happiness of mankind.
[1 ]Thomas Peregrine Courtenay (1782-1841), politician and author, M.P. for Totnes, had thirteen children; George Canning had four.
[2 ]Mill, “Question of Population ,” p. 752 (No. 27).
[3 ]Ibid., p. 749 (No. 27).
[4 ]After the Great Plague of 1349 had reduced the English population by almost half, the Statutes of Labourers of 1349 (23 Edward III, Stat. 1, cc. 1, 2, 3, 5, 8) and 1350 (25 Edward III, Stat. 1, cc. 1-5) were enacted to prevent the remaining labouring population from demanding exorbitant wages. Both wages and prices were fixed, and work became compulsory. In 1388 (12 Richard II, cc. 3, 4, 7), these laws were enlarged; punishments were increased in severity, and restrictions on the movement of labourers imposed, to prevent desertion of the land through the seeking of higher wages elsewhere. Begging was limited to the aged and infirm. These efforts were largely unsuccessful, and legislation was enacted throughout the fifteenth century to broaden the applicability of the laws, and increase the punishments for breaking them. By 1530 (22 Henry VIII, c. 12) it became necessary to license beggars, and to punish vagabonds who left their homes and work by whipping and setting in the stocks. Refusal to work for reasonable wages led to punishment as a vagabond. Vagabondage resulting from a third escape from service became punishable by death in 1547 (1 Edward VI. c. 3), and though this Act was repealed in 1549 (3 & 4 Edward VI, c. 16), it was restored in 1572 (14 Elizabeth I, c. 5) and remained in force until 1593 (35 Elizabeth I, c. 7). Thereafter the punishments of 22 Henry VIII, c. 12 (1530) were restored. When Mill refers to the capital offence of taking higher wages, he appears to mean these Acts which punished by death a third refusal to work wherever required for whatever wages were offered.
[5 ]Mill, “Question of Population ,” p. 750 (No. 27).
[6 ]Wooler uses cognates of this term throughout “The Black Dwarf to ‘A.M.,’ ” e.g., in his conclusion on p. 783. Malthus introduced the term in the 1st ed. of his Essay on the Principle of Population (London: Johnson, 1798), where he refers in the heading to Chap. iv to the “two principal checks to population” (p. 53), i.e., the “preventive check” (associated with vice) and the “positive check” (associated with misery). Five years later in the much enlarged new ed. of the Essay, divided into four Books (ibid., 1803), he introduced “moral restraint” as an additional check (of a preventive but non-vicious kind); see, e.g., p. 11 (Bk. I, Chap. ii), and pp. 483-93 (Bk. IV, Chap. i).
[7 ]“Question of Population ,” p. 754 (No. 27).
[8 ]Denis Browne (1763-1828), M.P. for Kilkenny, alluded to by Wooler, p. 779. The source of the remark has not been located.
[9 ]“Question of Population ,” pp. 754 and 752 (No. 27).
[10 ]William Shakespeare, Love’s Labour’s Lost, I, i, 26; in The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974), p. 179.
[11 ]“Question of Population ,” pp. 755-6 (No. 27).