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Notes on Economic History (12)

Malthus on Poverty

From his law of population, Malthus infers that Governments should, on the one hand, remove all obstacles to the cultivation of the soil and, on the other, favour preventative checks, especially the postponement of marriage. The following passage from the 1803 edition is interesting: "A man born into a world already possessed, if he cannot get subsistence from his parents on whom he has a just demand, and if society do not want his labour, has no claim of right to the smallest portion of food, and in fact has no right to be where he is. At nature's mighty feast, there is no vacant cover for him. She tells him to begone and will quickly execute her own orders if he does not work upon the compassion of her guests."

Malthus therefore recommends the reduction of paupers' relief to a minimum. Money used to support the poor or destitute, he argues, us taken from the other classes in society, and especially from that section of the working class that is only just outside of destitution. For this poor relief, says Malthus, increases demand, and thus raises the price of food, clothing and shelter.

Malthus' main demand is for "moral restraint." He writes: "It is clearly the duty of each individual not to marry till he has the prospect of supporting his children: but it is at the same time to be wished that he should retain undiminished his desire of marriage, in order that he may exert himself to realise this prospect, and be stimulated to make provision for the support of greater numbers."

Arising from this, it was proposed to put legal difficulties in the way of marriage. The poor who had no prospects of being able to support a family were to be forbidden to marry.

The Malthusian doctrine attracted widespread attention, and was accepted almost without qualification by many scientists. It also made a strong impression on governments, and its effects were seen in the increased stringency of the marriage laws. Down to 1918 vestiges of this persisted in Bavaria and the Austrian Tyrol, where marriage could not be entered into without the permission of the commune.

The astonishing fact about the Malthusian theory is its persistence in face of evidence that confutes it. To go to the core of the question, we can say there is no evidence to warrant the assumption that there is any tendency in population to increase faster than subsistence. The facts stated by Malthus to show this tendency, simply show that where, owing to a small population in a new country. or where, owing to the unequal distribution of wealth, as among the working class in the old country, human life is occupied with physical necessity of existence, the tendency to reproduce is at a rate which, if unchecked, would at some time exceed subsistence. But it is not correct to infer from this that the tendency to reproduce would show itself to the same extent where population was sufficiently dense, and where wealth was distributed in such a way as to lift the whole community above the necessity of devoting their energies to a struggle for mere existence. Nor can it be assumed that the tendency to reproduce, by causing poverty, must prevent the existence of such a community: for this obviously would be assuming the very point at issue and be reasoning in a circle. And even if it be admitted that the tendency to multiply must ultimately cause poverty, it cannot be stated of existing that it is due to this cause until it is shown that there are no other causes which can account for it.

The Malthus theory has persisted, and will persist, because it does not in any way oppose or antagonise any powerful interest. It is soothing and reassuring to the class who, wielding the power of wealth, largely dominate thought. Indeed, at a time when men were beginning to question an examine society, it came to the aid of the ruling class. The Essay on Population was written as an answer to William Godwin's Inquiry concerning Political Justice, a book which dealt with the principle of human equality, and the effect of Malthus' book was to justify the existing inequality by shifting responsibility for it from the laws of society to some kind of God-given laws.

The Socialist of today still has to contend with Malthusian ideas, in a modern form. They become more prevalent in times of large-scale unemployment, and are also use as an excuse to justify poverty in such places as India, Africa, the Latin countries of America. The answer to Malthus, and the modern exponents of his teachings, is to be found in the method of ownership of the means of producing wealth.

Poverty, as dealt with by Malthus, is not in fact the result  of excessive breeding. It is the chaotic nature of the capitalist system which must be blamed. Its solution is obvious—remove the cause which the Socialist claims is the private property relation in the means of production. Make this property common property, and the common access to wealth which follows such a change will provide the answer to poverty, present or future.

Bob Ambridge