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Of Population. An Enquiry concerning the Power of Increase in the Numbers of Mankind, William Godwin (1820)

BOOK V.
of the means which the earth affords for the subsistence of man.

 

CHAPTER I.
of the present state of the globe as it relates to human subsistence.

The pith of all Mr. Malthus’s speculations lies in establishing a geometrical ratio for the power of increase in the human species, and an arithmetical ratio for the power of increase in the means of subsistence: and his capital inference is, that, at least in all old settled countries, or rather in all countries, except those where land is to be had freely, or at a very low rate, and agriculture is understood, the population is continually limited and kept down by the limits of the means of subsistence, and there is always a somewhat greater number of inhabitants, than the food of the country will fully and wholsomely nourish.

We have already enquired into the solidity of the doctrine of the Essay on Population, respecting that excessive tendency of the human species to increase, which it represents as “a source of mischief to mankind, in comparison with which all the evils entailed upon us by human institutions, however erroneous or oppressive, are in reality light and superficial,” and scarcely deserve the name of calamity. We have seen, that it is at least problematical, whether there is a tendency in the human species to increase, and that, for any thing that appears from the enumerations and documents hitherto collected, it may be one of the first duties incumbent on the true statesman and friend of human kind, to prevent that diminution in the numbers of his fellow-men, which has been thought, by some of the profoundest enquirers, ultimately to threaten the extinction of our species.

It is proper that we should now proceed to examine the other branch of Mr. Malthus’s doctrine, that which relates to the means of subsistence; concerning which he will be seen to have fallen into errors not less ill-founded and pernicious, than those which concern the possible numbers of mankind.

I might indeed content myself to dismiss this part of my subject with all possible brevity. Having, I trust, for ever put to rest Mr. Malthus’s geometrical ratio for the increase ot mankind, I might rest satisfied with his arithmetical ratio for the increase of the means of subsistence, as abundantly sufficient to satisfy all the demands which the human species are ever likely to make upon it. But there are many reasons why I do not think proper to stop here.—To proceed then.

The first thing perhaps that would arrest the observation of an enlightened enquirer, who should set himself down to survey the globe we inhabit according to the latest authorities, is the scanty and sparing way in which man, of whose nature we are, and in many respects with good reason, so proud, is scattered over the face of the earth. What immense deserts, what vast tracts of yet unconquered forests, the asylum only of wild beasts, or of the most pernicious and contemptible animals, have we occasion to observe! When I travel even through many parts of England, it seems to me that I pass through a country, which has but just begun to be reclaimed from the tyranny of savage nature. I believe I may venture to affirm that there is one third of the island which does not yet feel the hands of the cultivator; not to mention the very imperfect and inadequate manner in which the other two-thirds are turned to use. Man seems formed to subdue all these, to chase the wild beasts and either to tame or destroy their species, to fell the forests, and to render the most ungrateful soil productive. If indeed we are qualified to “increase, and multiply, and replenish the earth,” it might be hoped that, at a period however distant, the whole surface of all lands might be “cultivated like a garden.” But, for some reason or other, the very reverse of this is glaringly and deplorably the case.

And it is in a world, thus cheerless and melancholy in the point of view in which we are considering it, that Mr. Malthus has thought it opportune to blow the trumpet of desolation. He tells us, that the chief evil we have to fear is from the too great increase of population, and that this evil not only threatens to fall upon us, when the whole earth shall be subdued and turned to use, but that, “at every period during the progress of cultivation, from the present moment to the time when the whole shall become like a garden, the distress for the want of food will be, more or less, constantly pressing on mankind.”

 

Chapter II.
of the number of human beings which the globe is capable of maintaining on our present systems of husbandry and cultivation.

I Am desirous, on the present occasion, of shutting out every thing conjectural, and which therefore by a certain class of reasoners might be called visionary. One practical way of looking at the subject is this. The habitable parts of the globe are computed to occupy a space of thirty-nine millions of square miles, and its human inhabitants to amount to six hundred millions. Of this surface China is said to constitute 1,300,000 square miles. Now, let us admit the present population of China to stand at three hundred millions of souls. How fully China is cultivated I do not know; but I have as little doubt as Mr. Malthus appears to have, that the soil of that empire might be made greatly more effective for the purposes of human subsistence, than it is at presenta . But let us assume, for the sake of argument, the cultivation of China for the standard of possible cultivation, and consequently its population for the standard of possible population. The earth then, if all its habitable parts could be made as fertile as China, is equal to the sustaining a population of nine thousand millions of human beings. In other words, wherever one human being is now found in existence, the earth is capable, not in theory only, and according to conceived improvements no where yet realised, but judging from approved facts, instead of that one, of subsisting fifteen.

The majority of men seem to have laboured under some deception as to the population of China. It is principally in the vast extent of an empire said to be every where so flourishing, that China is worthy of admiration. Taking from Pinkerton the dimensions of China on the one hand, and of England and Wales on the other, I find that, if the latter were as well stocked with citizens as the former, it would contain 13,461,923 inhabitants, that is about three millions beyond the returns to the population-act of 1811. Now it has been admitted by the most phlegmatic enquirers, that England and Wales might easily be made to maintain double their present number of inhabitants. Of course such enquirers proceed on the assumption, that there are tracts incapable of being profitably applied to the purposes of human subsistence. By parity of reason therefore the soil of China itself is very far from being turned to all the profit of which it is susceptible, for the subsistence of the human species.

The latter end of Mr. Malthus’s system is of a character extremely discordant with the beginning. The author of the Essay on Population has been understood as proceeding upon the impression, that the surface of the earth was limited, containing only so many square miles, but that the power of population, upon the assumption of his geometrical ratio, was unlimited, and that the greater was at any time the actual number of human beings, the greater would be the power of increase.

I cannot but think that the first contemplation that would have suggested itself to an enlightened philanthropist, proceeding on these premises, would have been something like the following.

Man is an admirable creature, the beauty of the world, which, if he did not exist in it, would be “a habitation of dragons, and a court for owls; the wild beast of the desert would cry to the wild beast of the islands; baboons would dance there; and its pleasant places be filled with all doleful creatures.” How delightful a speculation then is it, that man is endowed by all-bountiful nature with an unlimited power of multiplying his species! I would look out upon the cheerless and melancholy world which has just been described, and imagine it all cultivated, all improved, all variegated with a multitude of human beings, in a state of illumination, of innocence, and of active benevolence, to which the progress of thought, and the enlargement of mind seem naturally to lead, beyond any thing that has yet any where been realised. I would count up the acres and the square miles of the surface of the earth, and consider them all as the estate in fee simple of the human intellect. I would extend my view from China and England, countries already moderately, and but moderately peopled, to the plains of North America, of South America, of Africa, of many tracts of Asia, of the north of Europe, of Spain, and various other divisions of the prolific world. I should contemplate with delight the extensive emigrations that have taken place to North Americab , and plan and chalk out, as far as my capacity and endowments of study would permit me, similar emigrations to other parts of the world, that should finally make the whole earth at least as populous as China is at present.

Whatever may become of the great question of the increasing or diminishing numbers of mankind, I own that the temper of my mind still compels me to cling to the picture here delineated. Mr. Malthus has constrained me to examine with severity the evidences that hitherto exist on the subject: but, however the conclusion to which those evidences have led me, may serve as a seasonable antidote to the loathsome theories of the Essay on Population, it is, I confess, a conclusion painful and adverse to my feelings. If it be just, the friend of man must then be contented, to hope to see the comparatively small handful of mankind scattered on the face of the earth, ultimately become enlightened and benevolent and happy, instead of seeing those blessings participated by fifteen or thirty times (upon a moderate computation) the numbers of the present inhabitants of the earth, and must console himself by the purity of their enjoyments for the fewness of those who possess them.—To this it might be added, that, if war and the other atrocious follies of society were abolished, we should have reason to expect, that if the numbers of mankind were not enlarged, at least they would not then decrease. But Mr. Malthus takes a very different view of the subject, and instead of considering the alleged power of multiplication in man, when combined with the imperfect and scanty population of the earth, as a subject of congratulation, he finds in it cause of “lamentation and much weeping.” Under a wise and honest administration of human affairs, I do not doubt that the power of multiplication in man, however extensive, might for centuries to come be rendered the source of an immeasurable increase of happiness on the face of the earth. Indeed, in this point of view, I hold Mr. Malthus as having penned a satire upon the existing constitutions and laws of society, infinitely bitterer than any thing that has yet been produced, by all the Utopianists and visionaries that ever existed, Those who possess the direction of human affairs, might, if they pleased, by wise concert, by persuasion, by developing grand views of the true interests of civilised man, and by a faithful discharge of the duties of their station, diffuse populousness through every region of the globe, and multiply thirty-fold the number of beings susceptible of human contentment, while by the same operation they would remove our oppressions, and give to every man a degree of competence and independence hitherto unknown. But the kings and the rulers of the earth prefer gratifying their bad passions, their ambition, their love of war, and their love of ostentation, by reigning over a comparative desert.

But Mr. Malthus leaps this interval of long happiness, which upon the principle of multiplication, and with a moderate degree of wise management, seems altogether not to be avoided, and passes at once to the period when the earth shall be replenished in all its parts. He then supposes that society will be heedlessly and brutishly bent upon multiplying as rapidly as possible; and, having first drawn the fair picture of a community where reason presides, and benevolence is first minister to execute her decrees, proceeds to exclaim, “This beautiful fabric of the imagination vanishes at the severe touch of truth. The spirit of benevolence, cherished and invigorated by plenty, is repressed by the chilling breath of want. The hateful passions that had vanished reappear. Violence, oppression, falshood, misery, every hateful vice and every form of distress, which degrade and sadden the present state of society, seem to be here generated by the most imperious circumstances, by laws inherent in the nature of man, and absolutely independent of all human regulationsc .”

Elsewhere however Mr. Malthus seems to be aware, that by this kind of argument he would stand but a small chance of making converts, and that the number of persons would be inconsiderable, who would zealously enlist themselves in the cause of vice, misery, and whatever other checks upon population he has been able to discover in the successive editions of his Essay, from a contemplation of the calamities that might occur, when the globe was too full of inhabitants. “If,” says he, “a beautiful system of equality were in other respects practicable, and if no difficulty would arise from the principle of population, till the whole earth had been cultivated like a garden, and was incapable of any further increase of produce, I cannot think that our ardour in the pursuit of such a scheme ought to be damped by the contemplation of so remote a difficulty. An event at such a distance might fairly be left to Providenced

Mr. Malthus is certainly extremely skilful in what logicians call the argumentum ad hominem. When the business is to demolish a scheme of happiness founded upon a philosophical principle of equality, he conceives this sufficiently done by displaying the folly of the wise, and the selfishness of the benevolent. But turn back a few pages, and you find him candidly acknowledging, that he “cannot think that our ardour in the pursuit of such a scheme ought to be damped by the contemplation of so remote a difficulty, and that an event at such a distance might fairly be left to Providence.”

This is very much of the same nature, as the justification which he elsewhere sets up of the goodness of God, in inflicting upon us all the miseries which he traces to the principle of population. He rests this justification upon the way in which excessive population might be kept down, without vice and misery, by the mere operation of human forbearance and discretion:—and then adds, “I believe few of my readers can be less sanguine in their expectations of any great change in the general conduct of men on this subject than I am; and the chief reason why I allowed myself to suppose the general prevalence of virtue, was, that I might endeavour to remove any imputation on the goodness of the Deitye ,” by shewing, that, if he had made man a creature such as Mr. Malthus thinks man never was or will be, many of the miseries of this sublunary scene would have been removed.

(…)

CHAPTER IV.
causes of the scarcity of the means of human subsistence.

There lurks an ambiguity under the term “means of subsistence;” and, but for that ambiguity, I conceive that Mr. Malthus’s doctrine upon this head could never have been listened to for a moment.

The earth is, in a liberal point of view, the “means of subsistence” to man; and, till her prolific bosom has been exhausted, and her soil has been so cultivated, that the store of provisions she is able to afford can be no further enlarged, there can be no danger to free and unshackled, and at the same time civilized man, on the score of the means of subsistence.

In another, and a very restrained sense, the provisions actually collected from the surface of the earth, may be called our “means of subsistence;” and in this sense Mr. Malthus always chuses to understand the term.

If this ambiguity had been attended to, every one would have felt the absurdity of talking of “population pressing hard against the limits of the means of subsistence,” in any intermediate period, till the “whole earth had been cultivated like a garden.”

To place this fact in a more striking point of view, let us set apart from each other the two great modes of the existence of man, the civilised, and the savage state. For the present I will confine myself to the former.

Civilised man, is man not living upon the wild fruits of the earth, or the wild animals of the field, but for the most part upon that which is matured by human industry. Here therefore every man that is born into the world, is a new instrument for producing the means of subsistence, in the sense of provisions; and every member added to the numbers of the community, is a new instrument for increasing those means.

The basis of civil society, at least as it exists in those countries with which we are best acquainted, will be found in the truth of this proposition, that man in society is capable of rearing a greater quantity of provisions than is necessary for his own subsistence. Till this was the case, all mankind were shepherds or husbandmen; and if the case had not been altered, such we must for ever have remained.

It is to this supererogatory power in man, that we are indebted for all our improvements, our refinements, and elevation. The result has been, the dividing the members of civil society into two great classes, the one, who are employed in rearing the fruits of the earth, and the other, who live in idleness, or who are employed in other kinds of industry, not immediately connected with the production of food.

How profound therefore the absurdity of talking of “population pressing hard against the limits of subsistence,” till the earth, and the different parts of the earth, have been “cultivated like a garden!”

Let us look to the continent of North America, whose real or fabulous history has had the shame to give birth to Mr. Malthus’s hypothesis. There, we are told, every man considers each additional child that is born to him, as so much added to his wealth, to his means of subsistence, or rather to his means of indulgence and of accumulating a moderate fortune. There, it has over and over again been pretended, the population doubles by procreation only, in fifteen, twenty, or five-and-twenty years. There, we are assured, the number of inhabitants in 1749 was one million, and at the present hour is ten millions. [I grant the increase; but I deny that there is such a progressive and permanent increase from procreation only.

]]

Why is all this? For one simple reason. Because on the continent of North America there is a vast quantity of productive land, yet uncultivated, which may be had gratis, or at a low price, so as to be, with a little patience and industry, within the reach of every man to obtain.

It is clear therefore, that, so long as there is in any country cultivable land, yet unapplied to the purposes of human subsistence, or not yet improved to those purposes to such a degree as is easily within the reach of existing science and skill, population may be checked, but it is not checked by any thing that is connected with a paucity of the means of subsistence. In other words, till the whole earth has been cultivated like a garden (for the power of such cultivation is in proportion to the number of human beings naturally capable of agricultural labour), or till some one of its considerable portions has been so cultivated, and the inhabitants will not be persuaded to seek their fortune elsewhere, there can be no cause, inherent in the nature of things, why population should not go on to increase, to any extent to which it has the power of increasing.

Nothing therefore can be more insolent, or move groundless, than to talk to an unportioned man, who has come into the world in obedience to the great laws of nature, and without his own consent, of his having come into a “world, where every thing is appropriated.” Appropriated indeed it is, but not to the wisest and most honest purposes, not to purposes most conducive to the diffusion of human happiness. He has only to lift up his eyes, and survey our heaths and our forests, our parks and our pleasure-grounds, and he must see that the world is not appropriated, as the simple, but never to be confuted, laws of nature direct us to appropriate it. I am not now enquiring whether the appropriation made by the institutions of society has or has not good reasons to defend it: but I say, that as long as that appropriation operates in its present form, population is not kept down by the want of the “means of subsistence.”

We may indeed venture to affirm, without fear of reasonable contradiction, that there is no country, known at present to exist on the face of the earth, where population is imperiously checked, but by one of two causes, ignorance, or the positive institutious of society.

The savage tribes of mankind are thinly scattered over a vast extent of soil, of which they have never discovered the true and most beneficial use. They subsist precariously upon the wild animals of the forest, or the fruits and roots which accident may offer to their acceptance. They make little provision against the time when these precarious means of subsistence may not be presented to them. A run of what is vulgarly called ill-luck, may starve whole families to death. Man is an animal that, whatever Mr. Malthus may say to the matter, requires to be tenderly treated. In the beginning of existence the infant can scarcely be reared without anxiety and care; and in the decline of life we perish soon, unless we are supplied with accommodations and indulgencies. The latter of these circumstances, as I have shewn, does not diminish the source of population; but the inadequate means which savages possess for rearing their offspring, and the distress which must be supposed to occur from their want of magazines, do so diminish it. Even in maturity the being continually subjected to all the variations of the elements must be materially injurious; and, though uncivilised man does not feel these variations so sensibly as we do, they must, in a vast multitude of instances, tend to cut short the thread of human existence. Undoubtedly the life of a savage is, to my conception of the thing, a miserable life.

The only other cause, beside ignorance, that can tend imperiously to check the progress of population, in a world so imperfectly peopled as that we inhabit, arises from the positive institutions of society. So long as there are vast portions of land, in this or any other country, wholly uncultivated, or not so cultivated as to supply to a considerable extent the food of man, it is a solecism to say that population is kept down for want of the means of subsistence. Arguments may undoubtedly be offered why a country should not be cultivated to its utmost extent: it may be alleged in various ways to conduce to the highest virtue and improvement of man, that there should be differences in rank, and inequalities of fortune: and it is perhaps better that human creatures should exist in inferior numbers, but in the noblest and most admirable state of which we are capable, than that the numbers of mankind should be carried to their utmost extent, while in intellect they should be brought down nearer to the brutes. I am not now disputing about the most eligible form of human society. But I claim, in the language of a homely proverb, but full of good sense, that the “saddle should be put on the right horse.”

The chief object of this work is to restore the old principles of political science, to scatter the clouds, and set aside the paralogisms, with which Mr. Malthus has obscured them. I claim therefore peremptorily to infer from what has been said, that population is not kept down, in the different countries of Europe, provided it has a tendency to increase, by a want of the means of subsistence, but by the positive institutions of society. I claim to reverse the celebrated maxim of Mr. Malthus, and to say, that “human institutions, if erroneous and oppressive, are the mighty and tremendous sources of mischief to mankind, while the progress of population is, in the comparison, light and superficial, a mere feather that floats upon the surface” of the Essay on Population, and hardly worthy of serious consideration any where else.

What is the great difference between the continent of North America, and the principal divisions of the European quarter of the world.

That in America I can say to a man, as God said to Abraham, “Go forth into the field, and look to the east, and the west, and the north, and the south,” and chuse where thou wilt for the place of thy inheritance. In Europe, the destitute man, and the man that is inclined to draw forth the resources of his industry, may in like manner look to all the winds of heaven, and see many tracts uncultivated, or not rendered available to the subsistence of man; but he sees this in vain. If he drives in a spade, or sets up a pale, another will presently come, and pointing to the soil, say, “This is mine,” and will bring his writ of ejectment, or chase out the new-comer with the posse of his companions and dependents in a more summary way. He not only cannot obtain an inch of land gratis, but, if he wants a small portion, cannot obtain it, perhaps at any price, or at any price which, in his circumstances, would make it an available speculation. The land indeed, as Mr. Malthus says, is “wholly appropriated;” but it is not appropriated to the genuine uses of natural man.

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