Conference on Malthus and His Legacy: 200 Years of the Population Debate



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Conference on Malthus and His Legacy: 200 Years of the Population Debate

Canberra, 17-18 September, 1998

Malthus and the Third World: The Pivotal Role of India
John C. Caldwell

Malthus’s ideas have survived the two centuries since his First Essay was anonymously published and they remain an intellectual force to be reckoned with. The purpose of this essay is to identify why this has been the case and to explore the unique role of the English-speaking world and of the connection between Britain and India in determining the survival of the principle of population. First it is necessary to examine the kind of society that produced the theory and those of its elements likely to survive time and transplanting.


Thomas Robert Malthus (1766-1834) was a man of his time but also a man who helped shape his time. John Maynard Keynes placed him between John Locke, David Hume, Adam Smith and William Paley as his predecessors, Jeremy Bentham as his contemporary, and John Stuart Mill and Charles Darwin as his successors in ‘a profoundly English tradition of humane science, a tradition marked by love of truth and a most noble lucidity, by a prosaic sanity free from sentiment or metaphysic, and by an immense disinteredness and public spirit’. It was essentially a secular tradition, in spite of the fact that Paley and Malthus were Anglican clergymen. It was also one in tune with the outlook and interests of the rising commercial middle class. Malthus himself, like most of his contemporaries seeking general social laws, would have added Isaac Newton to this list.
Malthus was also in tune with his predecessors in another way which he readily conceded. His argument that population was limited by the availability of food was commonplace in the eighteenth century, and so he has been attacked as a plagiarist as if this were his sole contribution. In fact, his views on the relationship between food and sustenance were expressed much more strikingly, but also in a far more significant context.
Malthus lived in England at a time when the older mercantilist economic and demographic policies of protecting domestic production and augmenting population growth were being successfully attacked. One reason was the growth of Britain as a trading power. Another was the related growth in power of the middle class, to be given political form by the Great Reform Act of 1832. Mercantilism was essentially the program of autocratic, centralized states, and was to linger longer on the continent. Adam Smith (1732-1793) had enunciated a new economics, suited to emerging capitalist Britain, in 1776 in his Wealth of Nations. But it lacked the major population component that was subsequently to be produced by Malthus. The two doctrines complemented each other and provided a ‘liberal’ political agenda. Malthus wrote the First Essay during a decade when population probably grew at twice the rate that had been the case during the decade when the Wealth of Nations was written (12 per cent compared with 6 per cent according to G. Talbot Griffith’s estimates). England had a Poor Law, codified in Elizabethan times, whereby magistrates spent parish rates meeting the needs of destitutes. Uniquely, this allowed a monetary estimate to be put on the cost of providing for the very poor and the additional cost imposed by their children. But it also became a greater political issue as the eighteenth century drew to a close because of inflation associated with the French Wars.
Malthus also wrote at a time when parents in at least some Western countries were probably beginning to feel large families to be a greater burden than before, and when some knew of contraception. Abbé J.A. Dubois, who left France in 1792 to spend over 30 years in South India, described, in contrast to India, pre-Revolutionary France: ‘Other nations [in Europe]… regard the fruitfulness of their women with aversion. They are, moreover, not ashamed to resort to wicked and disgusting means of reducing or destroying it altogether… that they might not deprive themselves of the means of satisfying their ambition or of procuring the luxuries of life…’. It is unlikely that the British of the 1790s were any less apprehensive than the French of fruitfulness, but they, like Malthus, were ashamed of resorting to birth control and, in contrast to the French, it was to be another three-quarters of a century before their fertility fell.
The importance of Malthus was that he perceived a self-regulating system explaining population movements. This was a system that Charles Darwin was to generalize through all species. Human fecundity was so great that fertility could easily tend to outstrip the growth in food production. This would lead to starvation and a rise in mortality bringing back population growth to the level of the food supply. Such crises were usually averted because, in ‘civilized’ regions like Europe, a preventive check came into operation, that is marriage was either postponed or averted thus reducing women’s level of childbearing. There were other positive checks, especially outside Christian Europe: warfare, epidemic disease and such vice as infanticide, the frequenting of prostitutes leading to sterilizing disease, polygamy, and other vices such as abortion and contraception. If one check declined others would inevitably become more forceful. The model was more sophisticated than this simple picture, and it was the additional complexities that carried a political message. Although Malthus believed that the total societal level of mortality had not changed for centuries, he held that, in a class society, the lowest classes, nearer the breadline, were characterized by the highest mortality and were likely to die first in a subsistence crisis. Furthermore, the most ignorant were the most cavalier with the preventive check and were likely to marry as soon as they had the possibility of providing the ensuing children with the barest subsistence. This meant that financial transfers to them under the Poor Laws allowed them access to more food and encouraged them to marry earlier and breed more. The additional children put greater strains on the food supply and inflated its price, thus restoring population equilibrium by making it harder for other sections of the society, especially the social class next above them, to buy food, and so raising their mortality. The apparently benevolent functioning of the Poor Laws thus did nothing to reduce mortality or misery and spread these conditions to worthier parts of the society. Abandoned illegitimate children should be allowed to die if only to force parents to take responsibility. This doctrine ultimately led to the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 with its establishment of urban workhouses to replace rural outdoor relief. Curiously, it was to be the first of Malthus’s theses to have an impact on the administration of India.
Malthus saw the only satisfactory way out of the population-subsistence problem to be the restraint of marriage accompanied by sexual continence before and outside marriage. He began by regarding such restraint as being the behaviour of civilized societies, primarily Christian Europe, especially northern Europe. Increasingly he regarded it as a criterion of civilization and even as a major element in the civilizing process. This view came not surprisingly from an Anglican priest, 32 years of age and single when he wrote the First Essay and not to marry until 36, educated in Jesus College, University of Cambridge, holding a curacy in Surrey where he lived with his comfortably-off parents when he was not at Cambridge where he spent most of his time. He did, however, believe that passion between the sexes, marriage and child begetting were of great importance, and that it was unfortunate that natural law meant they had to be constrained.
Nevertheless, such conflicts were part of a greater equilibrium, or, better, near-equilibrium model, that had both beauty and a deeper meaning. Adam Smith had promoted ‘the thesis that man, in following the prompting of his nature, unconsciously gives substantial expression to some parts of the …Plan’. This was certainly natural law, but Smith never makes it clear whether it was also Divine Law. There is no such ambiguity in the case of Malthus. He, like many of his Cambridge generation, was greatly influenced by William Paley, the theologian and philosopher (1743-1805, author of Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy, 1785), and both believed in God’s design of a world tending towards equilibrium. Henry Buckle, the historian (author of History of Civilization in England, 1857), said that Adam Smith’s model would still remain valid without the statistics and illustrations, and Malthus clearly regarded the principle of population in the same light.
Malthus’s belief that the principle of population was part of the divine plan is the key to our understanding of the aspect of his work that later generations found so incomprehensible, his opposition to contraception. He certainly regarded contraception as vile, insulting to womanhood, and un-Christian. But he also thought it an artifice aimed at evading the divine plan. The preventive check needed and taught self-control. It was a civilizing instrument. It was necessary to overcome the indolence of the poor and of uncivilized people. God’s plans to elevate his people could be thwarted by devices which kept starvation at bay while leaving indolence to reign. The long road to civilization might not be begun. There was a strong case against ‘immediate gratification’, marriage could be looked upon as a prize for industry and virtue, chastity had a solid moral foundation, and Christians should avoid temptation. Malthus’s refusal to link his identification of the threat of population growth with an encouragement of contraception greatly increased the possibility that his views would win widespread public acceptance.
The acceptance of Malthus’s doctrines
The impact of Malthus on the world depended at first very much on how he was accepted by his British contemporaries. The principle of population was little debated by the time a generation had passed from the publication of the First Essay. The Irish famine of 1846-7 was rarely treated in terms of being a test of Malthus’s ideas. His first biographer Bonar, looking back from 1885, believed that this was because most influential people, and indeed a broad swathe of the society, were almost immediately converted to the central thesis – a view subsequently taken also by Keynes, Glass and Hollingsworth. England was a cost-accounting ‘nation of shopkeepers’, predominantly Protestant and increasingly scientific and secular in much of its thought, growing crowded, with most families fearing too many births. Bonar reported that Malthus soon won over leading Whig politicians (William Pitt, the younger, Henry Brougham, James Mackintosh and Samuel Whitbread), theologians (William Paley and Edward Coppleston), economists (David Ricardo and Nassau William Senior) and historians (Henry Hallam). In opposition were the poets, writers and romantics (Robert Southey, William Hazlitt and William Cobbett). Many supporters of the working class, however, remained hostile specifically because of the argument that acceptance of the principle of population led to hostility to poor relief, and generally because of the judgmental attitude to the value of the various social classes. A survey of nineteenth-century English diaries and novels showed that, throughout the century, ‘the British never saw large families as particularly desirable… at least from the beginning of the nineteenth century, those who had substantially more children than was typical were seen as comic, inept, or sad victims of fate… the theme is one of reproduction outstripping resources’. Hollingsworth believes that Malthus’s thesis that disaster occurred when population growth outstripped food supply was so taken for granted by the 1840s that few thought of the Irish famine as testing Malthus. It is likely that the acceptance of Malthusian concepts explained the delayed reaction of the British government to the famine.
Even after the passing of the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act, Malthus’s influential successors spelt out his message about the dangers of helping the unfortunate in the clearest terms. In 1848 John Stuart Mill concluded in his Principles of Political Economy: ‘Everyone has a right to live. We will suppose this granted. But no one has a right to bring creatures into life, to be supported by other people’. Two decades later Walter Bagehot, the editor of The Economist, was applying ‘the principles of natural selection to political society’:
The most melancholy of human reflections, perhaps, is that, on the whole, it is a question whether the benevolence of mankind does most good or harm. Great good, no doubt, philanthropy does, but then it also does great evil. It augments so much vice, it multiplies so much suffering, it brings to life such great populations to suffer and to be vicious.
John Carey has shown that by the last decades of the nineteenth century and the first decades of the present century the mainstream view of the English literary intelligentsia was strongly Malthusian. Population growth, especially of the poor, was dangerous. To long-accepted Malthusian views were added new impulses from Friedrick Nietzche (1844-1900) – ‘many, too many are born’, Thus Spake Zarathustra – and Jose Ortega Gasset (1883-1955), The Revolt of the Masses. Carey singles out George Gissing, H.G. Wells – ‘ the extravagant swarm of new births… the essential disaster of the nineteenth century’, Kipps – and Wyndham Lewis, but his sweep takes in Thomas Hardy, Ezra Pound, Graham Greene and many others.
Perhaps Malthus’s most effective support came from where he least sought it, those who advocated artificial birth control. By 1822, with Malthus still alive and producing new editions, Francis Place in England had drawn the conclusion in his Illustrations and Proofs of the Principle of Population that the solution to the Malthusian difficulty was contraception, and he was probably the author of the ‘Diabolical Handbills’ which circulated the following year with clear instructions to working-class women on how to practise contraception. By 1832 Charles Knowlton in the United States had published a book on the subject. The birth control movement saw where Malthus’s views led and it was not inappropriate that Charles Bradlaugh should found the Malthusian league in the early 1860s or that first the Dutch and then the English should describe contraception as neoMalthusianism from the late 1870s.
Malthus and the Third World
In the First Essay Malthus’s treatment of the Third World was limited. Indeed, like most educated Englishmen of his time, he knew more about the Classical World. He drew on literature on both to contrast with contemporary, Christian Europe. The latter was ‘civilized’, not least, as he was to note in the Fourth Edition, because ‘in modern Europe the positive checks to population growth prevail less, and the preventive checks more than in past times, and in the more uncivilized parts of the world’. In the uncivilized lands there was more warfare, epidemic disease and vice as well as famine. Indeed the former more often than not kept starvation at bay. He identified un-Christian practices like infanticide, and even polygyny, as taking the place in Asia of Europe’s restraint from marriage.
Malthus was well aware that in sparsely settled lands with few resources population was just as likely to press on resources as in the most densely settled countries. Indeed, he devoted more attention to North American Indians, Australian Aborigines and Polynesians than to the heartland of agrarian Asia – partly, admittedly, because explorers and voyagers with a scientific bent were more frequently reporting on the former in the second half of the eighteenth century. But it was inevitable that later generations would most readily identify Malthusian crises as existing in densely populated farming societies, such as those of India and China, where famines and epidemics could kill millions.
Malthus wrote little about India, in spite of the fact that – or perhaps because – he was Professor of Political Economy, teaching India’s future administrators, at the East India Company’s College at Hertford and then Haileybury from 1805 until his death in 1834. He referred more frequently to East Asia. In the First Essay he pointed out that China was entirely occupied by tillage so that even the marginal lands, producing less, were being employed: ‘It is said that early marriages very generally prevail through all the ranks of the Chinese. Yet Dr Adam Smith supposes that population in China is stationary’. If this were the case then the explanation was famine and the ‘exposure’ of children, for there did not appear to be a high level of disease. With regard to infanticide, he noted: ‘it is difficult to avoid remarking that there cannot be a stronger proof of the distress that has been felt by mankind for want of food, than the existence of a custom that thus violates the most natural principle of the human heart’. By 1826, in the sixth edition, he was identifying with alarm ‘the extraordinary encouragements that have been given [in China] to marriage’. He gathered evidence also of early and nearly universal marriage in India: ‘ The population would thus be pressed hard against the limits of the means of subsistence, and the food of the country would be meted out to the major part of the people in the smallest shares that could support life. In such a state of things every failure in the crops from unfavourable seasons would be felt severely; and India, as might be expected, has in all ages been subject to the most dreadful famines’.
From the second edition onward, Malthus became increasingly interested in the lack of prudence about marriage in the uncivilized nations, and in the conditions which nevertheless stopped them from being in a perpetual state of famine. Apart from disease, he found vice: fighting, unchastity and sterilizing disease, polygyny, infibulation, infanticide, as well as prolonged lactation and sexual abstinence within marriage. He saw the possibility that one day, massive investments in education might bring into force the preventive check, the delay of marriage.
But those who administered Third World colonies, especially India, drew three major lessons from Malthus. The first was that colonial administration reduced the level of the positive checks, certainly warfare and infanticide, and probably disease, with the result that populations would tend to grow faster, calling more frequently on famine as the ultimate check. The second was that interventions in famines might, like outdoor relief in England, do more harm than good. The third was that the marriage check might not come into being for a very long time, and, in time, some were to argue that the Malthusian theses led directly to the need for birth control.
The Anglo-Indian link
The link between Britain and India has been unique in colonial history and of enormous importance for understanding the repercussions of Malthus and his doctrines. The East India Company was chartered at the beginning of the seventeenth century and had established a presence in India within a decade. Two-and-a-half centuries later in 1858 the British Government assumed direct control of the country, to relinquish it in 1947 to independent India. Even before 1858 the British Government had ultimate responsibility for India, and the affairs of the East India Company and the Government were intermeshed. India was not an ordinary colony; its population standing at the middle of the nineteenth century at seven times that of the colonial power and constituting over 90 per cent of the colonial empire, ensured that. It had an ancient history recorded in literature and fascinated most Englishmen who had contacts. And most of those who had been influential in accepting the principle of population had contacts. Malthus worked nearly his whole adult life for the East India Company, as did John Stuart Mill for the India Office (where Keynes later worked briefly); Bagehot’s father-in-law was the Secretary for the Treasury in India. The administration of India, partly based on Moghul procedures, influenced the organization of Britain’s own civil service.
Indian society was hierarchical, and upper-class Englishmen understood India’s royal families and upper castes. They did not have to hurdle cultural and linguistic barriers in doing so, especially after the 1835 resolution within the framework of the Government of India Act with its educational provisions moulded by Lord William Bentinck, the Governor-General, and Lord Thomas Macauley, which resolved to spend the Education Fund solely on English-medium education which would promote European literature and science. Within a century there were 220,000 Indian schools and colleges teaching 13 million students. Seeley described the decision as ‘the great landmark in the history of the British Empire considered as an institution of civilization’. English had been a medium of communication between the rulers and the ruled long before, but the 1835 resolution ensured that there would be a huge English-speaking segment of the population who could commune with British writings and thought, and who would impinge on the evolution of Britain much as the British would leave their mark on the Indian intelligentsia. No other densely settled Third World country had such a relationship with a European nation: the Dutch did not develop it with Java and neither China nor Japan was colonized. Indeed, the material circumstances of India had begun to make the British see it in a Malthusian way even before the publication of the First Essay: Sir Thomas Munro, in a 1795 letter to his sister, talked of famine and the check imposed by food production on population growth.
The British and Indians obviously had common ground in Malthusianism. Both Britain and India were densely settled. Once, densely settled lands had been regarded as evidencing prosperity, as was the case when the fourteenth-century Arab traveller, Ibn Battuta, had reacted to the then most closely settled part of India by calling it ‘Golden Bengal’. Malthus ensured that educated Englishmen and Indians would never again see the world this way.
Generations of British administrators and generations of reports ensured that India was known to Western researchers in a way that no other Third World agrarian civilization was. There was no equivalent elsewhere in the Third World to the demographic statistical information that flowed from the Indian census from the late 1860s. Malthus could be tested at work in a non-European country in India as nowhere else, and this has had implications for both India and the English-speaking world until the present day.
India before the censuses
The first impact of Malthus’s ideas on India’s administrators came from his theses about the Poor Law, as has been well demonstrated by the historian of this phenomenon, S. Ambirajan. There was a starkly clear parallel between the payment of Poor Law relief from Britain’s upper classes to the destitute poor, and the payment of famine relief in India from revenues ultimately deriving from taxes contributed disproportionately by the better-off and upper castes to those at the bottom of the social ladder. Malthus’s views and language were well known from early in the century, and in 1829 the Madras Board of Revenues of the East India Company commented on regional data appearing to show food production increasing faster than population: ‘This is at variance with one of the best established truths of political economy’.
In the first two decades after Britain assumed direct responsibility for the administration of India parts of the country were subject to terrible famine, particularly in Orissa in 1866 and Bengal in 1874. Ambirajan found that it was during these critical years that many in the administration were converted to a Malthusian view of the situation. Lord Edward Lytton, Governor-General 1876-1880, was convinced that famine should be solved by the market, telling the Legislative Council in 1877 that the Indian Population ‘has a tendency to increase more rapidly than the food it raises from its soil’.
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