MALTHUS AND HIS CRITICS
In 1828 Nassau Senior began the first of his Two Lectures on Population by observing that the topic was simple, compared with the complicated subjects of rent, value and money. The general principles, discovered by the Reverend T. R. Malthus, 'our most eminent living philosophical writer', were 'few and plain', which was why they had attracted so much attention. As Samuel Whitbread had said in 1807, Malthus had achieved 'a revolution in the public mind'; but it was a contested triumph, and Senior found that Malthus himself disagreed with his formulation, as we shall see.
I should confess that I am today revisiting intellectual territory in which I have spent little time in recent years. I began work on Malthus and his critics, in the broader context of debate in Britain on poverty and its relief, in the 1950s, within this library, exploring the great Kashnor collection of pamphlets in political economy. There, and in the Goldsmiths' Library in London, I read through fifty years of British pamphleteering.
'Every man rushes to the press with his small morsel of imbecility; and is not satisfied until he sees his impertinence stitched in blue covers', wrote Sydney Smith in the Edinburgh Review in 1820. Those yards of pamphlets on library shelves formed an ocean (or swamp) over which some twenty or so major works towered like islands, identifiably separate, but part of the same intellectual terrain. In that ocean, Malthus (like Jeremy Bentham) was not an island but an archipelago. Beyond the original anonymous pamphlet, An essay on the principle of population, as it affects the future improvement of society, with Remarks on the Speculations of Mr. Godwin, M. Condorcet, and other writers (1798) stretched the five sprawling enlarged editions which appeared between 1803 and 1826, retitled An essay on the principle of population; or, a view of its past and present effects on human happiness; with an inquiry into our prospects respecting the future removal or mitigation of the evils which it occasions. Around them lay numerous associated islets - the anonymous pamphlet on the high price of provisions of 1800, A Letter to Samuel Whitbread Esq. M. P. on his Proposed Bill for the Amendment of the Poor Laws (1807), and the article in The Encyclopaedia Britannica (1824, reprinted as A Summary View of the Principle of Population in 1830). Among another group of islets devoted to rent, agricultural protection and other topics in political economy stood a large outcrop of slightly porous rock, the Principles of Political Economy considered with a view to their practical application (1820).
Our Executive Director has asked that papers for this Seminar 'be free of academic jargon and of terms which could be understood only by specialists'. When Malthus published the first Essay on Population, in 1798, that was not a problem: any reasonably intelligent and assiduous member of the educated minority in eighteenth-century Britain could follow Hume or Adam Smith into all the fields in which they chose to write. The first Essay, which characteristically ranges from political economy to theology and public and private morals, belongs to that epoch; Malthus's Principles of Political Economy (1820), like Ricardo's, to a later, when such new works could not be understood without some prior instruction in existing concepts and language.
Readers have always reacted strongly to Malthus, and given extraordinarily different accounts not only of his work but of his character. Every statement can be met by an equal and opposite counter-statement - found, some say, within Malthus's own writings. 'Mr Malthus', Robert Torrens claimed, 'scarcely ever embraced a principle which he did not subsequently abandon'. Torrens was wrong, but my own early enthusiasm was cooled by tracing one central topic – his attitude to poor relief – through successive editions, in which Malthus habitually reprinted passages to which he had earlier admitted qualifications. Not all Malthus's 'apparently inconsistent ideas' are true contradictions, as Professor Pullen has shown; nevertheless confusion caused by his apparent inconsistencies has made much of the debate on his writings a jumble of misreadings and crossed purposes. The reactions, moreover, have always been passionate; the Essay on Population is a book which touches nerves, but we all twitch differently.
Today my subject is the debate in Malthus's lifetime; and I shall sketch - all too simply – elements in successive editions of the Essay and the responses they provoked, with some final comment on the outcome by the time of Malthus's death in 1834. Like anyone speaking or writing about Malthus, I expect to be contradicted.
The anonymous 1798 Essay, written in the country by a clever young Cambridge mathematician teaching himself the rudiments of political economy, was a brilliantly effective piece of writing. Take Malthus's two 'postulata':
First, That food is necessary to the existence of man.
Secondly, That the passion between the sexes is necessary, and will remain nearly in its present state.
Food and sex in chapter one is always a strong beginning. They are the driving forces of Malthus's argument, which, like so much in the period, is Newtonian, in its mechanistic juxtaposition of the 'power' of population to increase against the 'power in the earth to produce subsistence for man'. The dramatic image of the greater power being held back by 'checks' is given urgency by the famous ratios. The checks, first classified objectively as 'preventive' (diminishing births) and 'positive' (increasing mortality), are then reclassified in the frankly evaluative - indeed depressing - categories of 'vice' and 'misery'. The checks to population, Malthus insisted, operated always and everywhere, and Godwin's and Condorcet's prospect of unlimited improvement in the condition of mankind in a state of equality was delusory. (Dr James Currrie, the biographer of Burns, told a sad story of a patient whose reason had given way after indulgence in excessive speculation on the perfectibility of man; after reading Malthus through twice, he quietly lay down and died.)
Exalted speculation like Godwin's had already suffered with the collapse of the French revolution into tyranny. Despite accusations, still common today, that he 'de-moralized' political economy, Malthus was a political moralist - 'the science of political economy', he was to insist to Ricardo, 'bears a nearer resemblance to the science of morals and politics than to that of mathematics' – and he soon showed less interest in speculation about the future than in existing institutions and policies, especially those for the relief of distress among the poor, a very live issue in the years of scarcity and war in the 1790s.
Population pressure gave Malthus an explanation for the existence of poverty; and soon, among the checks, the beginnings of a remedy. In 1796, in an unpublished pamphlet (The Crisis). he had argued simply for more generosity in relief. By 1798 he still thought some relief appropriate, but had concluded from his new principle 'the absolute impossibility, from the fixed laws of our nature, that the pressure of want can ever be completely removed from the lower classes of society'; and he urged the repeal of the existing Poor Laws for having a 'powerful tendency' to 'defeat their own purpose'. The impact of that depressing message was made all the greater by his word-painting of the state of the poor, especially the vivid image of the thin calves of 'the lads who drive plough'.
In the last two chapters of the first Essay Malthus sought to reconcile the existence of his potent new principle with the goodness of a benevolent Creator. Some economists, I think wrongly, have dismissed the relevance of Malthus's theological views, which were distinctive; in several respects the young curate of Okewood pressed beyond the boundaries of Anglican orthodoxy. That the world is 'a mighty process for awakening matter into mind' is not one of the Thirty-Nine Articles (though it does reveal Malthus's strong evolutionary optimism). A book which begins with sex and food and ends with a whiff of heresy was bound to attract attention.
So it did. Several accounts claim that the Essay was immediately very influential, but the Edinburgh Review was probably right in remarking that Malthus's works were at first more talked of than read, and 'more generally read than understood'. Of course the first edition was anonymous, though Godwin soon identified the author and began amicable conversations with him. Godwin did not at first recognise the severity of wounds Malthus had dealt him, praising 'the author' of the Essay in 1801 and claiming credit for having 'furnished the incentive to the producing of so valuable a treatise'.
Godwin was to become an enemy, but while still a friend he warned Malthus that 'advocates of old abuses' would use the principle of population to excuse them, as one writer did in 1806, defending the slave trade as a check to population in Africa. (An anonymous reviewer of the Essay in the Analytical Review had earlier written that 'without knowing it . . . the author, in this essay, has furnished the best apology for prostitution that has ever been written'.) Another who early invoked the Essay for his own (more benevolent) purposes was Sir Thomas Bernard, mainspring of the Society for Bettering the Condition and Increasing the Comforts of the Poor, who welcomed it in 1802, as strengthening his arguments for discrimination in charity, though he refused to concede that the Poor Law should be abolished. The debate on emigration as a solution to the Malthusian dilemma also had an early, if desultory, beginning.
The 1798 Essay was an abstract argument with some empirical asides. The greatly enlarged editions of 1803 and later contain a great deal of interesting information on particular populations, but its role was to 'illustrate' the operation of the principle (but not, it seems to me, to 'verify' it). The enlarged work gave Malthus space for new topics, ranging from such ecological issues as the availability of manure to glimmerings of the law of diminishing returns, as he began to move into other areas of political economy.
In 1803 Malthus dropped the last chapters of the 1898 Essay, either in response to criticism from 'distinguished persons' within the Church or because he recognised some contradictions in his own thought. His theology nevertheless remained essential to his theory of population, underlying in particular his concept of 'moral restraint' from reproduction, a new category of check added to 'vice' and misery'. (Only the category was new: the practice was already described in 1798 among the preventive checks, but by implication included among the miseries). The modern world was more populous and more prosperous than the ancient, because the preventive checks had increased and the positive declined. 'A restraint from marriage, from prudential motives, with a conduct strictly moral during the period of restraint', became to Malthus the only means of restraining population and increasing prosperity which was 'perfectly consistent with virtue and happiness'; this truth was so important to the happiness of mankind that there should be a system of national education to teach it. Malthus wrote lyrical passages in praise of a truly prudent society, in which 'squalid poverty' would be overcome, the passion of love would 'burn with a brighter, purer and steadier flame', and the lower classes would not only be more comfortable but freed from 'irrational discontents' and 'less disposed to insubordination'. Mobs, blaming governments for their poverty, were the enemies of true liberty, and 'the pressure of distress on the lower classes', affording the tyrant the 'fatal and unanswerable plea of necessity', was 'the guardian spirit of despotism'.
Thus Malthus, too, could be a Utopian; but there were no substitutes for prudential abstinence from sexual activity. Malthus disapproved of contraception, which he referred to 'with the most marked disapprobation' as a 'violation[s] of the marriage bed'; moreover, as a check to population it would be too effective: if a married couple could 'limit by a wish the number of their children', 'the indolence of the human race would be very greatly increased', and 'neither the population of individual countries, nor of the whole world, would ever reach its natural and proper extent'. Malthus was, he insisted, no enemy to population growth as such, nor to economic development, but sustained improvement could not be achieved without a large increase in moral restraint.
Those who knew Malthus insisted that he was a humane man – the amiable 'Bob' (later 'Pop') Malthus, Professor of History and Political Economy at the East India Company's Haileybury College, kindly and good company - whose reputation for heartlessness (which he himself resented) was undeserved. Some of his critics agreed: 'Since Adam Smith, so able a writer has not appeared on the subject of political economy', wrote Thomas Crabb Robinson to his brother in 1803, 'and in one respect he improves upon Smith, by proposing plans not only to increase the wealth of the state but the happiness of the community, and particularly the poor.' Not everyone could see it thus: Malthus often wrote of suffering with sympathy, and approved both discriminating charity and emergency relief, but many early readers' minds were struck more forcefully by colder passages, such as 'dependent poverty ought to be held disgraceful', or '[the poor] are themselves the principal authors of their own poverty, and the means of redress is in their hands alone'. The notorious condemnation of 'intruders', for whom there could be no place at 'nature's mighty feast', upset many devout and compassionate readers, and although it appeared only in the 1803 edition and was deleted in 1806, its odour lingered. Another passage of 1803, similarly deleted in 1806, praised spinsterhood and had the temerity to criticise motherhood, at least when taken to excess.
The new edition of 1803 was widely noticed. The Monthly Magazine, the Imperial Review and the British Critic all reviewed it early in 1804, though the reviewer for the Edinburgh failed to deliver. Again, readers found in the Essay what they wanted, to admire or attack. Thomas Jarrold, a Manchester physician, wrote a reproachful book arguing that Nature's Feast was not a Diocesan Dinner, and 'to possess life is to possess the invitation'. A pamphleteer appropriately signing himself 'Simplex' found in Scripture an infallible refutation of the Essay: 'Trust in Jehovah, and do good; so thou shalt dwell in the land, and VERILY thou shalt be FED'. In 1804 Arthur Young praised Malthus to support his own plans for settling the poor on land, under-estimating Malthus's opposition to his scheme, vigorously amplified in the 1806 edition. Malthus could be a fierce critic; and his reputation as a prophet of doom rests largely on his relentlessness in rejecting panaceas and palliatives proposed by others.
The first bitter attack on Malthus came from the poets, Coleridge and his friend Southey, beginning (it is suggested) a permanent rift between poetry and political economy. For reasons which were 'rather a matter of feeling than of argument', the Essay infuriated the newly conservative Coleridge, and he annotated his copy of the 1803 edition with coarse interjections and a few sober comments. Southey plagiarised the comments for an attack on Malthus in the Monthly Review. 'Mr Malthus is cast in his action against God Almighty', he remarked, 'I will gibbet him in a pamphlet, and draw and quarter him'. 'One of the enduring fault lines in British cultural debate had now been created', Donald Winch has written, 'and where Coleridge and Southey had led, Carlyle, Ruskin, and their nineteenth- and twentieth-century admirers followed, often doing so with the same wilful disregard for what their antagonists were actually saying'.
The 1806 and 1807 editions of the Essay provoked radicals of the day to protest against the barriers Malthus seemed to place before political and social improvement. Cobbett, who had quoted Malthus with approval in 1806, railed a year later against 'the hard-hearted doctrine of this misanthropic philosopher', with great moral fervour but few arguments. Hazlitt, in bright anonymous articles for Cobbett's Political Register, wrote of Malthus that 'In his division of the evils of human life he has allotted to the poor all the misery, and to the rich as much vice as they please'. He republished the articles in 1807 as A Reply to the Essay on Population, of which his friend Henry Crabb Robinson wrote that 'it is rich in good things without itself being a good thing'.
Malthus had grown up among radicals. His father (against whose championing of Godwin the Essay was originally formulated) was the most ardent of Rousseau's British admirers, and he had put his son to school under Unitarians with radical tendencies, an influence which continued at Cambridge. Malthus was not converted by them, but he remained within the traditions of the enlightenment; moral restraint required conditions of civil and political liberty. In politics he was a Whig, first as a Foxite and later of the Edinburgh Review variety. When political tension increased after the Napoleonic Wars, conservatives and radicals again berated him. Coleridge, defending again the aristocratic social order against the 'overbalance of the capitalist spirit', castigated Malthus as a 'political empiric', while Southey claimed he suffered from 'a colliquative diarrhoea of the intellect arising from a strong appetite and weak digestion'. Hazlitt and Cobbett returned to the fray, as did Godwin, whose Of Population (1820) was called by Leslie Stephen 'the longest answer to the shortest argument in modern times'. In 1822 Francis Place, a radical unusually sympathetic to political economy, was moved by Godwin's book to write a defence of Malthus, modified to include advocacy of contraception rather than reliance only on moral restraint; thus Neo-Malthusianism was born, with J. S. Mill among its first and most influential converts.
References to Malthus, usually inaccurate or simplistic, became ubiquitous. Thomas Love Peacock included him in Melincourt ('the world is overstocked with featherless bipeds'), and Byron, cleverly, in Don Juan ('his book's the eleventh commandment,/ Which says, 'Thou shalt not marry', unless well'). One W. Richardson DD conceived of planting his meadows with vegetables for the benefit of the poor, but 'these splendid reveries were soon interrupted by the perusal of Mr Malthus's Essay on the Principle of Population; that able writer at once demonstrated to me the futility of my Utopian speculations, and convinced me that by adding to the stock of food of men . . . I was only laying the foundation of future evil, aggravating impending calamity, and preparing a wider range for the depredations of vice and misery.' He planted potatoes to feed to stock instead, and wrote a pamphlet about it. S. W. Nicoll wrote a thoughtful pamphlet on practical poor-law reforms in 1818, then read Malthus' fifth edition and produced a much more doctrinaire work within a year.
In these first decades it was impossible to disentangle comment on Malthus' theoretical 'principle' from debate on its application. In particular, the attack on the Poor Law, at its peak between 1815 and 1820, was identified on almost all sides as 'Malthusian'. How far that identification was justified has been questioned.
In the circumstances of the time, the case that the Poor Laws caused more distress than they relieved was by no means implausible, and was widely held. Asa Briggs has observed that the Malthusian argument was 'the theory of an age of poverty'; as such it is especially prone to be misunderstood in a later age of affluence. Briggs attributed to Malthus the conclusion that 'the essence of social policy is that there should be no social policy'. Perhaps; certainly Malthus argued that distress could not be removed by any fiat of government, though it might be made worse. He always insisted that both 'duty' and 'interest' required that society give 'temporary aid,' to the poor in periods of extreme distress, but he never put forward a detailed proposal for Poor Law reform, his criticism of other schemes which came to his attention was sharp, and he continued to reprint, even in 1826, his basic objection that 'the poor laws as a general system are founded on a gross error', and never withdrew his abolitionist proposal of 1803, that children born after a defined period should have no entitlement to parish assistance. He certainly softened his views on the Poor Laws, privately acquiescing in abolition being indefinitely postponed, and publicly agreeing (in 1824 and in 1830) that the Poor Law was not as harmful in practice as it ought to have been in theory; but he opposed the introduction of relief by law to Ireland, and his public image remained that of an abolitionist.
By 1815 Malthus's principle of population had entered the canon of political economy. Popularisers of the new science, from Mrs Marcet in 1816 to Harriet Martineau in 1832-4, expounded the principle as simple truth. Ricardo, although increasingly at odds with Malthus concerning other issues, accepted and used his essential propositions on population, without giving them much attention; he correctly observed that 'in Malthus's book there is much attackable matter, but he is very unfairly used by his antagonists, and his leading principle is studiously kept out of view'. Nevertheless Ricardo's long friendship with Malthus was marked by chronic disagreements, differences which arose in part because the stockjobber was less inclined to tell people how they should live than the parson. Where Malthus saw moral, indeed evolutionary, imperatives, Ricardo identified options. Malthus, like most political economists, preached the gospel of work, but Ricardo conceded that if 'happiness is the object to be desired . . . we cannot be quite sure that provided he is equally well fed, a man may not be happier in the enjoyment of the luxury of idleness than in the enjoyment of the luxuries of a neat cottage, and good clothes'. Ricardo rebuked Mill for attributing to him the view that it would be in the national interest, and their own, if the Irish developed a taste for luxuries and worked harder to satisfy it; it would indeed be in the national interest, he wrote, but what the interests of the Irish were he did not presume to judge. Malthus had no such inhibition.
Ricardo and his immediate disciples did not dominate political economy as completely or for as long as some traditions suggest, and Malthus early found favour with the emerging group now known as Christian political economists. Despite continuing opposition on religious grounds, especially from fundamentalists, his inherently theological world view gained increasing support among churchmen. Thomas Chalmers, the later reformer of the Church of Scotland (and the foremost authority of his time on urban poverty), supported the Malthusian message, rather too fervently for the master. The very respectable John Bird Sumner, later Archbishop of Canterbury, was more moderate, and very influential. Sumner's Treatise on the Records of Creation (1816) provided for his generation what Paley's Principles had for Malthus' own, a justification for the existing social state and inspiration for its cautious improvement. Sumner, a leading Evangelical, was more persuasive than Malthus himself in incorporating the Malthusian principle of population into the Divine Plan, lamenting the 'unnecessary violence' of passages in the Essay but arguing that it was 'a much easier matter to disbelieve Mr Malthus than to refute him'. He was also more optimistic than Malthus was wont to be: the law of increase in population had produced such benefits as the division of property, universal industry, trade (and through it the overflow of European civilisation to raise the rest of the world from barbarism). Population pressure was the Great Missionary, 'the mighty engine, which . . . keeps our world in that state which is most agreeable to the creator, and renders mankind the spontaneous instruments of the Maker, in filling and converting the Habitable globe'. The threads were beginning to be woven in the broad ideological cloth of later Victorian Imperialism. Another thread traceable to Malthus was contributed by James Bicheno (later Colonial Secretary of Van Dieman's Land), who in 1817 expounded Malthus - probably misleadingly - in terms of a struggle for survival, 'the law which declares that an inferior shall give way to a superior which ensured the progress of society from the savage to the civilised state'. He found in the Essay what both Wallace and Darwin was to find later, to much greater effect.
The emerging science of political economy was scarcely monolithic in the 1820s, but all save its most maverick exponents shared a common debt to Malthus' principle of population, if also an increasing tendency to modify it. After Ricardo's death in 1823, James Mill remained orthodox, but his son J. S. Mill embraced neo-Malthusianism, and a third Ricardian, J. R. McCulloch, became increasingly critical of Malthus. Among the next generation of economists, Jones (who was to succeed Malthus at Haileybury) and Whewell entered into new debates with him. So did Nassau Senior, who had believed his exposition, in Two Lectures on Population, delivered in Oxford in 1828, to be fully in accord with Malthus' teaching; the aging master soon disabused him, in an exchange printed with the lectures in 1829.
Senior later wrote that 'Mr Malthus's views were to the end somewhat exaggerated and somewhat distorted by the train of thought which originally suggested them'. He warned Malthus that his followers had caricatured his principle, so that it had become 'the stalking horse of negligence and injustice, the favourite objection to every project for rendering the resources of the country more productive'. He himself believed, and asked Malthus to agree, that the principle of population was not 'an insurmountable obstacle to the permanent welfare of the mass of mankind'; on the contrary, in the absence of 'disturbing causes' - especially those arising from bad government - subsistence was 'likely to increase more rapidly than population'. Senior added a wider range of variables to Malthus's simple 'powers' of increase in subsistence and of population, and recognised ambition, as well as fear of falling in the social scale, as a spur to prudential restraint from breeding.
At one time or another Malthus had made or admitted most of these points, but could not share all Senior's optimism. He would not admit that it was natural for subsistence to increase faster than population, though he conceded that it had done so in Britain in his lifetime. Nor would he agree that ambition was as strong a motive as sexual passion, perhaps (Grampp has suggested) because he himself was unambitious but passionate. Civilisation had indeed progressed, but checks to population were always operating even in advanced countries, and 'the only source of an essential and permanent improvement' in the condition of the poor, Malthus reiterated, was 'an improvement in the right direction of their moral and religious habits'. 'Having invested sticks with so much importance', Winch observes, 'Malthus found it less easy to attribute exclusive power to carrots''; but having made the best case possible that Malthus was a cautious optimist concerning the betterment of society, has to concede that even today 'the idea of Malthus as an advocate of human improvement continues to meet with resistance'. In 1830 optimism bloomed luxuriantly in the Edinburgh Review in the young Malthusian Macaulay's savaging of Southey and his demolition of Thomas Sadler's rival principle of population, the last attempt to refute Malthus in his lifetime.
The outcome of Malthus' attack on the Poor Law was ironic. Both Bishop Sumner and Nassau Senior were members of the vastly innovative Royal Commission from which emerged the New Poor Law of 1834. Bishop Otter, Malthus' memorialist, asserted that the act was 'founded on the basis of Mr Malthus' work. The Essay on Population and the Poor Laws Amendment Bill will stand or fall together'. Otter was wrong. Malthus was not the father of the Act, but (like Bentham) at closest a grandparent; the Act's authors were men of the next generation. The Commission's work, and the legislation, were hasty and imperfect, achieving only partial reform and historical obloquy, including the label 'Malthusian' as a term of abuse. The unwarranted identification of Malthus with this much-criticised measure helped to perpetuate into the middle and late nineteenth century partisan and partial views of the author of the Essay on Population. Public relief continued to have a bad reputation, and although a Poor Law, of a sort, was established in Ireland in 1838, no one wished to introduce even the so-called reformed Poor Law into an Australian colony.
By the time of his death in 1834 Malthus seemed impregnable against refutation, though not against revision, and certainly not against misrepresentation. 'Malthusian' remained a portmanteau of ambiguities. In 1860, when one of Darwin's critics accused him of borrowing the argument of the Origin of Species from Malthus's low and sordid doctrine of population, Darwin was consoled 'that he sneers at Malthus, for that shows . . . that he cannot understand common reasoning. . . . . what a discouraging example Malthus is, to show, during what long years, the plainest case may be misrepresented and misunderstood'.
Senior and other political economists might re-write Malthus's principle among their increasingly sophisticated theories, but a simpler concept of the 'power' of population as a threat to human happiness became embedded in the Victorian popular mind, to be inherited by the twentieth century. Malthus's doctrines, even or especially as they are misunderstood, have never commanded universal assent, and our immediate preoccupations are very far from his; nevertheless he made it impossible to assume some natural harmony between numbers and prosperity. Unless, like Simplex in 1808, we think it sufficient to 'trust in Jehovah, and do good'.
Nassau William Senior, Two Lectures on Population, delivered before the University of Oxford in Easter term, 1828. To which is added, a correspondence between the author and the Rev. T. R. Malthus, 1829, p. 1.
Whitbread spoke when his proposals for poor law reform were about to suffer a mauling from Malthus.
The published outcome was J. R. Poynter, Poynter, Society and Pauperism: English Ideas on Poor Relief, 1795—1834, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London; Melbourne University Press, Melbourne; Toronto University Press, Toronto, 1969. The present paper owes much to the recent penetrating analysis of Malthus (and Adam Smith and others) by Donald Winch, in his Riches and Poverty: an intellectual history of political economy in Britain, 1750-1834, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1996, and especially to Part III, 'Robert Malthus as political moralist'.
This seminar is concerned to celebrate the Essay on Population, rather than the Principles of Political Economy, the work which has attracted so much interest from professional economists since Keynes anointed Malthus as his intellectual forebear. The third of the four volumes edited by John Cunningham Wood (Thomas Robert Malthus: Critical Assessments, Croom Helm, London, 1986) reprints twenty-nine articles on Malthusian economic analysis.
Robert Torrens, Essay on the External Corn Trade (1815), pp. viii-ix. De Quincey was also too severe in criticising Malthus's late and admittedly sometimes confusing Treatise on Value: whoever took Malthus as a guide should be able to use a compass 'or before he has read ten pages he will find himself . . . disposed to sit down and fall a'crying with his guide at the sad bewilderment into which they both have strayed' (London Magazine, December 1823 Vol VIII p. 587).
J. M. Pullen, 'Malthus on the Doctrine of Proportions and the concept of the Optimum', Australian Economic Papers, vol. 21, 1982, p. 270 (reprinted in Wood, vol. I, p. 419). Professor Pullen concedes that his argument does not apply to all Malthus's inconsistencies. Winch, Riches and Poverty, p. 248, rightly observes that 'the continuities in Malthus's position are more impressive that the discontinuities'.
Griffith was wrong to call it 'little more than a magazine article' (G. Talbot Griffith, Population Problems of the Age of Malthus, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1926, p. 93).
The rate of population growth in the (so-called) newly settled lands of North America - doubling every twenty-five years – was the limiting case. Malthus kept all his life the well-used copy of Newton's Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica he bought at Cambridge (Patricia James, Population Malthus: His life and Times, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 1979, p. 29). Adam Smith had himself referred to 'an imaginary machine invented to connect together in the fancy those different movements and effects which are already in reality performed' - if also, more famously, to an 'invisible hand'. Mandeville's notorious Fable of the Bees was the locus classicus for the paradoxes that good might result from evil intent, and vice versa, which troubled both Smith and Malthus (who dismissed Mandeville's book as immoral). Winch explores in detail the relationship of Malthus's thought to Smith's in Riches and Poverty, observing (p. 229) that 'Malthus saw no conflict between his Newtonianism and his Anglicanism: his entire education as a Cambridge natural philosopher intending to take orders within the established church was designed to seal and celebrate their consonance'. The logic of Malthus's argument has been expounded and defended (especially from the criticisms of Kenneth Smith, The Malthusian Controversy, Routledge, London 1951) by Antony Flew in 'The Structure of Malthus's Population Theory', Australasian Journal of Philosophy, 35, 1957 pp. 1-20. Malthus effectively ended the earlier debate over whether the ancient world had been more populous than the modern (in which one participant had used a geometric ratio to argue, absurdly, that since every child had two parents and four grandparents there must have been countless millions alive in the ancient world).
James, Population Malthus, pp. 111-2. It was the 1803 edition which finished him.
The Essay on Population, like Beethoven's Fidelio, was one of the great works of the liberal counter-revolution.
Winch criticises the view of E. P. Thompson, Gertrude Himmelfarb and others that Malthus 'demoralized' political economy, in Riches and Poverty, pp. 5-6.
James, in Population Malthus (p.53), quotes a relevant passage from The Crisis, which is now lost.
When Malthus became curate of Okewood in 1793 he had found his parishioners leading a very primitive life in 'wattle and dab' huts, with a diet of bread (James, Population Malthus, pp. 43-4). In the first edition he followed Adam Smith in especially attacking the Law of Settlement as a restriction on the poor finding work; he proposed, without elaborating, 'county workhouses' for 'cases of extreme distress'.
God (identified by Malthus in best Enlightenment style as the 'Supreme Being') had created this life not as a finished product, but as a 'mighty process' of continuing development, 'not for the trial, but for the creation and formation of mind; a process necessary to awaken inert, chaotic matter into spirit; to sublimate the dust of the earth into soul; to elicit an ethereal spark from the clod of clay'. Necessity, he concluded, stirred exertion, and sorrow was necessary 'to soften and humanise the human heart': 'Evil exists in the world, not to create despair, but activity' (Essay, 1798 ed., pp. 353, 395).
J. M. Pullen, in his 'Malthus' Theological Ideas and their Influence on the Principle of Population', History of Political Economy, Vol. 13 1981, pp. 39-54 (Wood, II, pp. 203-216) has identified heterodox views in at least three of the eight major theological issues broached in these chapters. See also D. L. LeMahieu's remark that 'Parson Malthus thus espoused a Christianity which equivocated on Original Sin, neglected Jesus, and denied Hell', in his 'Malthus and the theology of Scarcity', Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 40, 1979, pp. 464-74 (Wood, pp. 182-189; the quotation is at p. 185), and compare E. N. Santurri, 'Theodicy and Social Policy in Malthus' Thought', Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 63(2), 1982, pp. 315-30 (Wood, pp. 402-418). The relevance of Malthus's theodicity was questioned by Lord Robbins (in The Theory of Economic Policy in English Classical Political Economy, Macmillan, London, 1952, p. 28n), an argument taken up by Samuel Hollander, in 'Malthus and Utilitarianism with Special Reference to the Essay on Population', Utilitas, Vol. 1, No 2, November 1989, pp. 170-210. Hollander specifically criticised Donald Winch's Malthus, Oxford, 1987; Winch, in 'Robert Malthus: Christian Moral Scientist, Arch-Demoralizer, or Implicit Secular Utilitarian?', Utilitas, Vol. 5, No. 2, November 1993, replied that Hollander is one of those economists 'who seek to construct a cordon sanitaire between Malthus's religious position and his practical recommendations as a moralist' (p. 248). Hollander emphasised secular rather than religious elements in Malthus's utilitarianism even to the conclusion that 'as social reformers, Malthus and [J. S. ] Mill stand side by side' (p. 209).
Edinburgh Review, 16, 1810, p. 465. Malthus repeated the point himself, for example in the Summary View. The Edinburgh Review was a frequent champion of Malthus, and he contributed to it. See also Poynter, Society and Pauperism, p. 165.
W. Godwin, Thoughts occasioned by the Perusal of Dr Parr's Spital Sermon, etc., 1801, pp. 56, 61; Poynter, Society and Pauperism, p. 166. On the (initially close) relationship of Malthus and Godwin, see Winch, Riches and Poverty, pp. 255-6.
Reports of the SBCP, III, pp. 2-10, and Poynter, Society and Pauperism, p. 166-8 citing on emigration the remarks of the interesting proto-socialist Charles Hall, who welcomed the Essay.
For a discussion of ecological aspects of Malthus's thought, see D. Wells, 'Resurrecting the Dismal Parson: Malthus, Ecology, and Political Thought', Political Studies, Vol. 30, March 1982, pp. 1-15 (Wood, vol I, pp. 379-395).
He returned to the more orthodox Christian utilitarianism of his mentor Paley. On Malthus's place as a theological utilitarian, and his relationship with Paley, see Winch, Riches and Poverty, pp. 229-30, 237-248, 260-261. Keynes wrote: 'If anyone will take up again Paley's Principles he will find, contrary perhaps to his expectations, an immortal book' (J. M. Keynes, Essays in Biography, revised edition London 1951, p. 91 n.).
Essay, 1803 ed., pp. 495-501, 602.
Essay, 1817 ed., Appendix, p. 393. Malthus assumed reproduction up to the physiological limit after marriage, and usually assumed that differences in fertility between populations were chiefly influenced by differences in age of marriage.
In the English case, he observed in the Principles and in later editions of the Essay, prosperity was increasing, and mortality and the birth rate both falling; how could this continue without a prodigious increase in moral restraint?
Thomas Crabb Robinson to Henry Robinson 27 12 1803, quoted Winch, Riches and Poverty, p. 241. It may be observed that Malthus, though humane in intent, was not as closely acquainted with the poor as many the host of magistrates and landlords who wrote pamphlets about them; he had no employees other than servants, and his pastoral work in his first curacy was brief and part-time, while the long second curacy was absentee.
Essay, 1798 ed., p. 85; 1807 ed. Vol II p. 266.
The oft-quoted nature's feast passage appeared in the Essay, 1803 ed., p. 531:
A man who is born into a world already possessed, if he cannot get subsistence from his parents on whom he has a just demand, and if the society do not want his labour, has no claim of right to the smallest portion of food, and, in fact, has no business to be where he is. At nature's mighty feast there is no vacant cover for him. She tells him to be gone, and will quickly exercise her own orders, if he do not work upon the compassion of some of her guests. If these guests get up and make room for him, other intruders immediately appear demanding the same favour. The report of a provision for all that come, fills the hall with numerous claimants. The order and harmony of the feast is disturbed, the plenty that before reigned is changed into scarcity; and the happiness of the guests is destroyed by the spectacle of misery and dependence in every part of the hall, and by the clamorous importunity of those, who are justly enraged at not finding the provision which they had been taught to expect. The guests learn too late their error, in counteracting those strict orders to all intruders, issued by the great mistress of the feast, who, wishing that all her guests should have plenty, and knowing that she could not provide for unlimited numbers, humanely refused to admit fresh comers when her table was already full.
The praise of spinsterhood is in Essay (1803 ed.), pp. 459-50:
The merits of the childless, and of those who have brought up large families, should be compared without prejudice, and their different influence on the general happiness of society justly appreciated.
The matron who has reared a family of ten or twelve children, and whose sons, perhaps, may be fighting the battles of their country, is apt to think that society owes her much; and this imaginary debt, society is, in general, fully inclined to acknowledge. But if the subject be fairly considered, and the respected matron be weighed in the scales of justice against the neglected old maid, the matron might kick the beam. She will appear rather in the character of a monopolist, than of a great benefactor of the state. If she had not married and had so many children, other members of society might have enjoyed this satisfaction . . . . The old maid, on the contrary, has exalted others by depressing herself. Her self-denial has made room for another marriage . . . . She has really and truly contributed more to the happiness of the rest of society arising from the pleasures of marriage, than if she had entered in this union herself . . . . Like the truly benevolent man in an irremediable scarcity, she has diminished her own consumption, instead of raising up a few particular people, by pressing down the rest. On a fair comparison, therefore, she seems to have a better founded claim to the gratitude of society than the matron.
James, Population Malthus, pp. 110-114.
T. Jarrold, Dissertations on Man, etc., 1806, (and compare Poynter, Society and Pauperism, p. 169). Jarrold weakened his arguments by claiming that conception, and hence overpopulation, could be prevented by mere mental effort. 'Simplex' is quoted in James, Population Malthus, p. 117. In 1808 another stern moralist, R. A. Ingram (Disquisitions on Population, etc, 1808), made Malthus seem a thirster after fleshpots: England was burdened with sin, not surplus population. Young wrote in Annals of Agriculture, 1804, pp. 8-12, 208-31.
Winch, Riches and Poverty, ch. 11. 'Malthus was to become the single most common figure whom those we now think of as the first generation of romantics, the Lake poets and some of their admirers, loved to hate' (p. 289). The poets, disillusioned with France and now bellicose towards her, seemed convinced that Malthus was a 'peacemaker'. 'In contrast to Godwin at this time, Coleridge and Southey appear to have decided that Malthus was someone whose reputation and influence had prospered in the post-revolutionary atmosphere of persecution. whereas the position they adopted was in retreat and disarray' (p. 301). It is no doubt merely coincidence that Malthus, as a Fellow of Jesus, had voted in 1793 for Coleridge's expulsion from the College when he absented himself, debts unpaid, to enrol in the 15th Dragoons under the name Silas Tomkins Comberbach.
Winch, Riches and Poverty, p. 402; and compare p. 5, where Winch quotes Sidney Checkland on the 'unsung' irony of Coleridge choosing Malthus as an arch-enemy.
In 1806 Cobbett had written that 'before the rays of [Malthus's] luminous principle, the mists of erroneous or hypocritical humanity instantly vanish . . . ' (Political Register vol viii); in 1819 he wrote 'I have in my life, detested many men; but never any one so much as you'. Nevertheless many of Cobbett's values, old fashioned as they were, were closer to Malthus's than he could see or would concede.
Hazlitt's quip is in A Reply, p. 355. In 1807 Hazlitt was still close to Coleridge and Southey; Malthus, unusually, did not reply to Hazlitt or Southey, disdaining their attacks as 'beneath notice' (Essay, 1817, II, p. 204), though Winch (Riches and Poverty, p. 295) quotes the interesting passage from the 1806 Appendix (II, p.230), thought by Coleridge to refer to Southey, in which Malthus characterised a disillusioned revolutionary: 'nothing but a peculiar goodness of heart and amiableness of disposition could preserve him from that sickly and disgusting misanthropy which is but too frequently the end of such characters'. Henry Crabb Robinson is quoted by Winch, in Riches and Poverty, p. 308.
One ground for his attack on the Poor Laws was that they deprived the poor of their liberties. On Malthus's political views, see Winch, Riches and Poverty, pp. 253-255, 269, 338-348.
Godwin's later enmity to Malthus is discussed by Winch, Riches and Poverty, pp. 280-282. Other radical critics included Shelley (Malthus was 'a priest of course, for his doctrines are those of a eunuch and a tyrant'), and 'Piercy Ravenstone' (identified by Sraffa as Richard Puller, brother of Sir Christopher), whose impressive A Few Doubts etc., 1821, was praised by Ricardo despite his disagreements with it.
F. Place, Illustrations and Proofs of the Principle of Population etc. (1822). See also Winch, Riches and Poverty, pp. 242-3, 282-285. Place had perhaps gained his argument about contraception from a visit to Bentham in 1817 (James, Population Malthus, p. 382). Malthus lent Place a copy of the Essay, but did not comment on his 'solution'. Robert Owen's famous Plan of 1817, towards which Malthus was polite but critical, was at first seen as an old-fashioned 'make-work' scheme rather than radical. Malthus, in the continually expanding appendix dealing with his critics which appeared in the 1806 and later editions of the Essay, gave more space to John Weyland's Principles of Population and Production (1816), a thoughtful defence of the Poor Laws by a writer of little lasting influence.
Both quoted in James, Population Malthus, p. 346.
For Richardson and many others admitting the influence of Malthus, see Poynter, Society and Pauperism, pp. 227-9. Nicoll's two works were A Summary View, etc., 1818, and A View of the Principles on which the Well-being of the Labouring Classes depends etc.
Asa Briggs, Review of D. V. Glass, Introduction to Malthus, British Journal of Sociology, vol IV, no. 4, December 1953, p. 367.
Malthus's approval of temporary relief can be found in the Essay, 1807 ed., vol II, p. 93. 87-91, and earlier in his An Investigation of the Cause of the Present High Price of Provisions (1800), in which he argued that relief was justified, to avoid starvation and spread the burden, but implied it should be short term only. The proposal for abolition stated that 'no child born from any marriage, taking place after the expiration of a year' and 'no illegitimate child born two years from the same date, should ever be entitled to parish assistance' (Essay, 1803 ed., pp. 536-8; 1807, Vol. II, 320-21; 1826, Vol II, 109; and compare Poynter, Society and Pauperism, pp. 155-8 and 226-7).
An example of Malthus's inclination to have it both ways on the Poor Laws can be found in the 1806 edition, arising from his surprised conclusion from the 1801 census that his allegation that the Poor laws encouraged premature marriage among the poor could not be sustained:
The most favourable light, in which the poor laws can possibly be placed, is to say, that under all the circumstances with which they have been accompanied, they do not encourage marriage; and undoubtedly the returns of the Population Act seem to warrant the assertion. Should this be true, many of the objections which have been urged in the Essay against the poor laws will of course be removed; but I wish to press on the attention of the reader, that they will in that case be removed in strict conformity to the general principles of the work, and in a manner to confirm, rather than to invalidate, the main positions which it has attempted to establish.
Malthus did not attempt this awkward manoeuvre. For other examples, see Poynter, Society and Pauperism, pp. 224-7.
Winch, Riches and Poverty, pp. 269-71, 306-9, 320-322, assembles the evidence for Malthus' weakening position on abolition. Winch (p. 321) quotes as Malthus' 'last public pronouncement' the revisionist statement in the Summary View of 1830, in which Malthus gave conditional approval to a poor law provided 'it be generally considered as so discreditable to receive parochial relief, that great exertions are made to avoid it, and few or none marry with a certain prospect of being obliged to have recourse to it'. But the 1830 publication was a reprint of the Encyclopaedia Britannica article of 1824, before the 1826 repetition of his abolitionism; it seems reasonable to conclude he died leaving both statements standing.
Mrs Marcet's Conversations on Political Economy, in which a surprisingly learned Mrs B. instructed an earnest ingenue Caroline, went to seven editions. Mrs B. became increasingly Ricardian after Ricardo's Principles appeared in 1817.
Ricardo to Trower 4 October 1821 (in P. Sraffa, ed., The Works and Correspondence of David Ricardo, vol. IX, pp. 89-90). Ricardo confused the editions, and in 1821 told Place that he was no more than an 'ordinary reader' on the subject of population. James Mill incorporated the Malthusian principle into his popularisation of Ricardo's Principles. On Malthus and Ricardo generally, see Winch, Riches and Poverty, ch. 13.
Principles, I, 95, 96-7; Ricardo to Malthus, 4 September 1817. Ricardo did not hesitate to castigate Irish landlords: 'Ireland is an oppressed country - not oppressed by England but by the aristocracy which rules with a rod of iron within it' (Ricardo to Trower, 24 July 1823, Works, vol. IX, p. 314).
Edinburgh Review, vols. 26, 28, and 29; and Poynter, Society and Pauperism, pp. 235-7. For the correspondence between Malthus and Chalmers , see Winch, Riches and Poverty, pp. 381-385.
Sumner expounded these views in Part II, chs. v-vi of his Treatise; see also Poynter, Society and Pauperism, pp. 29-231. Such views were developed further by Edward Coplestone and John Davison, both liberal Tories (Winch, Riches and Poverty, pp. 315-317.)
J. E. Bicheno, Enquiry into the Nature of Benevolence, etc.(1817); Poynter, Society and Pauperism, pp. 231-2.
Winch, Riches and Poverty, pp. 372-3, 376-381; Poynter, Society and Pauperism, 300-306. J. S. Mill's article on 'Colonies' in the Encyclopaedia Britannica revealed his conversion to Place's advocacy of contraception as a more effective check to population than moral restraint. J. R. McCulloch, a compulsively orthodox Ricardian, had always despised Malthus as an economist.
On Malthus and Senior, see G. F. McCleary, The Malthusian Population Theory, Faber, London, 1953, pp. 114-132, Winch, Riches and Poverty, pp 373-376 , and Poynter, Society and Pauperism, pp. 303-4.
Senior to Malthus, 9 April 1829 (Two Lectures, p. 89).
W. D. Grampp, 'Malthus and his Contemporaries', reprinted in Wood vol I pp. 34-6. Grampp cites Malthus's Scandinavian Diaries for evidence of his close interest in women.
Winch, Riches and Poverty, pp. 375 and 394. Malthus had, in an aside in 1803, noticed that misery could undermine prudence rather than inspire it: as Dr Johnson had put it: 'A man is poor; - he thinks, 'I cannot be worse, so I'll e'en take Peggy'.
Winch, Riches and Poverty, pp. 389-393. Poynter, Society and Pauperism, p. 308. James, Population Malthus, (p. 404) calls Sadler the last of the old anti-Malthusians. Macaulay's famous review of Southey's Colloquies attacked him for preferring 'rose bushes and poor rates' to 'steam engines and independence'.
Otter Memoir xix (quoted in Smith, The Malthusian Controversy, p. 296). 'They have the same friends and the same enemies, and the relations they bear to each other, of theory and practice, are admirably calculated to afford mutual illumination and support'. 'There is scarcely any other instance in the history of the world of so important a revolution in public opinion, within the compass of a single life and by a single mind' xvi (Smith, p. 301). Bonar also claimed Malthus to be 'the father of the New Poor Law' (James Bonar, Malthus and his Work, pp. 304-5). Compare Winch, Riches and Poverty, pp. 231-2.
Their basic procedure was much more modern: they sought to identify the 'best practices' existing in the thousands of parishes administering the Old Poor Law, and to devise administrative structures to apply them universally. They had, as has been demonstrated, preconceived notions of what 'best practice' was (M. Blaug, 'The Myth of the Old Poor Law and the Making of the New', Journal of Economic History, XXIII, 1963).