The Critics, Part 4 to the Life & Works of
Thomas Robert Malthus
"For thirty years it rained refutations. Malthus was the most abused man of the age, put down as a man who defended smallpox, slavery and child murder, who denounced soup kitchens, early marriage and parish allowances; who had the impudence to marry after preaching against the evils of a family; who thought the world so badly governed that the best actions do the most harm; who, in short, took all romance out of life."17Professor C. H. Herford18:
"The storm aroused by the essay is still a familiar tradition. A score of forgotten 'replies' intervened between the first edition and the second. Tories, theologians, democrats and poets, for the most part denounced it; but the Whig lawyers and economists rallied with surprising alacrity to its defence. Mackintosh and Brougham gave in their adhesion, Dr. Parr, in his famous Spital Sermon, 1800, used it with damaging effect against Godwin, and Pitt himself dropped his proposed additions to the Poor-law in deference to Malthus's criticism; - a foretaste of the day, a generation later, when the entire Poor-law system was to be recast under Malthus's influence."The political muckraker of the day, William Cobbett scoffed, "How can Malthus and his nasty and silly disciples19, how can those who want to abolish the Poor Rates, to prevent the poor from marrying; how can this at once stupid and conceited tribe look the labouring man in the face, while they call on him to take up arms, to risk his life in defense of the land."20
What Malthus had to say about the poor, was this:
"The poor-laws of England tend to depress the general condition of the poor in these two ways. This first obvious tendency is to increase population without increasing the food for its support. A poor man may marry with little or no prospect of being able to support a family in independence. They may be said therefore in some measure to create the poor which they maintain; and as the provisions of the country must, in consequence of the increased population, be distributed to every man in smaller proportions, it is evident that the labour of those who are not supported by parish assistance will purchase a smaller quantity of provisions than before, and consequently, more of them must be driven to ask for support. Secondly, the quantity of provisions consumed in workhouses upon a part of the society, that cannot in general be considered the most valuable part, diminishes the shares that would otherwise belong to more worthy members; and thus in the same manner forces more to become dependent. ...The historical setting, in which Malthus brought out his work, must be considered. The poor, especially those in the rural areas, were numerous and were generally in a bad state. It was generally thought that the plight of the poor was due to the landed aristocracy, that they had the government levers in their hands and used them to advance the upper classes at the expense of the poor. William Hazlitt who was in the full flower of his writing during these times, contrasted the two groups: "A labouring man is not allowed to knock down a hare or a partridge that spoils his garden: a country-squire keeps a pack of hounds: a lady of quality rides out with a footman behind her on two sleek, well-fed horses."
Other circumstances being the same, it may be affirmed that countries are populous according to the quantity of human food which they produce or can acquire, and happy according to the liberality with which this food is divided, or the quantity which a day's labour will purchase. Corn countries are more populous than pasture countries, and rice countries more populous than corn countries. But their happiness does not depend upon their being thinly or fully inhabited, upon their poverty or their richness, their youth or their age, but on the proportion which the population and the good bear to each other."
Hazlitt was much at odds with the theories as expressed by Malthus. To Hazlitt, Malthus had proceeded, a priori, in accepting his opponent's (Godwin's) position, viz., "a state of perfectibility" was achievable; but once achieved, so Malthus argued, would come apart, in time, due to over population. How, Hazlitt wondered, being perfect, could such a society come apart. Hazlitt seem to think that once one imagined a perfect society then one imagined a society with a population that was fully in control. How could "enlightened, quick-sighted and public spirited [men] ... show themselves utterly blind to the consequences of their actions, utterly blind to the consequences of their well-being ..." Hazlitt did not deal with the question, as to how a state, as it progressed to its perfect state, will curb its population growth (I shutter to think). Hazlitt did not deal with the question because he did not accept the premise, viz., that man was perfectible.
"Several philosophers and speculatists had supposed that a certain state of society very different from any that has hitherto existed was in itself practicable; and that if it were realised, it would be productive of a far greater degree of human happiness than is compatible with the present institutions of society."21 Malthus' argument, as stated by Hazlitt, is that if man were to give up his existing social institutions then there would be as much bad as good come of it. "For, says Mr Malthus, though this improved state of society were actually realized, it could not possibly continue, but must soon terminate in a state of things pregnant with evils far more insupportable than any we at present endure..." Hazlitt, to put it simply, had difficulty with Malthus' logic: "It is absurd to object to a system on account of the consequences which would follow if we once suppose men to be actuated by entirely different motives and principles from what they are at present, and then to say, that those consequences would necessarily follow, because men would never be what we suppose them. ... Mr Malthus has written nonsense..." Hazlitt was of the view that Malthus confounded cause with effect. "The wide spreading tyranny, dependence, indolence, and unhappiness, of which Mr. Malthus is so sensible, are not occasioned by the increase of the poor-rates, but these are the natural consequence of that increasing tyranny, dependence, indolence, and happiness occasioned by other causes. ... he shall have my perfect leave to disclaim the right of the poor to subsistence, and to tie them down by severe penalties to their good behaviour, on the same profound principles. But why does Mr Malthus practise his demonstrations on the poor only?"22
One, in pursuing their study of Malthus, should read the essays that Hazlitt has written on Malthus and his theories. There is not that many and they are online here at www.blupete.com. I now list them, next following together with a short synoptic excerpt from each.
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