1902 Encyclopedia > Political Economy (Economics) > Political Economy - Third Modern Phase (cont) - Adam Smith, etc. - England (cont.)

Political Economy
(Part 8)


2. Adam Smith, with his Immediate Predecessors and his Followers (cont.)

England (cont.)

Smith’s earliest critics were Bentham and Lauderdale, who, though in general agreement with him, differed on special points. Jeremy Bentham was author of a short treatise entitled A Manual of Political Economy (1843), and various economic monographs, the most celebrated of which was his Defence of Usury (1787). This contained (Letter xiii) an elaborate criticism of a passage in the Wealth of nations, already cited, in which Smith had approved of a legal maximum rate of interest fixed but a very little above the lowest market rate, as tending to throw the capital of the country into the hands of sober person, as opposed to "prodigals and projectors." Smith is said to have admitted that Bentham had made out his case. He certainly argues it with great ability; and the true doctrine no doubt is that, in a developed industrial society, it is expedient to let the rate be fixed by contract between the lender and the borrower, the law interfering only in case of fraud.

Bentham’s main significance does not belong to the economic fields. But, on the one hand, what is known as Bethamism was undoubtedly, as Comte has said, a derivative from political economy, and in particular from the system of natural liberty; and, on the other, it promoted the temporary ascendancy of that system by extending to the whole of social and moral theory the use of the principle of individual interest and the method of deduction from that interest. This alliance between political economy and the scheme of Bentham is seen in the personal group of thinkers which formed itself round him,—thinker most inaptly characterized by J.S. Mill as "profound," but certainly possessed of much acuteness and logical power, and tending, though vaguely, towards a positive sociology, which, from their want of genuinely scientific culture and their absolute and unhistorical modes of thought, they were incapable of founding.

Lord Lauderdale, in his Inquiry into the Nature and Origin of Public Wealth (1804), a book still worth reading pointed out certain real weaknesses in Sminth’s account of value and the measure of value, and of the productivity of labour, and threw additional light on several subjects, such as the true mode of estimating the national income, and the reaction of the distribution of wealth on its production.

Smith stood just at the beginning of a great industrial revolution. The world of production and commerce in which he lived was still, as Cliffe Leslie has said, a "very early" and comparatively narrow one; "the only steam-engine he refers to is Newcomen’s," and the cotton trade is mentioned by him only once, and that incidentally. "between the years 1760 and 1770," says Mr Marshall, "Roebuck began to smelt iron by coal, Brindley connected the rising seats of manufactures with the sea by canals, Wedgwood discovered the art of making earthenware cheaply and well, Hargreaves invented the spinning jenny, Arkwright utilized Wyatt’s and High’s inventions for spinning by rollers and applied water power to move them, and Watt invented the condensing steam-engine. Crompton’s mule and Cartwright’s powerloom came shortly after." Out of this rapid evolution followed a vast expansion of industry, but also many deplorable results which, had Smith been able to foresee them, might have made him a less enthusiastic believer in the benefits to be wrought by the mere liberation of effort, and a less vehement denounces of old institutions which in their day had given a partial protection to labour. Alongside of these evils of the new industrial system, socialism appeared as the alike inevitable and indispensable expression of the protest of the working classes and the aspiration after a better order of things; and what we now call "the social question," that inexorable problem of modern life, rose into the place which it has ever since maintained. This question was first effectually brought before the English mind by Thomas Robert Malthus (1766-1834), not, however, under the impulse of revolutionary sympathies, but in the interests of a conservative policy.

The first edition of the work which achieved this result appeared anonymously in 1798 under the title—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. This book arose out of certain private controversies of its author with his father Daniel Malthus, who had been a friend of Rousseau, and was an ardent beliver in the doctrine of human progress as preached by Condorcet and other French thinkers and by their English disciples. The most distinguished of the latter was William Godwin, whose Enquiry concerning Political Justice had been published in 1793. the views out forward in that work had been restated by its author in the Enquirer (1797), and it was on the essay in this volume entitled "Avarice and Profusion" that the discussion between the father and the son arose, "the general question of the future improvement of society" being thus raised between them—the elder Malthus defending the doctrines of Godwin, and the younger assailing the. The latter "sat down with an intention of merely stating his thoughts on paper in a clearer manner than he thoughts he could do in conversation," and the essay on population was the result.

The social scheme of Godwin was founded on the idea that the evils of society arise from the vices of human institutions. There is more than enough of wealth available for all, but it is not equally shared; one has too much, another has little or nothing. Let this wealth, as well as the labour of producing it, be equally divided then everyone will be moderate exertion obtain sufficient for plain living; there will be abundant leisure, which will be spent in intellectual and moral self-improvement; reason will determine human actions; government and every kind of force will be unnecessary; and, in time, by the peaceful influence of truth, perfection and happiness will be established on earth. To these glowing anticipations Malthus opposes the facts of the necessity of food, and the tendency of mankind to increase up to the limit of the available supply of it. In a state of universal physical wellbeing, this tendency, which in real life is held in check by the difficulty of procuring a subsistence, would operate without restraint. Scarcity would follow the increase of numbers; the leisure would soon cease to exists; the old struggle for life would recommence; and inequality would reign once more. If Godwin’s ideal system, therefore could be established, the single force of the principle of population, Malthus maintained, would suffice to break it down.

It will be seen that the essay was written with a polemical object; it was an occasional pamphlet directed against the utopias of the day, not at ball systematic treatise on population suggested by a purely scientific interest. As a polemic, it was decidedly successful; it was no difficult task to dispose of the scheme of equality propounded by Godwin. Already, in 1761, Dr Robert Wallace had published a work (which was used by Malthus in the composition of his essay) entitled Various Prospects of Mankind, Nature, and Providence, in which, after speaking of a community of goods as a remedy for the ills of society, he confessed that he saw one fatal objection to such a social organization, namely, "excessive population that would ensue." With Condorcet’s extravagances, too, Malthus easily dealt. That eminent man, amidst the tempest of the French Revolution, had written, whilst in hiding from his enemies, his esquisse d’un tableau historique de l’esprit humain. The general conception of this books make its appearance an epoch in the history of the rise of sociology. In it, if we except some partial sketches by Turgot, is for the first time explained the idea of a theory of social dynamics founded on history; and its author is on this ground recognized by Comte as his principal immediate predecessor. But in the execution of his great project Condotcet failed. His negative metaphysics prevent his justly appreciating the past, and he indulges, at the close of his work, in vague hypotheses respecting the perfectibility of our race, and in irrational expectations of an indefinite extension of the duration of human life. Malthus seems to have little sense of the nobleness of Condorcet’s attitude, and no appreciation of the grandeur of his leading idea. But of his chimerical hopes he is able to make short work; his good sense, if somewhat limited and prosaic, is at least effectual in detecting and exposing utopias.

The project of a formal and detailed treatise on population was an afterthought of Malthus. The essay in which he had studied a hypothetic future led him to examine the effects of the principle he had put forward on the past and present state of society; and the undertook an historical examination of these effects, and sought to draw such inference in relation to the actual state of things as experience in relation to the actual state of things as experience seemed to warrant. The consequence of this was such a change in the nature and composition of the essay as made it, in his own language. "a new work." The book, so altered,, appeared in 1803 under the title—An Essay on the Principle of Population, or a view of its Past and Present Effects on Human Happiness; with an Enquiry into our prospects respecting the future removed or mitigation of the evils which it occasions.

In the original form of the essay he had spoken of no checks to population but those which came under the head either of vice or of misery. He now introduces the new element of the preventive checks supplied by what he calls "moral restraint," and is thus enabled to "soften some of the harshest conclusions" at which he had before arrived. The treatise passed through sic edition in his lifetime, and in all of them he introduced various additions and corrections. That of 1816 is the last he revised, and supplied the final text form which it has since been reprinted.

Notwithstanding the great development which he gave to his work and the almost unprecedented amount of discussion to which it gave rise, it remains a matter of some difficulty to discover what solid contribution he has made to our knowledge, nor is it easy to ascertain precisely what practical precepts, not already familiar, he founded on his theoretic principles. This twofold vagueness is well brought out in his celebrated correspondence with Senior, in the course of which it seems to be made apparent that his doctrine is new not so much in its essence as in the phraseology in which it is couched. He himself tells, us that when, after the publication of the original essay, the main argument of which he had deduced from Hume, Wallace, Smith, and Price, he began to inquire more closely into the subject, he found that "much more had been done" upon it "than he had been aware of." It had "been treated in such a manner by some of the French economists, occasionally by Montesquieu, and, among our own writers, by Dr Franklin, Sir James Steuart Mr Arthur Young, and Mr Townsend, as to create a natural surprise that it had not excited more of the public attention. "Much, however," he thought, "remained yet to be done. The comparison between the increase of population and food had not, perhaps, been stated with sufficient force and precision," and "few inquiries had been made it no the various modes by which the level" between population and the means of subsistence "is effected." The first desideratum here mentioned—the want, namely, of an accurate statement of the relation between the increase of population and food—Malthus doubtless supposed to have been supplied by the celebrated proposition that "population increases in a geometrical, food in an arithmetical ration." This proposition, however, has been conclusively shown to be erroneous, there being no such difference of law between the increase of man and that of the organic beings which form his food. J. S. Mill is indignant with those who criticize Malthus’s formula, which he groundlessly describes as a mere "passing remark," because, as he thinks, though erroneous, it sufficiently suggests what is true ; but it is surely important to detect beliefs. When the formula which we have cited is not used, other somewhat nebulous expressions are sometimes employed, as, for example, that "population has a tendency to increase faster than food," a sentence in which both are treated as if they were spontaneous growths, and which on account of the ambiguity of the word "tendency," is admittedly consistent with the fact asserted by Senior, that food tends to increase faster than population. It must always have been perfectly well known that population will probably (though not necessarily) increase with every augmentation of the supply of subsistence, and may, in some instances, inconveniently press upon, or even for a certain time exceed, the number properly corresponding to that supply. Nor could it ever have been doubted that war, disease, poverty—the last two often the consequence of vice—are causes which keep population down. In fact, the way in which abundance, increase of numbers, want, increase of deaths, succeed each other in the natural economy, when reason does not intervene, had been fully explained by the Rev. Joseph Townsend in his Dissertation in the Poor Laws (1786), which was known to Malthus. Again, it is surely plain enough that the apprehension by individuals of the evils of poverty, or a sense of duty to their offspring, may retard the increase of population, and has in all civilized communities operated to a certain extent in that way. It is only when such obvious truths are clothed in the technical terminology of "positive" and "preventive checks" that they appear novel and profound; and yet they appear to contain the whole message of Malthus to mankind. The laborrious apparatus of historical and statistical facts respecting the several countries of the globe, adduced in the altered form of the essay it contains a good deal that is curious and interesting, establishes no general result which was not previously well known, and is accordingly ignored by James Mill and others, who rest the theory on fats patent to universal observation. Indeed, as we have seen, the entire historical inquiry was an after thought of Malthus, who, before entering on it, had already announced his fundamental principle.

It would seem, then, that what has been ambitiously called Malthus’s theory of population, instead of being a great discovery, as some have represented it, or a poisonous novelty, as other have considered it, is no more than a formal enunciation of obvious, though sometimes neglected, facts. The pretentious language often applied to it by economists is objectionable, as being apt to make us forget that the whole subject with which it deals is as yet very imperfectly understood—the causes which modify the force of the sexual instinct, and those which lead to variations in fecundity, still awaiting a complete investigation.

It is the law of diminishing returns from land (of which we shall hear more hereafter), involving as it does—though only hypothetically—the prospect of a continuously increasing difficulty in obtaining the necessary sustenance for all the members of a society, that gives the principal importance to population as an economic factor. It is, in fact, the confluence of the Malthusian ideas with the theories of Ricardo, especially with the corollaries which the latter as we shall see, deduced from the doctrine of rent (though these were not accepted by Malhus), that has led to the introduction of population as a element in the discussion of so many economic questions in recent times.

Malthus had undoubtedly the great merit of having called public attention in a striking and impressive way to a subject which had neither theoretically nor practically been sufficiently considered. But he and his followers appear to have greatly exaggerated both the magnitude and the urgency of the dangers to which they pointed.1 In their conceptions a single social imperfection assumed such portentous dimensions that it seemed to overcloud the whole heaven and threaten the world with ruin. This doubtless arose from his having at first omitted altogether from his view of the question the great counteracting agency of moral restraint. Because a force exists, capable, if unchecked, of producing certain results, it does not follow that those results are imminent or even possible in the sphere of experience. A body known from the hand would, under the single impulse of projection, move for take special action for the prevention of this result, ignoring the fact that it will be sufficiently counteracted by the other forces which will come into play. And such other forces exist in the case we are considering. If the inherent energy of the principle of population (supposed everywhere the same) is measured by the rate at which numbers increase under the most favourable circumstances, surely the force of less favourable circumstances, acting through prudential or altruistic motives is measured by the great prudential or altruistic motives, is measured by the great difference between this maximum rate and those which are observed to prevail in most European countries. Under a rational system of institutions, the adaptation of numbers to the means available for their support is effected by the felt or anticipated pressure of circumstances and the fear of social degradation, within a tolerable degree of approximation to what is desirable. To bring the result nearer to the just standard, a higher measure of

Popular enlightenment and more serious habits of moral reflexion ought indeed to be encouraged. But it is the duty of the individual to his possible offspring, and not any vague notions as to the pressure of the national population on subsistence, that will be adequate to influence conduct. The only obligation on which Malthus insists is that of abstinence from marriage so long as the necessary provision for a family has not been acquired or cannot be reasonalbly anticipated. The idea of post-nuptial continence, which has since been put forward by J. S. Mill and others, is foreign to this view. He even suggests that an allowance might be made for the public funds for every child in a family beyond the number of six, on the ground that, when a man marries, he cannot tell how many children he shall have, and that the relief from an unlooked-for distress afforded by such a great would not operate as an encouragement to marriage. The duty of economic prudence in entering on the married state is plain ; but in the case of working menthe idea of a secured provision must not be unduly pressed, and it must also be remembered that the proper age for marriage in any class depends on the duration of life in that class. Too early marriages, however, are certainly not unfrequent, and they are attended with other than material evils, so the possibly even legal measures might with advantage be resorted to for preventing them in all ranks by somewhat postponing the age of full civil competence. On the other hand, however, the Malthusians often speak too lightly of involuntary celibacy, not recognizing sufficiently that it is a deplorable necessity. They do not adequately estimate the value of domestic life as a school of the civic virtues, and the social importance (even apart from personal happiness) of the mutual affective education arising from the relations of the sexes in a well-constituted, union.

Malthus further infers from his principles that states should not artificially stimulate population, and in particular that poor-laws should not be established, and, where they exist, should be abolished. The first part of this prososition cannot be accepted as applying to every social phase, for it is evident that in a case like that of ancient Rome, where continuous conquest was the chief occupation often national activity, or in other periods when protracted wars threatened the independence or security of nations, statesmen might wisely take special action of the kind deprecated by Malthus. In relation to modern industrial communities he is doubtless in general right, though the promotion of imagination in new states is similar in principle to the encouragement of population. The question of poor-laws involves other considerations. The English system of his day was certainly a vicious one, though acting in some degree as a corrective of other evils in our social institutions ; and efforts for its amendment tended to the public good. But the proposal of abolition is one from which statesmen have recoiled, and which general opinion has never adopted. It is difficult to believe that the present system will be permanent ; it is too mechanical and undiscriminating ; on some sides too lax, it is often unduly rigorous in the treatment of the worthy poor who are the victims of misfortune ; and, in its ordinary modes of dealing with the young, it is open to grave objection. But it would certainly be rash to abolish it ; it is one of several institutions which will more wisely be retained until the whole subject of the life of the working classes has been more thoroughly, and also more sympathetically, studied. The position of Malthus with respect to the relief of destitution is subject to this general criticism that, first proving too much, he then shrinks from the consequences of his own logic. It follows from his arguments, and is indeed explicitly stated in a celebrated passage of his original essay, that he who has brought children into the world without adequate provision for them should be left to the punishment of Nature, that "it is a miserable ambition to wish to snatch the rod from her hand," and to defeat the action of her laws, which are the laws of God, and which "have doomed him and his family to suffer." Though his theory leads him to this conclusion, he could not, as a Christian clergyman, maintain the doctrine that, seeing our brother in need, we ought to shut up our bowels of compassion from him ; and thus he is involved in the radical inconsequence of admitting the lawfulness, if not the duty, of relieving distress, whilst he yet must regard the act as doing mischief to society. Buckle, who was imposed on by more than one of the exaggerations of the economists, accepts the logical inference which Malthus evaded. He alleges that the only ground on which we are justified in relieving destitution is the essentially self-regarding one, that by remaining deaf to the appeal of the sufferer we should probably blunt the edge of our own finer sensibilities.

It can scarcely be doubted that the favour which was at once accorded to the views of Malthus in certain circles was due in part to an impression, very welcome to the higher ranks of society, that they tended to relieve the rich and powerful of responsibility for the condition of the working classes, by showing that the latter had chiefly themselves to blame, and not either the negligence of their superior or the institutions of the country. The application of his doctrines, too, made by some of his successors had the effect of discouraging all active effort for social improvement. Thus Chalmers "reviews seriatim and gravely sets aside all the schemes usually proposed for the amelioration of the economic condition of the people" on the ground that an increase of comfort will lead to an increase of numbers, and so the last state of things will be worse than the first.

Malthus has in more recent times derived a certain degree of reflected lustre from the rise and wide acceptance of the Darwinian hypothesis. Its author himself, in tracing its filiation, points to the phrase "struggle for existence" used by Malthus in relation to the social competition. Darwin believes that man has advanced to his present high condition through such a struggle, consequent on his rapid multiplication. He regards, it is true, the agency of this cause for the improvement of our race as largely superseded by moral considers it, even in these stages, of so much importance towards that end that, notwithstanding the individual suffering arising from the struggle for life, he deprecates any great reduction in the natural, by which he seems to mean the ordinary, rate of increase.

There has been of late exhibited in some quarters a tendency to apply the doctrine of the "survival of the fittest" to human society in such a way as to intensity the harsher features of Malthus’s exposition by encouraging the idea that whatever cannot sustain itself is fated, and must be allowed, to disappear. But what is repellent in this conception is removed by a wider view of the influence of Humanity, as the presiding race, alike on vital and on social conditions. As in the general animal domain the supremacy of man introduces a new force consciously controlling and ultimately determining the destinies of the subordinate species, so human providence in the social sphere can intervene for the protection of the weak, modifying by its deliberate action what would otherwise be a mere contest of comparative strengths inspired by selfish instincts.



1 Malthus himself said, "It is probable that , having found the how bent too much one way, I was induced to bend it too much the other in order to make it straight."

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