|Standing between two worlds
It is given to very few authors to publish an essay at the age of 32 which not only makes their name a household word in their own lifetime but maintains its fascination through each succeeding generation. The achievement is all the more remarkable if the author in question produces his text without a long prior history of scholarship and reflection. Other accolades could be suggested to add further lustre to the achievement. The Essay on population secured fame for Malthus not only in his own country but soon throughout Europe, and in due course throughout the whole world. It succeeded not only in developing an argument about the relationship between population and resources which posed highly important questions both of a practical and theoretical kind but also appears to have provided Darwin with one of the essential building blocks for the construction of a theory of natural selection. There are plenty of instances of the borrowing of concepts from the natural sciences to help to elucidate problems in the social sciences, but it is much rarer to find instances of traffic in the opposite direction, especially where the borrower was a scientist of the very first rank.
The list of achievements represented by the Essay could be greatly extended, but my object in referring to them is not to underline once again the extent of Malthus’s success, but rather to attempt to identify to the nature of his failure. Malthus continues to be read because he outlined with great clarity the nature of a particular problem which all societies necessarily face and his ideas and assertions continue to be discussed for the same reason, but it would be perverse to argue that his formulation of the problem remains relevant to the world on the threshold of the twenty-first century. He is still quoted to get the discussion off the ground, as it were, and because he directed attention to issues that still cause anxiety in some parts of the globe, but once they have been posed in very general terms, there is little further in his writing that is immediately relevant to the particular problems of the world today.1 In considering why this should be so, we may be able to gain further insight both into the nature of Malthus’s thought and into some aspects of the fundamental changes which have occurred between his day and ours. Malthus in retrospect may be seen to have been standing between two worlds. He framed an explanatory framework of great elegance and power just when it was ceasing to have direct relevance to the country in which he lived and, after a period, to other areas of the earth also.
The central issue can be set out very simply, just as it was indeed by Malthus in the first Essay. Malthus described two ‘postulates’ which he claimed all must accept, and which, in his view, immediately put out of court the claims of Godwin and Condorcet about the perfectibility of man, which had provoked Malthus into setting out his objections in print. The two postulates were that ‘food is necessary to the existence of man’ and that ‘the passion between the sexes is necessary, and will remain nearly in its present state’2. He then argued that it was a direct implication of these postulates ‘that the power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man’, and went on immediately to add, ‘Population, when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio. Subsistence increases only in an arithmetical ratio. A slight acquaintance with numbers will show the immensity of the first power in comparision with the second.’3 Malthus was making an assertion about the basic biology of human life, claiming in effect that man was like any other animal in needing food above all other material things and sharing with other animals the compulsion to reproduce whose immediate evidence is sexual activity. The starkness and simplicity of his argument both captured the imagination of his readers and earned him bitter hostility almost across the whole political spectrum for the rest of his life.4
It follows immediately from the nature of the argument made by Malthus that if either of his two key assertions, those concerning the maximum rate of growth of food output and the unchecked rate of growth of population, were to prove inaccurate, the inbuilt tension between the two, which was the core of his case against the optimists, would not arise and his argument would fall to the ground. If both of his two assertions were to prove false, his argument would be vacuous because it would have no empirical basis. The history of the next two centuries has shown that neither the arithmetic nor the geometric ratio corresponds to recent experience and therefore any inferences drawn from the contrast between the two ratios do not ‘save the phenomena’.
The developments which falsified Malthus’s assumptions are familiar to anyone acquainted with the economic and demographic history of the last two centuries. Agriculture has proved to be an industry like any other in that both output per head and output per acre have grown rapidly. Mechanisation, the application of industrially produced fertilisers and above all nitrogen, the chemical and biological control of pests and diseases, new crops, the introduction of much higher yielding varieties of seeds, the breeding of improved types of farm animals, and so on, have combined to raise output exponentially rather than arithmetically. Where once it would have been self-defeating to have expended more energy in producing a crop than the crop in turn would provide, now the abundance of cheap energy derived from fossil fuel has converted much of the countryside into a sort of open-air factory. Again, while the passion between the sexes may be as vigorous as ever, the assumption that this would mean that populations would grow geometrically unless checked by food shortages has proved very far wide of the mark. It is now conventional to associate extreme poverty with high rates of population growth and to expect that those populations which are most comfortably placed economically will have very low rates of reproduction, commonly now well below replacement level.
None of this was evident to Malthus, nor could it have been, and there is much to be learnt about the nature of the contrast between the present and the past from the fact that history took a different course from that which he had expected. A first point to note is that, although Malthus explored some different aspects of the functioning of society from those on which his contemporaries concentrated, there is little in his thinking which was not also to be found in the thinking of the other classical economists, at least on the issues that are most relevant to the relationship between economic and demographic variables. Adam Smith, for example, was adamant that the supply of labour, like the supply of any other commodity was responsive to market signals5 so that a rise in ‘corn wages’ would result in population growth either through reducing mortality by better nutrition or by increasing fertility by encouraging earlier marriage, or both. Equally, a fall in the real wage would have opposite effects so that the average remuneration of labour over any considerable period was liable to be static and low, sustained only by whatever the society came to regard as a minimum acceptable standard of living. Ricardo regarded Malthus’s demographic theorising as authoritative and was happy to endorse his main arguments in this area without reservation.
Other strands in the thinking of the classical economists, however, are perhaps even more important in underlining the close agreement existing between them on this range of issues, much though they might differ over other questions such as the protection of English agriculture or the poor law. Smith, Ricardo, and Malthus were convinced that the process of economic growth must have limits and that all economies must tend towards what they termed the ‘stationary state’. Adam Smith expressed the issue in these terms:
In a country which had acquired that full complement of riches which the nature of its soil and climate, and its situation with respect to other countries, allowed it to acquire; which could, therefore, advance no further, and which was not going backwards, both the wages of labour and the profits of stock would probably be very low.6
Nor did Smith regard this simply as a limiting theoretical possibility, since he went on to suggest that the province of Holland was approaching this state and described the empirical indicators which convinced him that-this was so.7
Ricardo and Malthus, moreover, gave a cleaner cutting edge to the thinking which led to the conclusion that the very process of growth must in due course bring about its own termination. Both men developed the concept of declining marginal returns in agriculture which had perhaps been implicit but not fully explicit in Adam Smith. Towards the end of his chapter ‘On profits’ in his Principles of political economy Ricardo summarised his views in a manner which left no grounds for optimism about the secular tendency of real wages or of profits:
Whilst the land yields abundantly, wages may temporarily rise, and the producers may consume more than their accustomed proportion; but the stimulus which will thus be given to population will speedly reduce the labourers to their usual consumption. But when poor lands are taken into cultivation, or when more capital and labour are expended on the old land, with a less return of produce, the effect must be permanent. A greater proportion of that part of the produce which remains to be divided, after paying rent, between the owners of stock and the labourers, will be apportioned to the latter. Each man may, and probably will, have a less absolute quantity; but as more labourers are employed in proportion to the whole produce retained by the farmer, the value of a greater proportion of the whole produce will be absorbed by wages, and consequently the value of a smaller proportion will be devoted to profits. This will necessarily be rendered permanent by the laws of nature, which have limited the productive powers of the land.8
Malthus had developed essentially the same concept at much the same time.9 If he had been able to make use of the concept at the time when he composed the first Essay, he might have expressed the constraints on increasing agricultural production in a more elegant and realistic fashion, though the conclusion would not have differed.
The key point about the idea of a stationary state and the concept of declining marginal returns can be put very simply. All the classical economists were influenced by an assumption which it was entirely natural for them to make, so natural indeed that it did not require to be explicitly articulated, the assumption that with only rare and limited exceptions all the material products which were of use to man were produced from the land, and that in consequence the productivity of the land represented an absolute constraint upon the expansion of production. The three necessary components of all material production were said to be land, labour, and capital, and land stood not merely for the production of food but also for the production of almost all the raw materials needed to satisfy all types of material want. Even mineral raw materials, such as tin or iron ore, could only be converted into a form useful to man by smelting and refining. For this a large amount of heat was needed, and wood had traditionally been the means of providing it. The great industries of traditional societies used animal or vegetable raw materials. Cotton, wool, flax, hides, straw, hair, fur, bone, milk, and wood were the basis of most forms of manufacturing production. Spinners, weavers, fullers, tailors, tanners, saddlers, shoemakers, glovers, hatters, stocking makers, bakers, butchers, maltsters, brewers, millers, carpenters, coopers, joiners, wheelwrights, thatchers; these and a host of other related forms of economic activity supported the great bulk of the labour force outside agriculture, and all were dependent upon the productivity of the soil for their living. A further long list of those engaged in the metal trades had been dependent on wood or charcoal to enable them to manufacture a finished product.
As long as this characterisation of the nature of the economy held true, it was also necessarily true that the productivity of the land set limits to the extent of further growth. Hence the significance of the concept of declining marginal returns in agriculture. Both at the extensive and at the intensive margins of agriculture securing a unit increase in output must at some stage imply increasing inputs of labour and capital. The classical economists recognised, of course, that the inevitable might be postponed by technical advance but were clear that the day of reckoning could not finally be avoided. Within the context of an organic economy the relevance of Malthus’s formulation of a tension between production and reproduction was valid. Exponential economic growth could not be secured indefinitely. These were the considerations which underlay Malthus’s assertion that output could grow only arithmetically at best.
There remained, of course, the possibility that even if production could grow only arithmetically, the tendency of population to grow geometrically unless checked might no necessarily hold good. If so, the tension between production and reproduction might again be relieved. This is clearly a logical possibility. For some, like Godwin, who did not accept that the passion between the sexes was a constant, it was highly probable. Malthus himself was firmly opposed to the practice of birth control, which he regarded as a vicious practice, as a means of moderating population growth rates, but, as he reshaped his original formulations of the first Essay, he recognised that the same effect might come about in other ways, and indeed grew moderately sanguine about this possibility. As he became better informed about the demographic characteristics of European countries, he came to recognise that restraint in the form of delayed marriage or the avoidance of marriage was more widely practised than he had originally supposed, and that this was true not merely of those who were imbued with bourgeois values but also of many men and women occupying much humbler positions in society.10 Even upon the assumptions which the nineteenth century left room for a less apocalyptic view of the future for mankind than some readings of the first Essay would suggest. Nevertheless, it was widely accepted that the margin of possible improvement in the lot of the average man would remain modest even if, for example, prudence in contracting marriage proved an effective check on excessive growth. The room for manoeuvre was still modest because of the nature of all economies which were pyramided upon the productivity of the soil.
This brings us to the fundamental reason why Malthus’s analysis of the tension between production and reproduction fails to strike home in the world of the twentieth century. Though his characterisation of the tension as the contrast between arithmetic and geometric rates of growth may have been illustrative rather than precise, he was pointing to a feature of all pre-industrial societies which conditioned and constrained all of them. England during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries had enjoyed a period of exceptional economic success. Even though the population of England was rising much faster than that of her continental neighbours, real incomes in England towards the end of the eighteenth century were probably higher than in any other European country, a combination of circumstances which makes it certain that output must have grown far more substantially than elsewhere in the period.11 All this was achieved in an economy which was still largely organic, dependent upon the products of the soil. Adam Smith and Malthus were well aware of the scale of the growth which had taken place since the end of the sixteenth century. But this did not make them optimists about the long-term future. The stationary state still lay ahead. Technical advance and fuller and more efficient use of capital could secure striking advances for a time but the area of cultivable land was not capable of indefinite expansion. Sooner or later declining marginal returns to capital and labour were inevitable. Even international trade could only postpone the day of reckoning. Nor was their perception irrational. Subsequent research has shown that the association between rising population growth rates, rising prices of the necessities of life, and failing real wages, which was to be expected in terms of the Malthusian model, was visible as the eighteenth century wore on , just as it had been in the sixteenth century in England.12
But the blow never fell. Even though population growth rates in England rose to the highest level which they have ever reached in the early decades of the nineteenth century, real wages instead of continuing to fall, steadied and began to rise.13 One of the relationships which had helped to determine the shape of all pre-industrial societies was disappearing. To use the terminology which Malthus himself employed, economic growth became geometric and at a higher level than that of population, so that the classic tension was relaxed. This was the essential change in the economic affairs of mankind, brought about by the series of change which we have come to label the industrial revolution. If the national product was increasing by 2 per cent per annum or more but population growth rates peaked at less than 2 per cent and then fell back, there was no longer any necessity to choose between larger numbers and greater individual prosperity. Two variables which had always previously been incompatible were now fully compatible with one another. To secure this had meant breaking free from dependence upon organic raw materials as the basis of material production. Until this had happened the pessimism of the classical economists was justified.
The change occurred first in England. It took place gradually over the postTudor period. At the same time that the country was benefiting from the advent of a particularly dynamic and successful type of advanced organic economy, a novel basis for material production was gradually coming into being. The shift from dependence upon organic raw materials to an increasingly mineral-based economy changed the rules of the game. In earlier times, for example, raw wool had proved a profitable commodity for farmers to produce, but at some point the expansion of flocks was incompatible with maintaining the output of bread grains. Sheep did eat up men. In contrast an iron industry in which the raw material was mineral and the source of heat for smelting a fossil fuel could expand without limit, or at least without any limit imposed by the nature of an organic economy.
The advent of a mineral-based energy economy was the bursting of a chrysalis. Always previously the ceiling of economic attainment had been set by the annual quantum of energy reaching the surface of the earth in the form of insulation, a tiny fraction of which was made available for the use of animate life by the process of photosynthesis. All production for human use involves the expenditure of energy, and a simple calculation reveals how limited the horizon of possibilities remained as long as this was the case.14 The industrial revolution greatly reduced dependence upon organic raw materials and simultaneously allowed access to energy on a scale which dwarfed anything which had previously been available. Fossil fuels represent the accumulation of the products of photosynthesis over periods measured in tens of millions of years; they formed a store of solar energy which enabled the problem posed by dependence upon annual plant growth to be bypassed. The combined result of the use of mineral raw materials and fossil fuels was to enable output to rise without the constraints which had been ever present in earlier centuries.
It is perhaps a tribute to the novelty of what was happening that contemporaries were so little aware of the implications of what was going on about them. None of the classical economists grasped its significance even though between them their active lives roughly spanned the period which is, in retrospect, usually identified with the industrial revolution. Malthus achieved the distinction of setting out a particularly persuasive description of one aspect of the functioning of a world which was gradually fading from view in his own country, and was similarly to disappear from others in the course of the following century. This is the sense in which he was standing between two worlds. His analysis of the ineluctable problems for the economy caused ultimately by exclusive dependence upon the land as a source of material wealth, combined with a tendency for numbers to rise unless reined back by misery is applicable in some degree to all pre-industrial societies, so that the first Essay should be prescribed reading for any social, economic, or demographic historian whose interests lie in a period earlier than 1800.
But, though his work remains permanently relevant wherever the assumptions which he made are justified, it so happened that they were gradually ceasing to be so in England during his lifetime and also ceased to be relevant throughout the rest of the world as the decades passed. Everywhere the possibility exists both of securing exponential economic growth and of reducing fertility to replacement levels, though in some countries it is still some way from being realised. Nowhere, therefore, does his model match the current situation. The degree to which Malthus’s thinking was circumscribed by his conviction that population growth was all too liable to exceed what was in the best interests of society as a whole and the poor in particular should not be overlooked in considering his attitude to other issues. Contemporaries, for example, were especially exercised over his views about the poor law. He held that the knowledge that the parish would provide at least a minimum of support for parents burdened by a large family was a direct encouragement to improvident marriages and was certain in the longer term to have exactly the opposite effect to that intended. Excessive fertility would inevitably mean increased misery.
It was not difficult to depict him as a monster intent on saving the prosperous from a tax upon their wealth which would otherwise be the salvation of many poor people. But this is an injustice to his humanity. Freed from the conviction that the tension between production and reproduction was unavoidable, it is clear that he would have sounded a very different note. We may conclude by noting the direction in which his sympathies took him but which he felt debarred from advocating in circumstances which he believed he had correctly appraised. He wrote:
With regard to the large sum which is collected from the higher classes of society for the support of the poor, I can safely say, that in the discussion of the question it has always been with me a most subordinate consideration.
I should indeed think that the whole, or a much greater sum, was well applied, if it merely relieved the comparatively few that would be in want, if there were no public provision for them, without the fatal and unavoidable consequence of continually increasing their number, and depressing the condition of those who were struggling to maintain themselves in independence. Were it possible to fix the number of the poor and to avoid the further depression of the independent labourer, I should be the first to propose that those who were actually in want should be most liberally relieved, and that they should receive it as a right, and not as a bounty.15
Standing between two worlds, but looking back towards the world which was made familiar by his reading and by his personal experience, Malthus drew the reasonable conclusion that the permanent amendment of the condition of the mass of mankind was a matter of extreme difficulty, if not impossible. Had he been able to look forward to a world in which the rate of growth of output was able comfortably to outpace even the maximum rate at which populations can grow, he might well have felt able in good conscience to endorse a proposal for the support of the poor which at the time he felt in intellectually dishonest to advance. Standing between two worlds can be an uncomfortable experience, but unless his writings are judged against this background it will be difficult either to do justice to the accuracy of his vision of the pre-industrial past, or to appreciate the reasons why they are so seldom directly relevant to societies in later periods.
1 There are some notable exceptions to this rather sweeping generalisation. For example, his second essay, also published anonymously, which was provoked by the public concern at the soaring price of bread in 1799 and 1800, foreshadows many of the arguments about exchange entitlement which have recently been formulated by Sen: T.R. Malthus, An investigation of the cause of the present high price of provisions (1800) in E.A. Wrigley and D. Souden, eds., The works of Thomas Robert Malthus, 8 vols. (London, 1986); and A. Sen, Poverty and famines: an essay on entitlement and deprivation (Oxford, 1981).
2 T.R. Malthus, An essay on the principle of population. as it affects the future improvement of society (1798) in E.A. Wrigley and D. Souden, eds., The works of Thomas Robert Malthus, 8 vols. (London, 1986), 1, p.8.
3 Ibid., p.9.
4 The nature of the contemporary political debate and its vicissitudes are admirably
described by Winch in a recent book: D. Winch, Riches and poverty: an intellectual history of political economy in Britain. 1750-1834 (Cambridge, 1996), pt.III, ‘Robert Malthus as political moralist’.
5 As he put it, ‘the demand for men, like that for any other commodity, necessarily regulates the production of men; quickens it when it goes on too slowly, and stops it when it advances too fast’. A. Smith, An inquiry into the nature and causes of the wealth of nations, ed. E. Cannan, 5th ed., 2 vols. in 1 (Chicago, 1976), p.89. It is of interest that in the same passage he had earlier remarked in words which anticipated the gist of Malthus’s later formulation that, ‘Every species of animals naturally multiplies in proportion to the means of their subsistence, and no species can ever multiply beyond it’: ibid., p.89. He clearly intended this generalisation to hold true for human populations also, or at least for the ‘inferior ranks’.
6 Ibid., p. 106.
7 Ibid., p. 108.
8 D. Ricardo, On the principles of political economy and taxation in The works and
correspondence of David Ricardo, ed. P. Sraffa with the collaboration of M.H. Dobb, I, (Cambridge, 1951), pp. 125-6.
9 T.R. Malthus, An inquiry into the nature and progress of rent and the principles by which it is regulated in E.A. Wrigley and D. Souden, eds., The works of Thomas Robert Malthus, 8 vols. (London, 1986), Vll.
10 In the later editions of the Essay on population Malthus expressed his mature thinking on the subject in the following piquant fashion: ‘In an endeavour to raise the proportion of the quantity of provisions to the number of consumers in any country, our attention would naturally be first directed to the increasing of the absolute quantity of provisions; but finding that, as fast as we did this, the number of consumers more than kept pace with it, and that with all our exertions we were still as far as ever behind, we should be convinced, that our efforts directed only in this way would never succeed. It would appear to be setting the tortoise to catch the hare. Finding, therefore, that from the laws of nature we could not proportion the food to the population, our next attempt should naturally be, to proportion the population to the food. If we can persuade the hare to go to sleep, the tortoise may have some chance of overtaking her.’ T.R. Malthus, 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, 6th ed. (1826) in E.A. Wrigley and D. Souden, eds., The works of Thomas Robert Malthus, 8 vols. (London, 1986), III, p.486.
11 On relative rates of population growth, see E.A. Wrigley, ‘The growth of population in eighteenth-century England: a conundrum resolved’ Past and Present, 98 (1983), pp. 121 -5; more generally, on the vigour of the English economy of the period, E.A. Wrigley, ‘Society and the economy in the eighteenth century’, in L. Stone, ed., An imperial state at war: Britain from 1689 to 1815 (London, 1994), pp.72-95.
12 E.A. Wrigley and R.S. Schofield, The population history of England 1541-1871: a reconstruction (London, 1981), pp.402-12.
14 E.A. Wrigley, Continuity. chance and change: the character of the industrial revolution in England (Cambridge, 1988), pp.50-7.
15 T.R. Malthus, A letter to Samuel Whitbread. Esq., M.P. on his proposed bill for the amendment of the poor laws (1807) in E.A. Wrigley and D. Souden, eds., The works of Thomas Robert Malthus, 8 vols. (London, 1986), IV, p.9.