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1798: Darwin and Malthus

Keith Thomson

Causes of Poverty

Malthus's father, Daniel Malthus, tended toward Condorcet's views; Rousseau and Hume had been frequent visitors to his house in times past. Robert Malthus took the opposite, distinctly conservative, approach. As they debated over Godwin (especially his chapter on "Avarice and Profusion") together, Malthus Senior urged Robert to develop his notes into what became the Essay, which is built around the simple premise that populations intrinsically grow geometrically and resources only arithmetically.

From this premise, Malthus identified the causes of poverty as follows: "(Because) population does invariably increase where there are the means of subsistence … the superior power of population cannot be checked without producing misery or vice." When population growth reaches the limit of resources, war, pestilence and (as he added in later editions) various forms of moral restraints must inevitably redress the imbalance. Malthus thereby found a natural, law-like obstacle to the perfectibility of man and society. The earthly paradise promoted by Godwin—in which, incidentally, people would become immortal, marriage would be exposed as a sham and passion between the sexes would become extinct—was most definitely not just around the corner. Man was destined, like the animals, constantly to struggle to survive at a level just above subsistence. If this were not so, God would have set us on a different path from the beginning.

One does not have to spend long reading the Essay to discover how bleak was Malthus's opinion of the potential for "improvement of society." "The principal argument of this essay … [tends to show] the improbability that the lower classes of people in any country should ever be sufficiently free from want and labour to obtain any high degree of intellectual improvement."

Where David Hume had written, "Every wise, just and mild government by rendering the condition of its subjects easy and secure will always abound most in people, as well as in commodities and riches" (Political Discourses, 1752), Malthus argued the opposite, the population principle making inevitable a hierarchically structured society with the lower strata grounded in misery, "the necessity of a class of proprietors and a class of laborers…." Malthus also stated that "this must certainly be considered as an evil, and every institution that promotes it is essentially bad and impolitic. But whether a government could with advantage to society actively interfere to repress inequality of fortunes, may be a matter of doubt." (No wonder Marx despised him.)

Malthus was preoccupied not so much with the distribution of wealth per se but rather with the grinding poverty of first a rural and then an industrial poor. In our current debates over "entitlements" and aid to unwed mothers, it is sobering to remember that Queen Elizabeth I was among those who early tried to attack the problems of how to alleviate poverty without institutionalizing it, how to help the needy without removing their incentive to work and how to help the indigent without encouraging them to have larger families.

After Elizabeth, various Poor Law reforms came and went, particularly in the 18th and 19th centuries, usually with the result of exacerbating rather than improving the situation. The subject attracted the attention of dreamers and realists, revolutionaries and reactionaries, alike. For example, Condorcet proposed something that looks remarkably modern: "A fund should be established which should assure to the old an assistance, produced, in part, by their own former savings, and, in part, by the savings of individuals who in making the same sacrifice die before they reap the benefit of it…." (Malthus, typically, concluded such schemes were "absolutely nugatory.")

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