The idea of population growth being constrained by subsistence production was not a new one when Malthus wrote his Essay on the Principles of Population (1798). However, earlier authors such as Cantillion and Steuart recognised the importance of social and historical relations governing population growth. Adam Smith and William Godwin both concentrated on the problems of income inequality and poverty, but believed that economic growth could/would be used to alleviate the conditions of poverty under which the majority lived.
Malthus introduced two notions that were to change the nature of the discussion on poverty: the first was that poverty was inescapable deriving from natural/scientific "laws" governing the production of foodstuffs and population growth; the second point is a corollary of the first and it was that attempts to alleviate poverty using economic, government, or social policy was doomed to failure and would bring everyone to the same level of poverty. There is no historical evidence to back up either of these arguments.
Yet Malthusian and Neo-Malthusian (birth and population control as an attempted fix) arguments have historically been advocated and the latter is still advocated by the birth-control and population control movements in an attempt to regulate the reproduction of the poor both in the advanced capitalist world and in the 3rd world. The diary asks instead why we are not fighting to get people out of poverty by fighting for changes in the economic system rather than limiting people’s human rights to reproduce?
The argument on Malthus on wages and population closely follows the argument of Stirati (1994), while the discussion of poverty comes from my research on the history of discussions of poverty in the 18th and 19th centuries, some of which can be found in previous diaries on this site (see: http://www.dailykos.com/..., http://www.dailykos.com/..., http://www.dailykos.com/...).
I. Malthus on Wages and Population
The primary thesis of Malthus's Essay on the Principle of Population is that the potential capacity for population growth is greater than the capacity for increasing the production of food necessary for human survival. Malthus's first assumption is that population growth is limited by the growth of subsistence. As a corollary, this means that population is proportional to the level of subsistence. There are natural limits to increase the amount of subsistence, these then provide natural checks to population growth and ensure that the wage is always at the level of subsistence.
Malthus argues that when population is not limited by the scarcity of resources (i.e., all the fertile land has either not been appropriated or is not in use), then population growth will increase geometrically, whereas the production of food only increases arithmetically. This thesis on the different rates of progression provides the cornerstone of Malthus's theory throughout all the subsequent editions of the Essay on Population. This is so irrespective of Malthus’s replacement of the notion of the arithmetic progression of food production with his theory of differential rent or diminishing returns to agricultural production to provide an explanation for his thesis.
The limit placed upon the production of workers' subsistence due to the diminishing fertility of the soil provides a natural constraint to the growth of the size of the workers' subsistence and hence population (See Stirati (1994) for this transformation in Malthus's works and also for an excellent discussion of the distinction between Malthus on population and earlier discussions on population).
This constraint is natural in that it is not imposed by the economic system, but derives out of the fact that there is a limit to the amount of the most fertile soil in existence in the economy. In other words, the constraint is imposed by "mother nature." It is important to note, that it is foodstuffs that is important here with the constraint due to limited fertility of the soil; this has nothing to do with limited resources such as oil, as the operative words are production of foodstuff.
In Malthus, the increase in employment and wages determined by the growth of national wealth does not automatically imply a corresponding increase in the food supply as assumed by Smith. Growth of the food supply is essentially constrained, subsistence is at a biological level constrained by the difficulties in increasing the level of the food supply, and the level of employment depends on the demands for its use.
Malthus's general argument is that the supply of food determined the size of the working class and its purchasing power. Thus, what keeps the worker's wage at the level of subsistence in Malthus's argument is that with any increase in wages, there will be a resulting increase in population, which will drive the wage back to the level of subsistence.
Why is there an inevitable increase in population coincident upon a better standard of living? Because humans have an inescapable urge to procreate. Malthus's "iron law of wages" is derived solely from natural phenomena and, as such, is inescapable. There is no manner in which the natural wage will remain above subsistence level for a long period of time in Malthus's theory.
[...] We will suppose the means of subsistence in any country just equal to the easy support of its inhabitants. The constant effort towards population, which is found to act even in the most vicious societies, increases the number of people before the means of subsistence are increased. The food, therefore, which before supported eleven millions, must now be divided among eleven millions and one half. The poor consequently must live much worse, and many of them will be reduced to severe distress. The number of labourers also being above the proportion of work in the market, the price of labour must tend to fall, while the price of provisions would at the same time tend to rise. The labourer therefore must do more work to earn the same as he did before. During this season of distress, the discouragements to marriage and the difficulty if rearing a family are so great that the progress of population is retarded. In the meantime, the cheapness of labour, the plenty of labourers, and the necessity of increased industry among them, encourage cultivators to employ more labour upon their land, [...], till ultimately the means of subsistence may become in the same proportion to the population as at the period from which we set out. The situation of the labourer being again tolerably comfortable, the restraints to population are in some degree loosened; and after a short period, the same retrograde and progressive movements, with respect to happiness, are repeated (Malthus, 1798, pp. 15-6).
This is a major departure from Smith. The fact that the natural wage could remain above subsistence for a long period of time if the pace of accumulation proceeded faster than population growth was essential to Smith’s analysis: it provided the mechanism how the subsistence wage changed over time; moreover it demonstrated how workers could obtain a portion of the surplus product over and above subsistence when the economy was growing and how the natural wage increases over time due to economic growth and capital accumulation. In general, Smith recognised that the employers had the power and also government laws on their side; but this could be overcome by economic growth. Smith believed that this would happen automatically, he was wrong; this required the organisation of workers in trade unions and combinations and political organisation. (see for an explanation of Smith’s theory of wages: http://www.dailykos.com/..., http://www.dailykos.com/...,http://www.dailykos.com/....
For Malthus’s discussion on wages, we should turn to his Principles of Political Economy. According to Malthus, the natural price of labour (i.e., the wage) is that price which is necessary to occasion an average supply of labourers, sufficient to meet the average demand for labour on the part of producers.
If the resources of a country are stationary and the habits of the working classes prompt them to supply a stationary population cheaply, the wages of labour will be low. Malthus argues that the wages of labour can not fall below what is necessary (i.e., the subsistence wage) under the actual habits of the people to maintain a stationary population. Essentially if they do then this will provoke the positive checks causing a fall in population as subsistence must be biological if the principle actually can operate. If the resources of a country are stationary, not increasing or declining, the principle of supply and demand would always interfere to ensure that wages would either cause a rise or fall in the population. As resources rise or fall, the population would rise and fall, to maintain the level of wages at the subsistence level.
In summation, in Malthus's theory, natural wages are determined by the supply and demand for labour. The population mechanism keeps the natural wage at the subsistence level. Since Malthus does not have a full employment theory and he argues that it is difficult to increase the fund for the maintenance of labour, the only manner in which to treat unemployment is on the side of the labour supply.
II. Malthus on Poverty: Blaming the Poor and Nature
In general, given Malthus's Principle of Population, there are only two ways to consider poverty and its elimination. You can either affect the supply or demand side of the labour market. That is, we can attempt to slow population growth to be commensurate with the growth of subsistence or we can increase the accumulation of capital in the attempt to increase the employment of labour. We see both of these arguments in the classical tradition following the publication of The Essay on the Principle of Population.
For the most part, Malthus insisted that poverty is a natural phenomenon arising from the difficulty in procuring the subsistence of the working class. This difficulty places the burden for control on the poor. In other words, the problem caused by natural phenomenon can only be alleviated through acting on another natural phenomenon, i.e., the supply of labour.
Given Malthus's prohibition on moral grounds of the use of contraceptives prior to marriage (vice), the only solution or preventive checks to limit the labour supply (so that it is commensurate with the growth of subsistence) can be found in abstinence prior to marriage on the part of the working class or in delayed marriages until the workers could afford to have a family (Malthus, 1798, pp. 169-73). There are also positive checks that increase the death rate; these are well known, if the population increases too much, there will be disease, wars over subsistence and land, disasters and, of course, famine if all the other things do not reduce population sufficiently.
In Malthus, poverty derives from natural laws governing population growth and agricultural production; it can not be overcome by changes in institutions and/or human laws. Malthus uses this argument as a criticism against the 1795-7 Poor Law Amendments and against the egalitarian ideas of reformers who were trying to improve the conditions of life for the working class in Britain. According to Malthus, attempts to abolish or diminish the inequality in the distribution of wealth and income would only reduce everyone to the same level of poverty because the growth of population could not be checked except by resort to contraceptives and abortion (which he considered to be vices, he was a reverend) or through starvation and misery. Malthus argued that the pressure of population on scarce resources is the cause of poverty, and that this rules out any possible improvement of the living conditions of the working classes.
To sum up, Malthus argues that poverty derives from natural circumstances, which cannot be alleviated by changes in legislation, attempts at redistribution, changes in distribution. To this effect, he supports the gradual abolition of the poor laws and argues that the only remedy for poverty is checking population growth, that is the eliminate poverty by operating on the supply side of labour.
III. Critical Comments on Malthus
What is wrong with this analysis? It sounds perfectly plausible although a bit harsh.To be perfectly honest, it should sound very familiar to many people. It underlies a number of modern discussions of poverty as well as population explosion catastrophe scenarios although the discussions on supply and demand for labour are not as apparent.
In fact, historically this argument combined with the Darwin’s theory of evolution led to the creation of Social Darwinism by Francis Galton and Herbert Spencer; which served as the basis not only of much of the early birth control movement but also the Eugenics movement, which then justified the deliberate negative intervention of eugenics (there is a lot of information on Malthus’ influence on Galton and Spencer, see for example: http://en.wikipedia.org/... and on Eugenics and Malthus’ influence see for example: http://www.all.org/..., for linkage between the birth control movement and the eugenics movement in the US see, http://www.blackgenocide.org/..., for more information, see Davis (1981), Reilly (1991), and Roberts (1997) and Schoen (2005).
A. Contemporary criticisms:
The purpose of Malthus’s publication of the Essay on the Principles of Population is stated quite clearly even in its title; it is an attack on the ideas of the French enlightenment being promulgated by Godwin following the French Revolution. Specifically, the aim of the original essay (1798) is to "examine the possibility of realising egalitarian social systems in light of the principle of population" (Stirati, 1994, 102).
Contemporary direct responses to Malthus’s argument stressed 3 points: 1) people marry and have children only in so far as they could support them given their incomes [Godwin (1801, 1820), Hall (1805)]; 2) the importance of social causes and economic causes that were responsible for poverty rather than population [Hall (1805)]; and 3) food production is not fixed but depends on the demand for food, with natural limits on agricultural either non-existent or far off in the future [Godwin (1820), Hall (1805), Hazlitt (1807)] (see Stirati,1994, p. 111); This is in addition to the arguments that had already been stated in Smith prior to Malthus’s essay, specifically, the fact that demand determined the level and composition of all production, and that poverty could be overcome by increasing wages commensurate with growth.
Even in the age of liberalism of the intelligentsia, Malthus’s argument was extremely useful as it shifted the responsibility for poverty away from the insufficiencies of the capitalist system (evident in Smith and Godwin) in eliminating poverty towards that of nature and the irresponsibility of the poor themselves. Blame the victim has always been a useful tool; if poverty is the fault of nature and/or the poor being irresponsible due to immorality, debauchery, degeneracy, then treating the problem as an economic one that can be fixed or ameliorated is by-passed and responsibility falls on the poor itself.
In fact, there were two main arguments articulated at the time as part of an attack on the 1795-7 Poor Law Amendments (http://www.vincenter.org/...), one by the liberal Bentham, the other by Malthus, that when united in the wages-fund theory produced one of the worse social policy attacks on the poor in the 1834 Poor Law Reform (http://en.wikipedia.org/...) and remained legal government policy until 1929 (it was effectively replaced in 1912 with the creation of a basic social security system including sickness benefit, unemployment benefit and maternity benefit (http://www.metamute.org/...).
B. Fallaciousness of the argument:
The principle of population is not a scientific analysis; it is clearly an ideological attack masquerading as science, economics and demography. It relies on very specific assumptions many of them that have been historically disproved. In fact, it is far more probable that it is poverty that causes overpopulation, rather than overpopulation that causes poverty. Historically, we can see that increases in wage and the wage share have not led to explosive population growth; instead as people become wealthier, they have fewer children.
Malthus’s argument that increasing wages will send everyone into poverty has no historical evidence to sustain it. We have ample historical evidence to already reject Malthus’s principle of population and his discussions on poverty; the most obvious is that when the working poor and working class were finally able to organise to get higher wages that there was not a population explosion of the poor that sent the capitalist world into poverty. In fact, increased wages for the working classes enabled the continued growth of the domestic market and domestic demand for commodities which created the impetus for technical change and extended growth.
Historical inaccuracy and logical incoherency should be enough to overturn an argument, yet this argument persists (as do many ideologically based economics arguments) and is still used to continue to attack the poorest especially in the third world.
IV. Birth Control vs Population Control
A. Francis Place and Birth Control
The historical linkage between the birth control movement and Malthusianism (and the transition to neo-Malthusianism begins with Francis Place. Given Malthus’s argument and pessimistic conclusions, Place supported what Malthus refused to do; he advocated for the usage of birth control on the part of the poor to keep their population consistent with the demand for labour.
If means were adopted to prevent the breeding of a large number of children than a married couple might desire to have, and if the labouring population could thus be kept below the demand for labour, wages would rise so as to afford the means of comfortable subsistence for all, and all might marry. Marriages under these circumstance, would be, by far, the happiest of all conditions, as it would also be the most virtuous, and consequently the most beneficial to the whole community; [...] the poors [sic] rate would soon be reduced to a minimum, and the poor laws might, with the greatest ease, be remodelled and confined to the aged and helpless, or might, if it appear advisable, be wholly abolished [...](Place, 1822, p. 177).
It is interesting to note that while Place's advocacy of Malthus's principle of population led to his condemnation by the then contemporary working class movement, it has endeared him to many modern feminists, who view him as a "progressive advocate of birth control."
Place’s arguments in this book and his letters were used historically by supporters of birth control to encourage its usage amongst the working class and poor. The idea that using birth control will improve the conditions of life for the poor deriving from keeping the supply of labour below the demand for its use is an argument that is less obvious and a bit more subtle than what we are used to hearing.
B. Birth control, Eugenics and Population Control
The use of the argument concerning contraceptives and the provision of a better life for the poor became a corner-stone of the birth-control movement. However, underlying this argument is the fallacious population principle of Malthus and that is what appealed to Social Darwinists and Eugenicists whom viewed the danger of the degenerate and feeble poor out-breeding those of better breeding stock. Rather than encourage people to try and improve their lives, or actually help women take control of their reproduction as advocated by many early feminists and suffragettes, Social Darwinists and Eugenicists attempted to get the wealthy white people to breed more, while restricting the reproduction of the poor, people of colour, and immigrants.
The linkage between proponents of birth control and eugenicists (not only as publications and advocacy, but financial assistance and control of the former by the latter) lead to a very dangerous alliance in the US which not only undermined some of the goals of the birth control movement (ensuring access to contraceptives for all and giving women control over their reproduction), but lead to wide-spread abuse including involuntary sterilisation of those deemed feeble, infirm or degenerate (see Schoen, Reilley, Roberts, Silliman, et al, see also the eugenics archives, http://www.eugenicsarchive.org/...). Unsurprisingly, these people were invariably poor and women of colour.
Sterilisations were divided between 3 types: 1) Eugenic (to protect society from "feeble degenerates" polluting the gene-pool, permitted by Buck v Bell (1927, http://en.wikipedia.org/...); 2) "therapeutic" supposedly to help a condition that could be ameliorated; and 3) punitive for punishment to control violent impulses usually used against prisoners (illegal as of Skinner vs. Oklahoma, 1942, http://en.wikipedia.org/...).
Constraints were placed upon reproductive control: while white upper class women needed to get permission from their husbands to obtain birth control and choose to be sterilised, poor women and women of colour were forced to be sterilised and to use contraceptives. Women that were dependent upon government assistance bore the brunt of these assaults on their bodies and their right to reproduce. From 1924-80, these coercions were often linked to receipt of government assistance in the form of welfare and aid to dependent children. Even recently in the US (1994), legislation was put forward in several states to link the use of birth control to receipt of government assistance (the legislation failed, but generated massive debate (http://www.guttmacher.org/..., http://www.aclu.org/...), to force convicted child abusers and drug dealers to use Norplant to obtain reduced sentences (http://academic.udayton.edu/...), to force welfare and AFDS/ADC recipients to limit family size by placing a cap on benefits if family size increases (New Jersey, 1992), here is a link to K. Smith’s justification of the offer of additional welfare benefits to those who agree to use Norplant based upon the fact that Norplant is only temporary sterilisation and that being on welfare and ADC is only of "short-term" duration; the article also contains an discussion of the history of sterilisation abuse in the US and supreme court rulings http://www.law.indiana.edu/...). While sterilisation abuse is now illegal in the US, this has never stopped population control supporters from exporting it to the 3rd world during the 20th century and this still exists today.
One thing about motivations behind access to birth control, as long as the usage of birth control is voluntary (neither coerced by law or by economic constraint), it has been gratefully accepted by women everywhere as long as access is not contingent upon other things. However, even when coercive, both out of desperation and to gain control over their reproduction, women have dealt with the eugenicists and the purveyors of contraception that want to limit their numbers rather than actually assist them to gain control over their lives.
We need to separate the idea of access to birth control as a positive advance giving women the choice of whether to have children, when, and the number and control over their own bodies from the Malthusian argument that was attached to it by Social Darwinists and Eugenicists. The right of reproduction choice is a human right which should not be abridged.
One thing is to advocate the right of reproductive choice for all; another is to compel reproductive decisions on the possibility of a population explosion. What is common between the modern discussions of population control and early discussions on population, and eugenics is that it is always the poor that bear the brunt of these policies. Reproduction for the wealthy is fine; it is reproduction for the poor whether in an emerging capitalist economy in the 18th and 19th centuries or a modern 3rd world country that is perceived as a problem that threatens to bring down the wealthiest.
Perhaps, of all the reasons to support birth control, the idea that the poor will continue breeding and wipe out the future for everyone is probably the most woefully inexplicable one. Yet, that is the argument that is used by most people about the dangers of uncontrolled population growth in 3rd world countries.
We know that there is no evidence that Malthus’s proposition has any historical validity. We know that increased wages and income for the poor has lead to decreased family size and not an uncontrolled population explosion where people could not be fed. Increased demand for food was easily met due to changes in production techniques in the advanced capitalist world.
We also know that the direction of causality begins with poverty and which leads to higher levels of population: the poor have more children due to higher incidence of child mortality, the need for children to help earn household income especially in rural societies, traditional social/societal formations that encourage high birth rates, lack of control over reproductive choices and social/religious prohibitions. If we are truly concerned about increased population as a threat, why not fight the poverty that creates it?
What we should be doing is fighting against poverty and economic exploitation of people in the 3rd world, not opposing the right of people to reproduce and control their own reproduction. Support trade union organisation, increased wages in 3rd world countries, health and safety regulation and different forms of production that will meet the needs of people not the needs of corporations and advanced capitalist countries.
Instead, what the US and other advanced capitalist economies have done is supported the rule of the same oligarchic family’s control and undermined democratic change, undercut the formation of trade unions, undercut domestic agricultural production through supplying cheap food stuff through US Aid that domestic producers cannot compete with and force them out of the market. The World Bank and IMF have consistently undercut subsidies on foodstuffs, state provision of clean drinking water in favour of privatisation of water supplies, forced export-led growth regimes that concentrate on producing goods for external markets rather than ensure growth of the domestic market and production for the domestic market. MNCs rely on the low-wages being paid in these countries, the lack of health and safety regulation and weak unions and cooperative ruling classes and governments to try and gain higher and higher profits on goods sold in advanced capitalist countries.
All of this arises because it is in the interests of the powerful and wealthy in the capitalist system. The system encourages and relies upon poverty in the 3rd world in a futile, misguided attempt to lower costs of production and raise profits while at the same time encourages over-consumption in the advanced capitalist world where they sell the products produced overseas. Globalisation enables the extension of the worst excesses of the capitalist system that prevails inside a country during the industrial revolution and which are now illegal or deemed socially repugnant to a global level where whole countries play the role that the working classes played during the industrial revolution. Even in the advanced capitalist world, we have not eliminated poverty; unemployment is a by-product of the system. Different forms of production and distribution can eliminate it. Production to cover people’s needs, rather than the needs of a system that requires constant growth in order to preserve profits can make a difference.
References and suggested reading:
Davis, A. (1981) Women, Race and Class. Random House.
Godwin, W (1801) Thought Occaisioned by Dr. Parr’s Spital Sermon.
Godwin, W. (1820) Of Population: An Enquiry Concerning the Power and Increase in the Numbers of Mankind. Being an answer to Mr. Malthus’s Essay on the Subject, AM Kelley, 1964.
Hall, C. (1805) The Effects of Civilization on the People in European States, AM Kelley.
Hazlitt, W. (1807) A Reply to the Essay on Population, by the Rev. T.R. Malthus, Longman, Hurst, Rees and Orme.
Malthus, T.R. (1798) An Essay on the Principle of Population, 1st edition
Malthus, T.R. (1826) An Essay on the Principle of Population, 6th edition
Malthus, T.R. (1820) The Principles of Political Economy, Considered with a View to their Practical Applications.
Place, F. (1822, 1930) Illustrations and Proofs of the Principle of Population, AM Kelley, 1967.
Reilly, P. (1991) The Surgical Solution: A History of Involuntary Sterilization in the United States, Johns Hopkins.
Roberts, D. (1997) Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction and the Meaning of Liberty, Vintage.
Schoen, J (2005) Choice and Coercion: Birth Control, Sterilization and Abortion in Public Health and Welfare, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill.
Silliman, J, M. Gerber Fried, L. Ross and E. Gutiérrez (2004) Undivided Rights: Women of Colour Organise for Reproductive Justice, South End.
Stirati, A. (1994) The Theory of Wages in Classical Economics, Edward Elgar.