torstai 4. elokuuta 2016

Thomas Robert Malthus: An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798)


Out of all figures I’ve thus far investigated in my blog, Malthus appears most current. Population of the world has been rising almost exponentially during the last century, and especially the Third World has suffered from this. When a superpower like China has felt forced to use such drastic measures as their former one-child-only policy, we can truly speak of a global issue.

Behind Malthus’s work lies a simple consideration. He notes that without any restraints, population would rise in a geometrical progression – if a family would have in average, say, three children, the children of this average family would have around nine children, these children would then produce 27 children and so on. This is of course a very rough estimate, but we can accept at least that the rate of reproduction would be quite high.

Now, Malthus noticed that population of his time did not show as great tendency of continuous growth, although such leaps might happen sporadically. The natural conclusion was that something restrained this growth. Malthus surmised quite naturally that it was the limited number of resources and especially food, which constrained continuous population growth. True, more people could produce more food, but the growth happened, Malthus stated, only in arithmetical progression. Malthus really had no reason to suppose that the food supply would grow in arithmetical progression, but the important point was more that the growth of food production would eventually fall greatly short of the growth of population.

What is especially interesting in Malthus’s account is his idea of the actual mechanics by which the limitedness of food supplies affects the population growth. One means Malthus indicates is misery. If there are more mouths to feed, but not that much more food to give them, people will not get as much to eat as earlier. This leads to malnutrition, diseases and ailments caused by it, and in the most extreme case, to starvation. After a while, the population will have lowered to a level, when the worst effects of misery subside – and the population starts to grow again in the more favourable conditions.

Malthus’s view of this cycle of hunger and reproduction battling one another is quite bleak, but what to do, he says, it is just a law of nature (a common excuse from people who notice a problem, but won’t do anything about it). Indeed, Malthus goes at some point even so far as to suggest that any attempt of a society to regulate this cycle is doomed to failure – if you try to give the poor something to eat, they’ll just reproduce even more and the problem is created anew. With the optimism of an English clergyman, Malthus supposes that it is all just God’s plan to awaken some moral sense in humans – when we see suffering around us, we’ll start to feel pity – and that all will be made better in the afterlife.

Malthus’s conservative stance is especially striking in his attitude toward the second check of population growth. Malthus calls this check vice, but it is pretty evident he is especially thinking of all sorts of sexual acts that do not lead to reproduction. One might think allowing this sort of “vice” would be at least a partial answer to Malthusian problematic. Indeed, it has usually been the drive for sexual pleasure and not the more ephemeral drive for reproduction that has led to unrestricted population growth – people who desire children of their own tend to desire them in some limited amount, while the desire for sexual pleasure might well exceed any assigned limits. At least we can be happy that Malthus accepts the latter need as a fact of human nature and quickly crushes all hopes of humankind ever getting rid of sexual needs. Indeed, he even quite beautifully describes an ideal marriage as a state in which highest sensual gratification is combined with social virtues, like companionship.

In a later edition Malthus introduced a third check of population growth, and this time one he regarded positively: a custom that people (and especially men) should not marry, before they have the means to provide for their family. Firstly, we might notice that Malthus never imagined this as a law, although he suggested government might give a negative incitement for it by not giving charities to poor families with lot of children. Indeed, this suggested custom is another aspect of Malthus’s idea that this world has been given to us as a place for moral growth – what better way to show one’s morality than to silence one’s desires until one can care for all their consequences?

Furthermore, Malthus’s old-fashioned morals appear in this suggestion even more prominently. Surely one can have children even out of wedlock, but this is something Malthus condemns forcefully. What is even more disturbing is the indication that marriage is a state in which reproduction is an unavoidable fact, and in a sense, even a duty. Indeed, Malthus’s view can be understood only if the person with the most to lose in child rearing – the woman, who will carry all the babies – has an obligation to always accept his husband’s wish for an intercourse. One just has to wonder what Malthus would have thought of families actually planning when and even whether to have children.

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