Thomas Malthus: Theory of over population


ALL systems of equality which have been proposed are bound to fail, because the motive to the preventive check of moral restraint is destroyed by equality and community of goods. As all would be equal and in similar circumstances, there would be no reason why one person should think himself obliged to practice the duty of restraint more than another. And how could a man be compelled to such restraint? The operation of this natural check of moral restraint depends exclusively upon the existence of the laws of property and succession; and, in a state of equality and community of property could only be replaced by some artificial regulation of a very different stamp, and a much more unnatural character.

No scheme of equality, then, can overcome the population difficulty: emigration is only a palliative and poor-law relief only a nostrum which eventually aggravates the evils of over-population.

The poor laws of England tend to depress the general condition of the poor in two ways. Their first obnoxious tendency is to increase population without increasing the food for its support. A poor man may marry with little or no prospect of being able to support a family without parish assistance. The poor laws may be said, therefore, to create the poor which they maintain, and as the provisions must be distributed to the greater numbers in smaller proportions, the labours of those who are not supported by parish assistance will purchase a smaller quantity of provisions than before and consequently more of them will require assistance. Secondly, the quantity of provisions consumed in workhouses by the least worthy members of the community diminishes the food of the more worthy members, who are thus driven to obtain relief.

Fortunately for England, a spirit of independence still remains among the peasantry. The poor laws, though calculated to eradicate this spirit, have only partially succeeded. Hard as it may appear in individual instances, dependent poverty ought to be deemed disgraceful. Such a stigma seems necessary to promote the general happiness of mankind. If men be induced to marry from the mere prospect of parish provision, they are not only unjustly tempted to bring unhappiness and dependence upon themselves and their children, but they are tempted unwittingly to injure all in the same class as themselves.

Further, the poor laws discourage frugality and diminish the power and the will of the common people to save, and they live from hand to mouth without thought of the future. A man who might not be deterred from going to the ale-house by the knowledge that his death or sickness might throw his family upon the parish, might fear to waste his earnings if the only provision for it were casual charity.

The mass of unhappiness among common people must be diminished when one of the strongest checks to idleness and dissipation is thus removed; and when institutions which render dependent poverty so lessen the disgrace which should be attached to it. I feel persuaded that if the poor laws had never existed in this country, though there might have been a few more instances of very severe distress, the aggregate mass of happiness among the common people would have been much greater than it is at present. In view of all these facts I do not propose a law to prevent the poor from marrying, but I propose a very gradual abolition of the poor laws.

By means of an extending commerce a country may be able to purchase an increasing quantity of food and to support an increasing population; but extension of commerce cannot continue indefinitely; it must be checked by competition and other economic interference; and as soon as funds for the maintenance of labour become stationary, or begin to decline, there will be no means of obtaining food for an increasing population.

It is the union of the agricultural and commercial systems, and not either of them taken separately, that is calculated to produce the greatest national prosperity. A country with an extensive and rich territory, the cultivation of which is stimulated by improvements in agriculture, manufactures and foreign commerce, has such various and abundant resources that it is extremely difficult to say when they will reach their limits. There are, however, limits to the capital population of a country-limits which they must ultimately reach and cannot pass.

To secure a more abundant, and at the same time, a steadier supply of grain, a system of corn laws has been recommended, the object of which is to discourage, by duties or prohibitions, the importation of foreign corn and to encourage by bounties the exportation of corn of home growth.

Laws which prohibit the importation of foreign grain, though by no means unobjectionable, are not open to the same objections as bounties and must be allowed to be adequate to the object they have in view, the maintenance of an independent supply. Moreover, it is obviously possible, by restrictions upon the importation of foreign corn, to maintain a balance between the agricultural and commercial classes.

The question is not a question of the efficiency or inefficiency of the measure proposed, but of its policy or impolicy. In certain cases there can be no doubt of the impolicy of attempting to maintain an unnatural balance between the agricultural and commercial classes; but in other cases the impolicy is by no means so clear. Restrictions upon the importation of foreign corn in a country which has great landed resources tend not only to spread every commercial and manufacturing advantage possessed, whether permanent or temporary, on the soil, but tend also to prevent those great oscillations in the progress of agriculture and commerce which are seldom unattended with evil.


As it appears that in the actual state of every society which has come within our view the natural progress of population has been constantly and powerfully checked, and as it seems evident that no improved form of government, no plans of emigration, no direction of natural industry can prevent the continued action of a great check to population in some form or other, it follows that we must submit to it as an inevitable law of nature, and the only inquiry that remains is how it may take place with the least possible prejudice to the virtue and happiness of human society.

All the immediate checks to population which have been observed to prevail in the same and different countries seem to be resolved into moral restraint, vice and misery; and if our choice be confined to those three, we cannot long hesitate in our decision. It seems certain that moral restraint is the only virtuous and satisfactory mode of escape from the evils of over-population. Without such moral restraint, and if it were the custom to marry at the age of puberty, no virtue, however great, could rescue society from a most wretched and desperate state of want, with its innumerable concomitant diseases and famines.

PRUDENTIAL restraint, if it were generally adopted, would soon raise the price of labour by narrowing its supply, and those practising it would save money and acquire habits of sobriety, industry and economy such as should ensure happy married life. Further postponement of marriage would give both sexes a better opportunity to choose life-partners wisely and well; and the passion, instead of being extinguished by the experience engendered by early sensuality, would burn the more brightly because repressed for a time and attained as the prize of industry and virtue and as the reward of a genuine attachment.

Moral restraint in this matter is a Christian duty. There are, perhaps, few actions that tend so directly to diminish the general happiness as to marry without being in possession of the means of supporting children. He who commits this act clearly offends against the will of God, for he violates his duty to his neighbours and also to himself, and listens to the voice of passion rather than fulfils the higher obligations of his duty. If he cannot support his children they must starve; and if he marry in the face of a fair probability that he shall not be able to support his children, he is guilty of all the evils which he thus brings upon himself, his wife and his offspring.

When the wages of labour are barely sufficient to support two children, a man marries and has five or six, and finds himself in distress. He blames the low price of labour. He blames the parish and the rich and social institutions but he never blames himself. He may wish he had never married; but it never enters into his head that he has done anything wrong. Indeed, the converse is the case, for he has always been told that to raise up children for his king and country is a very meritorious and patriotic act.

The common people must be taught that they themselves in such a case are to blame and that no one has power to help them if they act thus contrary to the will of God. Those who wish to help the poor must try to raise the relative proportion between the price of labour and the price of provisions, instead of encouraging the poor to marry and overstock the labour market. A market overstocked with labour and an ample remuneration to each labourer are objects perfectly incompatible.

It is not enough, however, to abolish all the positive institutions which encourage population, but we must endeavour at the same time to correct the prevailing opinions which have the same effect. The public must be made to understand that they have no right to assistance and that it is the duty of man not only to propagate his species but to propagate virtue and happiness.

Our private charity must also be discriminate. If we insist that a man shall eat even if he do not work, and that his family shall be supported even if he marry without prospect of supporting a family, we merely encourage worthless poverty. We must not put a premium on idleness and reckless marriages, and we must on no account do anything which tends to remove that inequality of circumstances which ought always to exist between the single man and the man with a family.

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