Tuesday, April 26, 2005

The Real Thomas Malthus

Yesterday I connected social Darwinism with conservatism, but didn't make the link as explicit as I had wished. True enough, Darwin himself struggled with religious belief but landed on the atheist side.

Darwinism has a distinctly "conservative" conceptual origin. Darwin's idea of natural selection came from Thomas Malthus's Essay on Population. As David Stove summarizes,

There was a cruel irony in this affair. For Malthus was, along with Edmund Burke and Joseph de Maistre, one of the bitterest enemies, and wisest critics, of the Enlightenment; while evolutionism (as I have said) was a regular element of the Enlightenment's intellectual armoury. Yet in the 1830s and '40s when evolutionists had got hopelessly stalled by the problem of explaining evolution, it was Malthus, and he alone, who provided them with the explanation which they themselves had been seeking in vain. (20)
Schemes for community of property or for the equalisation of wealth had been pouring out of France for 50 years when Malthus first published his Essay. They came from the pens of Mably, Rousseau, and Morelly, among others. In the 1790s such schemes had been powerfully advocated in France by Condorcet and Baboeuf, and in England by William Godwin in Political Justice (1793), and Thomas Paine in The Rights of Man (1792). But Malthus was convinced that [what was effectively] communism would replace the existing comparative poverty by most by the absolute poverty of all, and that it would, in the process, destroy everything which distinguishes the civilised from the savage state.... (39)

Malthus' Essay on Population of 1798....claimed to point out a fatal flaw in all proposals for abolishing private property, or for equalising wealth. (20)

Despite Malthus's failure on biological reasoning, his economic arguments stand on their own:

His economic argument against communism was, that where no one could hope to improve their own or their children's economic position, and no one need fear to worsen it, no one would have a sufficient motive to work or save or limit the number of their children. His main argument against 'creeping socialism', such as the Poor Law system was that it created the poverty it was intended to relieve: both by economically rewarding those who depend upon the system, and by economically penalising those who do not. (50)

Sound familiar?

Stove faults the many who have never read Malthus for misrepresentating his ideas. (As one who has only read Stove and not Malthus, I could well belong to this category.) The conventional wisdom on Malthus errs on other counts as well:

  1. "Malthus's Essay, say advocates, neither openly or covertly, the practice of contraception. Nothing could be further from the from than this belief. Malthus was fiercely opposed to contraception, and made this fact sufficiently clear in his book." (He classes contraception as "vice.")
  2. "an even more grotesque misconception about the Essay is.... the belief that Malthus, with wonderful prescience, had written his book in order to warn humanity of the catastrophic 'over-population' which was even then impending over us, and which is now—because we have failed to heed his warning—about to descend upon us." (40; theory would produce a stable state.)

The pithiest rejoiner to Malthus (and similarly to eugenicists and evolutionists) was penned by William Godwin in his 1820 essay Of Population. If Malthus's proposition that food scarcity is the primary restraint on population growth, he says, "then the English would have long ago become a people of nobles."

David Stove, Darwinian Fairytales (Brookfield, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 1995).

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