Godwin’s Refutation of Malthus

William Godwin (1756-1836) was the author of perhaps the first systematic exposition of anarchist ideas, An Enquiry Concerning Poltitical Justice and Its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness (1793; excerpts are reprinted in Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, Volume One: From Anarchy to Anarchism (300CE-1939), Selection 4). Published at the height of the French Revolution, Godwin’s book was at first well received and very influential. But with England declaring war on revolutionary France, Godwin was caught up in the growing tide of reaction, becoming the target of a widespread campaign of vilification and abuse. One of his critics was Thomas Malthus, who in his 1798 essay, “On the Principle of Population,” argued that Godwin’s ideas were impossibly utopian and contrary to nature, such that any attempt to implement them would make matters worse for everybody. Malthus asserted, without any evidence in support, that population increases geometrically, while food production can only increase arithmetically, such that it is impossible to overcome poverty and starvation among the lower classes. Malthus’ ideas became accepted truisms among those opposed to any meaningful social change, and would later inspire the Victorian era Social Darwinists, who also argued against social reform on the specious pretext that “nature” should be allowed to take its course. This ideological misuse of Darwin’s theory of natural selection was later subjected to a thoroughgoing critique by Peter Kropotkin (1842-1921), the renowned anarchist communist, in his book, Mutual Aid (1902). Proudhon’s attack on Malthusianism is included in my Proudhon Bicentennial page.

Godwin responded to Malthus, pointing out that the amelioration of poverty generally reduces population growth, and that food production can be increased by a variety of means in order to meet the needs of an increasing population. The following excerpts are taken from Peter Marshall’s The Anarchist Writings of William Godwin (London: Freedom Press, 1986), pp. 136-139:

There is a principle in the nature of human society by means of which everything seems to tend to its level, and to proceed in the most auspicious way, when least interfered with by the mode of regulation. In a certain stage of the social progress, population seems rapidly to increase… In a subsequent stage, it undergoes little change, either in the way of increase or diminution; this is the case in the more civilized countries of Europe. The number of inhabitants in a country will perhaps never be found in the ordinary course of affairs greatly to increase beyond the facility of subsistence.
Nothing is more easy than to account for this circumstance. So long as there is a facility of subsistence, men will be encouraged to early marriages, and to a careful rearing of their children… In many European countries, on the other hand, a large family has become a proverbial expression for an uncommon degree of poverty and wretchedness. The price of labour in any state, so long as the spirit of accumulation shall prevail, is an infallible barometer of the state of its population. It is impossible where the price of labour is greatly reduced, and an added population threatens a still further reduction, that men should not be considerably under the influence of fear, respecting an early marriage, and a numerous family.
There are various methods by the practice of which population may be checked; by the exposing of children, as among the ancients… by the art of procuring abortion… by a promiscuous intercourse of the sexes, which is found extremely hostile to the multiplication of the species; or, lastly, by a systematical abstinence, such as must be supposed, in some degree, to prevail in monasteries of either sex. But, without any express institution of this kind, the encouragement or discouragement that arises from the general state of a community will probably be found to be all-powerful in its operation.
Supposing however that population were not thus adapted to find its own level, it is obvious to remark upon the objection of this chapter that to reason thus is to foresee difficulties at a great distance. Three fourths of the habitable globe are now uncultivated. The improvements to be made in cultivation, and the augmentations the earth is capable of receiving in the article of productiveness, cannot, as yet, be reduced to any limits of calculation. Myriads of centuries of still increasing population may pass away, and the earth be yet found sufficient for the support of its inhabitants. It were idle therefore to conceive discouragement from so distant a contingency.
Let us apply these remarks to the condition of society… in which a great degree of equality and an ardent spirit of benevolence are assumed to prevail. We have found that, in the community in which we live, one of the great operative checks upon an increasing population arises from virtue, prudence or pride. Will there be less of virtue, prudence and honourable pride in such a condition of society, than there is at present? It is true, the ill consequences of a numerous family will not come so coarsely home to each man’s individual interest, as they do at present. It is true, a man in such a state of society might say, ‘if my children cannot subsist at my expense, let them subsist at the expense of my neighbour’. But it is not in the human character to reason after this manner in such a situation. The more men are raised above poverty and a life of expedients, the more decency will prevail in their conduct, and sobriety in their sentiments. Where everyone has a character, no one will be willing to distinguish himself by headstrong imprudence. Where a man possesses every reasonable means of pleasure and happiness, he will not be in a hurry to destroy his own tranquility or that of others by thoughtless excess.
If I look to the past history of the world, I do not see that increasing population has produced such convulsions as he [Malthus] predicts from it, or that vice and misery alone have controlled and confined it; and, if I look to the future, I cannot so despair of the virtues of man to submit to the most obvious rules of prudence, or of the faculties of man to strike out remedies as yet unknown, as to convince me that we ought to sit down forever contented with all oppression, abuses and inequality, which we now find fastened on the necks, and withering the hearts, of so great a portion of our species.
I have endeavoured to show: 1) that we have no authentic documents to prove any increase in the numbers of mankind, and that, if there is any tendency to increase, exclusively of the counteracting causes that are to be traced in the annals of history, which is by no means certain, that tendency is of the most moderate description; 2) that the counteracting causes are neither constant nor regular in their operation, and have nothing in them of an occult and mysterious nature; and 3) that the means which the earth affords for the subsistence of man are subject to no assignable limits, and that the nourishment of human beings in civilized society can never, unless in the case of seasons peculiarly unfavourable, sustain any other difficulty, till the whole globe has been raised to a very high degree of cultivation, except such as arises from political institutions.

Published on March 11, 2010 at 11:08 am  Leave a Comment  

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