Monday, 18 July 2011

The Legacy of Thomas Malthus

I was recently reading Concern's statement in 1984 which noted that:

Every new resident has to be supplied with housing, water, hospital facilities and all the other amenities and service required by civilised society.
Earlier today, I was listening to a Radio 4 "In Our Time" discussion on Malthusianism, and the two are linked.

Malthus and the Finite World
In the eighteenth century, as expanding agriculture and industry resulted in a rapid increase in the European population, a number of writers began to consider the implications of this rise in numbers. Some argued it was a positive development, since a larger population meant more workers and thus more wealth. Others maintained that it placed an intolerable strain on natural resources.
In 1798 a young Anglican priest, the Reverend Thomas Malthus, published An Essay on the Principle of Population. Malthus argued that the population was increasing exponentially, and that food production could not keep pace; eventually a crisis would ensue.
Around the time that Malthus was writing, the Agricultural revolution was beginning to make changes increasing food production, and the Industrial revolution would increase general prosperity - the foundations were being laid for an economics of growth in which one could use economic growth to escape from problems, and feed a much greater population off the land.

The result was that his ideas about the collapse of society seemed to be proven untrue, but in fact all that happened is that the problem has simply been delayed, as Western civilisation has managed to "grow" its way out of the consequences of a finite world, but only at the expense of draining natural and non-renewable resources.

But now, the strain on natural resources, in increased fuel costs, and higher costs for food production, are beginning to hit the Western world. While the timing of peak oil may be debatable, no one can doubt that the oil will run out. Malthus' ideas are ripe for resurrection, with his warnings of a collapse of a society which has reach the end of its resources. And our Island, which is so dependent upon imports, is probably harder hit than England.
Malthus and the Theology of Survival

A second part of Malthus thinking also tends to come into play in a society in recession, facing rising costs and taxes, and this is the treatment of the poor. In boom years, there is plenty of extra to distribute, but in more recessionary times, the State looks at reducing this burden, by such means as "user pays", or reducing allowances. This is the darker legacy of Thomas Malthus; the legitimisation of reducing the burden of Welfare costs.

The strain on society can be also seen with the rise of unemployment, and the increasing burden which this calls upon the working population to supply through taxation. Malthus was of the opinion that if you supported the poor, they would breed, and cause more demands on society (under England's poor law) while giving nothing back. He wrote:
"A man who is born into a world already possessed, if he cannot get subsistence from his parents on whom he has a just demand, and if the society do not want his labour, has no claim of right to the smallest portion of food, and, in fact, has no business to be where he is. At nature's mighty feast there is no vacant cover for him."
There is an increasingly loud grumble about the high cost of income support which reflects these kind of sentiments very closely. Income support, we are told, has risen in costs more than it should. There is a call for any suspected (not proven) benefit cheats to be reported. And the support limits are in fact often very low, because of the determination that people who can support themselves should. The results can be seen in the letter by Sonia Nightingale in the JEP:
Where is the fairness of it all? I am a 74 year old Jersey born single pensioner struggling to exist. I have worked all my life, but because my two small pensions (one of which isn't index-linked, so is rapidly decreasing in value) just take me into the income tax bracket, I get no financial help whatsoever. The small amount I was allowed in rent rebate has now also been stopped.
It will be remembered that Malthus was a clergyman, and it may be wondered how such a contrary position on social concern - miles away from the strong Christian and Judaic tradition for social justice - could be squared. Indeed William Cobbett, who called him "Parson Malthus", attacked Malthus' lack of compassion for the poor in his book, writing: "Your book could have sprung from no mind not capable of dictating acts of greater cruelty than any recorded in the history of the massacre of St. Bartholomew". How did Malthus come to views which, on the face of it, seem wholly opposed to Christian notions of charity and compassion? 
Unlike the social tradition of Wilberforce, the Evangelical position of Malthus turned against helping others. He suggested that help in the form of poor relief would only encourage the poor to breed, and not to be productive, and for Malthus this was "vice", aiding a degeneration to the level of animals. As he wrote:

The savage would slumber for ever under his tree unless he were roused from his torpor by the cravings of hunger or the pinchings of cold.... If those stimulants to exertion, which arise from the wants of the body, were removed from the mass of mankind, we have much more reason to think that they would be sunk to the level of brutes, from a deficiency of excitements, than that they would be raised to the rank of philosophers by the possession of leisure.

Malthus sees this as part of the pattern of the world as ordained by God:

The supreme Being has ordained that the earth shall not produce food in great quantities till much preparatory labour and ingenuity has been exercised upon its surface

And of course, he could find support for this in the Old Testament:

"You will have to work hard all your life to make it produce enough food for you. It will produce weeds and thorns, and you will have to eat wild plants. You will have to work hard and sweat to make the soil produce anything, until you go back to the soil from which you were formed. You were made from soil, and you will become soil again." (Genesis 3:17-19)

Against this Malthus put "virtue", which was self-reliance, a lack of dependency on the State for hand-outs:

political economists like Malthus resisted this trend, however, believing that aid to the poor only encouraged the very sins that had made them poor in the first place-laziness, vices like gambling and drink, and sex-having more kids than they could support. They also felt that mandatory taxes and a state-sponsored distribution system undermined the moral character and opportunities of the rich. They insisted that the spiritual needs of the giver-that is, themselves-were at least as important as those of the receivers-the poor. Each act of charity, to be a genuine act of conscience, had to be voluntary, spontaneous and discriminating. (2)

"We cannot, in the nature of things, " Malthus wrote, "assist the poor, in any way, without enabling them to rear up to manhood a greater number of their children."

A direct line can be drawn between these theological ideas of Malthus and the kind of Conservatism espoused by Margaret Thatcher and Norman Tebbit. And there is some truth in it: some people can "milk the system", and become lazy, and fall into a culture of dependency - there is always that possibility inherent in any welfare system or redistributive taxation, so there is an insidious attraction to that kind of argument, especially when it can be given some kind of religious justification.

The same might be seen in part in "The Big Society" where the State is to withdraw, and charities are to fill the gap, so that people can become pro-active in helping others. But as Aneurin Bevan saw with the Health Service, this may not be enough:

Private charity and endowment, although inescapably essential at one time, cannot meet the cost of all this. If the job is to be done, the state must accept financial responsibility.

and he added:

No society can legitimately call itself civilized if a sick person is denied medical aid because of lack of means.

And Charles Dicken's directly challenged the philosophy of Malthus that the poor must be self-reliant or perish: Scrooge says: "the out-of-work and the indigent sick are merely the idle and useless; they had better die and decrease the surplus population."
The story of "A Christmas Carol" is a plea for compassion against numbers, and to show, imaginatively, the consequences of the kind of practice which Malthus was advocating to reduce the population. When the siren calls come against mitigating the effects of poverty, drawing on the same kind of argument which Thomas Malthus made, we should reflect that while there may be some people who abuse a welfare system, it does not mean the system should be dispensed with or made harsher for all the many honest folk who need it, but rather that means should exist for addressing those exceptional cases. Because some abuse the system, it is wrong that everyone else needing it should suffer.

And against Thomas Malthus, comes Dicken's call for compassion to not merely calculate the effect of welfare for poor people in monetary terms, but also to consider them as fellow human beings:

 'But you were always a good man of business, Jacob,' faltered Scrooge, who now began to apply this to himself.

'Business!' cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. 'Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!'

 'At this time of the rolling year,' the spectre said, 'I suffer most. Why did I walk through crowds of fellow-beings with my eyes turned down, and never raise them to that blessed Star which led the Wise Men to a poor abode? Were there no poor homes to which its light would have conducted me?'

(1) JEP Letters Page, 2011

1 comment:

Tom Gruchy said...

Jersy's "defence contribution" is only about £one million per annum and keeps the TA boys and girls busy for a few days a year.At UK rates the cost would be £thirty millions plus - so we should count our blessings on several counts.
Firstly, we have effectively opted for a "pacifist" role re defence contributions. Secondly, this opting out allows us to spend the money on more worthwhile things such as welfare benefits and helping the poorer people here and abroad....

or am I dreaming?