- Politics and Social Issues
Malthus: A Harsh and Unkind Genius?
Malthus: Poor Man's Enemy
Malthus: A Brilliant, Yet Flawed Mind.
The Reverent Thomas Robert Malthus (1766-1834) was one of the most influential men of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Many books have been written about him and his ideas, some of which are as modern as if they were written yesterday.
Malthus maintained world population would not increase indefinitely, sustained by mankind's ability to invent technology and expertise to feed their millions - soon to become billions - as was the popularly held view, especially by the French. (Rousseau and Goodwin, et al).
Malthus said populations would soon outgrow man's capacity to provide resources and human numbers would be curtailed by famine and disease, wars and pollution.
His great early work, "Essay on the Principle of Population, as it Affects the Future Improvement of Society" was immediately influential. Many of his views predated the Evolutionists like Darwin and Russell; avidly read by them as they saw his ideas on population and its "automatic" control as agreeing with what they saw happening around them as man and other creatures evolved; were made extinct, to be replaced by other forms.
But although evidence shows Malthus understood many facets of world society and the often chameleon-like behaviour of his fellows, he seemed to show little love or compassion for them, especially the poor, who he stated "deserved and were responsible for their miserable fate." A view cherished then as it is now in the 21st century as Cameron and the British government tell the underprivileged to "get a job; any job," although there are few jobs actually available of any stripe.
But to be born "on the wrong side of the tracks" in Malthus' time was to suffer degradation and desperation indeed. Malthus and his many adherents opposed the idea of financial help for the poor on the grounds it "just increased their idle behaviour." He accused them of intemperance and drunkenness saying "they cannot save a penny because their money belongs to the nearest pub." All this we hear today in perhaps language better suited to the times and the colourful, unkind bombastic rhetoric learned in our top universities by career delegates. (One of the reason these poor kids riot today is they really can't express their outrage and needs: they lack the education, as many have had no schooling and cannot read nor write, much less hold forth with the eloquence of politicians) We have, indeed "Come a short way, baby!"
The Irish today have little respect for Malthus as he told that nation, "a great part of (your) population should be swept from the soil!" A man of the church he may have been, but hardly a man of Christ.
Malthus was an articulate opponent of the "Poor Laws," instituted to improve the lot of the most marginalized, and a supporter of the "Corn Laws" which sought to raise taxes on grain imports.
Then, as now, currying favour with the ruling classes led to fame, fortune and social advantage; championing the weak and oppressed led nowhere, except perhaps you slept better at night!
When I look at the pasty, lined and haggard faces lining the House of Commons benches in the British Parliament, all I see is the often price of power: early ageing, facile smiles, the twitches from constant lying, hurried "talking over" any questioners (the latter must be taught in Surviving in Parliament 101...if the MP is speaking, he can‘t be interrogated!). In fact, the fittest looking one of the lot is the PM, David Cameron, how long he will stay that way is anyone’s guess (He is developing a bald spot!).
Marx, Engels and Lenin were scornful of Malthus' doctrine, saying (in my words) that is was the typical reactionary nonsense of the bourgeois and designed to keep the poor in deprived situations in order to better the lot of his contemporaries.
Henry Charles Carey, the American economist, strongly disagreed with Malthus, saying, more or less, that good, forward-thinking government will encourage the technology and provide adequate education to its people to control their own birth-rates. He said that enlightened generations will provide the necessary technology to keep up with normal population growth.
My own opinion, for what it is worth, is that Malthus was right in that events will stabilize population growth, not altruistic, far-seeing government. (One, for example, that doesn’t spend half its waking hours helping bankers, or trying to fiddle its expenses!).
But disaster and disease will not do the job before there are far too many of us on the planet for all to enjoy a decent quality of life. And those of the edge in the Malthusian equation: those getting the diseases, suffering the famines and all the rest (mainly the poor) won’t be at all impressed with the Reverend’s ideas at all. Not a little bit.