Thomas Malthus was Wrong by Halliday Sutherland 1922
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THE ESSENTIAL FALLACIES OF MALTHUSIAN TEACHING
BIRTH control, in the sense of the prevention of pregnancy by chemical, mechanical, or other artificial means, is being widely advocated as a sure method of lessening poverty and of increasing the physical and mental health of the nation. It is, therefore, advisable to examine these claims and the grounds on which they are based. The following investigation will prove that the propaganda throughout Western Europe and America in favour of artificial birth control is based on a mere assumption, bolstered up by economic and statistical fallacies; that Malthusian teaching is contrary to reason and to fact; that Neo-Malthusian practices are disastrous alike to nations and to individuals; and that those practices are in themselves an offence against the Law of Nature, whereby the Divine Will is expressed in creation.
The Rev. Thomas Malthus, M.A., in 1798 published his Essay on the Principle of Population, His pamphlet was an answer to Condorcet and Godwin, who held that vice and poverty were the result of human institutions and could be remedied by an even distribution of property. Malthus, on the other hand, believed that population increased more rapidly than the means of subsistence, and consequently that vice and poverty were always due to overpopulation and not to any particular form of society or of government. He stated that owing to the relatively slow rate at which the food supply of countries was increased, a high birth-rate inevitably led to all the evils of poverty, war, and high death-rates. In an infamous passage he wrote that there was no vacant place for the superfluous child at Nature's mighty feast; that Nature told the child to be gone; and that she quickly executed her own order. This passage was modified in the second, and deleted from the third edition of the Essay. In later editions he maintained that vice and misery had checked population, that the progress of society might have diminished rather than increased the "evils resulting from the principle of population," and that by "moral restraint" overpopulation could be prevented. As Cannan has pointed out, this last suggestion destroyed the force of the argument against Godwin, who could have replied that in order to make "moral restraint" universal a socialist State was necessary. In order to avoid the evils of overpopulation, Malthus advised people not to marry, or, if they did, to marry late in life and to limit the number of their children by the exercise of self-restraint. He reprobated all artificial and unnatural methods of birth control as immoral, and as removing the necessary stimulus to industry; but he failed to grasp the whole truth that an increase of population is necessary as a stimulus not only to industry, but also as essential to man's moral and intellectual progress.
The theory of Malthus is based on three errors, namely (a) that the population increases in geometrical progression, a progression of I, 2, 4, 8, 16, and so on upwards; (b) that the food supply increases in arithmetical progression, a progression of I, 2, 3, 4, 5, and so on upwards; and (c) that overpopulation is the cause of poverty and disease. If we show that defacto there is no overpopulation it obviously cannot be a cause of anything, nor be itself caused by the joint operation of the first two causes. However, each of the errors can be severally refuted.
(a) In the first place, it is true that a population might increase in geometrical progression, and that a woman might bear thirty children in her lifetime; but it is wrong to assume that because a thing might happen, it therefore does happen. The population, as a matter of fact, does not increase in geometrical progression, because Nature places her own checks on the birth-rate, and no woman bears all the children she might theoretically bear, apart altogether from artificial birth control.
(b) Secondly, the food supply does not of necessity increase in arithmetical progression, I because food is produced by human hands, and is therefore increased in proportion to the increase of workers, unless the food supply of a country or of the world has reached its limit. The food supply of the world might reach a limit beyond which it could not be increased; but as yet this event has not happened, and there is no indication whatsoever that it is likely to happen.
Human life is immediately sustained by food, clothing, shelter, and fuel. Food and clothing are principally derived from fish, fowl, sheep, cattle, and grain, all of which tend, more so than man, to increase in geometrical ratio, although actually their increase in this progression is checked by man or by Nature. As regards shelter there can be no increase at all, either arithmetical or geometrical, apart from the work of human hands. Again, the stock of fuel in or on the earth cannot increase of itself, and is gradually becoming exhausted. On the other hand, within living memory, new sources of fuel, such as petroleum, have been made available, and old varieties of fuel have been used to better advantage, as witness the internal-combustion engine driven by smoke from sawdust. Moreover, in the ocean tides is a vast energy that one day may take the place of fuel.
(c) Thirdly, before anyone can reasonably maintain that overpopulation is the cause of poverty and disease, it is necessary to prove that overpopulation actually exists or is likely to occur in the future. By overpopulation we mean the condition of a country in which there are so many inhabitants that the production of necessaries of livelihood is insufficient for the support of all, with the result that many people are overworked or ill-fed. Under these circumstances the population can be said to press on the soil: and unless their methods of production could be improved, or resources secured from outside, the only possible remedy against the principle of diminishing returns would be a reduction of population; otherwise, the death-rate from want and starvation would gradually rise until it equalled the birth-rate in order to maintain an unhappy equilibrium.
According to Malthusian doctrine overpopulation is the cause of poverty, disease, and war: and consequently, unless the growth of population is artificially restrained, all attempts to remedy social evils are futile. Malthusians claim that "if only the devastating torrent of children could be arrested for a few years, it would bring untold relief." They hold that overpopulation is the root of all social evil, and the truth or falsehood of that proposition is therefore the basis of all their teaching. Now, when Malthusians are asked to prove that this their basic proposition is true, they adopt one of two methods, not of proof, but of evasion. Their first method of evading the question is by asserting that the truth of their proposition is self-evident and needs no proof. To that we reply that the falsity of the proposition can and will be proved. Their second device is to put up a barrage of facts which merely show that all countries, and indeed the earth itself, would have been overpopulated long ago if the increase of population had not been limited by certain factors, ranging from celibacy and late marriages to famines, diseases, wars, and infanticide. The truth of these facts is indisputable, but it is nevertheless a manifest breach of logic to argue from the fact of poverty, disease, and war having checked an increase of population, that therefore poverty, disease, and war are due to an increase of population. It would be as reasonable to argue that, because an unlimited increase of insects is prevented by birds and by climatic changes, therefore an increase of insects accounts for the existence of birds, and for variations of climate. Nor is it of any use for Malthusians to say that overpopulation might be the cause of poverty. They cannot prove that it is the cause of poverty, and, as will be shown in the following chapter, more obvious and probable causes are staring them in the face. For our present purpose it will suffice if we are able to prove that overpopulation has not occurred in the past and is unlikely to occur in the future.
In the first place, the meaning of the word "overpopulation" should be clearly understood. The word does not mean a very large number of inhabitants in a country. If that were its meaning the Malthusian fallacy could be disproved by merely pointing out that poverty exists both in thinly populated and in thickly populated countries. Now, in reality, overpopulation would occur whenever the production of the necessities of life in a country was insufficient for the support of all the inhabitants. For example, a barren rock in the ocean would be overpopulated, even if it contained only one inhabitant. It follows that the term "overpopulation" should be applied only to an economic situation in which the population presses on the soil. The point may be illustrated by a simple example.
Let us assume that a fertile island of 100 acres is divided into 10 farms, each of 10 acres, and each capable of supporting a family of ten. Under these conditions the island could support a population of 1,000 people without being overpopulated. If, however, the numbers in each family increased to 20 the population would press on the soil, and the island, with 2,000 inhabitants, would be an example of overpopulation, and of poverty due to overpopulation.
On the other hand, let us assume that there are only 1,000 people on the island, but that one family of ten individuals has managed to gain possession of eight farms, in addition to their own, and that the other nine families are forced to live on one farm. Obviously, 900 people would be attempting to live under conditions of dire poverty, and the island, with its population of 1,000, would now offer an excellent example, not of overpopulation, but of human selfishness.
My contentions are that poverty is neither solely nor indeed generally related to economic pressure on the soil; that there are many causes of poverty apart altogether from overpopulation; and that in reality overpopulation does not exist in those countries where Malthusians claim to find proofs of social misery due to a high birthrate.
If overpopulation in the economic sense occurred in a closed country, whose inhabitants were either unable or unwilling to send out colonies, it is obvious that general poverty and misery would result. This might happen in small islands, but it is of greater interest to know what does happen.
In a closed country, producing all its own necessities of life and incapable of expansion high birthrate would eventually increase the struggle for existence and would lead to overpopulation, always provided that, firstly, the high birth-rate is accompanied by a low death-rate, and secondly, that the high birth-rate is maintained. For example, although a birth-rate was high, a population would not increase in numbers if the death-rate was equally high. Therefore, a high birth-rate does not of necessity imply that population will be increased or that overpopulation will occur. Again, if the birth-rate fell as the population increased, the danger of overpopulation would be avoided without the aid of a high death-rate. For a moment, however, let us assume that the Malthusian premise is correct, that a high birthrate has led to overpopulation, and that the struggle for existence has therefore increased. Then obviously the death-rate would rise; the effect of the high birth-rate would be neutralised; and beyond a certain point neither the population nor the struggle for existence could be further increased. On these grounds Neo-Malthusians argue that birth-control is necessary precisely to obviate that cruel device whereby Nature strives to restore the balance upset by a reckless increase of births; and that the only alternative to frequent and premature deaths is regulation of the source of life. As a corollary to this proposition they claim that, if the death-rate be reduced, a country is bound to become overpopulated unless the births are artificially controlled. Fortunately it is possible to test the truth of this corollary, because certain definite observations on this very point have been recorded. These observations do not support the argument of birth controllers.
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“If overpopulation or lack of resources created poverty, then Hong Kong should be poor. Hong Kong has 20 times as many people per square mile as India, and no valuable natural resources. Yet Hong Kong is rich; the average income there is higher than in Great Britain or Canada. This is a recent development. In the 1920s, Hong Kong was as poor as India. But in a relatively short time it became rich because of one key ingredient: economic freedom.”
"Adding more people causes problems, but people are also the means to solve these problems. The main fuel to speed our progress is our stock of knowledge, and the brake is our lack of imagination. The ultimate resource is people – skilled, spirited, and hopeful people who will exert their wills and imaginations for their own benefit, and inevitably they will benefit not only themselves but the rest of us as well."