“(..) and I thought that I should not do justice to the subject, and bring it fairly under discussion, if I refused to consider any of the consequences which appeared necessary to flow from it, whatever these consequences might be. By pursuing this plan, however, I am aware that I have opened a door to many objections and, probably, to much severity of criticism: but I console myself with the reflection that even the errors into which I may have fallen, by affording a handle to argument, and an additional excitement to examination, may be subservient to the important end, of bringing a subject so nearly connected with the happiness of society into more general notice.” Malthus, An Essay on the Principle of Population, Cambridge University Press (1992) Preface, p.9.
[Re-posted from The Old Site, original dated 03-08-2008. I am happy to report that I have not changed opinion on it, at all. Even though I never meant it in the way that is of recent en vogue now people are looking for new apocalyptical scenario’s to get worked up about in order to be able to condemn the lifestyle of the many.]
It’s probably thé heresy against woolly thinking: “Charity increases misery.”, and, “Helping out is often just a matter of patronizing.” There is a necessary tendency to overpopulation, and overpopulation is always an issue of the poor. The poor stay poor because the rich need an excess of poverty. Just a couple of really inconvenient things in the line of – I do not claim they are Malthus’ point of view nor even that they can all be based on his findings – Malthus.
[I did, by the way, delete the line “Social security leads to an insecure society.” from the list. This is a) because I think now it is not at all in the line of Malthus and b) because I am by now fed up with people positing something like this and then leaving it at that.]
It’s unfortunate that based on anecdotal evidence a figure and work like that is all but cut out of the rational tradition. Malthus was hugely influential. He predates men like Darwin & Bergson in showing the raw power of the tendencies of nature. He predates much modern moral thinking in pinpointing the differences between what is to happen if nature is to be undergone and what can happen when we intervene based on an understanding of nature and relying on human rationality as it emerges from the long human history of steady progressive insight. It is obvious that much of his work is outdated – that is true across the board for all early Enlightenment science. But be that as it may, the quote shows that – unlike much of the contemporary woolly babble, specifically in the politics of ‘civil society’ – he did make a real attempt at science.
He was right, attempting to be so scientific was his Achilles’ heel. If he had “confined (him)self merely to general views, (..) the work (..) would probably have had a much more masterly air” (ibid.) who knows? It might have been taken as a left wing bible, calling on people to free themselves from patronage 😉 It is an intellectual crime to use erroneous predictions against somebody predicting them in order to find out the value of his hypothesis. But this is exactly what has been done here.
[See first point below as a good basis on which I deleted what I deleted.]
“Birth rates are lowering because of social security.” – “There are excesses of means of subsistence in the West & they do not give rise to increasing birth rates.” – … All of this is true & surely this is because social security has come after education – because the West is characterized by highly individualized moral agents taking responsibility for their own reproduction rather than relying on revelation or custom – …
The point is that now modern economists have rediscovered scarcity of natural supply – whether oil, oxygen or food – we have to rediscover the work of the main man, the man that first made this link between nature and nature´s trend to evolve towards the limits of nature’s means. There is a lot in Malthus that deserves attention in modern day: mainly that simple woolly reflex responses that dabble around with consequences of scarcity are not on, for the simple reason that tendencies in nature cannot be met by opposition. Avoiding nature to run into its own limits (better: into the limits where moral human life is impossible because of scracity) requires smarter responses, requires really moral responses like avoiding the pursuit of always-living-longer-and-longer, avoiding we feel obliged to be quantitatively successful, increasing scientific investigation that is focused on coming to terms with unavoidable, and sometimes whimsical, changes in nature &c & so forth, …
In any case we will not solve such spiraling-out-of-control by denying our own human nature in striving for our individual independence and for our access to independent thought. Nevertheless, this is the popular left-green-wing solution of ‘back to the roots’. Make no mistake about this: ‘back to the roots’ will mean that the reality of Malthus’ examples becomes accutely modern again, because we are overcoming the misery of being undergoing the tendencies of nature and going back unavoidable means going back to more primitive times where charity did not provide social security to anybody but the rich who could so buy out their own conscience ;-(
[Whilst writing this I was listening (to my increasing disappointment) to Edvard Grieg, Peer Gynt Suites ETC, Chandos Digital.]