Henry George on Thomas Robert Malthus: Abundance vs. Scarcity

By Horner, Jim | The American Journal of Economics and Sociology, October 1997 | Go to article overview

Henry George on Thomas Robert Malthus: Abundance vs. Scarcity


Horner, Jim, The American Journal of Economics and Sociology


I

Introduction

The population debate is essentially a struggle between "reactionary" and "radical" social thought. No one has had more of an impact on the population debate than Thomas Robert Malthus. His reactionary work, Essays in the Principles of Population, created an economics of scarcity and austerity that served to promote inequality in defense of a landed aristocracy. Malthusian theory has survived two centuries and continues to be at the center of the population debate, the controversy over the limits to economic growth, and the argument concerning the nature and causes of poverty (Myrdal, 1962, 5-6)

Henry George, writing a century after the dismal economist, understood the ideological function that Malthusian economics served. He provided a most thorough critique of Malthus in Progress and Poverty. George's radical paradigm provided an economics of abundance and social justice. He insisted that poverty did not result from nature as Malthus contended, but rather from the social policies that protect the landed class at the expense of the poor.

To demonstrate once again that Malthus was mistaken in his predictions on population and the output of food would be a waste of time. He as much as admitted that he was wrong in the second edition of Essays on the Principles of Population. Instead, the purpose of this paper is to compare the economics, religion, and policy implications of Malthusian and Georgist population theory. The comparison will explore the invidious character of the Malthusian ideology and the compassionate character of Georgist ideology. (1)

II

Malthus: A Defense of the Landed Class

Demographic and social conditions were major concerns in the 50 years preceding the first edition of the Essay on the Principles of Population (1798). Fertility rates were relatively high and birth control was not widely practiced, as it was considered to be a sin. Why did similar treatises on population (written before 1798) fail to draw as much attention as the work of Malthus? The answer is to be found in the impact of the French Revolution (Myrdal, 1962, 5-6).

The Revolution erased all vestiges of feudalism in France. The landed class in England feared a dual threat - an armed one and an ideological one. The image of revolting masses in France overrunning the feudal armies was unnerving enough. But even more daunting, a revolutionary ideology had the potential to liberate the "peasants" from the sacred clutch of Church doctrine and the philosophy of a ruling elite. A countervailing ideology based on reason, nature, and religion could serve as a defense of the status quo. Malthus, a parson and an economist, provided such a doctrine.

Parson Malthus became a guardian of the "old rugged cross" and of the "landed aristocracy" and implored "the common man to nail himself to the former and to bow down to the latter" (Dugger, 1990, 154). He saw little hope that the human race could overcome its natural tendency toward vice and its ability to overcome the limits of nature. (2) Nature is parsimonious, and the poor have a proclivity toward the "vice of promiscuous intercourse" (Malthus, 1933b, 181-182).

Natural laws rule out equality, as some individuals are inevitably condemned to misery. Human institutions are not to blame for the plight of the poor. These "unhappy" souls have "drawn a blank" in the "great lottery of life," and in no way does justice require that they receive an "equal share in the produce of the earth" (Malthus, 1933b, 20). Their salvation is to be found in the religion of chastity, spirit of abstinence, and obedience to the ruling class. Salvation springs neither from revolution nor from "the freest, the most perfect, and best executed government that the human mind could conceive" (Malthus, 1933b, 214).

Economist Malthus saw population growing at a geometric rate while the necessities of life grew at an arithmetic rate. Increases in wages would ultimately result in greater population so that a higher standard of living could not be maintained. …

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