Commentary: The Specter Of Robert Malthus, Part 2

This article is a continuation of a commentary on Robert Malthus, click here for Part 1. In short, I have to say that Malthus is a very mean and nasty guy. His words are so terrible in his book, An Essay On The Principle Of Population, that I cannot bring myself to summarize them in my own words. So, I will simply quote him here; but first some definitions.

Thomas Robert Malthus Wellcome L0069037 -crop.jpg

Poor Laws: A set of laws in effect from about 1530 to WWII. These laws guaranteed the support of the poor in England and Wales. In effect, it was welfare. Welfare was considered the realm of the parish (church). Unfortunately, the parish would pass the cost on to its parishioners in the form of a tax. Of course, the wealthy did not like this.

Workhouse: In today’s parlance, it would be called public housing. People are given a bed and food, and help is provided for finding employment.

When Malthus was writing his book (circa 1800), there appears to have been a movement to remove the poor laws. Apparently, things then are like things today, the rich do not like helping the poor. England was in the middle of an industrial revolution and select people were getting wealthy. Like to day, employers desire to pay low wages, sell products at high prices; then employers get angry when the government raises taxes on the rich to help the poor when consumers cannot afford to buy the products that they make.

“The poor laws of England tend to depress the general condition of the poor in these two ways. Their first obvious tendency is to increase population without increasing the food for its support. A poor man may marry with little or no prospect of being able to support a family in independence. They may be said therefore in some measure to create the poor which they maintain, and as the provisions of the country must, in consequence of the increased population, be distributed to every man in smaller proportions, it is evident that the labour of those who are not supported by parish assistance will purchase a smaller quantity of provisions than before and consequently more of them must be driven to ask for support.

Secondly, the quantity of provisions consumed in workhouses upon a part of the society that cannot in general be considered as the most valuable part diminishes the shares that would otherwise belong to more industrious and more worthy members, and thus in the same manner forces more to become dependent.”

This next section has all the subtleties of the common and mean cliches that we hear in society today: Protestant Work Ethic, work builds character and self-esteem, a penny saved is a penny earned. These worn out phrases lose their meaning during a pandemic when workers spend all their day searching the job boards and end up getting scammed because someone offered them a work-at-home job as a “package manager”.

“The labouring poor, to use a vulgar expression, seem always to live from hand to mouth. Their present wants employ their whole attention, and they seldom think of the future. Even when they have an opportunity of saving they seldom exercise it, but all that is beyond their present necessities goes, generally speaking, to the ale-house. The poor laws of England may therefore be said to diminish both the power and the will to save among the common people, and thus to weaken one of the strongest incentives to sobriety and industry, and consequently to happiness.

It is a general complaint among master manufacturers that high wages ruin all their workmen, but it is difficult to conceive that these men would not save a part of their high wages for the future support of their families, instead of spending it in drunkenness and dissipation, if they did not rely on parish assistance for support in case of accidents. And that the poor employed in manufactures consider this assistance as a reason why they may spend all the wages they earn and enjoy themselves while they can appears to be evident from the number of families that, upon the failure of any great manufactory, immediately fall upon the parish, when perhaps the wages earned in this manufactory while it flourished were sufficiently above the price of common country labour to have allowed them to save enough for their support till they could find some other channel for their industry.”

I think it is good to remember that Malthus is an ordained Anglican minister. It sounds from the tone that this book is really a sermon. But a sermon that is not Anglican; rather, Calvinist. In the Calvinist view, poverty is a sign of predestined damnation – no protestant work ethic. Thus, one could conclude that it is pointless to help the poor because they “deserve it”. Please read on.

“They [the poor] are taught that there is no occasion whatever for them to put any sort of restraint upon their inclinations, or exercise any degree of prudence in the affair of marriage; because the parish is bound to provide for all that are born. They are taught that there is as little occasion to cultivate habits of economy, and make use of the means afforded them by saving banks, to lay by their earnings while they are single, in order to furnish a cottage when they marry, and enable them to set out in life with decency and comfort; because, I suppose, the parish is bound to cover their nakedness, and to find them a bed and a chair in a workhouse.

They are taught that any endeavour on the part of the higher classes of society to inculcate the duties of prudence and economy can only arise from a desire to save the money which they pay in poor-rates; although it is absolutely certain that the only mode consistent with the laws of morality and religion of giving to the poor the largest share of the property of the rich, without sinking the whole community in misery, is the exercise on the part of the poor of prudence in marriage, and of economy both before and after it.”

Malthus has some more really mean things to say. I will present that in Part 3, next week. Stay tuned.

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