Misery and the Fear of Misery: Musings on Malthus and Henry George

As you might have noticed, I have an on-going interest in working my way through old and intellectually influential reading material. Occasionally I even share my thoughts on it, which allows me to take a break from my generally-dominant Tolkien analysis. Well, today I thought I would take a look at a pair of older thinkers within the sphere of Political Economy: Reverend Thomas Malthus and Henry George. The former all the rage at the start of the nineteenth century, the latter at the end.

Malthus is the better-known one these days, of course, but for those of you who haven’t stumbled across him, he wrote a tract called An Essay on the Principle of Population, which came out in 1798, and which started life as a response to William Godwin (a chap now better known as the Dad of Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein). Malthus then put out extended and revised editions of the same work in the first few decades of the nineteenth century. The Essay’s argument was that human population growth will always tend to outstrip the ability of the population to feed itself – an interesting point, but one that gets overshadowed by the conclusions Malthus draws from that premise.

Visceral disgust at said conclusions is actually what has motivated me to write this blog post – let’s just say that not since I read Nabokov’s Lolita in 2018 have I felt quite as queasy about my reading material. And I’ve read stuff from sodding Joseph de Maistre.

The problem with Malthus – a problem bad enough to turn him into the sort of pantomime villain you want to dig up and throw things at – is that he uses his premise to conclude that any action to alleviate social suffering will only make suffering worse. Any action, that is, save for the promotion of moral restraint – a point he sought to emphasise in later editions in response to the (perfectly understandable) criticism that he was Fucking Evil.

(He literally had to rebut the accusation that he thought plagues and famines were positive things).

To summarise the arguments of Malthus’ essay:

  • Human beings naturally want to reproduce. Population thus grows at a geometric rate, doubling every twenty-five years if there are no natural limits (as he argued was the case in 1800 America. As an aside, he thought the White population of the United States would eventually drive the native population into extinction via their unchecked increase).
  • Food production is inherently limited, only able to grow at a linear rate.
  • Thus population will outstrip food production, leading to suffering, and ensuring Godwin’s utopian dream is impossible.
  • What keeps population in check is “misery and the fear of misery” (a great line, I’ll give him that). People know they’ll suffer economic deprivation if they have too many children.
  • Assistance to the poor, whether in the form of the contemporary Poor Laws or something more radical, reduces the obstacles to having more children. It only encourages the poor to breed, which leads to a population increase.
  • The population increase increases labour supply, driving down wages.. and putting the poor back into poverty.
  • The only way out is to encourage moral restraint – people ought to restrain their breeding instinct. It is the poor’s own damned fault for having children they cannot afford.
  • Switching the English diet away from wheat and towards milk and potatoes (as advocated by Arthur Young, who wanted to give land and cows to labourers in what amounts to proto-Distributism) would just turn England into Ireland. Population increases, so crop failures means you get inevitable famines anyway.

The kicker is that Malthus had three children himself, though he would no doubt argue that he was the sort of person who ought to be having children. He was, after all, a well-fed Anglican Cleric and academic, not a peasant or labourer.

If you have ever wondered about Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol alluding to the poor “dying to reduce the surplus population,” that is Charles Dickens having a jibe at Malthus. Malthus’ view would posit Bob Cratchit as the real villain of the story, for having Tiny Tim at all… while Old Scrooge ought to be considered a bona fide moral hero. Indeed, I almost wonder whether Dickens actually ought to have made Scrooge self-righteous – Malthus insists he is a friend of the poor – rather than a misanthrope. Meanwhile, the British Government’s attitude towards the disaster of the Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s was at least partly informed by Malthus’ ideas, which would hold that the moral laxity of the Irish peasantry was running up against natural limits of food production. If you feed starving people, it will only encourage them to add more children to the equation.

Charming. Absolutely charming. Malthus’ Essay is the doctrine of the patronising psychopath, and it is easy to see why so many thinkers and writers in the nineteenth century went out of their way to prove him wrong. Our infamous Reverend became quite the intellectual pinata for a while, and for good reason. Because, yes, Malthus is wrong in most of his premises and conclusions. Technological advances are commonly thought to have defeated Malthus via increasing food supply, but frankly, I think a better rebuttal is that Malthus had no idea about why the poor were actually having children. In the absence of a social welfare system, children are a retirement plan for one’s Old Age. Or themselves a source of productive labour (“children have two hands, but only one mouth”). Rather than simply encouraging more useless mouths to feed, twentieth century welfare and education reforms have actually reduced the incentive to have children – it is now realised that the best way to reduce Third World population growth is to educate women. Suffice to say, Malthus never advocates for either widespread female education or Old Age pensions.

So much for the Malthus bashing (and he is oh so easy to bash). But can we say anything in his favour?

One thought I had is that Malthus was developing his ideas at the worst possible time historically. Malthus’ conclusions about the inverse relationship between population and wages are actually a much better fit for the era of 1250-1650, where the massive die-off during the Black Death and ensuing epidemics meant that an English labourer in the mid-fifteenth century commanded the highest real wages they would see until the late Victorian era. By contrast, the population increase in the sixteenth century meant that real wages had plunged by 1600. Malthus, however, was writing in 1800, as Britain was undergoing the Industrial Revolution, a time period when the increase in productivity was serving to wreck his conclusions at the very time he was making them.

And, ironically, I think he has more accidental resonance in our own era than during the peak of his popularity two centuries ago. Resonance, that is, not relevance. Malthus might be an ideological ancestor of right-wing talking-points about welfare bludgers having children at state expense, but some of his ideas resurfaced in the second half of the twentieth century among environmentalists. One of George R.R. Martin’s Tuf Voyaging stories from the 1970s-1980s actually deals with Malthusian themes in a science-fiction context, where our protagonist is literally forced to rain down birth control*. But really, I think focusing on the dangers of population expansion is barking up the wrong tree. The global population is peaking, and birth rates in the West have been below replacement levels for a long time. No, I think Malthus’ modern resonance comes from his more general observation that we ultimately live on a finite planet, with finite resources, and that needs to be taken into account in our calculations. Technology might have made a fool of Malthus long ago, but as the Western World is now realising, resource underpinnings can be fragile things.

So in a strange sense, Malthus had his sights set both too early and too late. And he’s a confounded monster in his own era, with the shadow of much preventable nineteenth century suffering to be laid at his door. But he’s not too technical a writer, so if you are in the mood to be disturbed in a “this guy probably thinks A Modest Proposal is a seriously good idea” way, give a chapter or two a go.

*Speaking of speculative fiction, the self-righteous reverse-perspective Gandalf in Jacqueline Carey’s Sundering duology is called Malthus. Seeing as he’s literally fighting the god responsible for gifting people with a sex-drive, the choice of name evokes a smile.

As I have mentioned, Malthus had critics enough, to a degree that having a go at him is really beating a dead horse in a vaguely satisfying manner. But one of these critics, Henry George, is interesting for other reasons. Obscure today, George was a late nineteenth century American economist, whose Progress and Poverty (1879) was a best-seller, and which attracted adoration among the social reformers of his era. In the book, George takes time out, again and again, to savage Malthus, claiming that the Reverend was blasphemously putting the blame for human-created suffering onto the Divinely-created natural order. That’s the entertaining thing about nineteenth century non-fiction writers – they are prone to literary flourishes in a way no current writer dares attempt.

But the real target of Progress and Poverty was not Malthus. Rather, it was an attempt to explain how wealthy, industrialised societies are still prone to poverty, without either resorting to blaming the victims (Malthus) or blaming the entire capitalist system (Marx). George settles on the conclusion that private ownership of land is the problem – which can be addressed via replacing all existing taxes with a tax on the undeveloped value of land, though he’s radical enough to think that outright confiscation of private land would not actually go amiss. It’s a truly hilarious moment in the book, where, having spent a couple of hundred pages building up his argument against rent-seeking behaviour, he then calmly informs us that we need to abolish private ownership of land, and the reader is left thinking “bloody hell. That escalated quickly.”

George’s argument might be summarised as follows:

  • Total Production = Income from Land (Rents) + Income from Labour (Wages) + Income from Capital (Interest)
  • Wages come out of the value of the thing produced, not out of capital. Thus Labour and Capital are not actually at odds with each other, and indeed higher wages are associated with higher interest, and lower wages are associated with lower interest. Labour and Capital ought to be partners (and as an aside, I think George’s argument is relevant to modern discussions of the minimum wage and unemployment).
  • Owners of land are not actively contributing to production, but merely siphoning off value from Labour and Capital. They are passive beneficiaries to the whole thing – the land would still actually be available for use if it were owned in common.
  • As rents increase, the share of income that goes to Labour and Capital drops – basically, using the above equation, production is constant, rents go up, so the other two variables must go down.
  • Land values are significantly higher in well-established places like London, because the collective interactions of the community have added value to the land without the owners needing to lift a finger.
  • Thus one encounters low wages and low interest in London, and hence poverty.

In short, parasitic landlords are distorting the economy, by taking wealth away from productive endeavours and giving it to completely unproductive ones, increasing poverty in the process. This is why George emphasises that a land tax ought to be only on the undeveloped value, and not include any improvements – an increase in unimproved value not actually being the product of any effort from Labour or Capital, but merely an unhappy side-accident for everyone save the landlord.

(George also resorts to arguing for a land tax as the most pragmatic solution to the situation. The state buying up private land would reward the parasites, and outright confiscation – while morally justified – would make the bastards scream. Better to just tax the unearned value away instead. Again, George is only interested in the undeveloped land, not the developed houses sitting on top).

The latter part of the book devolves into a seriously weird musing on the survival of civilisation (“We can avoid the fate of Rome if only we properly tax land!”) and then into even weirder musings on the human condition and the Meaning of Life. Not quite what I was expecting from a text whose real purpose is to argue for one particular fiscal policy. I think it one of George’s weaknesses that, like the later Social Creditors, he imagines that all the world’s problems might be solved in one fell swoop via the adoption of one esoteric measure. But he definitely gets points for the sheer gusto with which he approaches his subject – he is one of those writers who dares to Dream Big.

I think if I had to critique George, it would be that I am not entirely convinced by his assumption that rental income, wages, and interest are independent variables – that is, I am not sure that clobbering rents would result in a one-to-one flow of wealth to Labour and Capital. Moreover, there are practical issues of applying land taxes in situations where someone is asset rich and cash poor – albeit the Georgist system is deliberately designed to ensure the most productive use of land, so maybe elderly widows living in mansions is something that ought to be eliminated anyway. And I am certainly not convinced that a single tax on land could fund the apparatus of the modern state.

(There is also the point that George’s desire to Dream Big means that he misses the one point Malthus actually gets right. George thinks we can more or less ignore resource limits in pursuit of human prosperity, a sentiment that has aged badly).

But I think overall George has aged pretty well, certainly far better than Malthus. Modern economists frequently consider land taxation to be a highly non-distortionary form of taxation, since supply is more or less static and the real weight of the tax falls upon the land-owner, who tends to be well-off anyway. In New Zealand in particular, our economy is indeed riddled with rent-seeking behaviour, with a tax system that encourages investment in property at the expense of more productive endeavours. Our rich don’t run businesses, they get rich from owning dozens of houses, even as the poor live in garages and cars. Busting landlords on the scale George proposes would be very unpopular with the Powers That Be (and would actually affect Members of Parliament too, since most of them are landlords), but then revolutions rarely are popular with the sort of people who own everything.

George’s book is more technical than Malthus, especially the first half, but there’s nothing in there that would really scare away anyone with at least a high-school understanding of Economics. The major issue with it is probably the length of the book, which as noted, goes into some weird and unexpected directions towards the end. But George deserves to be better known in 2022, and I think his insights are particularly relevant in the age of the Property Bubble.

2 thoughts on “Misery and the Fear of Misery: Musings on Malthus and Henry George

  1. I think some ancient civilizations practiced infanticide, probably as a means of population control. I would tend to assume that the purpose of this was to ensure that population did not outrun the food supply.

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    • There seems to be some evidence for that among hunter-gatherers, though there might well have been other reasons too, especially female infanticide in warlike tribes. Plutarch’s accusations against Sparta are now considered dubious, and even if true were more a sort of eugenics anyway, rather than Malthusian behaviour.

      But hunter-gatherers offing offspring to maintain the food supply is a bit different from an industrialised modern state refusing to provide aid to the poor because it thinks the poor will only breed more. For one, the cultural norms are utterly different. For another, there was sufficient food available to feed Ireland – it was a policy decision not to. And finally hunter-gatherers dealing with infanticide and elderly-offing is a matter of age profile (“who can contribute?”), not a moral judgement. Well-fed elites aren’t starving the lower-ranks “for their own good”.

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