Below are some excerpts from William Hazlitt’s Reply to Malthus’s Essay on Population (1807).
I hadn’t previously given any thought to Hazlitt, but I noticed that David Bromwich wrote a biography about him. This made me curious, as Bromwich dresses himself up as a Burkean, albeit of a left-liberal variety.
Edmund Burke, of course, was the great target of Thomas Paine’s harshest criticisms. But he was also the target of Hazlitt’s low opinion, probably influenced by Paine. Hazlitt and Paine seem of a more similar mindset and political persuasion. Interestingly, Hazlitt’s response to Malthus was published just two years before Paine’s death (1809 also being the year of Abraham Lincoln’s birth, a man who was early influenced by Paine’s radicalism, although he learned to hide that influence as an experienced professional politician).
I don’t know what Burke would have said of Malthus’s arguments. Apparently, like Malthus, he was against a right to subsistence; whatever form it might take, whether a social safety net for the poor or Paine’s citizen’s dividend. So, the two were in the same British vein of thought, in defense of plutocracy and aristocracy—as it began to take the form in modern capitalism, specifically in terms of meritocracy (i.e., a proto-Social Darwinian scapegoating of the poor). In this, both were opponents of Paine’s radicalism, which oddly was more in line with ancient British tradition (i.e., the Commons and “The Charter of the Forest”)—especially as it took shape with the Country Party, the “Country” referring to those areas where both the Commons survived the longest and radical politics began the earliest; the strongholds of the Diggers and Levellers, the Puritans and Quakers; the areas of the much older Celtic, Anglo-Saxon, and Scandinavian ancestries.
Paine was always one to see through such pathetic defenses of unjust power, such moral sophistry. He understood, as did other supposed radicals, that the poor were made, not born. The reason he understood this is because he saw it happen firsthand, by way of the enclosure movement or what Marxists refer to as primitive accumulation; theft by another name, in this case theft of land and livelihood. Is it a surprise that people become poor and desperate when the rich and powerful take everything away from them, even their homes, destroying entire villages and throwing the residents to the street? Being a feudal peasant isn’t so bad compared to being a landless peasant, constantly threatened by starvation and disease, prison and the noose.
Hazlitt may not have had the radical vision and revolutionary fervor of Paine, but he spoke with the same tone of dissent against brute power and class supremacy. They both recognized the hollowness of such arguments against the pleas of those made desperate (poverty and unemployment being realities Paine knew from personal experience). The moral outrage motivating Hazlitt’s able dissection of Malthusianism is the same basic complaint Paine penned in his famous takedown of Burke’s glorifying of the oppressive French monarchy while ignoring the violent oppression, the suffering and starvation of the masses.
What turns my mind to such voices from the past is that they still resonate. Other than the writing style, these views could easily be written today.
The present political right likes to insult the intelligence of the well-informed, by pretending that the clarion of progressivism wasn’t heard until Franklin Delano Roosevelt, that modern liberalism was invented by hippies or maybe even communists. That is all bullshit and everyone would know it was bullshit, if the American education system did a better job at teaching history. Mass ignorance allows the right-wing to get away with their games of spin and lies. Sadly, many mainstream liberals willingly play along with this game, because too many of them also fear the moral force that flows down the centuries of Anglo-American tradition.
These are old debates that strike deeply upon unhealed wounds. They didn’t arise from the culture wars of the late twentieth century. These contentious issues were creating divisions long before the United States was founded, long even before the entire early modern revolutionary era. The most basic conflict took full form with the English Civil War, but ultimately goes even further back, as the struggle to maintain the Commons (and the common law) began with Norman Invasion. If the gauntlet thrown down by the likes of Hazlitt and Paine was radicalism, it was a radicalism at the heart the Anglo-American tradition and at the foundation of Western Civilization.
That is what scared Burke shitless. It still scares many others shitless, even as (or maybe because) this supposed radicalism has come to be seen as increasingly reasonable and necessary. Reactionary politics thrives on fear.
John Adams, in speaking of the world he saw taking shape, argued that it was no “Age of Reason,” and so, after a litany of failures and horrors, he bitterly quipped, “Then call it the Age of Paine.” He was too early in making such a declaration. It took some centuries for Paine’s vision of justice to take root, although it is far from full ripening fruition.
As Philip Clark explained:
Like Thomas Paine in “Common Sense” (which, in its day, contained anything but “common” or widely-held beliefs), Hazlitt defends the right of the people to self-governance, and does so with a righteous anger worthy of Paine: “…you [speaking about the defenders of monarchy] would make the throne every thing, and the people nothing, to be yourself less than nothing, a very slave, a reptile, a creeping, cringing sycophant, a court favorite, a pander to Legitimacy – that detestable fiction, which would make you and me and all mankind its slaves or victims…” It is difficult, in the present day, to convey how radical Hazlitt’s argument is; we have largely taken for granted those liberties – freedom of expression, representative government and the rights of the accused – for which Hazlitt is fighting, but it is on the foundations of these arguments that our society has been built, and for this we owe him and his compatriots a greater debt than we recognize.
Despite all the continuing injustices, those old school “classical liberal” radicals would be amazed by how far progressive reform has gone. We continue those centuries-old debates and yet at least the poor no longer starve in the streets. Even conservatives, despite the empty claims of some, wouldn’t genuinely want to return to how bad things once were. That is a sign of progress, however meager it may seem in contrast to ever more radical visions of tangible freedom, beyond mere freedom from the most cruel oppressions.
In that light, read the following words of Hazlitt. Similar critiques, in simpler language, could just as easily be writing against the likes of Ayn Rand, William Buckley, or Russell Kirk. Without ever having heard of Hazlitt, his argument is already familiar, as is what he is arguing against. The past few centuries of Anglo-American politics have been a broken record.
Thomas Malthus’s argument can be summed up in a statement made a few years ago by Andre Bauer, a Republican politician:
“My grandmother was not a highly educated woman, but she told me as a small child to quit feeding stray animals. You know why? Because they breed. You’re facilitating the problem if you give an animal or a person ample food supply. They will reproduce, especially ones that don’t think too much further than that. And so what you’ve got to do is you’ve got to curtail that type of behavior. They don’t know any better.”
That is the attitude that the Hazlitts of the world have been endlessly fighting against. It’s a worthy fight, no matter how tiresome.
* * * *
“Mr. Malthus says that the true cause of the difficulties under which the community would labour, would be the excessive tendency to population, arising from the security felt by every man that his children would be well provided for by the general benevolence: by taking away this security then, and imposing the task of maintaining them upon himself, you remove the only cause of the unavoidable tendency of population to excess, and of all the confusion that would ensue, by making his selfishness and his indolence operate as direct checks on his sensual propensities. He would be tied to his good behaviour as effectually as a country fellow is at present by being bound in a penalty of twenty pounds to the parish for every bastard child that he gets. If every man’s earnings were in proportion to his exertions, if his share of the necessaries, the comforts, or even the superfluities of life were derived from the produce of his own toil, or ingenuity, or determined by equitable compensation, I cannot conceive how there could be any greater security for regularity of conduct and a general spirit of industry in the several members of the community, as far as was consistent with health and the real enjoyment of life. If these principles are not sufficient to ensure the good order of society in such circum stances, I should like to know what are the principles by which it is enforced at present. They are nothing more than the regular connection between industry and its reward, and the additional charge or labour to which a man necessarily subjects himself by being encumbered with a family. The only difference is in the proportion between the reward, and the exertion, or the rate at which the payment of labour is fixed. So far then we see no very pressing symptoms of the dissolution of the society, or of any violent departure from this system of decent equality, from the sole principle of population. Yet we have not hitherto got (in the regular course of the argument) so far as the distinction of a class of labourers, and a class of proprietors. It may be urged perhaps that nothing but extreme want or misery can furnish a stimulus sufficiently strong to produce ‘the labour necessary for the support of an extended population,’ or counteract the principle of population. But Mr. Malthus himself admits that ‘the most constant and best directed efforts of industry are to be found among a class of people above the class of the wretchedly poor,’ among those who have something to lose, and something to gain, and who, happen what will, cannot be worse off than they are. He also admits that it is among this middling class of people, that we are to look for most instances of self-denial, prudence, and a competent resistance to the principle of population. I do not therefore understand either the weight or consistency of the charge which he brings against Paine of having fallen into the most fundamental errors respecting the principles of government by confounding the affairs of Europe with those of America. If the people in America are not forced to labour (and there are no people more industrious) by extreme poverty, if they are not forced to be prudent (and their prudence is I believe equal to their industry) by the scantiness of the soil, or the unequal distribution of its produce, no matter whether the state is old or new, whether the population is increasing or stationary, the example proves equally in all cases that wretchedness is not the sine qua non of industry, and that the way to hinder people from taking desperate steps is not to involve them in despair. The current of our daily life, the springs of our activity or fortitude, may be supplied as well from hope as fear, from ‘ cheerful and confident thoughts ‘ as the apparition of famine stalking just behind us. The merchant attends to his business, settles his accounts, and answers his correspondents as diligently and punctually as the shop-keeper. The shop-keeper minds his customers, and puffs off his goods, tells more lies, is a greater drudge, and gets less for his pains than the merchant. The shoeblack piques himself upon giving the last polish to a gentleman’s shoes, and gets a penny for his trouble. In all these cases, it is not strictly the proportion between the exertion and the object, neither hope nor fear in the abstract, that determines the degree of our exertions, but the balance of our hopes and fears, the difference that it will make to us in our situation whether we exert ourselves to the utmost or not, and the impossibility of turning our labour to any better account that habitually regulates our conduct.1
(“1 Thus the shop-keeper cannot in general be supposed to be actuated by any fear of want. His exertions are animated entirely by the prospect of gain, or advantage. Yet how trifling are his profits compared with those of the merchant. This however does not abate his diligence. It may be said that the advantage is as great to him. That is, it is the greatest in his power to make ; which is the very thing I mean to say. In fact we are wound up to a certain pitch of resolution and activity almost as mechanically as we wind up a clock.”)
“We all do the best for ourselves that we can. This is at least a general rule. […]
“Now I shall not myself be so uncandid as not to confess, that I think the poor laws bad things ; and that it would be well, if they could be got rid of, consistently with humanity and justice. This I do not think they could in the present state of things and other circumstances remaining as they are. The reason why I object to Mr. Malthus’s plan is that it does not go to the root of the evil, or attack it in its principle, but its effects. He confounds the cause with the effect. The wide spreading tyranny, dependence, indolence, and unhappiness of which Mr. Malthus is so sensible, are not occa sioned by the increase of the poor-rates, but these are the natural consequence of that increasing tyranny, dependence, indolence, and unhappiness occasioned by other causes.
“Mr. Malthus desires his readers to look at the enormous proportion in which the poor-rates have increased within the last ten years. But have they increased in any greater proportion than the other taxes, which rendered them necessary, and which I think were employed for much more mischievous purposes ? I would ask, what have the poor got by their encroachments for the last ten years ? Do they work less hard ? Are they better fed ? Do they marry oftener, and with better prospects ? Are they grown pampered and insolent ? Have they changed places with the rich ? Have they been cunning enough, by means of the poor-laws, to draw off all their wealth and superfluities from the men of property ? Have they got so much as a quarter of an hour’s leisure, a farthing candle, or a cheese-paring more than they had ? Has not the price of provisions risen enor mously ? Has not the price of labour almost stood still ? Have not the government and the rich had their way in every thing ? Have they not gratified their ambition, their pride, their obstinacy, their ruinous extravagance ? Have they not squandered the resources of the country as they pleased ? Have they not heaped up wealth on themselves, and their dependents? Have they not multiplied sine cures, places, and pensions ? Have they not doubled the salaries of those that existed before ? Has there been any want of new creations of peers, who would thus be impelled to beget heirs to their titles and estates, and saddle the younger branches of their rising families, by means of their new influence, on the country at large ? Has there been any want of contracts, of loans, of monopolies of corn, of good understanding between the rich and the powerful to assist one another, and to fleece the poor ? Have the poor prospered ? Have the rich declined ? What then have they to complain of? What ground is there for the apprehension, that wealth is secretly changing hands, and that the whole property of the country will shortly be absorbed in the poor’s fund ? Do not the poor create their own fund ? Is not the necessity for such a fund first occasioned by the unequal weight with which the rich press upon the poor, and has not the increase of that fund in the last ten years been occasioned by the additional exorbitant demands, which have been made upon the poor and industrious, which without some assistance from the public they could not possibly have answered ? Whatever is the increase in the nominal amount of the poor’s fund, will not the rich always be able ultimately to throw the burthen of it on the poor themselves ? But Mr. Malthus is a man of general principles. He cares little about these circumstantial details, and petty objections. He takes higher ground. He deduces all his conclusions, by an infallible logic, from the laws of God and nature. When our Essayist shall prove to me, that by these paper bullets of the brain, by his ratios of the increase of food and the increase of mankind, he has prevented one additional tax, or taken off one oppressive duty, that he has made a single rich man retrench one article at his table, that he has made him keep a dog or a horse the less, or part with a single vice, arguing from a mathematical admeasurement of the size of the earth, and the number of inhabitants it can contain, he shall have my perfect leave to disclaim the right of the poor to subsistence, and to tie them down by severe penalties to their good behaviour on the same profound prin ciples. But why does Mr. Malthus practise his demonstrations on the poor only ? Why are they to have a perfect system of rights and duties prescribed to them ? I do not see why they alone should be put to live on these metaphysical board-wages, why they should be forced to submit to a course of abstraction ; or why it should be meat and drink to them, more than to others, to do the will of God. Mr. Malthus’s gospel is preached only to the poor! — Even if I approved of our author’s plan, I should object to the principle on which it is founded. […]
“To make this clear to him, it would be necessary to put the Essay on Population into his hands, to instruct him in the nature of a geometrical and arithmetical series, in the necessary limits to population from the size of the earth, and here would come in Mr. Malthus’s plan of educa tion for the poor, writing, arithmetic, the use of the globes, &c. for the purpose of proving to them the necessity of their being starved. It cannot be supposed that the poor man (what with his poverty and what with being priest-ridden) should be able to resist this body of evidence, he would open his eyes to his error, and ‘would submit to the sufferings that were absolutely irremediable with the fortitude of a man, and the resignation of a Christian.’ He and his family might then be sent round the parish in a starving condition, accompanied by the constables and quondam overseers of the poor, to see that no person, blind to ‘ the interests of humanity,’ practised upon them the abominable deception of attempting to relieve their remediless suffer ings, and by the parson of the parish to point out to the spectators the inevitable consequences of sinning against the laws of God and man. By celebrating a number of these Auto da fes yearly in every parish, the greatest publicity would be given to the principle of population, « the strict line of duty would be pointed out to every man,’ enforced by the most powerful sanctions, justice and humanity would flourish, they would be understood to signify that the poor have no right to live by their labour, and that the feelings of compassion and bene volence are best shewn by denying them charity, the poor would no longer be dependent on the rich, the rich could no longer wish to reduce the poor into a more complete subjection to their will, all causes of contention, of jealousy, and of irritation would have ceased between them, the struggle would be over, each class would fulfil the task assigned by heaven, the rich would oppress the poor without remorse, the poor would submit to oppression with a pious gratitude and resignation, the greatest harmony would prevail between the government and the people, there would be no longer any seditions, tumults, complaints, petitions, partisans of liberty, or tools of power, no grumbling, no repining, no discontented men of talents proposing reforms, and frivolous remedies, but we should all have the same gaiety and lightness of heart, and the same happy spirit of resignation that a man feels when he is seized with the plague, who thinks no more of the physician, but knows that his disorder is without cure. The best laid schemes are subject, however, to unlucky reverses. Some such seem to lie in the way of that pleasing Euthanasia, and contented submission to the grinding law of necessity, projected by Mr. Malthus. We might never reach the philosophic temper of the inhabitants of modern Greece and Turkey in this respect. Many little things might happen to interrupt our progress, if we were put into ever so fair a train. For instance, the men might perhaps be talked over by the parson, and their understandings being convinced by the geometrical and arithmetical ratios, or at least so far puzzled, that they would have nothing to say for themselves, they might prepare to submit to their fate with a tolerable grace. […]
“If then this natural repugnance in the poor to subject themselves to the necessity of parish relief has ceased to operate, must it not be owing to extreme distress, or to the degradation of character, con sequent upon it ? How does Mr. Malthus propose to remedy this ? By subjecting them to severe distress, and teaching them patience under their sufferings. But the rational desire of bettering our condition and the fear of making it worse is not increased by its being made worse. The standard of our notions of decency and comfort is not raised by a familiarity with unmitigated wretchedness, nor is the love of independence heightened by insults, and contempt, and by a formal mockery of the principles of justice and humanity. On the previous habits and character of the people, it is, however, that the degree of misery incurred always depends, as far as relates to themselves. The consequence of an effectual abolition of the poor laws would be all the immediate misery that would be produced, aggravated by the additional depression, and proneness to misery in the lower classes, and a beautiful petrefaction of all the common feelings of human nature in the higher ones. Finally, I agree with Mr. Malthus, that, ‘ if, as in Ireland and in Spain, and many of the southern countries, the people be in so degraded a state, as to propagate their species like brutes, it matters little, whether they have poor laws or not. Misery in all its various forms must be the predominant check to their increase: and with, or without poor laws, no stretch of human ingenuity and exertion could rescue the people from the most extreme poverty and wretchedness.’
“As to the metaphysical subtleties, by which Mr. Malthus endeavours to prove that we ought systematically to visit the sins of the father on the children, and keep up the stock of vice and misery in the family (from which it would follow, that the children of thieves and robbers ought either to be hanged outright, or at least brought up in such a manner as to ensure their following the fate of their parents) I feel and know my own superiority on that ground so well, that it would be ungenerous to push it farther.”