An Essay on the Principle of Population | Study Guide

Thomas Robert Malthus

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An Essay on the Principle of Population | Chapter 15 | Summary

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Summary

Malthus now considers the evolution of Godwin's beliefs in the years between the publication of Political Justice (1793) and The Enquirer (1797). Little, Malthus says, seems to have changed—Godwin's vision of an ideal society in both works is totally unrealistic. Pursuing such a vision, he maintains, is a distraction at best and may even hinder genuine societal progress.

Next, Malthus turns his attention to the differing opinions of Godwin and Adam Smith, both of whom have written about thriftiness and extravagant spending. Smith, Malthus argues, is correct when he asserts frugality is a virtue both for society and for the individual. Godwin, who fails to distinguish between frugal people and misers, is missing the point. Money saved by the thrifty, Malthus observes, is not usually locked up in a chest, but is invested in profitable businesses and thus supports labor.

Some degree of economic inequality, Malthus says, is inevitable. The main question is thus whether the poor should work, and thus retain their independence, or rely on charity. Godwin, in railing against those who employ the poor, seems to favor the latter. Malthus finds this dubious for several reasons. If the rich merely give their money away, the result will simply be a worse, less organized version of the Poor Law. The necessities of life would be redistributed, but not increased. If instead the rich simply hold onto their money, so as not to "oppress" the poor by employing them, the situation becomes even worse. Under these circumstances, the poor will then have no means of procuring food or clothing at all. The real solution, Malthus reiterates, is to redirect resources away from manufacturing and toward agriculture. If this is done, he maintains, wages will rise, and food will become more plentiful and less expensive.

Analysis

Godwin and Smith, the two authors Malthus compares and critiques here, take two very different perspectives on the issue of saving and spending. Godwin's viewpoint in The Enquirer (1797) is that of a philosopher, speaking in broad, qualitative terms about the ethical dimension of greed and thrift. For him, the difference between a miser and a spendthrift is, first and foremost, one of character. Godwin describes the "avaricious man" as a figure who locks his money up for safekeeping and thus prevents it from being put to productive use. The spendthrift, meanwhile, is an even worse enemy to society, because he forces the laboring class to produce luxuries for him rather than necessities for themselves.

Smith, in contrast, treats the issue from the viewpoint of an economist, although he arrives at a similar conclusion. He is relatively uninterested in passing moral judgment and much more eager to assess the bottom line. As he sees it, the main question is what happens to the wealth saved up by a frugal person, or dissipated by wasteful spending. Unlike Godwin's "avaricious man," the "frugal man" envisioned by Smith is one who puts his money back into circulation in the form of investments. This makes him "a friend ... to his country," while "every spendthrift [is] an enemy."

Although Malthus sides with Smith in praising frugality (rather than denouncing miserliness), he shares with both authors a disdain for frivolous spending. As he will emphasize in Chapter 16, Malthus does not see all wealth as equal. Luxury goods do not, for him, enrich a nation in the same fundamental way as a plentiful harvest or rich farmland. Thus, a person who spends money on luxuries is drawing resources away from what the country truly needs in order to prosper.

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