An Essay on the Principle of Population | Study Guide

Thomas Robert Malthus

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An Essay on the Principle of Population | Chapter 5 | Summary

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Summary

Malthus now describes the "second, or positive check" on population growth: an increase in the death rate, brought about by "want [i.e., poverty] and sickness." The poor, he notes, are disproportionately likely to die young, which is one of the reasons England has instituted the Poor Law. Yet, despite the great sums collected for the relief of the poor, no progress seems to be made in eradicating poverty. This, he says, should not be surprising. The money collected and redistributed through the Poor Law does not actually increase the amount of food available for the poor. Money represents a "share" of what, at any given time, is a fixed amount of food. Thus, giving money to the poor merely changes the way food is distributed. Those who receive aid under the Poor Law can afford to consume more; those who don't receive aid will be forced to get by with even less. Even if England instituted a 90 percent tax on the rich and gave the money to the poor, poverty would remain.

In fact, Malthus contends, the Poor Law actively harms the poor in two ways. Because the English poor believe they can fall back on public support, they have more children than they would otherwise. Thus, the population grows even faster than it otherwise would. Secondly, Malthus says, the Poor Law redistributes food away from "industrious and ... worthy" members of society toward those who are (economically) unproductive. Overall, he says, the Poor Law tends to quash the "spirit of independence" among the English poor by making them look to the public for a handout. Moreover, those in charge of distributing Poor Law funds are given the ability to become "tyrants" over the poor. Although the people who instituted the Poor Law likely meant well, Malthus says, it would be better if the laws had never existed.

Instead, he suggests, England ought to replace the Poor Law with laws encouraging agriculture. This would have the effect of increasing the food supply rather than simply redistributing it. Workhouses—places that provide employment and basic services for the poor—could be retained for "cases of extreme distress."

Analysis

Malthus's criticism of the Poor Law is based on the principles of supply and demand, as codified by Scottish economist Adam Smith (1723–90) in The Wealth of Nations (1776). Central to Smith's work is a definition of wealth as all the products of a nation's labor—not just money. For Smith, currency is just one type of commodity among many, with some special properties that make it convenient to work with. Society sets prices in terms of money because of this convenience, not because money represents the "true" value of goods in some fundamental sense.

Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711–76), whose works were read by both Smith and Malthus, makes this point forcefully in his Political Discourses (1752). There, he proposes an experiment: what if everyone in Great Britain had their money doubled overnight? It sounds, at first, as though people would then be twice as rich. However, the price of goods would soon rise to absorb the increased supply of money. During this sudden shift in prices, the goods themselves would be no more or less useful than before, and their values relative to one another would be unchanged.

For Malthus, the Poor Law has essentially the same effect on purchasing power as Hume's "miracle," which is to say, not much of an effect at all. Poor Law taxation increases the "money supply" of the British poor, but it does not actually enable them to live better. Instead, the money meant for their relief is absorbed by price increases and ends up in the pockets of merchants and landlords.

The Poor Law was a series of statutes enacted in England from the 16th century onward. The Statute of Cambridge (1388) is sometimes thought of as an early Poor Law because it makes some provisions for the support of the poor. Usually, however, the history of the Poor Law is said to begin with the Elizabethan Poor Law (1597–98). These statutes empowered local parishes to collect a tax and distribute it to the "infirm poor," those deemed too young, old, ill, or disabled to work. In practice, these laws also greatly restricted the freedoms of the British poor, preventing them from traveling to find work, for example, because the poor had to be residents of a parish to receive aid.

Revisions to the Poor Law in the 17th and 18th centuries took place within this general framework of local taxation and local funds distribution. The result was often a hot potato–type situation in which parishes sought to prevent the influx of poor residents who might be eligible for relief. Those deemed likely to end up needing public welfare were either prohibited from resettling or, in the worst cases, harassed until they left town "voluntarily." For this and other reasons, the Poor Law system continued to be a topic of fervent debate in Malthus's day. The system and its consequences are discussed further in Chapter 7 of the Essay.

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