Foremost Economist

Rosalind Mitchison

Three names dominate the debates on the social policy of 19th-century Britain: Bentham, Malthus and Chalmers. The first two were original thinkers whose ideas often contradict the system popularly ascribed to them. We have been forced over the last few years to recognise that Bentham’s idea of government was far more sophisticated than the particular pieces of legislation usually labelled Benthamite. Now a remarkably thorough investigation of his life and writings emphasises and develops what Keynes pointed out forty years ago: that there was much more to Malthus than Malthusianism.

Some years ago Patricia James did much to give humanity to the image of Malthus by publishing his travel diaries. He came alive, particularly on his Norwegian journey of 1799, being overcharged for horse hire, tactfully refusing to eat dirty Lapp food, inquiring always about prices, land tenure and the system of military service. He also showed his limitations as an economist in the failure to relate recent improvements in Norwegian agriculture to a rise in population. Here the same careful and sympathetic work lets us see the Malthus family, part of the middling ranks of 18th-century society, the education of the young Thomas Robert, his friends and the development of his ideas till in 1805 he was an established figure, the author of the famous Essay on Population (by then in the sophisticated form of the later editions), a rector of the Church of England, professor at the new East India College of Haileybury, a husband and a parent: ‘the country’s foremost living political economist’.

This is a thorough, useful and sympathetic book. Occasionally, sympathy, either with the figures of the past or with the ignorance of the present, leads to minor weaknesses. There are rather too many hypothetical intrusions of the ‘perhaps she thought’ type, and too much time devoted to explaining basic differences in attitudes to property, servants, office-holding, between the 18th century and today. On the other hand, the book is informed by the realisation that we still have not got all the answers in economics. The crude monetarist thinking of some writers in the bullion controversy of 1810-1 brings to mind some almost equally crude modern monetarising. Miss James does not explicitly point this out, but she allows the arguments to show their own weaknesses.

Malthus’s life was a genuine search for truth, and he was not easily satisfied. He lived through a succession of major debates on economic and social policy – in particular, those on the poor law, protection for agriculture, the nature and role of money, and the relationship between labour supply and wages. On all these, he put out ideas and then changed his mind. A critic was to say of him in 1815, ‘Mr Malthus scarcely ever embraced a principle which he did not subsequently abandon,’ but also to add that his works ‘may always be advantageously referred to as furnishing materials for speculation’. His readiness to change his mind was, in his lifetime, his weakness and is in retrospect his strength. It is the justification of a major biography.

The initial Essay on Population not only posed a problem which, at least in world terms, has validity today, but was a body-blow to the easy assumption that the Almighty could not bring more people into the world than could be fed. The simplistic confidence that he destroyed may seem ludicrous today. Still, it is more engaging than the determination of later Malthusians such as Thomas Chalmers to praise God for this imbalance in provision. As Malthus developed his theory, it became more chilling in social terms. Miss James rightly stresses the vast gulf between his first and second editions, as great as if they had been written by different men. Also Malthus’s language became more subtle as he acquired more knowledge. His most devastating and well-known sentence came in the second edition: ‘A man who is born into a world already possessed, if he cannot get subsistence from his parents on whom he has a just demand, and if the society do not want his labour, has no claim of right to the smallest portion of food.’ The author stresses that this was withdrawn from the later editions, but Malthus never recanted. At the end of his life, he could write a sentence which historians would accept unreservedly and which is not complimentary to God the provider: ‘The pressure arising from the difficulty of procuring subsistence is not to be considered as a remote one … but as one which not only actually exists at present over the greatest part of the globe, but, with few exceptions, has been almost constantly acting upon all countries of which we have any account.’

The handling here of his population theory is adequate but not particularly profound. The stress that it arose from his deep concern over the standard of living of the poor is interesting. His belief that the poor law encouraged labour to increase and so to lower wages explains his hostility to that institution. The author does not point out his disapproval of other forms of social aid, such as foundling hospitals, nor does she show the impossibility of expecting the labouring population to control its breeding so as to fit in with the business cycle. She ignores his opinion that the passion between the sexes is always of the same strength, a view which would not stand up to modern psychology, and the ambiguities of his use of the word ‘vice’, and she appears to believe that contraceptives, barely in existence in his day, were necessary for contraception. The strength of the book lies in her handling of his economics. In the controversy with Ricardo, of whom Malthus said, ‘I never loved any body out of my own family so much,’ she shows that Ricardo was clearer, but largely because he was more rigid. Time and again Malthus showed himself open, in a confused way, to the complexities of the situation. She is good, too, on his weaknesses, such as his perverse refusal to consider that wealth could lie in anything but material objects. In her view, accidents had much to do with the Ricardian victory: for personal reasons, Malthus was not acceptable to McCulloch and so was deprived of the use of the Edinburgh Review except on peripheral subjects. Ricardian thought was crudely simplified and expounded by the popularisers, who could explain why there was ‘a perfect coincidence between the wants of the public and the interest of the capitalist’, and, as Keynes said, it ‘constrained political economy for a full hundred years in an artificial groove’.

Malthus’s life was remarkably similar to that of a modern academic. Research had to be carried on in the intervals of his teaching, and was further disturbed by student riots caused by the expectation of the East India Company, parents and public that the College could discipline young men without either treating them as school children or calling in the law. Through interruptions, bereavements and controversies Malthus continued to open up new topics till, at the end of his life, he was engaged in helping to launch the London Statistical Society. In demography, he recognised from the first the importance of mathematical technique, and used the most sophisticated available. In one way, it is a pity that what was available was so limited. But then, if he had been able to go further in demographic analysis, his readiness to open up other topics would have been restricted. This book reminds us that we should salute him, not only as one of the founders of economics, but as someone who saw the subject as a field not for certainty but for speculation.