This section is from the "The Science Of Wealth" book, by Amasa Walker.
The question of population has been invested, by the treatment of British writers, with a great mystery and terror. The glut, famine, and death theories of Malthus have done much to impress upon political economy the shape it has today in the world's estimation. Rightly enough, if they are correct, is it called a dismal science. Malthus exhausted the direct horrors of the subject; but the effect was greatly heightened by the benevolent efforts of many subsequent writers to provide some way of escape from this fatal conclusion,— efforts which, as they resulted in palpable failure, only made the outlook of humanity more dreary and hopeless.
The fact is, all this British philosophy of population is perverted and diseased from its root. It comes out of social wrongs and false political institutions. It strives to apply, as a universal condition of human being, the miserable results of local misrule. Prior to all consideration of such arguments, there is reason to suspect theories of subsistence and population that come from an island where holdings of land are only as one to six hundred or seven hundred inhabitants.
These principles are intended to apply to the entire surface of the earth, and have no merit unless capable of such extension; but, to give them their most favorable conditions, we will first consider a single district of limited area, — say, England itself.
The two postulates of Malthus are, — 1st, That subsistence is stationary or retrogressive; 2d, That propagation is a constantly operating force, enlarging population in some assignable ratio. The inference is, that the relation of these two must bring out destitution and famine.
There are here three fallacies: 1st, That subsistence is not progressive; 2d, That population necessarily increases; 3d, That, even if these were granted, there would exist between them any such melancholy relation as is assumed.
1st, Subsistence. — The fertility of the earth, instead of diminishing, is, under intelligent culture and with the aids of science and machinery, constantly increasing. The advance of industrial power, in commerce and manufactures, not only furnishes direct assistance in agriculture, but releases, if required, a great amount of labor for the latter pursuit. As is the amount of labor applied to land, so is the yield, the world over. The England of to-day is vastly more fertile than that of the Heptarchy, the Norman conquests, or the civil wars. Nor are all its capacities of production exhausted. It has now millions of acres unreclaimed, which are susceptible of cultivation. It is no answer to this to say that they will not pay for reclaiming. That merely shows that English labor has now a more profitable employment. We are discussing only the absolute capabilities of the soil. With the known laws of agriculture, prudently followed, the produce of any country should advance in a certain and considerable ratio. Besides, we know not what new agents of fertilization may be discovered, or what shorter methods may be devised for applying power. Certainly, the mechanical and chemical discoveries of the last fifty years justify almost any degree of expectation.
2d, Propagation.—The rule of geometric increase is a favorite weapon in the defence of certain theories; but it is wonderfully far from the truth of nature. Boys have frequently exhibited, on the blackboard, the immense wealth they could acquire if they should lay by a penny a day, at interest, for so many years; and the result seems very alarming, as if that particular school would eventually become the owners of by far the greater part of the earth's surface. So much for mathematics. But, in fact, some days the boys don't earn their pennies, and some days they don't lay them by, and some of the boys die; and perhaps the bank unfortunately breaks, or, after a few months of continence, a juvenile rush is made upon it, and all hopes of fortune disappear in a saturnalia of candy and ginger-pop. The illustration is plain and humble; but it involves all the elements that limit the theoretic advance of wealth or population.
To argue from abstract and individual possibilities of propagation to the future actual increase of the race, would be like a philosopher's predicting an infinite flight for his arrow, because of his ascertained law of impulse and continued motion, disregarding the opposition of the atmosphere and the constant subtraction of gravitation.