This section is from the "Economics In Two Volumes: Volume I. Economic Principles" book, by Frank A. Fetter. Also available from Amazon: Economic
§ 7. The menace to progress. This sterilization of ability has cumulative results. If society were composed in equal parts of two distinct strains of stock, not intermarrying; if the total population remained unchanged in numbers from one generation to another (say each period of thirty years) but the superior strain contributed only three fourths of its own number, at the end of five generations it would have sunk from one half to a little more than one eighth of the population. A period brief in the life of nations would serve to leave it an almost negligible factor in the community. There can hardly be a doubt that at present our society is on the average increasing more from the less provident, less enterprising, less intelligent classes. There has not yet been time for many of the cumulative effects of this process to appear. Progress is threatened unless social institutions can be so adjusted as to reverse this process of multiplying the poorest and of extinguishing the most capable families. The object of the eugenics movement is to introduce an element of rational direction into the process of perpetuating the race, so that disease, weakness, and degeneracy may be diminished, and health, strength, and superior capacity shall be increased.
§ 8. The net resultant of population. Whether the population on the whole shall grow, stand still, or diminish depends on the relative strength of contending forces making for life or death; on the one hand, those favoring a high birth rate and low death rate, and on the other those limiting births and survival. This control of the movement of population loses its cruder aspect and is waged in the realm of motive. More and more it is volition that controls in human society the growth of population; less and less it is the objective limit of the food-supply. Dire need resulting in ill-health and even in starvation is still acting in some portions of society, but less to-day than ever before. The growth of population in this stage is not "fatalistic," as there is no inevitable tendency to increase or to decrease. It depends on the interaction of a number of forces, clearly distinguishable, by which population actually is kept far within the limits of food resources. Human choice is the guiding influence, choice shared by every normal member of the community.
§ 9. Volitional control decentralized. Volitional control is not exercised by a central and unified despotism determining human action, but it is effected by motives of the most complex sort, diffused throughout society and acting upon every member of it. Volitional control, in its very nature, is decentralized. Each individual and family group, by its own choice, places limits upon its addition to numbers, decides how much margin shall be left between its standard of life and bare subsistence, and how it shall use the income which would permit earlier marriage and larger families on a lower standard of living. The whole population, it is true, is an arithmetic resultant of the population changes within the separate family groups; but large classes and districts show certain average differences, which continue for long periods with little change (e.g., the rural peasantry has a higher birth rate than the city artisans; French Brittany higher than the departments near Paris). There are easily observable causes for these differences among classes and districts, yet there is no organic connection between the parts, such as, for example, might make it necessary for Brittany to make up the deficit of the Parisian neighborhood in order to maintain a stationary population in France. In any community with a population stationary because of volitional control (e.g., France between 1900-1914) and not from objective checks (war, famine, etc.), it is both possible and probable that the population will begin to decrease. This must happen when the ideas, customs, ambitions, and practices of the groups which do not maintain their numbers, gradually spread to the groups which only a little more than maintain their numbers. The opening up of opportunities for young men to marry as population declines (as by farms becoming tenantless, houses vacant, etc.) retards the decrease of population, but the standard of living and individualistic desires may advance more rapidly than the incomes, and cause population to go on decreasing. A check to this movement can come, it would seem, only through changes in ideals as to social duties and race culture already foreshadowed, but too complex to be foreseen in detail.
§ 10. Conclusion on Malthusianism. In the light of the preceding discussion what is to be the judgment on the doc-trine of Malthus? Can the question, "Was Malthus essen-tially right?" be answered with yes or no? It is best to decline to answer the question put in that way. His outlook on the matter was so different from ours, and the doctrine involved various elements some of which have stood and others have fallen. Let us distinguish. He was right in his assumption that the physiological maximum birth rate is excessive for modern conditions. The purely biologic parts of the doctrine of population have since his day been given a much broader justification. Man is physically an animal, and if he were not more than an animal mentally and morally, the adjustment of population to resources would be no different from the struggle of animals for existence. He was right in this hypothetical conclusion, and there are those who take this to be the most essential part of the Malthusian doctrine.
But Malthus himself did not look upon this as his principle - but only as a premise, a fundamental fact from which he reasoned. His "principle" was that there actually is and must be this pressure of population against subsistence. It involved the notion that the food supply, as a thing somehow outside of the power of men to control, determined the size of the population. It was offered as an explanation of misery, and as a prophecy of inevitable misery to come. This does not accord with past experience or with present conclusions of reasoning. Indeed, Malthus never rightly adjusted his idea of "moral restraint" to his ideas of objective checks. He never adequately comprehended the role of the volitional factor. He thought of it as modifying in certain circles, but not as transforming for whole populations the process of the adjustment of numbers to resources. He tried to keep his doctrine on a material basis, as the ancient philosophers put the earth upon a giant and a tortoise. He did not conceive of population as removed from this material basis, suspended in space, held (as is the earth by gravitation) by the intangible forces of volitional control.
Finally, Malthus had no conception of the importance of quality of population and the way that quality modifies the relation of numbers to material resources. He did not appreciate the dynamic influence which the very pressure of population and its necessities may have in stimulating effort and invention. He conceived of population movements as rhythmic, but essentially static. His was a static doctrine of population. Only in his somewhat crude biologic doctrine (no small matter, however) has he stood the test of time. In all other regards his views have had to be greatly modified, corrected, and developed to fit the needs of modern thought.