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The Mechanism of Production - Increase of Population

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



IF the population of the world were immortal, the general conditions of production, exchange and consumption would not differ materially from those that actually exist. Hence in the general review which we have thus far taken, it has not been necessary to consider the economic effect of the continual death of men, and of the constant stream of new births by which the ranks of humanity are kept full. But when we apply economics to social questions, it often becomes necessary to take the effect of human mortality and growth into account. The introduction of this additional cause affecting wealth necessarily modifies our economic conclusions, and requires new and different statements. The general rule is that every man not only has to live, but to support his family also. The principal question which arises in this connection is that of the economic effects of the more or less rapid increase of population. These effects were discussed in all their relations, and elaborated into a complete system, by Malthus, in the early part of the present century, and, in consequence, the conclusions to which he was led are commonly known as the Malthusian theory of population. This theory has been accepted as sound by a large majority of economists; and those who have contested it have probably done so from a misunderstanding of its true import. Without attempting to follow Malthus in detail, we shall present the theory of population in as clear a form as possible.

Let us suppose that every married pair has four children who grow to maturity, marry, and have four more children, and so on indefinitely. It is evident and certain that in such a case the population would double with every generation. If the average duration of the generation was one third of a century, then in 331 years the population would be multiplied by 2, in 661 years by 4, in 100 years by 8, and so on.

Continuing the process, we see that the population would be multiplied by 8 during the period of every century. That is, it would increase in a geometrical ratio, or in geometrical progression.

The ratio of this progression would of course depend upon the average number of children in each family who grew to maturity and married. If this number were only three instead of four, then the population would only increase by 50 per cent in each generation, and a little more than 3* times in each century. That is, the rate of increase will depend on the fertility of the population. It is, however, evident that if all the conditions remained the same, generation after generation ; if each generation had precisely the same degree of health, and the same appetites and means of support as its predecessors; if the difficulty of supporting a family did not in any manner change, then the rate of increase would always be in the same ratio; that is, the numbers of the population at any equidistant periods of time would form a geometrical progression. This fact was expressed by Malthus in the statement that population tends to increase in this progression—a statement which his opponents frequently misstated by assuming it to mean that population does actually thus increase under all times and circumstances.

There is nothing in what we have said which presupposes any definite rate of increase. If, instead of four or three, only two children of each family should grow to maturity and marry, there would be no increase at all. If only one, the population would be reduced to one half in each generation. But the law would still be that of geometrical progression, the only difference being that in the one case the common ratio of the progression would be unity, and in the other it would be less than unity.

The general rule is, however, that as men are actually constituted the ratio will be considerably greater than unity, unless the increase of population is kept down by external causes. Yet apart from these causes different races and classes of men show very different degrees in the tendency to increase.

It will conduce to clearness if we begin by considering the causes which tend to check the increase. They belong to two classes.

Firstly, moral causes acting upon the individual and leading him to postpone or avoid marriage.

Secondly, physical causes resulting in the death of offspring.

The first of these causes is probably a product of civilization. Savage and barbarous tribes propagate almost entirely by virtue of an animal impulse, and without consideration of what shall become of the creatures who owe their origin to that impulse. This is true not only in the lowest states of society, but frequently among the Iower orders of some civilized societies. The lower order of the colored population in the United States may be taken as a case in point. The wants of this class of people are so simple, and, in our country, so easily sup-plied, that the problem of supporting a family is one to which little consideration is given in contracting the marriage relation. This, of course, is due also to the improvident character of the race. Statistics show that the problem of supporting a family exerts a much more serious restraint upon the lower classes in European countries, who before they marry take into consideration the necessity of supporting children.

As we ascend the social scale we find the restraining influence to increase, and to reach its maximum with those classes who have a social position to sustain and but limited means to sustain it. The wealthy classes in all countries, being above the fear of want, are subject to no moral restraints from this source.

Secondly, when moral restraint proves an insufficient inducement to the keeping down of increase, then want and disease step in and do the work by carrying off those children who are least fitted to cope with the world. Infant mortality attains its maximum among the lower orders of men and the crowded poor of great cities, and is at its minimum among the classes who are able to supply their children with everything necessary to their continued existence.

It must be specially remarked that these two causes operate very differently among different classes of people. The first principally affects the middle intellectual and professional classes, and has little influence upon either the wealthy or the most degraded ones. The second cause operates principally among the poor, and among them naturally varies inversely as the first cause ; in other words, the less moral restraint the poor impose upon themselves the greater the mortality among their children.

Eliminating the two causes just described, we shall have the measure of the unrestrained tendency to increase. This, as already remarked, is very different among different people. In France it is so small that, notwithstanding the small amount of emigration, the increase of population is very slow. The same is true of native Americans. Although our population has very generally increased by nearly 30 per cent in every decade, it would seem from the Census reports that the largest portion of that increase comes from immigration or from foreign-born parents. The state of things thus indicated is one most worthy the attention of the student of social science.

This conclusion that different classes of men tend to increase at different rates gives rise to one of the most important questions affecting the future of our race. Enlightened men now recognize the fact that the qualities of the children born into the world are determined by natural causes. In individual cases the causes entirely elude our scrutiny; but when we consider general averages among large collections of men, we have open to us a very fruitful field of investigation. The maxim "Like produces like " is found to be an approximation to the truth in the general average case. For example, statistics show that vigorous and healthy parents have a larger proportion of vigorous and healthy children than weak and sickly parents do. Talented parents have a larger proportion of talented children than dull parents do. Qualities very frequent in certain races are almost unknown among others. The laboring classes in European countries rarely, if ever, give birth to children capable of rising above the station in which they are born. Certain races of men are incapable of understanding the methods of scientific investigation. The student of ethnology finds differences among men who to the ordinary observer are quite alike in all their qualities. The success of the English people is very largely due to a common-sense turn of mind, leading them to look upon things as they actually are, and to govern themselves accordingly, instead of being carried away by the search after "el Dorados" and Utopias which has been the curse of the world.

When the laws of descent are more fully investigated, it will probably be found that the characters of children depend not only upon the characters of the parents, but upon their surroundings. It may possibly be found that when a race is thrown into a new situation, by emigration or otherwise, and its members thus stimulated to new activities and brought into new relations to the world, a higher average of talented off-spring is the result. The establishment of such laws is, how-ever, still a work of the future, and until they are established a satisfactory theory of population is out of the question.

The economic application of the preceding principles arises in this way : The kind of labor in which a man is fitted to engage depends very largely upon the qualities with which be is born. We may trace a regular gradation in the orders of labor, from the work of the day-laborer, which is at the bottom of the scale, up to the functions of the great administrator, ruler, and philosopher, which are at the top. The higher up we go, the rarer the combination of natural qualities which the work requires, and, by a law of value hereafter to be laid down, the more important are we to regard the work. The good of society requires that the number of people who are born capable of performing each separate kind of labor should be approximately proportional to the number required for its performance. Measured by this standard, there has been up to the present time a comparative scarcity of men of the higher orders, and a comparative redundancy of men of the lower orders. The question whether this inequality is to increase or diminish in the future is involved in the law of descent. So far as our imperfect knowledge of the subject enables us to see into it, the balance of evidence seems to threaten a continued scarcity of the higher orders of men. It would seem that the race, in this country at least, is less prolific the higher we ascend in the intellectual and social scale. There would therefore be an absolute diminution in the pro-portion of men capable of performing the higher functions of society, were it not that such men are born to a greater or less extent among all classes of society. This continual replenishing of the higher ranks from births among the lower ranks encourages us to believe that the former will, at least for some time to come, keep their relative numbers; but whether these numbers will increase in the proportion that philanthropists would like to see them increase is still an open one.

The Malthusian theory of population is so frequently misapprehended that it has almost become a by-word among some economic thinkers. It is proper, therefore, that we should see clearly in what it consists. It applies to the question of an increase of population the same method which is to be applied in all scientific investigation ; that is, it considers the causes one at a time, commencing with the most general ones. In economics the most general causes are the qualities of human nature, because these are found among all men, while other causes depend upon the situation in which men are placed. Now, considering only the tendency of the race to propagate, and making abstraction of all changes in its condition, it is unquestionably true, as already shown, that the population will increase in a geometrical progression, the common ratio of which will depend upon the disposition to propagate. This common ratio is greater than unity among almost all races. We might almost say that it is necessarily greater than unity, because if less than unity the race will die out by virtue of its own inherent tendencies. Now it is certain that the number of individuals who could gain a subsistence upon the surface of the earth is limited. It is therefore perfectly certain that if the tendency to propagate should act without any restraining influence whatever, the ultimate result would be a larger population than the earth could support.

So much has been proved by Malthus. Those who misapprehend the theory interpret it as meaning that the increasing numbers will be kept down by positive starvation. But this does not follow at all. We have already shown that a moral restraining influence is always at work, at least among the intelligent classes. To say that a time may come when the whole race cannot find adequate subsistence is the same thing as saying that certain classes of men will not be able to snpport large families. Now the question whether a man will or will not be able to support a family is one which he can himself decide in advance. Intelligent people reaching a decision on this point will govern themselves accordingly. It is only the unintelligent and reckless classes who will give no consideration to the subject. The only question, then, which can remain is whether we shall always have a reckless class of this kind in such numbers as to exceed the limits imposed by the conditions of subsistence. This question is one which the future alone can answer. All the economists of the present time can do is to gain a clear conception of the various causes at play, and then to proceed intelligently in the investigation of the laws of descent.



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