Economic Concepts from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol Novel Analysis


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The Gloomy Presentiments of Parson Malthus and David Ricardo
In addition to the omnipresent problem of poverty, a bothersome question worried England throughout
most of the eighteenth century: the question of how many Englishmen there were. The worrisome
aspect of the problem lay in the fact that England’s natural enemies on the Continent bulged with
what, to British eyes, must have appeared as a veritable flood of humanity, while England, with her
slender resources, was convinced that her own population was on the decline.
Not that England was any too sure exactly how many Britishers there were; in hypochondriacal
fashion, she preferred to worry in a factual vacuum. It would not be until 1801 that the first real
census would be held, and when it came it would be heralded as “totally subversive of the last
remnants of English liberty.” Hence, Britain’s earlier knowledge about the state of her human
resources depended on the efforts of amateur statisticians: Dr. Price, a Nonconformist minister;
Houghton, an apothecary and dealer in coffee and tea; and Gregory King, by trade a maker of maps.
Drawing on records of hearth taxes and baptismal registers, King, in 1696, reckoned up the
number of souls in England and Wales as something near five and a half million—what seems to have
been an extraordinarily accurate estimate. But King was concerned not only with the contemporary
state of affairs. Looking into the future he wrote:
“In all probability, the next doubling of the people of England will be in about six hundred years to
come, or by the year of our Lord 2300…. The next doubling after that will be, in all probability, in
less than twelve or thirteen hundred years, or by the year of our Lord 3500 or 3600. At which time the
kingdom will have 22 million souls … in case,” the map-maker added circumspectly, “the world
should last so long.”
But by the time of Adam Smith, King’s projection of a gently rising population had given way to
another view. Comparing eighteenth-century records of hearth-money taxes with those of an earlier
day, Dr. Price proved conclusively that the population of England had declined by over 30 percent
since the Restoration. The validity of his computation was obviously suspect, and other investigators
hotly disputed his findings; nevertheless, what Dr. Price believed to be so was largely taken as fact,
although, with the political exigencies of the times, a highly unpalatable fact. “The decay of
population,” moaned William Paley, the theologian-reformer, “is the greatest evil the state can suffer,
and the improvement of it the object which ought… to be aimed at, in preference to every other
political purpose whatsoever.” Paley was not alone in his belief; the younger Pitt, the Prime Minister,
even introduced a new poor-relief bill for the specific purpose of boosting the population. The bill
was to pay liberal allowances for children, since it was quite apparent to Pitt that by having children
a man “enriched” his country, even if his offspring should turn out to be paupers.
What is striking about the population question to our modern eyes is not whether England actually
was or was not in danger of petering out as a nation. In retrospect, what is interesting is how
harmonious either view of the population problem was with a vision that puts its faith in natural law,
reason, and progress. Was the population declining? Then it should be encouraged to grow, as it
“naturally” would under the benign auspices of the laws that Adam Smith had shown to be the guiding
principles of a free market economy. Was the population growing? All to the good, since everyone
agreed that a growing population was a source of national wealth. No matter which way one cut the
cake, the result was favorable to an optimistic prognosis for society; or, to put it differently, there
was nothing in the population question, as it was understood, to shake men’s faith in their future.
Perhaps no one summed up this optimistic outlook so naively and completely as William Godwin.
Godwin, a minister and pamphleteer, looked at the heartless world about him and shrank back in
dismay. But he looked into the future and what he saw was good. In 1793 he published Political
Justice, a book that excoriated the present but gave promise of a distant future in which “there will be
no war, no crime, no administration of justice, as it is called, and no government. Besides this there
will be no disease, anguish, melancholy, or resentment.” What a wonderful vision! It was, of course,
highly subversive, for Godwin’s utopia called for complete equality and for the most thoroughgoing
anarchic communism: even the property contract of marriage would be abolished. But in view of the
high price of the book (it sold for three guineas) the Privy Council decided not to prosecute the
author, and it became the fashion of the day in the aristocratic salons to discuss Mr. Godwin’s daring
One home in which this debate took place was Albury House, not far from Guildford, where there
resided a curious old gentleman who was described by Gentleman’s Magazine on his death in 1800
as “an eccentric character in the strictest sense of the term.” This eccentric was Daniel Malthus, a
friend of David Hume and a passionate admirer of Rousseau, with whom he had gone on local
botanizing walks and from whom he had received a herbarium and a set of books in one of the French
philosopher’s recurrent urges for self-dispossession. Like so many leisurely but inquiring gentlemen
of his day, Daniel Malthus enjoyed nothing better than a stimulating intellectual dialogue, and for an
opponent he usually turned to his gifted son, the Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus.
Quite naturally, Godwin’s paradise came up for consideration, and as might perhaps be expected
of a well-disposed oddball, Malthus the elder felt sympathetically inclined toward the supremely
rational utopia. But young Malthus was not so hopeful as his father. In fact, as the argument
progressed, he began to see an insurmountable barrier between human society as it existed and this
lovely imaginary land of everlasting peace and plenty. To convince his father he wrote his objections
down at length, and so impressed was Daniel Malthus with his son’s ideas that he suggested the thesis
be published and presented to the public.
Consequently, in 1798 an anonymous treatise of fifty thousand words appeared on the scene. It was
entitled An Essay on the Principle of Population as It Affects the Future Improvement of Society ,
and with it perished at one blow all the fond hopes of a harmonious universe. In a few pages young
Malthus pulled the carpet from under the feet of the complacent thinkers of the times, and what he
offered them in place of progress was a prospect meager, dreary, and chilling.
For what the essay on population said was that there was a tendency in nature for population to
outstrip all possible means of subsistence. Far from ascending to an ever higher level, society was
caught in a hopeless trap in which the human reproductive urge would inevitably shove humanity to
the very brink of the precipice of existence. Instead of being headed for Utopia, the human lot was
forever condemned to a losing struggle between ravenous and multiplying mouths and the eternally
insufficient stock of Nature’s cupboard, however diligently that cupboard might be searched.
No wonder that after he read Malthus, Carlyle called economics “the dismal science,” and that
poor Godwin complained that Malthus had converted friends of progress into reactionaries by the
In one staggering intellectual blow Malthus undid all the hopes of an age oriented toward self-
satisfaction and a comfortable vista of progress. But, as if this were not enough, at the same time a
quite different kind of thinker was also preparing the coup de grace for yet another of the lulling
assumptions of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. David Ricardo, an astonishingly
successful trader in stocks, was soon to outline a theory of economics which, while less spectacular
than Malthus’s inundation of humanity, would be in its own quiet way just as devastating to the
prospects of improvement held out by Adam Smith.
For what Ricardo foresaw was the end of a theory of society in which everyone moved together up
the escalator of progress. Unlike Smith, Ricardo saw that the escalator worked with different effects
on different classes, that some rode triumphantly to the top, while others were carried up a few steps
and then were kicked back down to the bottom. Worse yet, those who kept the escalator moving were
not those who rose with its motion, and those who got the full benefit of the ride did nothing to earn
their reward. And to carry the metaphor one step further, if you looked carefully at those who were
ascending to the top, you could see that all was not well here either; there was a furious struggle
going on for a secure place on the stairs.
Society to Adam Smith was a great family; to Ricardo it was an internally divided camp, and
small wonder that he should have seen it as such. In the forty years since The Wealth of Nations
England had divided into two hostile factions: the rising industrialists, busy with their factories and
fighting for parliamentary representation and social prestige, and the great landowners, a rich,
powerful, and entrenched aristocracy, who looked resentfully at the encroachments of the brassy
nouveaux riches.
It was not that the capitalists were making money which enraged the landowners. It was the
damnable fact that they kept insisting that food prices were too high. What had happened in the short
space of time since Adam Smith was that England, long a grain-exporting nation, was being forced to
buy foodstuffs from abroad. Despite the mutterings of Dr. Price, who saw England’s population
rapidly dwindling away, the actual growth of population had caused the demand for grain to exceed
the supply and had quadrupled the price of a bushel of wheat. And as prices rose, so did agricultural
profits; on a farm in East Lothian, Scotland, profits and rent together averaged 56 percent of invested
capital; on another farm of three hundred acres—a very typical medium-sized establishment—profits
were £88 in 1790, £121 in 1803, and £160 ten years later. In the country at large all witnesses agreed
rents had at least doubled over the preceding twenty to twenty-five years.
As grain soared, enterprising merchants began to buy wheat and corn abroad and bring them into
the country. Quite naturally, the landlord looked on this practice with dismay. Farming was not
merely a way of life for the aristocracy, it was a business—a big business. On the Reevesby estate in
Lincolnshire in 1799, for instance, Sir Joseph Banks needed two rooms for his offices, separated
them with a fireproof wall and an iron door, and was proud of the fact that it took a hundred and fiftysix drawers to classify all the papers pertaining to the farm. Although such a landlord lived on his
land and loved the land, although he saw his tenants daily and joined societies for the purpose of
discussing crop rotation and the virtues of competing fertilizers, he did not lose sight of the fact that
his income depended on the price at which he sold his crop.
Hence the flow of inexpensive grain from overseas was hardly viewed in a tolerant light. But
fortunately for the landlord, the means were readily at hand to combat this distressing development.
Dominating Parliament, the landlord simply legislated himself an ironclad system of protection. He
passed the Corn Laws, which imposed sliding duties on the importation of grain; the lower the foreign
price fell, the higher went the duty. In effect, a floor was established to keep low-priced wheat
permanently out of the English market.
But by 1813 the situation had gotten out of hand. Bad crops and the war with Napoleon conspired
to bring about virtual famine prices. Wheat sold at a price of 117 shillings a quarter—approximately
14 shillings per bushel. Thus a bushel of wheat sold for a price equal to nearly twice a workman’s
whole weekly wage (to put this into perspective, compare the highest price ever reached by American
wheat before the 1970s: $3.50 per bushel in 1920 when weekly wages averaged $26.00).
Patently, the price of grain was fantastic, and what to do about it became a question of enormous
moment to the country. Parliament studied the situation carefully—and came up with the solution that
the duty on foreign grain should be raised still higher! The rationale was that higher prices in the short
run would act to stimulate a larger production of English wheat in the long run.
This was too much for the industrialists to take. Contrary to the landed proprietors, the capitalists
wanted cheap grain, for the price of food largely determined the amount they would have to pay for
labor. It was not out of humanitarian motives that the industrialist fought for cheaper food. A great
London banker, Alexander Baring, declared in Parliament that “the labourer has no interest in this
question; whether the price be 84 shillings or 105 shillings a quarter, he will get dry bread in the one
case and dry bread in the other.” By this Baring meant that regardless of the price of bread, the
laborer would get wages enough to buy his crust and no more. But from the point of view of those
who met payrolls and sought after profits, it made a vast deal of difference whether grain—and wages
—were cheap or dear.
The business interests organized; Parliament found itself flooded with more petitions than it had
ever received before. In view of the temper of the country, it became obviously inexpedient to push
through new higher Corn Laws without some deliberation. New committees were appointed in
Commons and in Lords, and the issue was temporarily shelved. Fortunately, the next year saw the
defeat of Napoleon, and grain prices subsided again toward more normal levels. But it is an index to
the political power of the landholding class that thirty years would have to pass until the Corn Laws
were finally wiped from the books and cheap grain was permitted to come freely into Britain.
It is not difficult to understand why David Ricardo, writing in the midst of such a period of crisis,
saw economics in a different and far more pessimistic light than Adam Smith. Smith had looked at the
world and had seen in it a great concert; Ricardo saw a bitter conflict. To the author of The Wealth of
Nations there was good reason to believe that everyone could share in the benefits of a benign
providence; to the inquiring stockbroker writing about a half-century later, not only was society rent
into warring groups, but it seemed inescapable that the rightful winner of the conflict—the
hardworking industrialist—was bound to lose. For Ricardo believed that the only class that could
possibly benefit from the progress of society was the landlord—unless his hold on the price of grain
was broken.
“The interest of the landlords is always opposed to the interest of every other class in the
community,” he wrote in 1815, and with that unequivocal sentence an undeclared war became
recognized as the crucial political struggle of a growing market system. And with the open
declaration of hostilities there perished the last forlorn hope that this might after all turn out to be the
best of all possible worlds. Now it seemed that if society did not drown in the Malthusian swamp, it
would tear itself to pieces on David Ricardo’s treacherous moving stairs.
We must look more closely at the profoundly disturbing ideas of the gloomy parson and the
skeptical trader. But first let us look at the men themselves.
It would be hard to imagine two persons more widely separated in background and career than
Thomas Robert Malthus and David Ricardo. Malthus, as we know, was the son of an eccentric
member of the English upper middle class; Ricardo was the son of a Jewish merchant-banker who
had immigrated from Holland. Malthus was tenderly tutored for a university under the guidance of a
philosophically minded father (one of his tutors went to jail for expressing the wish that the French
revolutionaries would invade and conquer England); Ricardo went to work for his father at the age of
fourteen. Malthus spent his life in academic research; he was the first professional economist,
teaching at the college founded in Haileybury by the East India Company to train its young
administrators; Ricardo set up in business for himself at the age of twenty-two. Malthus was never
well-to-do; by the time he was twenty-six, Ricardo—who had started with a capital of £800—was
financially independent, and in 1814, at the age of forty-two, he retired with a fortune variously
estimated to be worth between £500,000 and £1,600,000.
Yet oddly enough it was Malthus, the academician, who was interested in the facts of the real
world, and Ricardo, the man of affairs, who was the theoretician; the businessman cared only for
invisible “laws” and the professor worried whether these laws fitted the world before his eyes. And
as a final contradiction, it was Malthus with his modest income who defended the wealthy landowner,
and Ricardo, a man of wealth and later a landlord himself, who fought against their interests.
Different as they were in background, training, and career, so they were accorded utterly different
receptions. As for poor Malthus, in the words of a biographer, James Bonar, “He was the best abused
man of his age. Bonaparte himself was not a greater enemy of his species. Here was a man who
defended small-pox, slavery, and child-murder—a man who denounced soup-kitchens, early
marriages, and parish allowances—a man who ‘had the impudence to marry after preaching against
the evils of a family.’” “From the first,” says Bonar, “Malthus was not ignored. For thirty years it
rained refutations.”
Such abuse was bound to befall a man who urged “moral restraint” on the world. And yet Malthus
was neither a prude (by the standards of his times) nor, certainly, an ogre. It is true that he urged the
abolition of poor relief and even opposed housing projects for the working classes. But all this was
done with the sincerest interest of the poorer classes at heart—and indeed may be contrasted with the
view of some contemporary social theorists who suggested blandly that the poor be allowed to die
peacefully in the streets.
Hence Malthus’s position was not so much a hardhearted as a supremely logical one. Since
according to his theory the basic trouble with the world was that there were too many people in it,
anything that tended to promote “early attachments” only aggravated the sum of mankind’s misery. A
man for whom “at Nature’s mighty feast there is no vacant cover” might be kept alive by charity; but
since he would then propagate, such charity was only cruelty in disguise.
But logic does not always win popularity, and someone who points out the gloomy end of society
can hardly expect to gain popular esteem. No doctrine was ever so reviled: Godwin declared that
“the express object of Mr. Malthus’s writing was to prove how pernicious was their error, who
aimed at my considerable and essential improvement in human society.” It is not surprising that
Malthus was regarded as beyond the pale of decent-thinking people.
Ricardo, on the other hand, was a man on whom Fortune smiled from the start. A Jew by birth, he
had broken with his family and became a Unitarian to marry a handsome Quaker girl with whom he
had fallen in love; but in a day when tolerance was hardly the rule—his father had traded in a part of
the Exchange known as the Jews’ Walk—Ricardo achieved both social status and widespread private
respect. Later in life, when he was in Commons, he was called on to speak from both sides of the
House. “I have no hope,” he said, “of conquering the alarm with which I am assailed the moment I
hear the sound of my own voice.” That voice was described by one witness as “harsh and screamy,”
by another as “sweet and pleasant” although “pitched extremely high”; but when it spoke, the House
listened. With his earnest and brilliant expositions, which ignored the toss of events and concentrated
on the basic structure of society “as if he had dropped from another planet,” Ricardo became known
as the man who educated Commons. Even his radicalism—he was a strong supporter of freedom of
speech and assembly, and an opponent of Parliamentary corruption and Catholic persecution—did not
detract from the veneration in which he was held.
It is doubtful whether his admirers grasped much of what they read, for there is no more difficult
economist to understand than Ricardo. But although the text might have been complex and involved,
its import was plain: the interests of the capitalists and the landlords were irrevocably opposed and
the interests of the landlords were inimical to the community. Hence, whether they understood him or
not, the industrialists made him their champion: political economy even became so popular with them
that ladies who hired governesses inquired whether they could teach its principles to their children.
But while Ricardo, the economist, walked like a god (although he was a most modest and retiring
person), Malthus was relegated to a lower status. His essay on population was read, admired, and
then disproved again and again—the very vehemence of the disproofs a disquieting testimony to the
strength of his thesis. And while Ricardo’s ideas were avidly discussed, Malthus’s contributions to
economics—aside from his essay on population—were largely looked on with a kind of benevolent
tolerance, or ignored. For Malthus had a sense that all was not well with the world, but he was utterly
incapable of presenting his arguments in a clear-cut logical fashion: he was even heretical enough to
suggest that depressions—“general gluts,” he called them—might upset society, an idea that Ricardo
had no trouble proving absurd. How exasperating for a modern reader! Intuitive and fact-minded,
Malthus had a nose for trouble, but his wooly-headed expositions had no chance against the incisive
brilliance of the financial trader who saw the world only as a great abstract mechanism.
Hence they argued about everything. When Malthus published his Principles of Political Economy
in 1820, Ricardo went to the trouble of taking some 220-odd pages of notes to point out the flaws in
the Reverend’s arguments, and Malthus positively went out of his way in his book to expose the
fallacies he was sure were inherent in Ricardo’s point of view.
Strangest of all, the two were the closest of friends. They met in 1809 after Ricardo had published
a series of masterful letters to the Morning Chronicle on the question of the price of bullion, and then
had demolished a Mr. Bosanquet, who was rash enough to venture an opposing view. First James
Mill and then Malthus sought out the author of the letters, and a friendship formed among all three
which endured to the ends of their lives. A stream of correspondence passed between them, and they
visited each other endlessly. “They hunted together in search of the Truth,” wrote Maria Edgeworth, a
contemporary writer, in a charming diary, “and huzzaed when they found her, without caring who
found her first.”
Mention of Maria Edgeworth warrants an additional word. The daughter of an economist, she was
perhaps the first woman to express opinions about the workings of the economy. These initially took
the form of moral tales for children, but in 1800 she produced a novel, Castle Rackrent, about a
landed family that squandered its fortune, largely by indifference to the needs of its tenants.
“Rackrent” became a widely used term for such practices. Perhaps of greater interest for this account,
Maria corresponded regularly with Ricardo and urged him to come to Ireland to see for himself the
realities of the rent problem about which he wrote from Olympian heights. He did not take up her
invitation. Incidentally, it would be a century until women became important economists in
considerable numbers.
It was not all serious discussion; these were very human beings. Malthus, whether out of deference
to his theories or other reasons, had married late, but he was fond of social gatherings. After his
death, someone who had known him mused on his life at East India College: “The subdued jests and
external homage and occasional insurrections of the young men; the archery of the young ladies; the
curious politeness of the Persian professor … and the somewhat old-fashioned courtesies of the
summer evening parties are all over now.”
The pamphleteers compared him with Satan, but Malthus was a tall and handsome man and a
gentle soul; his students called him “Pop” behind his back. He had one odd defect: from his greatgreat-grandfather he had inherited a cleft palate and his speech was difficult to understand; I was his
worst letter, and there is an amusing account of his saying into the ear trumpet of a deaf and famous
lady: “Would not you like to have a look at the lakes of Killarney?” This defect and the indissoluble
association of his name with overpopulation led one acquaintance to write:
Philosopher Malthus was here last week. I got an agreeable party for him of unmarried people … he is
a good natured man and, if there are no signs of approaching fertility, is civil to every lady…. Malthus
is a real moral philosopher, and I would almost consent to speak as inarticulately, if I could think and
act as wisely.
Ricardo at home also loved to entertain; his breakfasts were famous, and he seems to have
indulged in a fondness for charades. In her Life and Letters, Miss Edgeworth tells of one round:
coxcomb—Mr. Smith, Mr. Ricardo, Fanny, Harriet,—and Maria, crowing. Ditto, ditto, combing
hair. Mr. Ricardo, solus strutting, a coxcomb, very droll.
He was extraordinarily gifted as a businessman. “The talent for obtaining wealth,” wrote his
brother, “is not held in much estimation, but perhaps in nothing did Mr. R. more evince his
extraordinary powers than he did in business. His complete knowledge of all its intricacies—his
surprising quickness at figures and calculation—his capability of getting through, without any
apparent exertion, the immense transactions in which he was concerned—his coolness and judgment
—enabled him to leave all his contemporaries at the Stock Exchange far behind.” Sir John Bowring
later declared that Ricardo’s success was based upon his observation that people in general
exaggerated the importance of events. “If therefore, dealing as he dealt in stocks, there was reason for
a small advance, he bought, because he was certain the unreasonable advance would enable him to
realize; so when stocks were falling, he sold in the conviction that alarm and panic would produce a
decline not warranted by circumstances.”
It was a curiously upside-down arrangement: the theoretical dealer in securities versus the
practical divine—particularly curious since the theoretician was at home in the world of money
whereas the man of facts and figures was utterly at sea.
During the Napoleonic Wars, Ricardo was an underwriter in a syndicate that bought government
securities from the Treasury and then offered them to the subscribing public. Ricardo often did
Malthus a favor and carried him for a small block of securities on which the parson made a modest
profit. On the eve of Waterloo, Malthus thus found himself a small “bull” on the Exchange, and the
strain was too much for his nerves. He wrote to Ricardo urging him “unless it is wrong or
inconvenient … to take an early opportunity of realizing a small profit on the share you have been
good enough to promise me.” Ricardo did, but with the stronger staying power of the professional
speculator bought himself into a maximum bull position. Wellington won; Ricardo made an immense
killing, and poor Malthus could not help being discomfited. Ricardo, on the other hand, wrote
casually to the Reverend, “This is as great an advantage as ever I expect or wish to make by a rise. I
have been a considerable gainer by the loan…. Now for a little of our old subject,” and he plunged
back into a discussion of the theoretical meaning of a rise in the price of commodities.
Their endless debate went on, by letter and visit, until 1823. In his last letter to Malthus, Ricardo
wrote: “And now, my dear Malthus, I have done. Like other disputants, after much discussion, we
each retain our own opinions. These discussions, however, never influence our friendship; I should
not like you more than I do if you agreed in opinion with me.” He died that year suddenly, at the age
of fifty-one; Malthus was to go on until 1834. As for his opinion of David Ricardo: “I never loved
anybody out of my own family so much.”
Although Malthus and Ricardo disagreed on almost everything, they did not disagree about what
Malthus had to say about population. For in his celebrated Essay in 1798, Malthus seemed not only to
elucidate the question once for all but also to shed a great deal of light on the terrible and persistent
poverty that haunted the English social scene. Others had vaguely felt that somehow population and
poverty were related and a popular if apocryphal story of the day concerned an island off the coast of
Chile where one Juan Fernandez landed two goats in case he should later wish to find meat there. On
revisiting the island he found that the goats had multiplied beyond reason, so he then landed a pair of
dogs who also multiplied and cut down the goats. “Thus,” wrote the author, a Reverend Joseph
Townshend, “a new kind of balance was restored. The weakest of both species were the first to pay
the debt of nature; the most active and vigorous preserved their lives.” To which he added: “It is the
quantity of food which regulates the number of the human species.”
But while this paradigm recognized the balance that must be struck in nature, it still failed to draw
the final devastating conclusions implicit in the problem. This was left for Malthus to do.
He began with a fascination in the sheer numerical possibilities contained in the idea of doubling.
His appreciation of the staggering multiplicative powers of reproduction has been amply supported
by other, later scholars. One biologist has calculated that a pair of animals, each pair producing ten
pairs annually, would at the end of twenty years be responsible for 700,000,000,000,000,000,000
offspring; and Havelock Ellis mentions a minute organism that, if unimpeded in its division, would
produce from one single tiny being a mass a million times larger than the sun—in thirty days.
But such examples of the prolific power of nature are meaningless for our purposes. The vital
question is: how great is the normal reproductive power of a human being? Malthus made the
assumption that the human animal would tend to double its numbers in twenty-five years. In the light
of his times this was a relatively modest assumption. It necessitated an average family of six, two of
whom were presumed to die before reaching the age of marriage. Turning to America, Malthus
pointed out that the population there had in fact doubled itself every twenty-five years for the
preceding century and a half, and that in some backwoods areas where life was freer and healthier, it
was doubling every fifteen years!
But against the multiplying tendencies of the human race—and it is inconsequential to the argument
whether it tended to double in twenty-five years or in fifty—Malthus opposed the obdurate fact that
land, unlike people, cannot be multiplied. Land can be added to laboriously, but the rate of progress
is slow and hesitant; unlike population, land does not breed. Hence, while the number of mouths
grows geometrically, the amount of cultivable land grows only arithmetically.
And the result, of course, is as inevitable as a proposition in logic: the number of people is bound,
sooner or later, to outstrip the amount of food. “Taking the population of the world at any number, a
thousand millions, for instance,” wrote Malthus in his Essay, “… the human species would increase in
the ratio of 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 516, etc. and subsistence as 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, etc.
In two centuries and a quarter the population would be to the means of subsistence as 512 to 10; in
three centuries as 4096 to 13, and in two thousand years the difference would be incalculable.”
Such a dreadful v