The Law Of Population

Since the optimistic conclusion reached in the preceding chapter is

contingent on an increase of wealth which is not neutralized by an

increase of population, it remains to be seen whether the population

tends to grow at a rate that gives reason to fear such a neutralizing.

Does progress in method and in wealth tend to stimulate that enlarging

of the number of working people which, in so far as they are

concerned, woul
bring progress to an end? Is the dynamic movement

self-retarding and will it necessarily halt? The answer to this

question depends, in part, on the law of population.

The Malthusian Law

We need first to know whether the growth of

population is subject to a law, and if so, whether this law insures

the maintenance of the present rate of increase or a retarding of it.

The law of population formulated by Malthus at the beginning of the

last century is the single extensive and important contribution to

economic dynamics made by the early economists. It was based more upon

statistics and less on a priori reasoning than were most of the

classical doctrines. Even now the statement as made by Malthus

requires in form no extensive supplementing, and yet the change which

is required is sufficient to reverse completely the original

conclusion of the teaching. Malthusianism constituted the especially

"dismal" element in the early political economy, and yet, as stated by

its author, it revealed the possibility of a comfortable future for

the working class. One might look with cheerfulness on every

threatening influence it described if he could be sure that the

so-called "standard of living" on which everything depends would rise.

The difficulty lay in the fact that the teaching afforded no evidence

that it would thus rise. The common impression of readers was that it

was destined to remain stationary and that too at a low level. The

workmen of Malthus's time were not accustomed to getting much more

than the barest subsistence, and not many economists expected that

they would get much more, even though the world generally should make


The Popular Inference from the Malthusian Law

If we state the

conclusion which most people drew from the Malthusian law in its

simple and dismal form it is this: Whenever wages rise, population

quickly increases, and this increase carries the rate of pay down to

its former level. The earnings of labor depend upon the number of

laborers; a lessening of the number of workers raises their earnings

and an increase depresses them; and therefore, if every rise in pay

brings about a quick increase of population, labor can never hold its

gains; every rise is the cause of a subsequent fall.

Malthus's Qualification of his Statement

As we have said, Malthus

so qualified his statement that he did not positively assert that this

would describe the experience of the future; the fall in pay that

should follow the increase of numbers might not always be as great as

the original rise, and when a later rise should occur the fall

following it might be less than this second rise. In some way workers

might insist upon a higher standard of living after each one of their

periodical gains.

Why this Qualification is not Sufficient

The mere fact that the

standard of living may conceivably rise does not do much to render the

outlook cheerful, unless we can find some good ground for supposing

that it will rise and that economic causes will make it do so. We

should not depend too much on the slow changes that education may

effect, or base our law on anything that presupposes an improvement in

human nature. We need to see that in a purely economic way progress

makes further progress easier and surer and that the gains of the

working class are not self-annihilating but self-perpetuating. We may

venture the assertion that such is the fact: that when workers make a

gain in their rate of pay they are, as a rule, likely to make a

further gain rather than loss. While there must be minor fluctuations

of wages, the natural and probable effect of economic law is to make

the general rate tend steadily upward, and nothing can stop the rise

but perversion of the system. Monopoly may do it, or bad government,

or extensive wars, or anarchy growing out of a struggle of classes;

but every one of these things, not excepting monopoly, would naturally

be temporary, and even in spite of them, the upward trend in the

earning power of labor should assert itself. Instead of being

hopelessly sunk by a weight that it cannot throw off, the labor of the

future bids fair to be buoyed up by an influence that is


Refutations of Malthusianism

The Malthusian law of population has

been so frequently "refuted" as to prove its vitality. It is in the

main as firmly impressed in the belief of scientific men as it ever

was, and some of the arguments which have been relied upon to

overthrow it require only to be stated in order to be discarded. One

of these is the claim that the statement of the law is untrue because,

during the century in which the American continent, Australia, parts

of Africa, and great areas elsewhere were in process of occupation,

mankind has not actually pressed on the limits of subsistence. No

intelligent view regards that fact as constituting anything but an

illustration of the Malthusian law. A vast addition to the available

land of the world would, of course, defer the time of land crowding

and the disastrous results which were expected from it, but with the

steady growth of population the stay of the evil influence would be

only temporary.

An Objection based on a Higher Standard of Living

The second

objection is also an illustration rather than a refutation of the

Malthusian doctrine; it asserts that the standard of living is now

higher than it was, and the population does not increase fast enough

to force workers to lower it. Malthus's entire conclusion hung upon an

if. The rate of pay conformed to a standard, and if that standard

were low, wages would be so; while if it were higher, wages would be

higher also.

The Real Issue concerning the Doctrine of Population

There is a

real incompleteness in all such statements. Does the standard of

living itself tend to rise with the rise of wages and to remain above

its former level? When men make gains can they hold them, or, at any

rate, some part of them, or must they fall back to the level at which

they started? And this amounts to asking whether, after a rise in

pay, there is time enough before a fall might otherwise be expected to

allow the force of habit to operate, to accustom the men to a better

mode of living and forestall the conduct that would bring them down to

their old position. The standard of living, of course, will affect

wages only by controlling the number of laborers, and the

discouragement due to Malthusianism lies in the fact that it seems to

say that the number of workers is foreordained to increase so quickly,

after a rise in wages, as to bring them to their old level. Whether it

does or does not do this is a question of fact, and the answer is a

very clear one. The higher standards actually have come from the

higher pay, and they have had time to establish themselves.

Subsistence wages have given place to wages that provided comforts,

and these again to rates that provided greater comforts and modest

luxuries; and the progress has continued so long that, if habit has

any power whatever, there is afforded even by the Malthusian law

itself a guarantee that earnings will not fall to their former level

nor nearly to it.

A Radical Change in Theory

Progress is self-perpetuating. Instead

of insuring a retrogression, it causes further progress. The man who

has advanced from the position in which he earned a bare subsistence

to one in which he earns comforts is, for that very reason, likely to

advance farther and to obtain the modest luxuries which appear on a

well-paid workman's budget. "To him that hath shall be given," and

that by the direct action of economic law. This is a radical departure

from the Malthusian conclusion.

Three Possible Conditions for the Wage-earning Class

Workers are

in one of three possible conditions:--

(1) They may have a fixed standard and a very low one. Whenever they

get more than this standard requires, they may marry early, rear large

families, and see their children sink to their own original condition.

(2) They may have a fixed standard, but a higher one. They may be

unwilling to marry early on the least they can possibly live on, but

may do so as soon as their pay affords a modicum of comfort.

(3) They may have a progressive standard. There may be something

dynamic in their psychology, and it may become a mental necessity for

them to live better and better with advancing years, and to place

their children in a higher status than they themselves ever obtained.

A Historical Fact

The manner in which Malthus was actually

interpreted was as much due to the condition of workers in his day as

to anything which he himself said. It was small comfort to know that,

under the law of population, wages might conceivably become higher and

remain so because of a higher standard of living, provided the higher

standard was never attained. Facts for a long time were discouraging.

In due time they changed for the better. The opening of vast areas of

new land made its influence felt. It raised the pay of labor faster

than the growth of population was able to bring it down. This had the

effect of establishing, not only a higher standard, but a rising

standard, and as one generation succeeded another it became habituated

to a better mode of living than had been possible before. It was the

sheer force of the new land supplemented by new capital and new

methods of industry that accomplished this. It pushed wages upward, in

spite of everything that would in itself have pulled them down.

A Retarded Growth of Population

If Malthusianism, as most people

understood it, were true, population should increase most rapidly

during this period of great prosperity, and should do its best to

neutralize the effect of new lands, new capital, and new methods. In

some places the increase has been abnormally rapid, and in a local way

this has had its effect; but if we include in our view the whole of

what we have defined as civilized industrial society, the rate of

growth has not become more rapid, but has rather become slower during

this period. In one prosperous country, namely, France, population has

become practically stationary. Even in America, a country formerly of

most rapid growth, the increase, apart from immigration, has been much

slower than it was during the first half of the nineteenth century.

The growth of population, then, may proceed more slowly or come to a

halt, even while wealth and earning powers are increasing. If this is

so, a further accumulation of capital and further improvements in

method will not have to struggle against the effects of more rapidly

growing numbers, and their effects will become more marked as the

decades pass. There will be a weaker and weaker influence against

these forces which fructify labor and they will go on indefinitely,

endowing working humanity with more and more productive power and with

greater accumulations of positive wealth. Home owning, savings bank

deposits, invested capital, and comfortable living may be more and

more common among men who depend for their income mainly upon the

labor of their hands. Is this more than a possibility? Is there an

economic law that in any way guarantees it? Can we even say that

general wealth will, without much doubt, redound to the permanent

well-being of the working class, and that the more there is of this

prosperity, the less there is of danger that they will throw it away

by any conduct of their own? The answer to these questions is to be

found in a third historical fact.

The Birth Rate Small among the Upper Classes in Society

In most

countries it is the well-to-do classes that have small families and

the poor that have large ones. It is from the interpretation of this

fact that we can derive a most important modification of the

Malthusian law. It is the voluntary conduct of different classes which

determines whether the birth rate shall be large or small; and the

fact is that in the case of the rich it is small, in the case of the

poor it is comparatively large, while in the case of a certain middle

class, composed of small employers, salaried men, professional men,

and a multitude of highly paid workers, it is neither very large nor

very small, but moderate. In a general way the birth rate varies

inversely as the earning power of the classes in the case, though the

amounts of the variations do not correspond to each other with any

arithmetical exactness. If one class earns half as much per capita as

another, it does not follow that the families belonging to this class

will have twice as many children. They do, on the average, have more

children. There is, then, at least an encouraging probability that

promoting many men from the third class to the middle class would

cause them to conform to the habit of the class they joined. This

class is at present largely composed of persons who have risen from

the lowest of the classes, and any future change by which the third

class becomes smaller and the second larger would doubtless retard the

average birth rate of the whole society.

Motives for the Conduct of the Different Classes

History and

present fact are again enlightening in that they reveal the chief

motive that determines the rapidity of the increase of the population.

When children become self-supporting from an early age, the burden

resting on the father when he has a comparatively small number of them

is as large as it ever will be. If they can earn all they cost when

they reach the age of ten, the maintenance of the children will cost

as much when the oldest child has reached that age as it will cost at

any later time. Even though one were added to the family every year or

two, one would graduate from the position of dependence every year or

two, and the number constantly on the father's hands for support would

probably not exceed five or six, however large the total number might

become. The large number of children in families of early New England

and the large number of them in French Canadian families at a recent

date were due to the fact that land was abundant, expenses were small,

and a boy of ten years working on the land could put into the family

store as much as his maintenance took out of it. The food problem was

not grave in those primitive places and times, and neither were the

problems of clothing, housing, and educating. It is in this last item

that the key to a change of the condition lay, for the time came when

more educating was required, when the burden of maintaining children

continued longer, and a condition of self-support was reached at no

such early date as it had been in rural colonies.

The Effect of Endowing Children with Education and with


When children need to be thoroughly educated, the burden

of maintaining a family of course increases. An unduly large family

means the lowering of the present standard of living for all and a

lowering of the future standard for the children. With most workmen it

is not possible either to endow many children with property or to

educate them in an elaborate way. The fear, therefore, of losing

present comforts for the family as a whole and the fear of losing

caste by seeing the family drop, at a later date, into a lower social

class, are arguments against large families.

Why Economic Progress perpetuates Itself

The economic motive which

causes progress to perpetuate itself and to bring about more and more

progress is the determined resistence to a fall from a social status.

The family must not lose caste. It must not sacrifice any of the

absolute comforts to which it is accustomed, particularly when so

doing entails a degradation. Such is human nature that the

unwillingness to give up something to which one is accustomed is a far

stronger spur to action than the ambition to get something to which

one is not accustomed; and a social rank once attained is not

surrendered without a struggle. A tenacious maintenance of status is

the motive which figures most prominently in controlling the growth of

population and the increase of capital. The rich maintain the status

of the family by means of invested wealth, the poor do it by

education, and members of the middle class do it by a combination of

the two.

Status maintained by Education

In case of wage earners the need of

educating children and the advantages that flow from it overbalance

the need of bequeathing to them property; and yet the need of

bequeathing property of some kind is a powerful motive also. It is

important to enable them to procure the tools of some handicraft, or

to secure themselves against dangers from sickness or accident.

Moreover, it is not altogether technical education which counts in

this way. Culture in itself is a means, not only of direct enjoyment,

but of maintaining a social rank. The well-informed person

accomplishes directly what a well-to-do person accomplishes

indirectly, in that he gets direct pleasures from life which other

people cannot get, and he enjoys consideration of others and has

influence with them as an uninformed person cannot. The need,

therefore, of educating children for the sake of making them good

producers and the need of doing it for the purpose of making them good

consumers and of enabling them to make the most of what they produce

works against too rapid an increase of numbers.

The Effect of Factory Legislation

These motives are powerfully

strengthened when they are reenforced by public opinion and positive

law. The ambition of workers to secure laws which will forbid the

employment of children under the age of sixteen is, in this view, a

reasonable wish and one that if carried out would tend to promote the

welfare of future generations. It is doubtless true that this is not

the sole motive, and some weight must be accorded to the desire to

reduce the amount of available labor, and to protect adults who tend

machines from the competition of children who could do it as well or

better. There is, however, an undefined feeling in the laborers'

minds that when children all work from an early age the wages of the

whole family somehow become low, and that it takes all of them to do

for the family what the parents might do under a different condition.

The Malthusian law shows how, in the long run, this is brought about.

The increased strength of the demand for factory laws and compulsory

education is a positive proof of the growth of the motives which put a

check on population.

Absolute Status and Relative Status both Involved

The absolute

comfort a family may enjoy and its social position are both at stake,

and we need not trouble ourselves by asking whether the comparative

motive--the need of keeping pace with others in the march of

improvement--will cease to act if a whole community advances together.

We saw at the outset that this motive acts powerfully on a superior

class, which has before its eyes a lower class into whose rank some of

its members may possibly drop. The lowest class must always be

present, however a community may advance, and a well-to-do worker will

always dread falling into it. If it should grow smaller and smaller in

number, and if the second of the three classes we are speaking of

should grow larger, the dread of falling from the one to the other

would not disappear. The relative status--that which appeals to caste

feeling and the desire for the consideration of others--would continue

to be influential, as well as the desire for positive comforts; and

the motive that depends on comparisons might even be at its strongest

when the lowest class should so dwindle that few would be left in it

except cripples, the aged, or the feeble-minded. An efficient worker

would struggle harder to keep his family out of such a class than to

keep it out of one which would have upon it only the ordinary stigma

of poverty.

Checks more Effective as Wealth Increases

It is clear that the

dominant motives which restrain the growth of population act more

powerfully on the well-to-do classes than on the poor. The need of

invested wealth, the need of education, the determination to adhere to

a social standard of comfort and to avoid losing caste, are stronger

in the members of the higher classes than in those of the lower ones,

and become more dominant in the community as more and more of its

members belong to the upper and the middle classes.

Immediate Causes of a Slow Increase of Population

The economic

motive for a slow growth of population can produce its effect only as

it leads to some line of conduct which insures that result. Means must

be adopted for attaining the end desired, and when one looks at some

of the means which are actually resorted to, he is apt to get the

impression that an indispensable economic result is in some danger of

being attained by an intolerable moral delinquency. Must the society

of the future purchase its comforts at the cost of its character?

Clearly not if the must in the case is interpreted literally. A low

birth rate may be secured, not at the cost of virtue, but by a

self-discipline that is quite in harmony with virtue and is certain to

give to it a virile character which it loses when men put little

restraint on their impulses. Late marriages for men stand as the

legitimate effect of the desire to sustain a high standard of living

and to transmit it to descendants; and late marriages for women stand

first among the normal causes of a retarded growth of population.

Moreover, the same moral strength which induces men to defer marriage

dictates a considerate and prudent conduct after it, and prevents

unduly large families without entailing the moral injury which

reckless conduct involves. On the other hand, there may be an

indefinite postponement of marriage by classes that lack moral stamina

and readily lapse into vice. There are vicious measures, not here to

be named in detail, which keep down the number of births or increase

the number of deaths, mostly prenatal, though the infanticide of

earlier times is not extinct. By strength and also by weakness, by

virtue and also by vice, is the economic mandate which limits the rate

of growth of population carried out. A limit of growth must be imposed

if mankind is to make the most of itself or of the resources of its

environment. There is no great doubt that it will be so imposed, and

the great issue is between the two ways of doing it; namely, that

which brutalizes men and depraves them morally and physically, and

that which places them on a high moral level.

Moral Losses attending Civilization

There is little doubt that

vice has made gains which reduce in a disastrous way the otherwise

favorable results of increasing wealth. The "hastening ills" that are

said to attend accumulating wealth and decaying manhood have come in a

disquieting degree and forced us to qualify the happy conclusions to

which a study of purely economic tendencies leads. The evil is not

confined to the realm of family relations, but pervades politics,

"high finance," and a large part of the domain of social pleasures.

The richer world is the more sybaritic--self-indulgent and intolerant

of many moral restraints; and if one expects to preserve an

unquestioning trust in the future, he must find a way in which the

economic gains which he hopes for can be made without a casting away

of the moral standards which are indispensable. The greatest possible

achievement in this direction would be an abandonment of vicious

restraints on population and a general increase of the forethought and

the self-command which even now constitute the principal reliance for

holding the birth rate within prudent limits.

The Working of Malthusianism in Short Periods as Contrasted with an

Opposite Tendency in Long Ones

There is little doubt that by a long

course of technical improvement, increasing capital, and rising wages,

the laboring class of the more prosperous countries have become

accustomed to a standard of living that is generally well sustained

and in most of these countries tends to rise. There is also little

uncertainty that a retarded growth of population has contributed

somewhat to this result. One of the facts which Malthus observed is

consistent with this general tendency. Even though the trend of the

line which represents the standard of living be steadily upward, the

rise of actual wages may proceed unevenly, by quick forward movements

and pauses or halts, as the general state of business is flourishing

or depressed. In "booming" times wages rise and in hard times they

fall, though the upward movements are greater than the downward ones

and the total result is a gain.

Now, such a quick rise in wages is followed by an increase in the

number of marriages and a quick fall is followed by a reduction of the

number. The birth rate is somewhat higher in the good times than it is

in the bad times. Young men who have a standard of income which they

need to attain before taking on themselves the care of wife and

children find themselves suddenly in the receipt of such an income and

marry accordingly. There is not time for the standard itself

materially to change before this quick increase of marriages takes

place, and the general result of this uneven advance of the general

prosperity may be expressed by the following figure:--

The line AC measures time in decades and indicates, by the figures

ranging from 1 to 10, the passing of a century. AB represents the

rate of wages which, on the average, are needed for maintaining the

standard of living at the beginning of the century; and CD measures

the amount that is necessary at the end. The dotted line which crosses

and recrosses the line BD describes the actual pay of labor, ranging

now above the standard rate and now below it. Whenever wages rise

above the standard, the birth rate is somewhat quickened, and

whenever they fall below it, it is retarded; but the increase in the

rate does not suffice to bring the pay actually down to its former

level. The descent of the dotted line is not equal to the rise, and

through the century the earnings of labor fluctuate about a standard

which grows continually higher.

The pessimistic conclusion afforded by the Malthusian law in its

untenable form requires (1) that the standard of living should be

stationary and low, and (2) that wages should fluctuate about this low

standard. In this view the facts would be described by the following


AC measures a century, as before, by decades, and the height of BD

above BC measures the standard of living prevailing through this

time. The dotted line crossing and recrossing BD expresses the fact

that wages sometimes rise above the fixed standard and are quickly

carried to it and then below it by a rapid increase in the number of

the laborers.

Members of the Upper Classes not Secure against the Action of the

Malthusian Law if a Great Lower Class is Subject to It

It is clear

that if the workers are to be protected from the depressing effect

which follows a too rapid increase of population, the Malthusian law

in its drastic form must not operate in the case of the lowest of the

three classes, so long as that is a numerous class. A restrained

growth in the case of the upper two classes would not suffice to

protect them if the lowest class greatly outnumbered them, and if it

also showed a rapid increase in number whenever the pay of its members

rose. The young workers belonging to this class would find their way

in sufficient numbers into the second class to reduce the wages of its

members to a level that would approximate the standard of the lowest

class. Under proper conditions this does not happen; for the drastic

action of the Malthusian law does not take place in the case of the

third class as a whole, but only in the case of a small stratum within


Countries similarly exposed to Dangers from Other


Something of this kind is true of a number of countries

which are in close communication with each other. If a rise of pay

gave a great impetus to growth of population in Europe, and if this

carried the pay down to its original level or a lower one, emigration

would be quickened; and although the natural growth in America might

be slower, the American worker might not be adequately protected. The

influx of foreigners might more than offset the slowness of the

natural growth of population in America itself. The most important

illustration of this principle is afforded by the new connection which

America is forming with the Asiatic nations across the Pacific.