Saturday, 5 July 2014

Malthus, Hazlitt and Now

In the late 18th century, and then through a number of revised versions in the early 19th century, Thomas Malthus presented to the world his book An Essay On The Principle of Population. The book was less than kind towards the poor and criticised the Poor Laws that helped them survive. The book became and remained popular with some, such as politicians (in particular, the Tories), and unpopular with others, such as humanitarians. While some immediately welcomed Malthus’s book as an excuse to take a hard line on the poor, there was also a public degree of criticism against the book. In 1807 William Hazlitt published an objection to Malthus’s book called A Reply to the Essay on Population, by the Rev. T. R. Malthus. On pages 4 and 5 I found something remarkably relevant to Britain today and its present government:   

It is always easier to quote an authority than to carry on a chain of reasoning. Mr. Malthus's reputation may, I fear, prove fatal to the poor of this country. His name hangs suspended over their heads, in terrorem, like some baleful meteor. It is the shield behind which the archers may take their stand, and gall them at their leisure. He has set them up as a defenceless mark, on which both friends and foes may exercise their malice, or their wantonness, as they think proper. He has fairly hunted them down, he has driven them into his toils, he has thrown his net over them, and they remain as a prey to the first invader, either to be sacrificed without mercy at the shrine of cold unfeeling avarice, or to linger out a miserable existence under the hands of ingenious and scientific tormentors. — There is a vulgar saying, "Give a dog a bad name, and hang him." The poor seem to me to be pretty much in this situation at present. The poor, Sir, labour under a natural stigma; they are naturally despised. Their interests are at best but coldly and remotely felt by the other classes of society. Mr. Malthus's book has done all that was wanting to increase this indifference and apathy. But it is neither generous nor just, to come in aid of the narrow prejudices and hardheartedness of mankind, with metaphysical distinctions and the cobwebs of philosophy. The balance inclines too much on that side already, without the addition of false weights. I confess I do feel some degree of disgust and indignation rising within me, when I see a man of Mr. Malthus's character and calling standing forward as the accuser of those "who have none to help them," as the high-priest of "pride and covetousness," forming selfishness into a regular code; with its codicils, institutes and glosses annexed, trying to muffle up the hand of charity in the fetters of the law, to suppress "the compunctious visitings of nature," to make men ashamed of compassion and good-nature as folly and weakness...