anarchy archives


About Us

Contact Us

Other Links

Critics Corner


The Cynosure

  Michael Bakunin
  William Godwin
  Emma Goldman
  Peter Kropotkin
  Errico Malatesta
  Pierre-Joseph Proudhon
  Elisée Reclus
  Max Stirner
  Murray Bookchin
  Noam Chomsky
  Bright but Lesser Lights
  Cold Off The Presses
  Anarchist History
  Worldwide Movements
  First International
  Paris Commune
  Haymarket Massacre
  Spanish Civil War
  Art and Anarchy
  Education and Anarchy
  Anarchist Poets

Godwin, William. Of Population. London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme and Brown, Paternoster Row, 1820.



Nothing can be more ludicrous than that part of Mr. Malthus's book, in which, for 698 successive pages, he professes to treat of the check by which population has actually been kept down to the level of the means of subsistence, whether in ancient or modern time. He is at a stand. He takes little notice of the many instances, both in Ancient and modern times, in which it has glaringly decreased. And he affirms, upon what evidence it is one of the special objects of this book to examine, that population, in unchecked, would go on, doubling itself every twenty-five years, or in a much shorter period, for ever.

Now, if Mr. Malthus has intended a fair and full examination of this question, he should have set down, in the first place, in each country how many children, in the natural order of things, would be born, and then have proceeded, in the second place, to show how they were cut off. This would have been to have reasoned like a mathematician, like a genuine political economist, and like a philosopher. But the first of these points Mr. Malthus has uniformly omitted. He has therefore appeared to walk over the course at an easy pace, somewhat like Bobadil in the play, calling for "twenty more, kill them too," simply by directing the keeper of the lists on no account to give entrance to a real combatant.

Since the author of the Essay on Population has omitted this essential part of the consideration, I will endeavour to supply the defect.

The fairest instance on many accounts to begin with, is that of China. In Mr. Malthus's book there is a chapter, entitled," Of the Checks to population in China and Japan:" and the author, having spent a number of smooth sentences on the subject, to the amount of thirty-four pages, seems well satisfied that he has shewn that the actual state and history of China and Japan serve fully to confirm his opinion, that the population of the world would go on, unchecked, at the rate of doubling itself every twenty-five years or sooner.

China is a country that is supposed to be more fully peopled than any other country in the world. According to Mr. Malthus the population of that empire has been wholly at a stand for the last hundred years: for he quotes Du Halde in the beginning of the last century, to confirm the enumeration of Sir George Staunton at the end of it, and concludes that these two authorities substantially agree with each other b. Now China is a country of so uniform a tenour, its manners, its customs, its laws, its division of property, and its policy continuing substantially the same, that, if the population has been at a stand during the last century, there is every reason to suppose it has been at a stand, perhaps for ten centuries. China therefore is the most desirable instance that can be taken, of any old country, upon which to try the doctrine of the geometrical ratio.

China has other advantages of no mean importance to the application of our argument. First, That in this empire "extraordinary encouragements have always been given to marriage c." Hume states, that every man in China is married before he is twenty d. Mr. Barrow, a recent traveller, who accompanied Lord Macartney in his embassy in 1798, says," Public opinion considers celibacy as disgraceful, and a sort of infamy is attached to a man who continues unmarried beyond a certain time of life. As an encouragement to marriage, every male child may be provided for, and receive a stipend from the moment of his birth, by his name being enrolled on the military list." He adds, "In China there are few of those manufacturing cities, which among us produce so great a waste of human life. No great capitals are here employed in any one branch of the arts. In general each labours for himself in his own profession. The still and inanimate kind of life which is led by the women, at the same time that it is supposed to render them more prolific, preserves them from accidents that might occasion untimely births e." So that here full scope is afforded to the principle of population.

It is somewhat remarkable that in this country, where the principle of population might reasonably be expected to have been first understood, if not in the exact period of its duplication, at least in its tremendous tendency to excess, no remedies should ever have been thought of by the governors of the country. China is something like the republic of Venice, as its stood for a period of a thousand years, famous for the profoundness of its policy, and the rigidness of its regulations, The great length of time during which its political economy has remained unchanged, implies this. All human things are subject to decay. The law of mutability is so powerful within us, that scarcely any thing is of force enough to control it. But there is somewhat of so vivifying nature in the constitution of China, as to bid defiance to corruption.

Mr. Malthus every Where, up and down in the Essay on population, preaches against the extensive use that we make of the institutions of marriage, and seems to think that the great remedy we have for the miseries of mankind as arising from the principle of population, is to be found in discountenancing marriage among the poor. How shallow then are the politicians of this ancient empire, who have uniformly afforded the most "extraordinary encouragements to marriage!"

Another circumstance is scarcely less miraculous. The exposing of children is a very common practice in China. So far, so good; this is an obvious way of keeping down population; though Mr. Malthus seems in some places to doubt its efficacy. But the shallow politicians of China again set themselves against this; and edict after edict has been published to put an end to it f.

The statesmen of China have confessedly had the knowledge and experience of several thousand years: but experience is thrown away upon some people. The government is celebrated for the paternal spirit displayed by the head of it towards his subject: but some fathers, though with no want of love, become the authors of misery to their children by their injudicious conduct.

I proceed however to supply that which, as before stated, Mr. Malthus has omitted, viz. an account how many children, upon the hypothesis of the Essay on Population, would be born, that we may afterward proceed, with the more perfect preparaton, to consider how they are cut off.

Mr. Malthus takes the population of China at 333,000,000 g. For the sake of a more convenient and compendious arithmetic I will put it down at three hundred millions. Now the doctrine of the Essay on Population is, that "population, when unchecked, goes on doubling itself every twenty-five years." Therefore in China, after every proper deduction has been made for balancing the number of deaths by an adequate number of births, that so the population may not decrease, there must be an additional number of births, or sort of superfetation, to the amount of three hundred millions every twenty-five years, to provided for the doubling required by the Essay on Population.

In other countries, we will suppose, population is more or less kept down by the various discouragements to marriage held forth in those countries, and, according to Mr. Malthus, by the late period of life at which marriage frequently takes place. But in China extraordinary encouragements are given to marriage, and every man is married before he is twenty. We may be secure therefore that in that country the full number of children is born, whatever may become of them afterwards.

Hereafter, perhaps before the close of the present century, we shall know something of the population of the United States of America. But, in the mean time, and while, in the sense of genuine statesmen and legislators, we know nothing, Mr. Malthus informs us, and lays it down as the corner-stone of his portentous and calamitous system, that "the population there has been found to double itself, for above a century and a half successively, in less than twenty-five years," and that this "has been repeatedly ascertained to be from procreation only." How many children on average to a marriage are produced in the United States? No on has pretended authentically to inform us. Are they more than in the old countries of Europe? Probably not. What number of those that are born, die before ten or sixteen years of age? Of all this we are ignorant.

But whatever be the number of the children born in the United States of America, that die before they arrive at maturity, we know that in China three hundred millions of children more in proportion than in America, die every twenty-five years. This is as certain, as the doctrine of the Essay on Population is true.

The human mind is but ill adapted to grapple with very high numbers; and I am persuaded that important errors have been committed by theoretical writers in consequence of this infirmity. I will therefore endeavour to conform myself to the limited nature of human faculties, by reducing these numbers. It has already appeared, that three hundred millions of extra-infants must perish in China every twenty-five years, beyond the proportion of the number of infants that would perish in the United States. Now, if we divide this number by twenty-five, we shall find that twelve millions of extra-infants must perish annually in China, to support the doctrine of the Essay on Population.

This surely is a portentous sort of proposition to be built upon a theory, without a single foundation in the records of the country to support it. Mr. Malthus indeed says, that the exposing of children is a very common practice in China, and that about two thousand are annually exposed in the city of Pekinh. Alas, what is this to the twelve millions of extra-infants that it is absolutely necessary should perish annually in that country? What a scene of devastation does Mr. Malthus's doctrine lead us to see in China! They must lie on heaps, like what we read of human bodies in the plague of Marseilles. As fast as a certain number of these infants waste away in the streets, an equal number supplies their place, so that the scene of putrescence and the noisomeness of the stench are made perpetual. Does any traveller relate that he has witnessed this?- And all this time the legislators of the country know nothing of the matter, and go on from century to century, giving extraordinary encouragement to marriage, and prohibiting the exposing of children.

But all this has no existance but in MR. Malthus's book. It must be true, because in the United States of America" the population has been found to double itself, for above a century and a half successively, in less than twenty-five years, and that from procreation only." I shall hereafter proceed to consider the population of America. I have no doubt that one of these propositions is as true as the other.

I am well aware that we know nothing of the population of China, and almost as little of that of the United States. I have therefore taken these statements almost entirely from Mr. Malthus himself. It is for him and his disciples to explain and to reconcile them.

From all that has been said however it is perfectly clear, that the statesmen and legislators of China, who have proceeded with a steady, and perhaps I may add and enlightened, attention to the subject for centuries, not only have no suspicion of the main principles taught in the Essay on Population, but are deeply impressed with the persuasion that, without encouragement and care to prevent it, the numbers of the human species have a perpetual tendency to decline.

Upon the whole therefore it is as certain as any thing can be, from the shewing of Mr. Malthus himself, that the empire of China has never been subject to the operation of the geometrical ratio.


b Vol. I. p. 292, 3.

c P. 300.

d Essay on the Populousness of Ancient Nations.

e Barrow, Chap. IX.

f It is necessary however to be observed in this place, that my argument does not in any degree depend on the question, whether this is the true rate of the population of China. If the real number of the inhabitants in one-third or one-half less than is here put down, we have only to reduce the following numbers accordingly; the proportions, every moral consideration, and every consideration drawn from credibility will remain the same.

g P. 293. This amount was regularly delivered in to Lord Macartney, in the form of an abstract of a census, taken in the preceding year, and digested under seventeen heads, for the different provinces of China within the Great Wall. "We had always," says Mr. Barrow, "found the officer who delivered it, a plain, unaffected, and honest man, who had on no occasion attempted to deceive or impose on us; and we could not consistently consider it in any other light than as a document drawn up from authentic materials."

h P. 316. It is not unworthy of notice that Mr. Ellis, the last traveller in China, who accompanied Lord Amherst in 1816, says," Of that degree of distress which might drive parents to infanticide there was no appearance, nor did any fact of the description come to my knowledge." He adds in a note," It is by no means my intention to deny the existence of the practice, but to express some doubt of the asserted frequency." Ellis, Chap. VII. The modesty of the note, in all reason, inforces the statement in the text. It shews that Mr. Ellis is not a man who has devoted himself to the support of a theory.

Previous Chapter Table of Contents Next Chapter


[Home]               [About Us]               [Contact Us]               [Other Links]               [Critics Corner]