Malthus not a good guide for population policy
Jessica Brown talks about a Greenie idol in the context of a debate in Australia about cutting back immigration
Thomas Malthus, the eighteenth century British thinker who predicted that over-population would lead to global famine, has lately had something of a resurgence. With everyone from Bob Brown to Bob Carr in wild agreement that Australia’s population growth must be cut, Malthusian prophecies of doom are back in fashion.
But a new book by Fred Pearce, Peoplequake: Mass Migration, Ageing Nations and the Coming Population Crash, highlights just what a nasty character Malthus actually was.
Malthus’ issue wasn’t really with the growth in England’s population but the growth in the number of poor people. His solution was to stop them from marrying and, therefore, procreating. He was virulent in his opposition to charity on the grounds that giving food to the poor would just prolong their inevitable deaths.
Malthus was immortalised as the detestable ‘Scrooge’ in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.
But his legacy did not only live on in literature. His teachings informed officials in charge of coming up with a solution to the Irish potato famine of 1845 to 1849. Spurred on in part by hatred of the Irish and in part by Malthusian logic, one English Treasury official argued that the famine was a good ‘mechanism for reducing surplus population’ and ‘a direct strike of an all-wise and all-merciful Providence.’ In what became a self-fulfilling prophecy, an estimated one million people died.
While this example is perhaps extreme in the context of Australia’s current population debate, it nevertheless highlights why liberals should be wary of the new Malthusianism.
At its heart, the theory is profoundly illiberal. Malthusian thinking has spawned countless policies across the globe – forced sterilisations in India are the best known example – that have tossed aside the rights of the individual in order to achieve some perceived greater good.
It’s also fundamentally pessimistic. It assumes that catastrophic consequences of population growth are inevitable, so we shouldn’t bother looking for solutions.
Malthus was an eighteenth century country pastor who didn’t get out much. In a sense, it’s not surprising that he took such a dim view of the world.
But this is 2010, and we live in an open, successful and entrepreneurial country. Surely, in our population debate, we can do better.
The above is a press release from the Centre for Independent Studies, dated 17 September. Enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org. Snail mail: PO Box 92, St Leonards, NSW, Australia 1590.