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George on Malthus.


This paper will present my reading of Book 2 of Henry George’s Progress and Poverty. I believe I have absorbed the main ideas and principles of this section. I intend to present these in such a way as to be faithful to the text. I am confident that any creative licence I display that is divergent from the text, will serve to highlight the meaning I think is intended by the author. In this respect I also hope to be consistent with the rest of his thought. Now and then also I may allude to something current for the purpose of illustration or put the ideas in a slightly different order and form. My apologies to any one who thinks I have omitted something important. I would be happy for you to comment during question time on any matter I may have neglected. I heartily commend all those present to read and re-read the text for your own benefit. At the end of my summary of the four chapters I will discuss some aspects of the developing world’s ‘population explosion’ and connect these with some of George’s views, mainly those taken from Book 2, but at times with views he may have had if he was  alive today. This section may  well reflect some of my personal views.

I have deferred to Henry George’s chapter headings in this summary and I will try to remember to refer to some page numbers now and then for those who may be following the text. My written version is reasonably well footnoted with such information.

Book 2

Chapter 1- The Malthusian theory, its genesis and support.

Henry George is concerned in this Book with disproving the Malthusian Theory as expressed in his “Essay on Population”.  In this chapter he describes the theory, its origins and its influence.  The theory of course has never been proven but given its wide acceptance it may as well have been.  He in different places describes it as an apparent “self evident truth”, “an accepted truth”, “an unquestionable truth” given the wide extent of its endorsement. George’s explanation for the wide acceptance of the related wages theory, its twin, could well be applied to this theory’s general acceptance. The reason is that “masses of men rarely take the trouble to separate the real from the apparent”. [1] The theory has to do with the so-called pressure of population on subsistence. One description he gives of the theory is, “that population naturally tends to increase faster than subsistence”. [2] In mathematical terms, there is a geometric increase in population but an arithmetic increase in food production. [3] Today’s mathematicians seem to have another way of describing, increasing at an increasing rate with the word, exponential. The geometrical aspect seemed to have some slight empirical basis with the example of a population doubling in North America in 25 years and its food production increasing by the same amount each year. [4] It is accepted today that the doubling of population is dependent on the annual percentage increase of population and this has taken 37 years in our recent history.  George comments that these two variables are naively brought together by Malthus and he shows the tenuous and arbitrary nature of this linkage. George notes that J.S. Mill had a different mathematical version of the Malthusian idea. For him population had an arithmetic increase whilst subsistence increased at a decreasing rate. So the gap between the two is still exacerbating and both agree in asserting that natural tendency of population to outrun subsistence.[5]

Book 1 has been concerned with criticizing the capital fund of wages theory. This theory states that Wages fall because the increase in the number of labourers necessitates a more minute division of capital. In other words poverty appears as increase in population necessitates the more minute division of subsistence which is seen in this theory to derive from capital.  He asserts that this theory and the population one mutually blend with, strengthen, and defend each other. [6] George notes that this current theory influenced Adam Smith’s wages theory. He also shows how Ricardo’s law of rent seems to support both theories, i.e. rent would rise as the necessities of production would force cultivation to less and less productive lands. Malthus saw the imperatives of his theory. One was that a preventative check was necessary and this would involve the population displaying moral restraint and prudence. He is not reliant on abstinence alone. The second imperative which he had greater confidence in, he called the positive check. It is simply the increase in mortality as a result of vice and misery. The choice between these two checks could well be seen as dismal.

George notes the theory’s reliance on analogies with the animal and plant kingdoms. He makes mention of its connection with Darwin’s theory of survival of the fittest by natural selection. A difference however, is that Malthus’ theory is devoid of an idea of progression. It also seems to be in line with facts e.g. the prevalence of poverty amid dense populations. [7] He concedes how it is understandable to workers, who see the cause of low wages, as competition caused by the pressure of numbers. Poverty gives the idea there are too many people. [8] At the other end of the social strata the theory is soothing because it preserves the status quo against possibility of revolution. [9] In language not wanting in strength he maintains that it parries the demand for reform, shelters selfishness from question and conscience. [10] Since the theory is seen as necessary it conveys the false impression that poverty is not the result of greed or social maladjustments but result of universal laws. [11] A consequence of such thinking is that, Nature is seen as niggardly or perhaps we would say today ‘stingy’.  Such a ‘scientifically’ appreciated nature is meant to be dispiriting to those who would seek to reform society’s power structures. For Malthus, nothing can be done to eliminate poverty individually or collectively except education and preaching the necessity of prudence.[12] In this context it might be remembered that Thomas Malthus was a Parson. In the grave choice between food and sex, he seemed to opt for the latter. He had eight children.

Although George is at odds with this theory he acknowledges its strength and triumph in all circles of influence.  He announces his intention to erode it grounds by subjecting it to a frank examination. [13]

Chapter 2- Inferences from facts

In this chapter George claims that Malthus’ theory is as untenable as wages fund theory when analyzed. The first reason is facts used to support it do not prove it and analogies do not countenance it. Then there are facts which conclusively disprove it. [14]

George denies that the tendency to reproduce involves poverty. Although a geometric progression and an arithmetic one can be distinguished and illustrated there is no necessary reason to attach one to population and the other to the ability to produce food. George uncovers the real causes of poverty and he lists them. They are “unsocial ignorance and rapacity, bad government, unjust laws or destructive warfare”. [15] George makes a series of assertions on what we might call, if we were given to hyperbole, ‘over- population’ or ‘the population explosion’.  It would seem that if  ‘ the prophet of San Francisco’ did not regard this idea as blasphemous, that it was at least a ‘slap in the face’ of Providence by the hand of man, which he vicariously was not prepared to countenance. On page 128, after a consideration of poverty in Ireland, he asks rhetorically, “Is it not impiety far worse than atheism to charge upon natural laws misery so caused?” [16] His statements seem rather incredible and provocative even for that time but he draws on a good deal of empirical evidence. He says the dangers of over-population have never appeared.  He denies that over-population has ever afflicted mankind. On page 110 he states, “Compared with its capacities to support human life the earth as whole is yet most sparsely populated” [17] He wonders how the earth could be “so thinly populated”. [18] In today’s world in spite of all of the concern or could we say hubbub about over-population, it is still really only a here and there problem. It does not affect the entire globe. Further it is a now and then problem as well. George puts the issue in perspective where he says, history shows both decline and increase of population. It is a relative problem and the main thing it is related to is material poverty. It is not the cause of poverty but its result.

George’s approach is then to question the theory’s status as a law by casting doubt over its universality. It seems to be with a deal of sarcasm that he wonders how that so many can be ignorant of dire consequences of this natural tendency. He cites the Jews, the Egyptians and Hindus of past times as not following any procedures resembling Malthusian prescriptions. He tackles objections seemingly presented by the ‘stock’ examples of over-population, in China, India and Ireland. After all even in his time China and India were the most densely populated countries. He in each case shows how the apparent problem arises from the form of social organization which has “shackled productive power and robbed industry of its reward”. [19] The defects of social organization can be ‘boiled down’ to either landlordism or taxation. With regards to India and Ireland, landlordism is the problem and absentee landlordism at that. The only reason the potato famine wreaked its devastation in Ireland was that all the other foods were being stripped from them in rent.

Chapter 3- Inferences from analogy

In Chapter 3 George attacks the analogies by which the theory is supported. He claims the analogies are inconclusive. He concedes the strength of reproductive force in the animal and plant kingdom, and that plants and animals do press the limits of their subsistence. He directly relates this to human subsistence in a positive sense; as all things that furnish human subsistence have the power to multiply many times. He concludes that the reproductive forces of plant and animal species amply supply human wants. More human beings will always mean more food if they but co-operate and tap these forces. He is confident that humans cannot press the limits of their subsistence until “the limits of the globe are reached” [20]

George also deals with the so-called law of diminishing returns that has been allied with the law of rent. Since the law of rent is such a main plank in his own ideas it is not surprising that he deals with the diminishing productiveness of land as one goes out to the margins.  He sees no problem so long as it is seen as a relative truth. [21] Ultimately, life does not use up the forces that maintain life. These forces have ever greater potential because man is the only animal whose desires increase as they are fed. Man is the only unsatisfied animal. [22] He can realize this greater potential because of “a progression away from and above the beasts”.[23] For the beast additional supplies are only for multiplication but with the human being they precipitate an elevating change of desire from quantity to quality.[24] An increase of food is not the cause of an increase in population in humans, but its effect. Amidst such built-in abundance and obvious self-sufficiency, intellectual and social desires become more important than mere physical desires. He comments on Smith’s observation, “(A) rich man for luck, a poor man for children” to the effect that wealth really answers the so called ‘population problem’. Wealth brings “independence, leisure, comfort, and a fuller and more varied life.” [25] Near the end of this chapter he concludes that true law of population accords with and is subordinate to the law of intellectual development. This seems to say that population can be brought into line by reasonable desires as the higher development of the individual becomes a possibility.[26] Maybe this could be related to Oscar Romero’s “being more”.

Chapter 4 -Disproof of the Malthusian theory.

George in this chapter proposes it seems, ‘to take the bull by its horns’.  George asserts that men ignore fact when blinded by a pre-accepted theory. Early in this chapter he includes a lengthy quote from J.S. Mill’s “Principles of Political Economy” after which he states without much in the way of rhetorical flourish, “(A)ll this I deny. I assert the very reverse of these propositions is true” [27] His  five key points against Mill I have set out below; I have omitted the “other things being equal” proviso of some of them and paraphrased others in the interests of brevity. Firstly, “a greater number of people can be collectively better provided for than the smaller”. Secondly, “the injustice of society is the cause of want and misery.” Thirdly, “new mouths to be fed come with two hands to produce more”. Fourthly, “a greater population means a greater comfort given to each individual provided there is equitable distribution”. Finally, “in a state of equality the natural increase of population would tend to make every individual richer instead of poorer”. [28]

He then submits the question to the test of the facts. He notes that in denser populations, wealth is devoted with more lavishness to non-productive use. This is clearly seen by the existence of “costly buildings, fine furniture, luxurious equipages, statues, pictures, pleasant gardens and yachts”. [29] He further observes that a larger population contains a greater unproductive class in which he includes both thieves and police. [30] He admits the historical decline in wages in California but draws attention to the increase in efficiency of labour. [31] In like fashion he asserts the richest countries are not where nature is most prolific but where labour is most efficient. The proof of this is fewer labourers produce more wealth. Inequality of distribution is in every case the reason for this enhanced efficiency not being reflected in the maintenance and improvement of wages.[32]

George deals with the objection of “accumulated wealth”[33]. It suggests that communities can rest on their past deeds and live off their stored wealth.  He notes that wealth does not bear much accumulation.[34] Whilst some accumulated wealth is necessary the wealth produced by past generations no more account for present consumption “than dinners eaten last year supply a man with present strength”.[35] “Wealth is constantly recreated”. [36] Stop labour in any community and wealth vanishes. [37] Nature is a relatively insignificant factor when compared to labour for George as seen in this statement, “Twenty men working together where nature is niggardly produces more wealth than one can produce where nature is most bountiful”.[38] The reason for this is that a denser population means a greater division of labour hence improved economies of production and distribution.  [39] The conclusion to this chapter also concludes Book 2 well and the reader is left in no doubt that we must look not at the production of wealth but “the maladjustments of men” to find what produces “poverty amid advancing wealth”.[40]

Over-Population’ – A  Developing World Problem ?

The perceived population problem has led to renewed interest in Malthus’ theory. The extent of this problem needs to be considered. 80% of the World’s Population and 98% of the world’s increase in population comes from the Developing world. [41] These figures tend to support the view held by George that over-population is a relative problem.

You might recall Cardinal Pell touching on this issue during the recent WYD. I am not concerned whether it was Cardinal Pell, Cardinal Snell or Cardinal Bell but something ‘rings true’ in the issue that was raised. The ABC’s “Landline” ran a story called “Populate and Perish” which echoed the Malthusian warning. It seemed to pour cold water on the Cardinal’s comments and avert their danger in terms of “global warming”. An American academic held up China’s population very low percentage increase as an example to be emulated in the West. He stated that such miniscule increases are consistent with economic growth. Against this I could make the following points. Firstly, even a very low percentage increase in China amounts to a very big increase of population in real terms. Secondly, this learned expert might be pressed further for truly representative examples of his ‘low percentage increase being good for the economy’ thesis.

One thing I have learnt from Henry George is to bring the Malthus theory to the test of the facts. I think we can subject the ideas of today’s Malthusians to the same kind of thing. In my research for this paper I found an article with an interesting title, “Population explosion theories shrink before the facts.” In developed countries three factors seem to be significant in lessening the ‘population explosion’ problem; Lower fertility rates, improved quality of life and contraception.  The second of these factors is clearly present in the thought of George and even in the book we have been looking at. The first factor where this is an effect of delaying having children due to economic factors could be related to a type of poverty also present in the developed world, rather than purely as progress. The last factor may not have been totally foreseen by George. Perhaps he saw ‘the natural economizing of desires’ in a context of plenty, being sufficient to achieving ‘population control’. I think he would have been aghast at the ‘foisting’ of contraception and other policies for that matter, on developing countries by developed countries.  Maybe their intention is to fight “over-population” before poverty. According to George’s principle all they need do is end poverty. The stringent policy of limiting one child per family in China, in this case implemented by its own rulers, would have been for him one of the worst manifestations of state control. In chapter 2 of the book I have dealt with today draws attention to the vast amount of unused land in China and its potential to support larger numbers.  The issue of contraception in developed countries, I think, would have also caused him concern as a social philosopher, inasmuch as this contributes to a drastic decline in a population’s ability to conserve itself. It does not seem to be altogether consistent with population containment by the elevation and economizing of desires which he seemed to advocate.  It also seems to allow some ‘convenient’ side-stepping of the underlying economic poverty. I don’t think he would have regarded some of its effects in any way as the kind of progress he would be promoting.  He would have seen today’s shallow kind of advance as the poverty that it is.  Look at technologically advanced Japan, where new technology in vending machines can recognize teenagers and circumvent their efforts to buy cigarettes and alcohol before they put a magazine photograph of an older person in front of the camera.[42] Look at New York. The kind of license depicted in its “Sex in the City” TV series and recent movie, to the extent it is represents a real state of ‘affairs’, in my opinion, has no part in the Liberty he was to champion. Consider the widespread addiction to ‘trashy’ television shows, which has been known to have dampening effects on population growth.  Maybe at times television does cater to the “eyes of the mind” and is used to satisfy higher desires. [43] George’s ‘Savannah story’ which occurs later in Progress and Poverty gives a much better indication of the real potential of true Liberty in a city.  Progress must occur towards “higher forms of desire” and “knowledge”. [44] I am sure he would have been alive to a deeper poverty problem, manifest in both developed and developing nations, to be solved rather than one that could be answered by a simple technical solution.  He is after all, a natural law man, par excellence.

Developed countries due to all of these factors and additionally due to advances in medicine, seem to be ‘afflicted’ by the problem of an ever-expanding aging population and not enough ‘new blood’ in the form of new babies. Just recently the median age of Australians has jumped a few years to 37 years. [45] Some countries may escape this problem for a time, like the USA by way of immigration. It is hard to accept that bigger natural increases will not be necessary for any developed country to maintain their way of life. I think George would find it strange that unwedded teenagers could be encouraged by the state into ‘a career path’ of having children because there are no other worthwhile jobs for them to do. He might too find it disappointing that women who are gainfully employed have not sufficient economic encouragement to start families.  It seems natural increases in population could even be accommodated in developing countries were their poverty problem addressed adequately. The solution to the respective population growth ‘problems’ in the developing and developed worlds, would for George entail eliminating poverty, first and foremost.

Consistent with George’s predictions agricultural production of food has kept pace with population growth. The problem of distribution of food highlighted by George is still with us today. Some are worried about the increasing demands of food production upon the environment.  George is also deeply concerned for the environment. This problem is not helped by the huge quantities of unused land in all countries that is held out of use by either land monopoly or types of monopoly generated by it. Today there appears to be two distinct attitudes to this population and environmental problem. On the pessimistic side, there are those who fear the degradation and overwhelming of the earth’s biophysical environment by increased food production. On the optimistic side, there are those that see the earth’s population as a resource to bring to the problem and who are confident in the potential of technology to help solve the problem.  George’s ideas are more aligned with the positive attitude. However, George would not refer degradingly, to humans as ‘resources’ and the kind of co-operation he envisages goes far beyond mere technology. A reversion must be made not just to natural physical laws but to social laws as well. George was a Physiocrat not a technocrat.  Much of the development of cities that takes place in developing and developed countries is really more the result of private property in land rather than to natural beneficial processes. In George’s view,  the over crowding in cities of the developed world and developing world, ‘their population problem’ and  ‘their environment problem’ is due to disproportionate wealth concentrations caused by  the private appropriation of a socially produced reality,  called rent. An environmentally friendly world would result from society collecting it and using it for the common good. Not to collect it involves neglectfully not using good intra-marginal land that is most apposite to use, and wastefully using land that is marginal and fragile.


I must conclude before I ‘steal the thunder’ of other books and chapters which will no doubt be brought out by speakers who are to follow. I think I have shown why population increases appear ‘excessive’ in some parts of the developing world. I trust I have alerted those present also to the dangers of inadequate increases of population. Hopefully, we can solve our problems of imbalanced increases in population by going back to Henry George’s level headed ideas many of which are in this great book we are considering at this conference.





[1] P&P,p91

[2] P&P,p91

[3] P&P, p 93

[4] P&P, p93

[5] P&P,p95

[6] P&P, p 97

[7] P&P,p 96

[8] P&P,98

[9] P&P, p 99

[10] P&P,99

[11] P&P ,p97

[12] P&P,p100

[13] P&P,p102

[14] P&P,p103

[15] P&P,p106

[16] P&P,p128

[17] P&P,p110

[18] P&P,p107

[19] P&P ,p114

[20] P&P,p132

[21] P&P, p 133

[22] P&P, p 134

[23] P&P ,p135

[24] P&P,p135

[25] P&P,138

[26] P&P,139

[27] P&P,135

[28] P&P, p141-142

[29] P&P ,143

[30] P&P,p144

[31] P&P, p145-146

[32] P&P,p147

[33] P&P,p148

[34] P&P, p148

[35] P&P,p149

[36] P&P ,148

[37] P&P 148

[38] P&P,150

[39] P&P 150

[40] P&P,p150

[41] Most of the modern day facts in this section have been gleaned from a current school Geography textbook.

[42] I heard this on the radio.

[43] P&P, pp 135-136

[44] P&P, p 134

[45] I heard on the radio as well.

Anthony Fitzgerald

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