Page images

living on the profits of their stock, and able to move it at pleasure to other employments, there the expence of tilling the worst quality of land cultivated determines the average price of raw produce, while the difference of quality on the superior lands measures the rents yielded by them.

This was a step towards understanding the circumstances which affect the progress of a very limited division of rents, and the causes which in one very peculiar state of society determine the average prices of raw produce. Mr. Ricardo, however, overlooking altogether the limited extent of the field to which these principles were really applicable, undertook from them alone to deduce the laws which regulate the nature and amount of the revenue derived from land at all places, and under all circumstances; and not content with this, proceeded from the same narrow and limited data, to construct a general system of the distribution of wealth, and to explain the causes of variations which take place in the rate of profits, or amount of wages over the surface of the globe. Mr. Ricardo was a man of talent, and he produced a system very ingeniously combined, of purely hypothetical truths; which, however, a single comprehensive glance at the world as it actually exists, is sufficient to shew to be utterly inconsistent with the past and present condition of mankind.

[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]

Mr. Malthus' theory of population has been yet more lamentably abused. With the commanding influence of superior talent, he had fixed at once the attention of the world on a physical power possessed by the human race, of multiplying its aggregate numbers; which, if long exerted to its greatest extent, or even to a much less extent, must demonstratively outstrip any possible increase of food; and he had shewn that much of the happiness or misery of a large part of the population of nations, must always depend on the extent to which this power is controlled by themselves, or on the modes by which population is kept down to the level of food by extraneous circumstances. The facts on this subject, which he brought to light, must always hold a prominent place in every enquiry into the causes which determine the social progress and condition of nations and the most prominent place in such branches of those enquiries, as have for their especial object, the explanation of the laws which govern variations in the aggregate numbers of a people, and the amount of subsistence consumed by the great mass of every community; or in other words, its rate of wages. But to create and to perfect such an important department of human knowledge, was hardly likely to be the lot of one man, and the great work of Mr. Malthus contains certainly the elements of many errors, mixed with the portion

of lasting truth which it was his fortune first to demonstrate. Those errors had their origin-partly in a logically defective division of the checks to population which he enumerated and examined,— partly in some obscurity and indecision existing in his own mind, as to the amount of influence on the progress of the numbers of nations, which might in practice be expected to be exercised by moral causes acting in opposition to the physical propensities of mankind.

It is the perilous privilege of really eminent men, that their errors, as well as their wisdom, should be fertile in consequences. Those of Mr. Malthus led at once to forms of argument, and to a phraseology, which cast a gloom over the whole subject, and have had a very disastrous effect on the further progress of knowledge-more disastrous indeed, than could possibly have been anticipated by any one not gifted with the power of foreseeing the strange combination of credulity and rashness which characterises many of the works in which his speculations have been pushed forwards to their supposed practical conclusions.

Taking together the two subjects of rent, and of population as it affects wages, we shall find that the germs of truth brought to light by Mr. Malthus, have been made to give apparent support to such doctrines as these:-That the revenues of the

proprictors of the soil over the surface of the globe, exist only because the qualities of different soils are different; and can only be increased as the differences in productiveness of the soils cultivated increase :-That this increase is always contemporary with a decrease in the productive powers of agriculture, and in the gains of the productive classes, and comes ever with loss and distress in its train:- And that the interests of the landlords which require such an increase, are, therefore, always and necessarily opposed to the interests of the state, and of every other class of society. The fortunes and position in the ordinary progress of nations, of the owners of stock, the next leading body in communities, are decided on in a spirit scarcely less gloomy. The effects of that diminution in the productive powers of industry, which is supposed to be indicated by increasing rents, reach, it is said, the owners of capital, in the shape of a dwindling rate of profits; and thus their own remuneration, and their capacity to accumulate fresh funds for the employment of labor, are always in a necessary course of gradual diminution, while cultivation is spreading itself to new soils, or multiplying its means and efforts on the old. Of the two richer classes, therefore, the one is threatened that the increase of the people, and the spread of tillage, will bring to it an invidious wealth founded on the

public distress, and the other is menaced with a gradual but inevitable decay, produced by the same causes, and advancing at the same pace.

The fate revealed to the most important division of the population, to the great body of the people, was yet more appalling. In their case a further cause, and one dependent, like the decreasing fertility of the soil, on an unchangeable law of nature, was pressing them unceasingly towards either misery or guilt. They were endowed, as a part of their physical constitution, with a power and tendency to multiply more rapidly than the means of subsistence; and their numbers could be kept down to the level of those means, only by checks which resolve themselves into either guilt or misery, or into a pure state of moral restraint, which, according to the unhappily narrow definition of it given by the author of the doctrine, was necessarily so rare as to limit but little by its prevalence the wide action of suffering and vice. This last opinion really rested principally on a logical error before alluded to, in the division of those causes into which the admitted checks to population resolve themselves; but it was seized on and pushed to its most repulsive consequences with a headlong and pernicious eagerness, and served to augment the fearful amount of those elements of discord and suffering, which it was believed had been demon

« PreviousContinue »