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A lecture on the grim history of Malthusian policies

I gave a lecture recently at Haileybury College (the successor to the East India College where the economist Robert Malthus taught), on the topic of “The Misapplication of Malthus”. It was based on a chapter of my book The Evolution of Everything:

Parson Malthus casts a long shadow over the past 200 years. He was a good man without a cruel bone in his body. But great cruelty has been done in his name and is still being done in his name. That’s the paradox I wish to explore this evening. 

Malthus’s finest legacy is to have sparked Charles Darwin into action. In September 1838, shortly after returning from the voyage of the Beagle, Darwin read, or re-read, Malthus’s essay on population and was struck by the notion of a struggle for existence in which some thrived and others did not, an idea which helped trigger the insight of natural selection. 

Why did he read it then? I have a theory. Through his brother Erasmus, Darwin was very friendly at the time with Harriet Martineau, a firebrand radical who campaigned for the abolition of slavery and also for the “marvellous” free-market ideas of Adam Smith. So friendly that his father feared Erasmus or Charles might marry this rather terrifying lady. Martineau was a close confidant of Malthus. I suspect it was at her urging that Darwin read Malthus in 1838.

A wealthy English mathematician, teacher and clergyman with a fine literary style, Malthus is known today for just one short document, the Essay on Population, first published in 1798 and frequently revised in the following years. He is a bit of a hero to many in the environmental movement to this day for his emphatic insistence that there are limits to growth – that population growth must lead to misery, starvation and disease when the land, the food, the fuel or the water runs out.

According to his epitaph in Bath Abbey, he was known for the “spotless integrity of his principles, the equity and candour of his nature, his sweetness of temper, urbanity of manners and tenderness of heart, his benevolence and his piety”. He was clearly not a nasty man, and his chief remedy for overpopulation — late marriage – was not a cruel one. But he did warn that, if people could not be persuaded to delay marriage, then cruel policies would be needed to halt population growth: we would have to encourage famine and “reprobate specific remedies for ravaging diseases”.

Unfortunately, the lesson most people have taken from Malthus is that you have to be cruel to be kind. This runs right through the eugenic and population movements, and is alive and well today. When I write or speak about falling child mortality in Africa today, I can be sure I will get a response along exactly these Malthusian lines: but surely it’s a bad thing if you stop poor people dying? What’s the good of bringing economic growth to Africa: they will only have more babies.

Let’s call it Malthusian misanthropy. And it is 180-degrees wrong. The way to get population growth to slow, it turns out, is to keep babies alive, to bring health, prosperity and education to all.

The way to reduce the human impact on the planet is to get more technological, not less – to use metal and plastic and gas instead of wood, water and fodder.

There were plenty who thought Malthus’s recommendations cruel in his lifetime and afterwards. Pierre-Joseph Proudhon called it “the theory of political murder; of murder from motives of philanthropy and for love of God.”

Britain’s new Poor Law of 1834, which attempted to ensure that the very poor were not helped except in workhouses, and that conditions in workhouses were not better than the worst in the outside world, was based explicitly on Malthusian ideas – that too much charity only encouraged breeding, especially illegitimacy or “bastardy”.

The Irish potato famine of the 1840s was made infinitely worse by Malthusian prejudice shared by the British politicians in positions of power. The prime minister, Lord John Russell, was motivated by “a Malthusian fear about the long-term effect of relief”, according to a biographer.

The Assistant Secretary to the Treasury Charles Trevelyan had been a pupil of Malthus here at Haileybury: famine, he thought was an “effective mechanism for reducing surplus population” and a “direct stroke of an all-wise and all-merciful Providence” sent to teach the “selfish, perverse and turbulent” Irish a lesson. Trevelyan added: “Supreme Wisdom has educed permanent good out of transient evil.”

As recounted by Robert Zubrin in his book Merchants of Despair, in 1877, a dreamy and Bohemian poet with an opium habit named Robert Lytton, was serving as viceroy of India, sent there by his friend the prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli.

Lytton (who was my great great grandfather) may sound like a harmless if high-born hippy, but unfortunately he or his advisers were Malthusians. A drought afflicted some parts of the country. There was still plenty of food in India as a whole – food exports doubled and doubled again in two years—but taxes and the devaluation of the rupee left the hungry unable to afford relief. Lytton quoted almost directly from Malthus in his response: “the Indian population has a tendency to increase more rapidly than the food it raises from the soil”. His policy was to herd the hungry into camps where they were fed on – literally — starvation rations so that 94% died each month. Lytton specifically halted several private attempts to bring relief to the starving. Up to ten million people died.

Even Darwin, that most gentle and compassionate of men, was at least briefly tempted by the idea that his beloved natural selection should be a prescription rather than a description. In an explicitly Malthusian passage in the Descent of Man he notes that the “imbecile, the maimed and the sick” are saved by asylums and doctors; and that the weak are kept alive by vaccination. “Thus the weak members of civilized species propagate their kind”, something that any cattle breeder knows is “injurious to the race”.  He went on to lament the fact that “the very poor and reckless, who are often degraded by vice, almost invariably marry early, whilst the careful and frugal, who are generally otherwise virtuous, marry late in life”.

It was a hint that was enthusiastically embraced by several of Darwin’s followers, notably his cousin Francis Galton. Galton wanted people to choose their marriage partners more carefully, so that the fit would breed and the unfit would not. “What nature does blindly, slowly, and ruthlessly,” he argued, “man may do providently, quickly and kindly.”

Galton’s followers were soon outdoing each other in their prescriptive rush to nationalize marriage, license reproduction and sterilize the unfit. Many of the most enthusiastic eugenicists, such Sydney and Beatrice Webb, George Bernard Shaw, Havelock Ellis and H G Wells, were socialists, who thought the power of the state would be necessary to implement this programme of selective human breeding. As Jonah Goldberg wrote in his book Liberal Fascism: “Almost all the leading progressive intellectuals interpreted Darwinian theory as a writ to ‘interfere’ with human natural selection. Even progressives with no ostensible ties to eugenics worked closely with champions of the cause. There was simply no significant stigma against racist eugenics in progressive circles.” To be against eugenics was to be uncaring about the future of the human race.

In Germany, Ernst Haeckel, Darwin’s translator, took the Malthusian struggle in a quasi-religious direction, trying to fuse Darwinian with Christian insights in a theory that he called Monism. In a lecture at Altenburg in 1892, Haeckel used phrases from both Malthus and Thomas Hobbes: “Here it was Darwin, especially, who thirty-three years ago opened our eyes by his doctrine of the struggle for existence, and his theory of selection founded upon it. We now know that the whole of organic nature on our planet exists only by a relentless war of all against all.” [my emphasis]. There’s that exact phrase, struggle for existence, first used by Malthus in Chapter 3 of his population essay, and then by Darwin to describe the lesson he took from Malthus.

In 1905 four of Haeckel’s followers founded the German society for racial hygiene, a step that would lead pretty well directly to the Nuremberg laws, the Wannsee conference and the gas chambers. It is therefore not at all hard to trace a clear path that leads from Malthus’s followers’ insistence that we intervene in selective survival to the ash of Birkenau. This is not to blame the innocent mathematician-clergyman for the sins of the Nazis. There is nothing morally wrong in describing a struggle for existence as a feature of human population. What is wrong is prescribing it as deliberate policy. The sin that is committed is one of active interference, of ends justifying means.

It mattered little that scientific support for this policy was weak in the extreme. In fact the discoveries of Gregor Mendel, which became known to the world in 1900, ought to have killed eugenics stone dead. Particulate inheritance and recessive genes made the idea of preventing the deterioration of the human race by selective breeding greatly more difficult and impractical. How were those in charge of breeding the human race supposed to spot the heterozygotes who carried but did not express some essence of imbecility or unfitness? It would take centuries. Yet the genetic facts made no difference to the debate. Driven by a planning fantasy, the political classes, left and right, agitated to nationalize reproduction to prevent the spread of unfit blood lines.

The first International Congress of Eugenics assembled in London in 1912 under the presidency of Leonard Darwin, son of Charles. It was attended by three ambassadors, as well as the Lord Chief Justice and the first Lord of the Admiralty – one Winston Churchill. In his presidential address Leonard Darwin made no bones about the switch from description to prescription: “As an agency making for progress, conscious selection must replace the blind forces of natural selection”. Fortunately, Britain, the founder of the eugenic movement, never enacted a specifically eugenic law, thanks largely to a bloody-minded member of Parliament, Josiah Wedgwood, a great great nephew of Charles Darwin, who spotted the danger and filibustered a eugenic bill in the House of Commons.

In the United States it was a different story. The Eugenics Record Office, established at Cold Spring Harbor, New York, in 1910 by the energetic eugenicist Charles Davenport, with funding from the widow of the railroad magnate, E.H.Harriman, soon began to exert a powerful influence on policy. The second International Congress of Eugenics assembled in in New York in 1921, under the honorary presidency of Alexander Graham Bell, presided over by the grandee Henry Fairfield Osborn and with the invitations sent out by the State Department. This was no fringe event. Leonard Darwin was too unwell to attend but sent a message expressing the “firm conviction…that if wide-spread eugenic reforms are not adopted during the next hundred years or so, our Western Civilization is inevitably destined to such a slow and gradual decay as that which has been experienced in the past by every great ancient civilization.”

Davenport eventually persuaded 30 states to pass laws allowing for the compulsory sterilization of the feeble-minded, insane, criminalistic, epileptic, inebriate, diseased, blind, deaf, deformed and dependent. By the time such laws were struck down in the early 1970s, some 63,000 people had been forcibly sterilised and many more persuaded to accept voluntary sterility.

California was especially enthusiastic about eugenics. By 1933 it had forcibly sterilized more people than all other states combined. 

So when the Third International Congress of Eugenics gathered at the American Museum of Natural History in New York in 1932 under the presidency of Charles Davenport, and Davenport asked “can we by eugenical studies point the way to produce the superman and the superstate?”, it was to California that the superman-worshipping German delegates looked for an answer.

One of them, Ernst Rudin of the German society of racial hygiene, was elected to head the International Federation of Eugenics Organisations. Within months, Rudin would be appointed Reichskommissar for eugenics by the incoming Nazi government. By 1934, Germany was sterilizing more than 5,000 people per month. The California conservationist Charles Goethe, who combined a pioneering passion for protecting wild landscapes with an equal passion for sterilizing psychiatric patients without their consent, returned from a visit to Germany overjoyed that the Californian example had “jolted into action a great government of 60 million people.”

What happened next has not lost its power to shock. Nazi Germany sterilized 400,000 people in the six years after Hitler came to power, including schizophrenics, depressives, epileptics, and disabled people of all kinds. In 1939, the Nazi government went a step further and began to kill disabled and mentally ill people mainly with lethal injections. In 1941 it began to herd the “unfit” into concentration camps for mass extermination, along with homosexuals, Gypsies, political prisoners and millions of Jews. Under pressure of propaganda, many ordinary Germans inverted their consciences, becoming ashamed of any feelings of sympathy with their Jewish or disabled friends: the morally correct thing to do, they thought, was to override such feelings. Six million human beings died.

After the second world war and with the revelation of the horrendous results of these policies taken to extremes, eugenics fell from fashion.

Or did it? Surprisingly quickly and surprisingly blatantly, the very same arguments resurfaced in the movement to control world population. The son of the prominent pre-war eugenicist Henry Fairfield Osborn, called Fairfield Osborn, published a book in 1948 entitled Our Plundered Planet, which revived Malthusian concerns about the rapid growth of the human population, the depletion of resources, the exhaustion of soil, the over-use of DDT, an excessive reliance on technology and a rush to consumerism. “The profit motive, if carried to the extreme,” wrote the wealthy Osborn, “has one certain result – the ultimate death of the land.” Osborn’s book was reprinted eight times in the year it was published and translated into 13 languages.

At almost the same time William Vogt, a biologist driven by a passion for wildlife conservation, published a similar book The Road to Survival, in which the ideas of the “clear-sighted clergyman” Malthus were even more explicitly endorsed. “Unfortunately,” wrote Vogt, (yes unfortunately!), “in spite of the war, the German massacres, and localized malnutrition, the population of Europe, excluding Russia, increased by 11,000,000 people between 1936 and 1946”. In India, he thought, British rule had contributed to making famines ineffectual, which was a pity because it led to more babies, or to Indians “breeding with the irresponsibility of codfish”.

The population control movement was, to an uncomfortable extent, the child of the eugenics movement.

The link was just as explicit on this side of the Atlantic. Sir Charles Galton Darwin, nephew of Leonard and grandson of Charles, who was a distinguished physicist, published his own pessimistic book in 1952 entitled The Next Million Years. He wrote: “To summarize the Malthusian doctrine, there can never be more people than there is food for. Those who are most anxious about the Malthusian threat argue that the decrease of population through prosperity is the solution of the population problem. They are unconscious of the degeneration of the race implied by this condition, or perhaps they are willing to accept it as the lesser of two evils.”

By the 1960s these ideas had converted many people in positions of power. Osborn’s and Vogt’s books had been read by a generation of students including Paul Ehrlich and Al Gore.

The most influential disciple was General William Draper, whose commission on foreign aid reported to President Eisenhower in 1959 that aid should be tied explicitly to birth control in order to decrease the supply of recruits to communism. Eisenhower did not buy this; and nor did his Catholic successor John F. Kennedy.

But Draper did not give up. His Population Crisis Committee eventually won over Lyndon Johnson in 1966, and population control became an official part of American foreign aid.

Under its ruthless director, Reimert Ravenholt, the Office of Population grew its budget till it was larger than that of the rest of the aid budget. Ravenholt bought up defective birth control pills, unsterilized intrauterine devices and unapproved contraceptives for distribution as aid in poor countries. He made no bones about his views that the prevention of infant mortality in Africa was “enormously harmful to African societies when the deaths prevented thereby are not balanced by prevention of a roughly equal number of births…Many infants and children rescued from preventable disease deaths by interventionist programs during the 1970s and 1980s have become machete-wielding killers”.

Some Western commentators thought starvation was a better course of action. Brian and Paul Paddock wrote a best seller in 1967 called Famine 1975!, which argued that a time of famine was imminent and food aid was futile. America, they said, must divide the underdeveloped nations into three categories: those that could be helped, the walking wounded who would stagger through without help and “those so hopelessly headed for or in the grip of famine (whether because of overpopulation, agricultural insufficiency, or political ineptness) that our aid will be a waste; these ‘can’t-be-saved nations’ will be ignored and left to their fate”. India, Egypt and Haiti should be left to die in this way.

A year later, Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb was almost as callous. India could never feed itself, he decided. An unabashed advocate of coercion to achieve population control, he compared humanity to a cancer and recommended surgery. “The operation will demand many apparently brutal and heartless decisions. The pain may be intense.” Population control at home would require “compulsion if voluntary methods fail”. He suggested adding sterilants to the water supply to achieve “the desired population size”. As for overseas, he wanted food aid made conditional on forcible sterilization of all those who had three or more children in India: “Coercion in a good cause” he called it.

When Mrs Gandhi asked the World Bank for loans in 1975, she was told that stronger efforts to control population were a precondition. She turned to coercion, her son Sanjay running a program that made many permits, licences, rations and even housing applications conditional on sterilization. Slums were bulldozed and poor people rounded up for sterilization. Violence broke out repeatedly. In 1976, when eight million Indians were sterilized in a year, Robert McNamara, president of the World Bank, visited the country and congratulated it: “At long last India is moving effectively to address its population problem.”

Yet here is the astounding thing. Birth rates were already falling in India and elsewhere. Food production was rising far faster than population, in a reverse of Malthusian predictions — thanks to synthetic nitrogen fertilizer and new short-strawed varieties of cereals: the Green Revolution. The answer to the population explosion turned out not to be coercion, or the encouragement of infant mortality, but the very opposite. By far the best way to slow down population growth was to keep babies alive, because then people would have fewer of them as they planned smaller families.

And the even more shocking fact is that this solution was already known to some at the very start of the panic. Even at the very birth of neoMalthusian population alarm in the 1940s there were some who saw how horribly wrong both the diagnosis and the cure were. Far from more babies causing more hunger, they argued that it was the other way round. People increased their birth rate in response to high child death rates. Make them richer and healthier and they would have fewer babies as had already happened in Europe where prosperity had led birth rates down, not up. 

The Brazilian diplomat Josue de Castro in his book The Geopolitics of Hunger, argued that “the road to survival, therefore, does not lie in the neo-Malthusian prescriptions to eliminate surplus people, nor in birth control, but in the effort to make everybody on the face of the earth productive.”

In the 1970s Paul Ehrlich’s brand of population pessimism was attacked by the economist Julian Simon in a series of articles and books. Simon argued that there was something badly wrong with a thesis that the birth of a baby is a bad thing, but the birth of a calf is a good thing. Why were people seen as mouths to feed, rather than hands to help? Was not the truth of the past two centuries that human wellbeing had improved as population had expanded?

Famously, in 1980 Simon challenged Paul Ehrlich to a bet about future prices of raw materials. Ehrlich and a colleague, eager to take up the offer, chose copper, chrome, nickel, tin, and tungsten as examples of materials that would grow scarcer and more expensive over ten years. Simon bet against him. Ten years later, grudgingly and while calling Simon an “imbecile” in public, Ehrlich sent Simon a check for $576.07: all five metals had fallen in price in both real and nominal terms. (One of my proudest possessions is the Julian Simon award, made from those five metals.)

The price of commodities has gone down and down while the population has gone up and up. Exactly the opposite of the Malthusian prediction.

Yet the neo-Malthusians are undaunted. Lester Brown is a famous environmentalist who has made a name for himself by repeatedly predicting human starvation. Over the past half century the total harvest of wheat, maize and rice – the three biggest crops and the source of 60% of our calories – has trebled even though the amount of land cultivated has hardly changed. Yet Lester Brown has repeatedly told us doom was imminent. 

`Farmers can no longer keep up with rising demand for food, and famine is inevitable”

Lester Brown 1974

“Global food insecurity is increasing”

Lester Brown 1981

`The slim margin between food production and population growth continues to narrow”

Lester Brown 1984

“Population growth is exceeding farmers’ ability to keep up”

Lester Brown 1989

“Seldom has the world faced an unfolding emergency whose dimensions are as clear as the growing imbalance between food and people”

Lester Brown 1994

“Cheap food may now be history”

Lester Brown 2007

The solution to the population explosion turned out to be the green revolution and the demographic transition: emergent phenomena rather than coercion and planning. People started having smaller families because they were richer, healthier, more urban, more liberated and more educated. Not because they were told to. There is only one country where population control was sufficiently coercive to achieve its end – China – and yet all the evidence suggests that coercion there was counterproductive.

China’s one-child policy derives directly from western neo-Malthusian writing.

Despite being a mass murderer, MaoZedong’s approach to population was relatively restrained and humane: known as “Later, Longer, Fewer” it encouraged lower fertility by the delaying marriage, spacing births and stopping at two, but in a flexible and non-prescriptive way. That is roughly what Malthus himself had advocated.

Whether for that reason or because of improving child mortality, China’s birth rate halved between 1971 and 1978.

Then after Mao’s death came a turn to a much more rigid and prescriptive approach.

As Susan Greenhalgh, a Harvard anthropologist, recounts in her book Just One Child, in 1978 Song Jian, a guided missile designer with expertise in control systems, attended a technical conference in Helsinki. While there he heard about two books by neo-Malthusian alarmists linked with a shadowy organization called the Club of Rome. One was Limits to Growth, published in the United States; the other A Blueprint for Survival, published in Britain.

Limits to Growth was a book that sold ten million copies and purported to prove with computer models that humanity was doomed because of overpopulation and the exhaustion of resources.

A Blueprint for Survival was the British equivalent. Heavily influenced by Malthusian ideas, and written by a wealthy businessman Edward Goldsmith but signed by a veritable Who’s Who of the scientific establishment including Sir Julian Huxley, Sir Peter Medawar and Sir Peter Scott, it oozes snobbish disdain for the fact that consumer society with its “shoddy” goods is coming within reach of ordinary people. As for the global poor, “it is unrealistic to suppose that there will be increases in agricultural production adequate to meet forecast demands for food.” They then command that governments must acknowledge the population problem “and declare their commitment to ending population growth; this commitment should also include an end to immigration”. It is a highly reactionary document, of the kind that would embarrass a fringe right-wing party today.

These were the two books that that Song Jian, the father of the one-child policy, picked up in Helsinki.Limits to Growth had applied control systems theory, of the kind Song was an expert in, not to the trajectory of missiles but to the trajectory of population and resource use. Song returned to China, where he republished the main themes of both books in Chinese under his own name, and shot to fame within the regime. Song was proposing social engineering in the most literal sense. At a conference in Chengdu in December 1979 Song silenced his critics worried about the humanitarian consequences, and persuaded the party to adopt coercion.

General Qian XingZhong was put in charge of the policy. He ordered the sterilization of all women with two or more children, the insertion of IUDs into all women with one child (removal of the device being a crime), the banning of births to women younger than 23, and the mandatory abortion of all unauthorized pregnancies right up to the eighth month. Those who tried to flee and have babies in secret were tracked down and imprisoned. In some cases their communities were fined, encouraging betrayal of neighbours. The brutal campaign of mass sterilisation, forced abortion and infanticide was exacerbated by the voluntary murder of baby girls on a genocidal scale as parents tried to ensure that their one legal child was a boy.

And fertility actually rose!

What was the international reaction to this holocaust? The United Nations Secretary General awarded a prize to General Qian in 1983 and recorded his “deep appreciation” for the way in which the Chinese government had “marshaled the resources necessary to implement population policies on a massive scale”. Eight years later, even though the horrors of the policy were becoming ever more clear, the head of the United Nations Family Planning Agency said that “China has every reason to feel proud of its remarkable achievements” in population control, before offering to help China teach other countries how to do it.

A benign view of this authoritarian atrocity continues to this day. The media tycoon Ted Turner told a newspaper reporter in 2010 that countries should follow China’s lead in instituting a one-child policy to reduce global population over time.

In conclusion, Malthus was a good and clever man. But Malthusian ideas pursued in his name are cruel and wrong.

The poor laws were wrong; British attitudes to famine in India and Ireland were wrong; eugenics was wrong; the Holocaust was wrong; India’s sterilization programme was wrong; China’s one-child policy was wrong. These were sins of commission, not omission.

Malthusian misanthropy – the notion that you should harden your heart, approve of famine and disease, feel ashamed of pity and compassion, for the good of the race – was wrong pragmatically as well as morally. The right thing to do about poor, hungry and fecund people was always, and still is, to give them hope, opportunity, freedom, education, food and medicine, including of course contraception, for not only will that make them happier, it will enable them to have smaller families.

Leave the last word to Jacob Bronowski, speaking at the end of his television series The Ascent of Man.

Standing in a pond at Auschwitz-Birkenau, where many of his relatives died, he reached down and lifted some mud: “Into this pond were flushed the ashes of some four million people. And that was not done by gas. It was done by arrogance, it was done by dogma, it was done by ignorance. When people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality, this is how they behave. This is what men do when they aspire to the knowledge of gods.”







By Matt Ridley | Tagged:  rational-optimist