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William Godwin: his Friends and Contemporaries
Ch. XI. 1798
Thomas Malthus to William Godwin, 20 August [1798]

Contents Vol. I
Ch. I. 1756-1785
Ch. II. 1785-1788
Ch. III. 1788-1792
Ch. IV. 1793
Ch. V. 1783-1794
Ch. VI. 1794-1796
Ch. VII. 1759-1791
Ch. VII. 1791-1796
Ch. IX. 1797
Ch. X. 1797
Ch. XI. 1798
Ch. XII. 1799
Ch. XIII. 1800
Contents Vol. II
Ch. I. 1800
Ch. II. 1800
Ch. III. 1800
Ch. IV. 1801-1803
Ch. V. 1802-1803
Ch. VI. 1804-1806
Ch. VII. 1806-1811
Ch. VIII. 1811-1814
Ch. IX. 1812-1819
Ch. X. 1819-1824
Ch. XI. 1824-1832
Ch. XII. 1832-1836
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Albury, August 20th [1798].

Dear Sir,—I went out of town almost immediately after I left you on Wednesday morning, and therefore did not receive your obliging letter till I arrived at Albury, whither Mr Johnson was so good as to send it.


“In the view in which you now place the subject, do you not in some degree change the question from the perfectibility and happiness to the numbers of the human race; and it may be a matter of doubt whether, without looking to a future state, an increase of numbers without a perpetual increase of happiness be really desirable.

“Could we suppose any country, by the most extraordinary exertions, to arrive at the ne plus ultra of subsistence and population, in one or two centuries we have reason to think that the pressure of population in its utmost weight, would be felt in frequent famines and pestilences, and particularly in the small recompense of labour; for I think you yourself must allow that under the present form of society the real recompense of labour depends upon the increase of the funds for its maintenance; and when these funds are completely stationary, and have continued so some time, this recompense will naturally be the least possible. You think that the present structure of society might be radically changed. I wish I could think so too; and as you say I have completely failed in convincing you on this subject, will you have the goodness to remove a few of those difficulties which I cannot remove myself, and allow me to be convinced by you?

“I set out with granting the extreme desirableness of the end proposed—that is, the abolition of all unnecessary labour, and the equal division of the necessary labour among all the members of the society. I ought also to premise, that in speaking of the present structure of society, I do not in the least refer to any particular form of government, but merely to the existence of a class of proprietors and a class of labourers, to the system of barter and exchange, and to the general moving principle of self-love.

“I can conceive that a period may arrive when the baubles that at present engage the attention of the higher classes of society may be held in contempt; but I cannot look forward to a period when such a portion of command over the produce of land and labour as cannot be within the reach of all will cease to be an object of desire. Moderate cloathing, moderate houses, the power of receiving friends, the power of purchasing books, and particularly
the power of supporting a family, will always remain objects of rational desire among the majority of mankind. If this be allowed, how is it possible to prevent a competition for these advantages? If the labour of luxuries were at an end, by what practicable means could you divide the necessary labour equally? Without the interference of Government, which I know you would reprobate as well as myself, how could you prevent a man from exchanging as many hours of labour as he liked for a greater portion of these advantages? Were the island of Great Britain divided among a great number of small proprietors, which would probably be the most advantageous system in respect to produce, it would be the natural wish of each of these proprietors to get the labour of his farm done for as small a part of the produce as he could, that he might be able to gratify his inclination in marrying without transgressing the rules of prudence, and provide for a large family, should he have one. The consequence of this desire in the proprietor to realise a sufficiency to maintain and provide for a family, together with the desire in the labourer to obtain the advantages of property, would be that the labourer would work 6, 8, or 10 hours in the day for less than would support 3, 4, or 5 persons, working two hours a-day. Consequently the equal division of the necessary labour would not take place. The labourers that were employed would not possess much leisure, and the labourers that were not employed would perish from want, to make room for the increase of the families of proprietors, who, as soon as they were increased beyond the power of their property to support, must become labourers to others, who, either from prudence or accident, had no families. And thus it appears that, notwithstanding the abolition of all luxuries, and a more equal division of property, the race of labourers would still be regulated by the demand for labour, and the state of the funds for its maintenance.

“The prudence which you speak of as a check to population implies a foresight of difficulties; and this foresight of difficulties almost necessarily implies a desire to remove them. Can you give me an adequate reason why the natural and general desire to remove these difficulties would not cause such a competition as
would destroy all chance of an equal division of the necessary labour of society, and produce such a state of things as I have described? If you can satisfy me on this head, I will heartily join with you in invectives against the increase of labour, and in the general sentiments of your essay on avarice and profusion. Excuse my descending to particulars, as I am of opinion that the great object of our researches, truth, cannot be attained without it.

“Your objection against the present form of society, on account of its preventing the greatest practicable population, would, in some degree, hold against your system of prudence, the object of which, as I conceive, would be to keep the population always considerably within the means of subsistence. Should such a system ever prevail so generally as to remove the constant want of an increasing quantity of food, it is highly probable that cultivation would proceed still more slowly than it does at present. I only approve of the present form of society, because I cannot myself, according to the laws of just theory, see any other form that can, consistently with individual freedom, equally promote cultivation and population. Great improvements may take place in the state of society; but I do not see how the present form or system can be radically and essentially changed, without a danger of relapsing again into barbarism. With the present acknowledged imperfections of human institutions, I by no means think that the greatest part of the distress felt in society arises from them. The very admission of the necessity of prudence to prevent the misery from an overcharged population, removes the blame from public institutions to the conduct of individuals. And certain it is, that almost under the worst form of government, where there was any tolerable freedom of competition, the race of labourers, by not marrying, and consequently decreasing their numbers, might immediately better their condition, and under the very best form of government, by marrying and greatly increasing their numbers, they would immediately make their condition worse. As all human institutions will probably be imperfect, and consequently always open to censure, it is not surely fair to charge them with evils of which, as far as I can judge, they are totally guiltless. And in
all projected changes of human institutions, it appears to me of the highest importance previously to ascertain as nearly as possible how much evil is to be attributed to these institutions, and how much is absolutely independent of them.

“I have made this letter much longer than I at first intended; and I certainly ought to apologise for taking up so much of your valuable time: but if your avocations will not permit you to answer it, I shall hope for some future opportunity of hearing your opinions upon the subject, when I have the pleasure of seeing you.—I am, dear sir, yours sincerely,

A. Malthus.”