Malthus – Selected Quotes

– relatated to the Land Question

From An Essay on the Principles of PopulationA Summary View
The countries most resembling the United States of America are those territories of the New World which lately belonged to Spain. In abundance and fertility of soil they are indeed superior; but almost all the vices in the government of the mother country were introduced into her colonial possessions, and particularly that very unequal distribution of landed property which takes place under the feudal system. These evils, and the circumstance of a very large part of the population being Indians in a depressed state, and inferior in industry and energy to Europeans, necessarily prevent that rapid increase of numbers which the abundance and fertility of the land would admit of.
According to all past experience, and the best observations which can be made on the motives which operate upon the human mind, there can be no well-founded hope of obtaining a large produce from the soil but under a system of private property. It seems perfectly visionary to suppose that any stimulus short of that which is excited in man by the desire of providing for him self and family, and of bettering his condition in life, should operate on the mass of society with sufficient force and constancy to overcome the natural indolence of mankind. All the attempts which have been made since the commencement of authentic history, to proceed upon a principle of common property, have either been so insignificant that no inference can be drawn from them, or have been marked by the most signal failures; and the changes which have been effected in modern times by education do not seem to advance a single step towards making such a state of things more probable in future. We may, therefore, safely conclude, that while man retains the same physical and moral constitution which he is observed to possess at present, no other than a system of private property stands the least chance of providing for such a large and increasing population as that which is to be found in many countries at present.
But though there is scarcely any conclusion which seems more completely established by experience than this, yet it is unquestionably true, that the laws of private property, which are the grand stimulants to production, do themselves so limit it as always to make the actual produce of the earth fall very considerably short of the power of production. On a system of private property no adequate motive to the extension of cultivation can exist, unless the returns are sufficient not only to pay the wages necessary to keep up the population, which, at the least, must include the support of a wife and two or three children, but also afford a profit on the capital which has been employed. This necessarily excludes from cultivation a considerable portion of land, which might be made to bear corn. If it were possible to suppose that man might be adequately stimulated to labour under a system of common property, such land might be cultivated, and the production of food and the increase of population might go on till the soil absolutely refused to grow a single additional quarter, and the whole of the society was exclusively engaged in procuring the necessaries of life. But it is quite obvious that such a state of things would inevitably lead to the greatest degree of distress and degradation. And, if a system of private property secures mankind from such evils, which it certainly does, in a great degree, by securing to a portion of the society the leisure necessary for the progress of the arts and sciences, it must be allowed that such a check to the increase of cultivation confers on society a most signal benefit.
But it must perhaps also be allowed, that, under a system of private property, cultivation is sometimes checked in a degree, and at a period, not required by the interest of society. And this is particularly liable to happen when the original divisions of land have been extremely unequal, and the laws have not given sufficient facility to a better distribution of them. Under a system of private property, the only effectual demand for produce must come from the owners of property; and though it be true that the effectual demand of the society, whatever it may be, is best supplied under the most perfect system of liberty, yet it is not true that the tastes and wants of the effective demanders are always, and necessarily, the most favourable to the progress of national wealth. A taste for hunting and the preservation of game among the owners of the soil will, without fail, be supplied, if things be allowed to take their natural course; but such a supply, from the manner in which it must be effected, would inevitably be most unfavourable to the increase of produce and population. In the same manner, the want of an adequate taste for the consumption of manufactured commodities among the possessors of surplus produce, if not fully compensated by a great desire for personal attendance, which it never is, would infallibly occasion a premature slackness in the demand for labour and produce, a premature fall of profits, and a premature check to cultivation.
As property is the result of positive law, and the ground on which the law which establishes it rests is the promotion of the public good, and the increase of human happiness, it follows, that it may be modified by the same authority by which it was enacted, with a view to the more complete attainment of the objects which it has in view. It may be said, indeed, that every tax for the use of the government, and every county or parish rate, is a modification of this kind. But there is no modification of the law of property, having still for its object the increase of human happiness, which must not be defeated by the concession of a right of full support to all that might be born. It may be safely said, therefore, that the concession of such a right, and a right of property, are absolutely incompatible, and cannot exist together.
To what extent assistance may be given, even by law, to the poorer classes of society when in distress, without defeating the great object of the law of property, is essentially a different question. It depends mainly upon the feelings and habits of the labouring classes of society, and can only be determined by experience.
From Principles of Political Economy – Ch- III, Of the Rent of Land
Must we not, on the contrary, allow that rent is the natural result of a most inestimable quality in the soil, which God has bestowed on man—the quality of being able to maintain more persons than are necessary to work it? Is it not a part, and we shall see farther on that it is an absolutely necessary part, of that general surplus produce from the land, which has been justly stated to be the source of all power and enjoyment; and without which, in fact, there would be no cities, no military or naval force, no arts, no learning, none of the finer manufactures, none of the conveniences and luxuries of foreign countries, and none of that cultivated and polished society, which not only elevates and dignifies individuals, but which extends its beneficial influence through the whole mass of the people?
That no degree of monopoly could make land which produces the food on which the people live yield a rent, if it did not yield a greater produce than was sufficient to support the cultivators.
Mr. Ricardo himself was an instance of what I am stating. He became, by his
talents and industry, a considerable landholder; and a more honourable and excellent
man, a man who for the qualities of his head and heart more entirely deserved what
he had earned, or employed it better, I could not point out in the whole circle of
It is somewhat singular that Mr. Ricardo, a considerable receiver of rents, should
have so much underrated their national importance; while I, who never received, nor
expect to receive any, should probably be accused of overrating their importance.
Our different opinions, under these circumstances, may serve at least to show our
mutual sincerity, and afford a strong presumption, that to whatever bias our minds
may have been subjected in the doctrines we have laid down, it has not been that,
against which perhaps it is most difficult to guard, the insensible bias of situation
and interest.