The Unresolved Population Controversy
[Reprinted from a Land-Theory online
discussion, November 2005. Dan Sullivan's website is Saving
Communities -- http://savingcommunities.org]
The problem with thinking that one can separate science from morality
is that a great deal of material put forward as scientific is not, in
fact, divorced from morality and moral debates. We know of the
supposedly scientific studies conducted by Big Tobacco, mostly because
they are defending what most people disparage. Everyone is able to see
the splinter in the other fellow's eye, but not the one in his own.
Thus we have credentialed scientists touting "absolute proof"
that we are causing global warming, other credentialed scientists
saying that there has been no fluctuation in global temperature that
cannot be explained by ordinary statistical variation, and still other
scientists pointing out that long cycles of warming and cooling have
occurred throughout geological history. (Only a thousand years or so
ago, Greenland and various islands in the North Sea were warm enough
to support comfortable human settlement.) I personally don't claim to
know who is right. I only know that vested interests are at work on
this issue as they are on so many others.
Whenever political partisans set out use science to advance their
agendas, or to prevent encroachments on those agendas, science itself
becomes contaminated. People rise to prominence, not according to the
validity of their theories, but according to how well those theories
resonate with their preconceived notions.
Remember acid rain? It was the number-one bugaboo before global
warming. The political battle raged until the environmentalists
finally got the victory they were hoping for -- major funding for an
extensive study of the effects of acid rain, conducted by scientists
the environmentalists themselves had faith in. However, the results of
that study were that acid rain was a non-problem. It turns out that
lakes generally, but Canadian lakes particularly, acidify on their own
because of their gradually filling up with organic sediment
(especially with decayed leaves and needles). It seems that the life
cycle of Canadian lakes is to start off as relatively pure water and
end up as peat bogs. The primary destructive effect of acid rain is to
accelerate the weathering of certain stones, particularly granite,
causing the premature deterioration of statues. No sulfur dioxide
upwind of Mount Rushmore, please.
Now, the point is that very few people have heard of that study,
because those whose agendas had been to raise money opposing acid rain
did not want to talk about their error, and the other side, the
polluters, did not want to talk about their polluting, even to defend
that polluting against bogus charges. Such a defense is like denying
that you beat your wife. So the issue is dead, except to people who
saw the page-one headlines about the seriousness of acid rain but did
not see the buried analysis of why those headlines had been
Dozens of stories like these illustrate that one cannot strip away
the context of what pretends to be scientific inquiry without also
stripping away the wherewithal to understand what really happened, why
various points are disputed, and even whether the scientific inquiry
was as legitimate as it claims to be.
When we come back to Darwin, we must first consider that evolution
theory has also been affected by raging controversies, and that these
controversies have been so thoroughly misrepresented for so long
(about a century and a half), that we not only don't know what the
actual context was, but that we know "so much that ain't so."
The usual pattern is that people who support a particular person and
his work give him more credit than is due him, downplay the
criticisms, and, worst of all, assign motives to his antagonists that
are easier to ridicule than the actual motives. Such is the case with
Darwin. So, we have to look at the political context and see how the
original controversies played out.
There are also some myths about Henry George and the land question
that come into this. Particularly, there is the myth that the land
question was not on people's minds prior to George. The reality is
that neoclassical economists not only buried George's contribution,
but also buried a rich history of controversy prior to George on the
land question. This is pertinent because the very strategy of the
Malthusian/Darwinian camp was to deflect the land question by talking
about something else. Georgists, in exalting their hero, are perhaps
as guilty as Darwinians when it comes to ignoring what preceded him.
Anyhow, Malthus said he wrote his essay on population as an answer to
Godwin, but, in fact, he was not answering Godwin's actual writings at
all. The myth that Malthus opposed Godwin's "socialistic ideas"
was Malthus's own myth, for Godwin was an anarchist, not a socialist.
That is, he wanted less government, not more. More to the point,
anarchists trusted the natural order of things, blaming the plight of
the poor on government-backed interference with that order, while
socialists blamed natural order and saw government as a solution. Marx
and other socialists actually backed Darwin and Malthus's "scientific"
theories because those theories supported the core socialist assertion
that the natural order is evil and must be overcome by government.
More on that later.
Malthus ignored what Godwin had actually written and "reframed
the argument," as the spin doctors say. He complained about
charity for the poor when Godwin had advocated justice. He complained
that giving people charity (what we would call welfare) leads them to
have more children, and there is some truth to that, but Godwin had
asked only that government stop shifting the burden onto the poor.
People who think Malthus was actually answering a socialistic plea for
welfare miss the fact that this was a straw-man plea of Malthus's own
It is also falsely supposed that Godwin and others of his time were
unaware of the land question. It was quite central to writings of
economists and philosophers prior to Malthus. One must remember that
these were turbulent times, as both America and France had overthrown
monarchies on principles Godwin was advancing, and that there was
serious agitation throughout Europe. These were not the kind of
discussions we have today in the United States, where the aristocracy
is more or less secure, but the kind that were had in Russia before
the fall of the Czar, or in France before the French Revolution.
Anyhow, Godwin was clearly aware of the inclosure acts, the game laws
and the shift away from the land tax, which had been the main revenue
source under early feudalism. The word feudalism itself comes from "feu,"
the old English spelling of "fee," which was payment for
dominion over land. Landholders paid lords, lords paid overlords, and
overlords paid the king.
The following paragraph stood at the head of Godwins' complaints
against the government:
First then, legislation is in almost every country
grossly the favourer of the rich against the poor. Such is the
character of the game-laws, by which the industrious rustic is
forbidden to destroy the animal that preys upon the hopes of his
future subsistence, or to supply himself with the food that unsought
thrusts itself in his path. Such was the spirit of the late
revenue-laws of France, which in several of their provisions fell
exclusively upon the humble and industrious, and exempted from their
operation those who were best able to support it. Thus in England
the land-tax at this moment produces half a million less than it did
a century ago, while the taxes on consumption have experienced an
addition of thirteen millions per annum during the same period. This
is an attempt, whether effectual or no, to throw the burthen from
the rich upon the poor, and as such is an example of the spirit of
legislation. Upon the same principle robbery and other offences,
which the wealthier part of the community have no temptation to
commit, are treated as capital crimes, and attended with the most
rigorous, often the most inhuman punishments. The rich are
encouraged to associate for the execution of the most partial and
oppressive positive laws; monopolies and patents are lavishly
dispensed to such as are able to purchase them; while the most
vigilant policy is employed to prevent combinations of the poor to
fix the price of labour, and they are deprived of the benefit of
that prudence and judgement which would select the scene of their
As you see, Godwin was very much aware of the land question. He was
also aware of the principles of property as it applies to land. This
from Book 5 of the same work, entitled, "Of Property."
Human beings are partakers of a common nature; what
conduces to the benefit or pleasure of one man will conduce to the
benefit or pleasure of another. Hence it follows, upon the
principles of equal and impartial justice, that the good things of
the world are a common stock, upon which one man has as valid a
title as another to draw for what he wants. It appears in this
respect, as formerly it appeared in the case of our claim to the
forbearance of each other, that each man has a sphere the limit and
termination of which is marked out by the equal sphere of his
neighbour. I have a right to the means of subsistence; he has an
equal right. I have a right to every pleasure I can participate [in]
without injury to myself or others; his title in this respect is of
Nor was Adam Smith unaware of the land question. Chapter 11 of book
one. "The Rent of Land," is entirely dedicated to that
question, is thoroughly critical of land monopoly, and advocates a tax
on "ground rents" as the best tax. Similarly, the French "laissez
faire" Physiocrats had advocated a single tax on land, Jefferson,
Franklin and Paine advocated heavy land value taxes, the Articles of
Confederation called for land value taxes to support the new United
States, etc., and even Spencer, in his younger days, challenged the
right to monopolize land. The issue was a hot one, and the nobility
had no answer.
Anyhow, as Malthus had no answer either, he had to concoct a
rationale that would change the nature of the debate. Thus he wrote
his "Essay on Population," which pretended to answer Godwin,
but didn't, and which pretended to be scientific, but wasn't.
The gambit was working, albeit awkwardly, because Malthus's opponents
were so outraged that they sputtered and fumed too much to put
together a coherent analysis of why Malthus was wrong. The essay set
off a raging storm of controversy, mostly because Malthus claimed that
abject poverty was part of what God had intended -- partly to punish
the wicked poor for their having too many children, and partly to give
the gracious rich an opportunity to engage in noble charity work. The
essay was regarded as social blasphemy by liberals and religious
blasphemy as well by many Christians -- a cheap ploy to shift the
blame for poverty off the nobles who had caused that poverty and onto
Evolution science at that time was a curiosity of no particular
importance to anyone except the curious themselves, much like ancient
anthropology is today. There was no sense, even among evolutionists,
that humans impacted evolution in a way that should raise concerns, or
that evolution impacted humans.
The concepts of natural selection had not been greatly elaborated
upon because there was general agreement, or at least an absence of
dispute, about natural selection. One can hardly doubt that some
survive better than others, that some are chosen over others by
potential mates, that those with advantages are more likely to survive
and mate than those with disadvantages, or even that the ability to
cooperate gives the cooperators advantages over others.
Had Darwin merely elaborated on these accepted ideas, he would now be
a forgotten man, overshadowed by predecessors like his grandfather,
who initiated writings about those ideas, and by successors like
Mendel, whose truly scientific experiments showed how genetic traits
are passed on. He also would have been largely ignored in his own
However, by using evolution to support and expand the Malthusian
argument, Darwin would ingratiate himself to the aristocracy, making
his writings vitally important to a rich and powerful class. He would
also achieve eternal fame as those who had been railing against
Malthus would rail against Darwin as well.
So, Darwin merely grafted conventional evolution theory onto
Malthusian population theory. While his elaborations on natural
selection gave his book more weight, both physically and
scientifically, they broke no new ground and corrected no substantive
misconceptions by earlier evolutionists.
However, those elaborations made it all the more difficult to argue
against population theory, for it wove the theory into the
elaborations. Because so few others had shared these observations or
had studied evolution theory, Darwin's arguments in support of Malthus
were like "a bolt from the blue." Already knocked off
balance by the unexpectedness of Malthus's indirect response,
advocates of justice were totally unprepared for Darwin. The
Malthusian/Darwinian combination was like what boxers call the one-two
Having neither the time nor the resources to replicate Darwin's
exotic trips, they had to take his observations at face value. Those
who railed against the religious heresies of Malthus the minister were
confronted with the irreligious Darwin claiming that this was pure
science, and that questions about God had nothing to do with it. Those
who tried to use Darwin's atheism against him were confronted with the
fact that Godwin, who started the whole controversy, was himself an
atheism, and they were further charged with pitting religion against
science, inviting comparisons with Newton and Galileo -- comparisons
that are invoked to this day.
Suddenly evolution theory was controversial and popular, giving those
who promote evolution science a reason to be grateful for Darwin, but
also giving those who believe in freedom or in a divine order (or even
in a benign natural order, as anarchists and classical libertarians
believe) reason to resent him, and to expand that to a resentment of
evolution theory itself.
It also divided the pro-justice camp, as the socialists embraced
Darwin. Marx even discussed dedicating "Kapital" to Darwin,
for Darwin and Malthus's writings supported the Marxist premise that
the natural order was a vicious order, and that nothing could bring
about the goal of general prosperity other than an overarching
government powerful enough to overcome natural tendencies through
massive regulatory interferences.
Some members of the aristocracy who had supported Malthusianism and
Darwinism also supported Marx, prompting the anarchist Bakunin to
comment that, "Herr Marx has one foot in the revolution and one
foot in the bank." Of course, most aristocrats did not want
socialism to prevail, but if it did prevail it would still be better
for them than the abolition of privilege, especially if they became
the aristocrats of socialism, getting the same substance under a new
form. Those aristocrats who railed against socialism, however, did not
also oppose Darwin and Malthus, but opposed all concepts of justice,
lumping the anarchists and socialists in together. While classical
liberalism, libertarianism and anarchism were very close philosophies,
socialists called themselves liberals and conservative monopolists
called themselves libertarians, causing more confusion. Anarchists
were patronized at best and vilified at worst, not only by the
mainstream establishment, but by the neoliberals and neolibertarians,
who used the names of the anarchists' former allies. The anarchists
became so frustrated that some of them engaged in violence,
discrediting their cause even further.
It was a great coup against justice, so successful that the dominant
political debate ever since has not been between economic freedom and
monopoly, but between capitalist monopoly and socialist monopoly.
Based on deceptions and confusions, Malthusianism and Darwinism cannot
be celebrated for what they really are. These two ideas had swept into
the struggle for justice from out of nowhere like the Batman and Robin
of privilege, and then returned to the Bat-cave of "pure science"
once their work was done.
Therefore, we no longer recognize that Malthus and Darwin represented
the forces of privilege against freedom. Today Malthus, who was the
greater of the two in his own time, has been pushed aside, for the
nakedness of his assertions make them more difficult to stomach, and
even Darwin's overpopulation theory of evolution, originally his core
contribution, has been downplayed, and the focus is now on his merely
elaborating ideas that had already been accepted, as if those ideas
were what the Darwinian controversy was all about.
The most coarse assertions of overpopulation theory have been
universally rejected. Although Darwin ridiculed Malthus's detractors
for not understanding simple mathematics, the clumsy assertion that
population increases geometrically while the food supply only
increases arithmetically was the first to go. Henry George's four-
chapter critique of Malthus in *Progress and Poverty*, was wildly
popular among the American and English people in is own time, but was
largely ignored by academia. More recently, Frances Moore Lappé's
*Food First, Beyond the Myth of Scarcity* examined every country
alleged to have a population problem and demonstrated that there was
in no case an inability of the land to support its population in
health and comfort, and that the reason for poverty in every case was
concentration of land or governmental interference.
Yet the neo-Malthusian population theory still resonates with those
who have heard of it but have not heard of the disproof, and
especially with those whose approach to poverty is to blame the poor
for their own behavior. The most famous neo-Malthusian work is *The
Population Bomb*, by Paul Ehrlich, a widely read pop-science tome that
again blames overpopulation for poverty instead of the other way
around. Scientific studies that ignored the greater moral question and
just considered the phenomenon have again shown that poverty is not a
check to population growth, but a contributor to it, but these
studies, like all studies that fail to serve a special-interest
agenda, are not widely read.
At least one book, *The Myth of Population Control; Family, Caste,
and Class in an Indian Village*, by Mahmood Mamdani, took Ehrlich to
task directly, and got a bit of public attention for doing so. Here is
his opening passage:
Much has been written about the "population problem"
in recent years. "Overpopulation" is said to be the major
reason for the poverty of the "underdeveloped" countries;
overpopulation is the "malaise" and family planning is the
"remedy." Such thinking has been popularized in various
neo- Malthusian writings, including Paul Ehrlich's best selling
*Population Bomb*. Ehrlich describes how the significance of the "population
problem" dawned on him suddenly "one stinking hot night in
As we crawled through the city [in a taxi], we entered a crowded
slum area. The temperature was well over 100, and the air was a haze
of dust and smoke. The streets seemed alive with people. People
eating, people washing, people sleeping. People visiting, arguing
and screaming. People thrusting their hands through the taxi window,
begging. People defecating and urinating. People clinging to buses.
People herding animals. People, people, people, people. As we moved
slowly through the mob, hand horn squawking, the dust, noise, heat,
and cooking fires gave the scene a hellish aspect. Would we ever get
to our hotel? All three of us were frankly frightened ... since that
night we have known the FEEL of overpopulation.
The fact is that a hot summer night on Broadway in New York or
Picadilly Circus in London would put Ehrlich in the midst of a far
larger crowd. Yet such an experience would not spur him to comment
with grave concern about "overpopulation." On the other
hand, with a little more concern and a little less fear he would
have realized that what disturbed him about the crowd in Delhi was
not its numbers, but its "quality" -- that is, its
poverty. To talk, as Ehrlich does, of 'overpopulation' is to say to
the people: you are poor because you are too many. As this essay
will show, people are not poor because they have large families.
Quite the contrary: they have large families because they are poor.
And so the population debate continues, but it is not a scientific
debate; it is a moral debate between the monopolists and the victims
of monopoly, with pseudo-science being invoked by the monopolists and
the would-be monopolists. Darwin is famous, not for his minor
contributions to a minor scientific discipline, but for his pseudo-
scientific contribution to a moral debate.