The Unresolved Population Controversy

Dan Sullivan

[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 unwarranted.

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 invention.

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 industry.

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 similar extent.

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 "God's plan."

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 time.

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 punch.

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 Delhi":

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.