Thursday, May 03, 2018

Malthus, Thanos and workhouses

Given that the Avengers movie (not very wisely, in my opinion) gives the villain-in-chief Malthusian/environmental motives for laying waste to countless numbers of people across the universe, it's interesting that I just stumbled across a Philosophy Now article that looks at Malthus himself and his specious argument.

I see that Malthus actually changed his views in one key respect, but (so the article argues) his initial pessimism continued to be very influential:
In 1805 Malthus was appointed to the first professorship of Political Economy in England, at the new East India College in Haileybury, where he remained until his death. His Principles of Political Economy, published in 1820, was much more upbeat than the population Essay. Here, in fact, Malthus saw food production sufficient for centuries to come. Yet he did not alter later versions of the population essay accordingly. And those who controlled all the major journals in the field of economics ignored – indeed snubbed – his Principles. Thus when Thomas Carlyle dubbed economics the “dismal science” in 1849, it was due to Malthus’s population theory, not his economic theory....
....when Malthus says in the first Essay that the existing English poor relief laws “tend to increase population,” while doing nothing to increase the food supply, he thinks he is describing the actual world.....In the end Malthus is posing a hypothetical, not an actual problem. And hypothetical problems don’t require draconian solutions.

Besides, it’s not as if the existing Elizabethan Poor Laws, in force since 1601, were generous. Nonetheless the New Poor Laws of 1834 tightened the screws, mandating that workhouses be built in every parish as the sole source of poor relief, and that conditions there be worse than what the poorest free laborers could find on their own. Husbands and wives were separated from each other, lest they continue to multiply, and even from their children. Yet even so, workhouses could be better than life outside.

The situation provided plenty of material for Charles Dickens. In A Christmas Carol (1843) Ebenezer Scrooge is asked to donate to the poor. “Are there no prisons,” he snaps? “Are there no workhouses?” But “many cannot go there,” he is told, “and many would rather die.” Scrooge: “If they would rather die, they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.” As one Dickens scholar remarks, “Malthus hung over England like a cloud.”

The article notes that workhouses did not officially end in England until 1929 - much later than I would have expected.

Which led me to have a quick look at the Wikipedia entry on the matter of English workhouses.

It's quite interesting, and includes this photo from 1911 - barely over 100 years ago - of women eating dinner at the St Pancras workhouse:

It's good to have been born in the second half of the 20th century.

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