Whether they are familiar with his work or not, many modern libertarians echo some of the ideas of Thomas Malthus when they advocate austerity in public policy. Most notably, Malthus claimed that the “poor laws” of England of his time deprived the poor of any liberty and independence. He felt that the poor would have more self-respect and freedom if they could provide for themselves and their families through their own labor.
It was Malthus, not Darwin, who first mentioned a struggle for existence. In his 1798 screed, “An Essay on the Principle of Population,” he
“Restless from present distress, flushed with the hope of fairer prospects, and animated with the spirit of hardy enterprise, these daring adventurers were likely to become formidable adversaries to all who opposed them. The peaceful inhabitants of the countries on which they rushed could not long withstand the energy of men acting under such powerful motives of exertion. And when they fell in with any tribes like their own, the contest was a struggle for existence, and they fought with a desperate courage, inspired by the rejection that death was the punishment of defeat and life the prize of victory.”
In the essay, Malthus basically argued that hardship limits population but abundance leads to population explosions. For this reason, feeding the poor is a bad idea, as it will encourage wanton reproduction and the survival of infants into adulthood. By helping the poor survive, they would then multiply and deplete the planet of all its resources. It is the wealthy, of course, who consume the most resources, but even at that, Malthus did not have quite the same view of some austerity minded people of the 21st century.
For one, Mathus wanted to protect the value of farm labor. He said,
“Every endeavour should be used to weaken and destroy all those institutions relating to corporations, apprenticeships, etc., which cause the labours of agriculture to be worse paid than the labours of trade and manufactures. For a country can never produce its proper quantity of food while these distinctions remain in favour of artisans. Such encouragements to agriculture would tend to furnish the market with an increasing quantity of healthy work, and at the same time, by augmenting the produce of the country, would raise the comparative price of labour and ameliorate the condition of the labourer.”
Efforts to drive down the wages of farm labor are, then, anti-Malthusian. He also did not believe in leaving the poor with no help for work and redemption. While he objected to the “poor laws” of his day, he did believe in a tax-supported programs to provide employment for the poor. Thus,
“County workhouses might be established, supported by rates upon the whole kingdom, and free for persons of all counties, and indeed of all nations. The fare should be hard, and those that were able obliged to work. It would be desirable that they should not be considered as comfortable asylums in all difficulties, but merely as places where severe distress might find some alleviation. A part of these houses might be separated, or others built for a most beneficial purpose, which has not been infrequently taken notice of, that of providing a place where any person, whether native or foreigner, might do a day’s work at all times and receive the market price for it.”
Public works projects, such as those put in place by FDR, can alleviate much suffering while also benefitting the public good through improved infrastructure and public service. Note that Malthus did not advocate putting poor people in prison and forcing them to work for free. Malthus did believe in treating the poor with respect and providing opportunities for honest employment for the betterment of society. Modern libertarians would do well to recognize the basic human desire for dignity and self-respect. When we help one another, we are free.