Saturday, July 24, 2010

Gather the Bones, Part One

So that last was a bit obscure. I'm trying to allude to something that I've said many times elsewhere, but, obviously, never here. This would be a place to talk about it. And I talk. So this is going to be Part One of a series of discussions.

So, I learned in school about the great prophet of doom for our time, Reverend Thomas Malthus. And by "learned in school" I mean that I learned about him many times over. The first time, I learned that he predicted that the population of the Earth was going to expand inexorably forever, until we were all living in cars in urban ghettoes. ("
The second time, I learned that he predicted that while "food production expands arithmetically, population grows geometrically." This sort of keys on the first. The "exponential increase" gives us those predictions of how humans will outmass the rest of the universe in 3000AD, or however it works. The bullet point summary, on the other hand, gives us the famous curve where a line graph climbs the "x=y" slope sedately towards the end of time, the "y=xsquared " curve crawls up from the bottom, intercepts the line of food
ncrease, and heads robustly for infinity and beyond. Translation: we're screwed. ("Soylent Green. Mmmm, people.")
The third time, I learned that Malthus' "Essay on Population" (1796) was specifically a reaction to a recent trend in what we would now call sociological literature that rejected the idea that populations had been declining since some past Golden Age, and that rising populations were bringing prosperity, mainly because new lands were being opened up to settlement. This thinking waved at America, above all, where to the wonder and sometimes consternation of British observers, population had been doubling every generation for the last century. But it was, above all, a contribution to the politics of the day. In short, the government ought to provide for the poor and the hungry, because eventually they would be contributing to the prosperity of the nation.
For people of this era, and especially for Malthus, life was, above all, agricultural. If people lived, it was because of farm-raised food. I they worked and accumulated wealth, it was because they worked on a farm. If they did not work, it was because there was no work on the farms. That did not mean that they died, however. Under British, and indeed most other laws, there was a "poor tax" levied by the local authorities on landowners. The poor who qualified under the act received money, or food directly from the county. If they had land, or a stable relationship with a landowner, they received "outdoor relief." If they didn't, they had to come live in a poor house ("indoor relief,") and this was usually a terrible life, leading to all sorts of "degeneracy." Many people graduated from poor houses to become vagrants, and the county authorities often swept in to pick up vagrants. Then, as now, there was no clear way to just "get rid of" the homeless poor, and many were the desperate expedients used over the years.
What all this meant  to Malthus was that he was deeply, deeply implicated. As a local clergyman, his basic living came from two main streams of earnings. First, there was land owned by the local parish. So, in part, his living came as a landowner. Second, part of his income came from a variety of taxes and levies, many of them ancient and customary. Those levies went to charitable functions in general, including both pay for reverends and support for the poor. Third, what he did for a living was service the people of the county. The easy part was to conduct divine services for those who came to his church. How did poor people come to his church? Those on outdoor relief might not be able to get to church (just because they did not have to go live in a poorhouse did not mean that they were free to come and go as they chose, and they might lack something like shoes.) Those on indoor relief were in a species of prison. Malthus, or someone, had to go to them. Which was a drag, and also an aggravation, because it exposed people like Malthus to rivals for the souls of the poor; rivals such as Catholic priests, to be sure, but also people with a different view of how the Church of England should work: the "high church." The distinction between Malthus' "broad church" and "High church" might be defined as the High Church being more Catholic-like. It also corresponds to a political alignment, in that the High Church was conservative. For Malthus, though, it all came down to "idolatry, superstition and Papish mummery." Broad Church Christianity was a religion of earnest sentiment and lectures from the pulpit, while High Church Christianity was all about impressive rituals and sonorous phrases spoken in dead languages, all leading up a veneration of the Eucharist that was mere idolatry in disguise. God hated idolatry, it said so in the Old Testament, and eventually He would get round to punishing Britain for its tolerance of idolatry.
There's also assorted pseudoscientific explanation for how idolatry cripples your mental faculties that I probably shouldn't go into.
So with all this context, one can begin to understand what Malthus was really on about. If the government were to push up poor taxes to provide better for the poor, it would not fix the problem. The problem was unfixable. Population grew faster than any possible increase in the production of wealth (food). America proved that: doubling every twenty years was the very definition of a "geometric increase." No matter how the labour of the poor and the capital of the rich were invested in Britain's land to increase its productivity, the doubling curve would still intercept the linear curve at some point, and all would starve.
And yet not every country experienced a doubling and redoubling of the population. Was this really an inevitable human tragedy? No, yes, and no. Clearly, in many stalwartly Protestant northern European countries, population was not increasing at this rate. And yet one need only look at Ireland, where the Catholic church was making its inroads, and population increases were underway. You see, the restraining factor was the strict and educated morality of (Broad Church) Protestantism, but as the poor were forced into the poor houses, they came under the influence of Catholicism and the High Church, and lost their moral self-restraint!
Not to be too cynical, then, Malthus' scientific theory of population increase boils down to the argument: "you shouldn't spend money on the poor directly, you should give it to Broad Church missionaries like me, who will feed the poor with some of it, and cure the root problems of population increase with the rest!"

But what if Malthus was wrong about America?

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