Malthus’s Proof That Welfare Leads To Increasing Need For Welfare Reexamined

Malthus’s Proof That Welfare Leads To Increasing Need For Welfare Reexamined

This is an updated version of an original post that ran 3 February 2014.

Here is a sketch of Malthus’s argument that official government beneficence causes the problem it seeks to cure.

This is only a cartoon, but a helpful one. It follows one of the arguments the Reverend Thomas Malthus used in his An Essay on Population to show government handouts beget more government handouts.

Malthus believed, and history thus far vindicates, there were only two possible forms of human community: one in which most are comparatively (or relatively) poor and one in which everyone but an elite is absolutely poor. Laws designed under the influence of Benevolence must lead to the latter, he said.

I was reminded of this argument in the late-great David Stove’s What’s Wrong With Benevolence?.

We start at Step [1] (top line) with a small class of Poor who are to be fed, clothed, sheltered, cell-phoned, high-speed-interneted, and so forth by Government with funds provided by the Taxed. Government extracts wealth from those who have it, keeps a portion for itself (this step is oft forgotten), and dispenses the rest to the Poor. At this top level, the portion the Government keeps is small and the disparity in wealth between Poor and Taxed, while it exists, is small and feels natural: there are the rich, many somewhere in the middle, and the poor are few.

But some of the Taxed are not rich; indeed, they are just above the Poor threshold (the Government of course defines this threshold). These At Risk folks receive some of their wealth from those richer than themselves, such as from employers, and these who are richer, who now must surrender some of their wealth to Government, can’t give as much to the At Risk. Those At Risk also must surrender some of their wealth to Government to pay for the Poor. The At Risk thus suffer a deficit, both from lack of income and the growth of outgo. Some fall into Poverty.

By Step [2] the class of Poor has grown. This necessitates Government asking the Taxed to “pay their fair share”, i.e. politicians must take a larger bite. By this point, the disparity in wealth, which once seemed natural and almost invisible, has grown noticeable; people wonder how to “correct” it. The Government swells in size and power as more wealth comes under its control: a smaller proportion of taxes are given to the Poor, but this is masked by “borrowing from the future.” Those newly At Risk struggle harder than before, and more fall into Poverty.

After a while, at Step [n], the class of Poor is large and its maintenance becomes painful. The Taxed are excessively burdened; many make devils’ bargains with Government to forestall the inevitable, which has the effect of increasing Government power. The wealth disparity is now glaring, with loud calls for it to be eliminated, by force if necessary. Government, fattened by the many iterations of Taxes, becomes powerful enough to insist on this.

Government deduces the only way to shrink the disparity is by resorting to community of property, where all share equally in the wealth—except for a small class of necessary leaders. This happy phrase convinces the majority, and away we go into communism once again.

This negative (from our point of view; from the regime’s, it’s positive) feedback cycle is exactly what happened when England first created its Poor Laws. From Benevolence (emphasis original):

[T]o the immense puzzlement of almost everyone, it was found that the proportion of the population receiving money under the [Poor] laws (and consequently, of course, the burden of those who paid the tax) always increased. [p. 46]

[For this proof all] that Malthus actually assumed were certain elements of human psychology, as past experience has disclosed them to be. Namely, he assumed an instinct of hunger in all; a sexual instinct in virtually all; a plentiful supply of laziness in the vast majority; and no shortage anywhere of selfishness, stupidity, or short-sightedness. There is, indeed, no rational way to proceed, as Malthus himself says, except on the assumption that human beings will be what past experience has uniformly shown them to have been.

The history of the Twentieth Century is known well enough. So why haven’t we yet (again) “spun down” into the depths? (This question was asked in 2014.) Because new forms of wealth created by advancing technology have propped up the system, enriching many and forestalling outright decline. Stove credits gasoline and electricity. Our age has its own amazements, but just think how long it took the Government to reach in and grab (i.e. “regulate”) the Internet, a process still unfolding.

Technology can also hurt: machines are slowly replacing workers at the bottom of the scale, and now some in the middle. It is only a matter of faith, and a hope against the evidence of human history, that “progress” leads only to improvement. Change is not always that which we can believe in.

The poor cannot be ignored. And Government intervention exacerbates the problem it seeks to cure. So what is the Solution? Well, the (old) Christian one, which is to say, private, preferably local, charity. Individuals (or groups of them) undirected by Government can choose how much and when to give. They know better than Government just how much charity they can bear and where it is best placed, and when they give they are unlikely to sink into poverty.

This approach strengthens rather than weakens families, and families are a strong defense against poverty—and against Government. Forcing somebody to “donate” is not charity, a logical fact socialist clergy members should recall. Yet with the disappearance of the family and retreat of religion, all people see is Government.

Inflation Reduction Act, anyone?

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  1. Vermont Crank

    After every election, when they are starting to break their campaign promises, this is how the politicians think about their voters

    The Bible (2 Thess 3:10) teaches us that if a man won’t work he won’t eat and so it is left to those closest to him (Subsidiarity) to arrange the circumstances where he can eat if he is legit incapacitated or where he can eat if he gets sobered up and returns to his family..

    No, it is neither funny nor surprising that “experts” started the professional charity racket.

  2. Chaeremon

    Convergence is at work in forms of government that citizens can actively correct; but the omnipresent troublemaker is complexity of achievement — regardless of whether this is unintentional.

  3. Hagfish Bagpipe

    The scenario given assumes benevolent intent leading, unintentionally, to adverse results. Certainly that happens. But the same perverse process can be used by the malicious to capture a foolish population. Like that lesson how to capture a herd of wild pigs: Go out in the forest and dump a pail of acorns then leave. After the pigs find and finish those acorns replenish the supply daily. Once the herd of wild pigs is used to feeding on free acorns set up one section of fence some distance away. The pigs will be wary but the lure of free acorns overcomes suspicion. Set up one new section of fence each day. The pigs get used to the fence and the free acorns. Finally, set up a gateway, then, after the herd arrives for its feeding, shut it behind them. Now you own a herd of tame pigs and can live high on the hog, you wicked devil, while abusing them to gratify your reprobate soul.

  4. imnobody00

    The Poor Laws were a consequence of the raiding of the monasteries by Henry VIII and his elite. The monasteries provided the poor with Christian charity. When they disappeared, something had to be done with the poor. This is the historical moment when we go from Christian charity to the Welfare State on our way to Communism.

  5. Robin

    How does one define “rich” and “poor” and was Malthus correct?

    When Rev Malthus published “An Essay on the Principle of Population” (1798 or thereabouts), indentured servitude and slavery were still widely practiced (were still legal in the USA for example). The world consisted largely of an agrarian society that subsisted almost entirely on the energy produced each day by the sun.

    In Malthus’ day most people lived short, brutish lives compared to today, even many of the so-called elites. What was an average lifespan? I don’t know for sure but wouldn’t be surprised to find it was in the range of mid-to-late 40s in Malthus’ society (perhaps much less in some other parts of the world).

    Introduce modern thinkers, such as Buckminster Fuller (who concluded after a lifetime of study that Malthus was wrong), and his concept of ‘Energy Slaves’. I believe this explains human progress more than any other single factor. Harnessing stored energy sources, in essence fossil energy, has fuelled human progress.

    In the early days of oil exploration, Fuller considered that 1 energy slave could liberate the equivalent of 100 more energy slaves. Now this ratio has dropped to something like 1 to 10. But Fuller considered ‘ephemeraization’, or the ability to do more with fewer energy slaves, as the key to the continuation of human progress. For example, a vehicle that once got 10 miles to the gallon, now gets 50 miles to the gallon, etc etc. This ability to ephemeralize resides largely within the human mind, the realm of the Noosphere, a concept that forms part of a model of evolution that is opposed to Darwin’s. A newer model of evolution that instead places humanity at it’s centre (See Vernadsky). A model that is driven by increasing energy flux density and the realm of human ingenuity.

    The green agenda wishes to return the world to the days of Malthus, yet there is simply no shortage of energy in the universe or on planet earth. We just need to continue to intelligently harness it. I believe that President Trump realized this potential and placed energy production at the centre of his economic agenda. President Biden, on the other hand, appears to be doing the opposite.

    So I’m going to consider the terms rich and poor as relative ones; in that a poor person today (excluding the mentally ill) is not the same as that during Malthus’ time. But I would agree, that under current primitive globalist thinking, the world is in grave danger of returning to the world of Malthus.

    I also agree with Malthus’ specific theory that taxation throws a percentage of people into ‘poverty’. This is something that has not changed. In fact, while some form of government is a necessity, generally however, government and the cost of government represents a threat to society over time. If left unchecked, it is analogous to a malignant cancer and will kill the host just a surely.

    Currently everything is going backwards. Government is expanding. The poor are getting poorer, the rich are getting richer, and energy is being deliberately manipulated to the extreme detriment of humanity. I don’t understand why the elites are doing this. why government is allowing it, or why the rank and file are accepting it. It’s puzzling.

  6. Cary Cotterman

    Robin: “I don’t understand why the elites are doing this, why government is allowing it, or why the rank and file are accepting it. It’s puzzling.”

    Puzzlement of the century, so far. I see so many things and think, “it didn’t have to be that way, but somebody decided that it would.” But why?

  7. Johnno

    Puzzling? The answer is always human sin and heresy. Little by little. Bit by bit. Sin increases sin. Error compounds error. New lies are needed to prop up old ones, and Experts reach entire conclusions over the foundations of that same duct-taped dam. The natural result of divorcing liberty from morality and truth whilst championing feeeeeeelllliiinnngggssss… Blind leading the blind, idiots begetting idiots. There is only one direction, and it is FORWARD!

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