Food Production

March 27, 2022

Abstractly, the multiplication of food follows a geometrical progression like the multiplication of men. It follows it only much faster. In a given space and time, this progression is not followed any more by the one species than the other.

Population is arrested first, and arrests subsistence in its turn. When the obstacle is removed, both begin again to increase until they reach a new limit, equally common to both. The history of the universe has never yet presented the example of a country in which the multiplication of food could not be more rapid than that of the co-existent population.

In a savage state, men live on the produce of hunting and fishing. The fish and the game are multiplied like man, in a geometrical progression, but much more rapid than the one he follows. Man, it is true, hinders their reproduction by destroying them.

But, on the other hand, they arrest his; for it is not certainly among nations of hunters that the population is doubled every twenty-five years; and whenever this destruction is suspended, the reproduction of game will be much more rapid than that of men.

The progress of civilization substitutes the pastoral life for a life of hunting; and the natural produce of the ground, better managed, is sufficient for a much more numerous population of men and of animals. The deserts, which scarcely support 500 Cherokee hunters, would be sufficient for ten thousand Tartar shepherds, with all their flocks.

The multiplication of the latter is always much more rapid than that of men; whilst the production of a man requires twenty-five years, that of an ox requires but five, of a sheep but two, of a hog but one. The number of oxen may be doubled in six years, that of sheep in three, that of hogs may be rendered ten times as great in two years.

Whenever a shepherd gains possession of a country formerly abandoned to hunting, the multiplication of his flocks will greatly precede that of his family; when, afterwards, one of the two is arrested, the other will be so too.

But when civilization makes a new step, pastoral nations abandon their flocks for agriculture; and, instead of trusting to the natural productions of the vegetable kingdom, they produce and multiply them by their labours. It is calculated that thirty families may live on the corn produced by a piece of ground, which would have supported only a single family by its produce in cattle.

At the time, therefore, when a nation passes from the pastoral to the agricultural state, it in some sense acquires a country thirty times as large as the one it formerly occupied. If the whole of this country is not cultivated, if even in the most civilized kingdoms, there remains a vast extent nf fertile land still employed in unprofitable pasturage, it is an evident proof that other causes than want of subsistence prevent the development of population.

The multiplication of vegetables follows a geometrical progression much more rapid still than the multiplication of cattle. In common tillage, corn increases five-fold in the course of a year; potatoes ten-fold in the same space of time. The latter vegetable, to produce a given quantity of food, scarcely requires the tenth part of the ground which corn would occupy.

Yet even in the most populous countries, men are very far from having planted all their corn fields with potatoes; from having sown all their pasturages with corn; from having converted into pasturage all their woods, all their deserts abandoned to hunting. Those things are a fund of reserve remaining to every nation; and, by means of them, if a new demand for labour should suddenly cause the population to increase as rapidly as the nature of man can permit, the multiplication of food would still precede it.

The demand for labour which the capital of a country can pay, and not the quantity of food which that country can produce, regulates the population. In political economy, nothing is reckoned a demand but what is accompanied with a sufficient compensation for the thing demanded.

If no fault has been committed on the part of government, if no dangerous prejudice has been diffused among the people, very few men will think of marrying, and burdening their hands with the subsistence of individuals unable to procure it themselves, till they have first acquired an establishment. But whenever a new demand for labour raises their wages, and thus increases their revenue, they hasten to satisfy one of the first laws of nature, and seek in marriage a new source of happiness.

If the rise of wages was but momentary; if, for example, the favours granted by government suddenly give a great development to a species of manufacture, which, after its commencement, cannot be maintained, the workmen, whose remuneration was double during some time, will all have married to profit by their opulence; and then, at the moment when their trade declines, families disproportionate to the actual demand of labour will be plunged into the most dreadful wretchedness.

It is those variations in the demand for labour, this sort of revolution so frequent in the lives of poor artisans, that gives to the state a superabundant population. Already brought into the world, that population finds no longer any room to exist there; it is always ready to be satisfied with the lowest terms on which it may be permitted to live. There is no condition so hard that men are not found ready to engage in it voluntarily. In some trades, the workmen are obliged to live in mud, exposed to continual nausea; in others, the labour engenders painful and inevitable maladies; several stupify the senses, degrade the body and the soul; several employ none but children, and after introducing into life, abandon to a horrible indigence the being they have formed.

There are callings, in fine, which public opinion brands with infamy; there are some which deserve this condemnation. Yet the ranks are always full; and a miserable wage, scarce sufficient for existence, induces men, to undergo so many evils. The reason is, society does not leave them any choice; they are compelled to be contented with this cruel lot or not to live.

The duty of governments to succour so much wretchedness cannot be doubtful, for they are almost always the cause of this wretched population’s being created; but, at the same time they ought not to forget that it is their part to save from indigence the miserable creatures already in existence, though at the same time discouraging them from perpetuating their race. Assistance given to the poor has often done the contrary.

Religious instruction has almost always strongly contributed to destroy the equilibrium between the population, and the demand for labour which is to give it subsistence. When questions of moral polity are introduced in a religious system, it almost constantly happens, that the cause of the precept is absolutely separated from the precept itself; and a rule, which should be modified by circumstances, becomes an invariable law. Religions began with the origin of the human race; and therefore at a time when the rapid progress of population was every where desirable; their principles have not yet changed, now when the unlimited increase of families has given birth only to beings, of necessity condemned to physical suffering or moral degradation.

A Chinese knows no greater misfortune, no deeper humiliation, than not to leave sons behind him to perform the funeral honours at his death. In almost all other creeds the indefinite increase of families has ever been represented as a blessing of heaven. On the other hand, whilst religion repressed irregularity of morals, it attached all morality of conduct to marriage, and washed away, by the nuptial benediction alone, whatever, was reprehensible in the imprudence of him who inconsiderately contracted the bonds of paternity.

Yet, how important soever purity of morals may be, the duties of a father towards those whom he brings into existence are of a still higher order. Children born but for wretchedness, are also born but for vice. The happiness and the virtue of innocent and defenceless beings are thus sacrificed beforehand, to satisfy the passions of a day. The ardour of casuists in preaching up marriage to correct a fault; the imprudence with which they recommend husbands to shut their eyes upon the future, to entrust the fate of their children to providence; the ignorance of social order, which has induced them to erase chastity from the number of virtues proper in marriage, are causes which have been incessantly active in destroying the proportion which naturally would have established itself between the population and its means of existing.

The Catholic faith has sometimes gained credit for its religious vows; which by forbidding marriage to a certain number of individuals, seemed to offer some opposition to an unlimited multiplication of the human species. But those who consider it thus, certainly do not understand another very important part of the legislation of casuists, with regard to all that they have named the duties of husbands. Considering marriage as solely destined for multiplication, they have made a sin of the very virtues which they enforce on single persons. This morality is enforced by every confessor on every father and mother of a family. The effects of it are powerfully felt in the social organization of Catholic countries. They are met with even in reformed churches.

When fatal prejudices are not honoured; when a system of morality contrary to our true duties towards others, and above all towards those indebted to us for life, is not taught in the name of the most sacred authority, no wise man will marry till he is in a condition that affords him sure means of living, no father of a family will have more children than he can conveniently maintain.

The latter expects that his children will be satisfied with the lot in which he has lived; hence he will wish the rising generation exactly to represent that which is departing; he will wish that a son and a daughter arrived at the age of marriage, should fill the place of his father and his mother; that his children’s children should fill his place and his wife’s, in their turn; his daughter will find in another house exactly the lot which he will give to the daughter of another house in his own; and the income which satisfied the fathers will satisfy the children.

When once this family is formed, justice and humanity require that they submit to the same constraints which single people undergo. On considering how small is the number of natural children in every country, it ought to be admitted that this constraint is sufficiently effectual. In a country where population cannot increase, where new places do not exist for new establishments, the father who has eight children should reckon either that six of his children will die young, or that three contemporary males and their contemporary females; or in the following generation three of his sons and three of his daughters will not marry on his account. There is no less injustice in the second calculation than cruelty in the first.

If marriage is sacred; if it is one great means of attaching men to virtue, and recompensing the chagrins of declining years, by the growing hopes of allowing an honourable old age to succeed an active youth, it is not because this institution renders lawful the pleasures of sense, but because it imposes new duties on the father of a family, and returns him the sweetest recompense in the ties of husband and father.

Religious morality ought therefore to teach men, that marriage is made for all citizens equally; that it is the object towards which they should all direct their efforts; but that this object has not been attained except so far as they are able to fulfil their duties towards the beings whom they call into existence= and after obtaining the happiness of being fathers, after renewing their families, and giving this stay and hope to their declining years, they are no less obliged to live chastely with their wives, than single persons with such as do not belong to them.

Self-interest powerfully warns men against this indefinite multiplication of their families, to which they have been invited by so fatal a religious error, and no one ought to be disquieted if this order is observed remissly. In general at least three births are required to give two such individuals as arrive at the age of marriage; and the niches of population are not so exactly formed, that they cannot by turns admit a little more and a little less.

Only government should:

  • awaken the prudence of citizens deficient in it, and
  • never deceive them by hopes of an independent lot when it can leave them miserable or dead.

When peasants are proprietors, the agricultural population stops of itself, when it has brought about a division of the land, such that each family is invited to labour, and may live in comfortable circumstances. This is the case in almost all the Swiss cantons, which follow nothing but agriculture. When two or more sons are found in one family, the younger do not marry till they can find wives who bring them some property.

Until then, they work day-labour and live by means of it. But among peasant-cultivators, the trade of day-labour does not afford a rank; and the workman who has nothing but his limbs, can rarely find a father imprudent enough to give him his daughter.

When the land, instead of being cultivated by its proprietors, is cultivated by farmers, metayers, day-labourers, the condition of the latter classes becomes more precarious, and their multiplication is not so necessarily adjusted to the demand for their labour. They are far worse informed than the peasant-proprietor, and yet they are called to perform a much more complicated calculation.

Living under the risk of being dismissed at a day’s notice from the land they till, it is less a question with them what this land will give, than what is their chance of being employed elsewhere. They calculate probabilities in place of certainties, and commit themselves to fortune with regard to what they cannot investigate.

They depend on being happy; they marry much younger; they bring into the world many more children, precisely because they know less distinctly how those children are to be established.

Thus metayers, day-labourers, all peasants depending on a master, are unable to judge of their situation by themselves. They should be guided and protected by government.

Landed proprietors wield all the force of monopoly against them. Day-labourers compete with each other and are finally reduced to work for the most wretched subsistence.

Those measures are wise, therefore, which have been adopted by legislators to fix the minimum share that should fall to each peasant. It would, in general, be a beneficent law which should permit no division of a metairie below a certain limit, no reduction below a half on the metayer’s part. It is a beneficent law which has fixed the peasant’s lot in Austria; a law which should invariably fix the Russian peasant’s capitation to his landlord, would be equivalent to an emancipation from serfage, and free from all the convulsions of such a step. The Russian nation could not, perhaps, receive a greater benefit from its government.

The statute of Elizabeth was wise in prohibiting a cottage from being built without at least 4 acres of land being allotted to it.

Had this law been executed in England and Ireland, no marriage could have happened among day-labourers without a cottage to shelter the family, no cottager would have been reduced to the last degree of penury.

The industrious population which inhabit towns have still fewer data than those of the country, for calculating the lot of the succeeding generation. The workman knows only that he has lived by his labour; he naturally believes that his children will do so likewise.

How can he judge of the extent of the market, or the general demand for labour in his country, whilst the master who employs him is incessantly mistaken on these points?

Accordingly, this class, more dependent than any other on chances of every kind for its subsistence, is exactly the class which calculates those chances least in the formation of a family. They are the people who marry soonest, produce most children, and consequently lose most= but they do not lose their children, till after being themselves exposed to a competition which deprives them successively of all the sweets of life.

At the time when all towns were distributed into bodies of tradesmen, when a calling could not be exercised till the applicant had been united to a corporation, a workman never married till after he had been passed master. A reception into the trade gave him the certainty of being able to maintain his family; an excessive competition did not expose the great mass of the population to the danger of dying from hunger.

Thus, all the institutions created in the republics of the middle ages, and reproduced in Queen Elizabeth’s statute of apprenticeship were keenly attacked by Adam Smith for establishing a monopoly contrary to the consumer’s interest. They may be defended as preventing an immoderate increase of population.

Yet because the system we follow has made us experience a calamity, we ought not to imagine that no escape is to be found, except by rushing into the opposite extreme. It is not by the suppression of corporations alone, that we have disproportionately increased the manufacturing population.

It is much more by the inordinate encouragement which all governments, at the same time, have given to production without attending to consumption. We have already pointed out the results of this imprudent struggle, in regard to the increase of wealth. They have been still more disastrous in producing and supporting with deceitful hopes a population, which has afterwards been abandoned to all the horrors of want.

A state should receive with gratitude whatever new industry the wants of consumers may develop. But it also should allow the industry which is quitting it to depart, without any effort to the contrary.

When the profits of a manufacture diminish, new workers do not engage in it and former workmen withdraw. After some years of suffering, the level is again established.

But if the favours of government keep up the staggering manufacture; if, trying to save it, government offers bounties for the discovery of any machine which shall spare manual labour, it will prolong suffering, and save the manufacturer only at the expense of those whom that manufacturer should support.

The guardian population presents the same species of suffering in another rank of society. War multiplies the commissions of officers in the army and navy; the complicacy of administration multiplies the places of judges and civil agents of all kinds.

Religious zeal multiplies the places for pastors. All of them live on pensions with a certain degree of opulence; none of them knows, or is able to insure the fund which affords him subsistence. They reckon on ushering their children into the same career with themselves; they bring them up, multiply their families in proportion to their actual opulence, and blindly repose on the future. Their pension, however, finishes with their life; and at death they leave their children in a state of indigence, the suffering of which is farther aggravated by the possession of a liberal education. The laws which obstruct the marriage of officers, judges, clergymen, and generally of all such as live on pensions, how hard soever those law may appear at their first establishment, are justifiable, because they save from poverty the class to which its torments would be most piercing.

But an inordinate increase of population is not the only cause of this national suffering. The demand for labour may decrease, and the population continue stationary. Consumption may be arrested, revenues dissipated, capital destroyed, and the number of hands formerly occupied may no longer be able to find a sufficient employment.

The population immediately follow the revolution of the capitals destined to support it. As day-labourers are more eager to receive even the smallest wage, than merchants to employ their money, the former are laid under conditions more and more hard, as the demand on the capital diminishes; and they conclude by contenting themselves with so miserable a remuneration, as is scarcely sufficient to maintain them alive. No enjoyment is any longer attached to the existence of this unhappy class; hunger and suffering stifle in them all the moral affections.

When every hour is a struggle for life, all passions are concentrated in selfishness; each forgets the pain of others in what himself suffers; the sentiments of nature are blunted; a constant, obstinate, uniform labour, debases all the faculties.

One blushes for the human species, to see how low on the scale of degradation it can descend; how much beneath the condition of animals it can voluntarily submit to maintain life; and, notwithstanding all the benefits of social order, notwithstanding the advantages which man has gained from the arts, one is sometimes tempted to execrate the division of labour, and the invention of manufactures on beholding to what extremes of wretchedness they have reduced beings created equal with ourselves.

The misery of the savage hunter who of hunger is not equal to the misery of the millions of families whom a manufacturer dismisses. This is because the savage still has his energy and intelligence. When he dies for want of finding game, he yields to a necessity which nature herself presents.

But the artisan, dismissed from his workshop, with his wife and children has already lost the strength of his soul and his body. He is still surrounded with riches.

Even when persons do not actually die of hunger; even when the aids of charity are eagerly administered to all indigent families, discouragement and suffering produce their cruel effects on the poor, the diseases of the soul are communicated to the body, epidemics are multiplied, children die in a few months after their birth, and the suppression of labour causes more cruel ravages than the cruellest war=

Besides, fatal habits, either of mendicity or idleness, take root in the population. Another course is given to trade, another direction to fashion. Even after the excess workers die out, those who remain are incapable to support the competition of foreigners.

The causes of diminution in the demand for labour often belong to politics instead of to political economy.

The loss of liberty is the most effective in this. This makes each citizen feel less secure of his fortune and the fruits of his labour. Each abates something of the activity of his mind, and his spirit of industry.

The virtues which accompany labour, - sobriety, constancy, economy - give place to the vices of idleness, to intemperance, dissipation, and forgetfulness of the future.

Trade, industry, activity, are regarded with contempt, in a state where the people are nothing, whilst all distinction, all honours, are reserved for noble indolence.

Favour, intrigue, flattery, and all the arts of courtiers, which debase the soul, are roads to fortune, much more sure and rapid than strength of character, bold and enterprising activity, or a spirit of speculation. Intriguers are multiplied daily; they regard with contempt those who follow the only honourable path to fortune, that in which none makes progress except by his merit or his labour.

One cause of depopulation is, however, presented, which lies within the narrowest range of political economy. The progress of the arts, the progress of industry, and hence even that of wealth and prosperity, discover economical methods of producing all the fruits of labour, by employing a smaller number of workmen.

Animals are substituted for men in almost all the details of agriculture; and machines are substituted for men in all the operations of manufactures. So long as a nation finds within its reach a market sufficiently extensive to secure for all its productions a prompt and advantageous circulation, each of those discoveries is an advantage, because, instead of diminishing the number of workmen, it augments the mass of labour and its produce. A nation which happens to originate discoveries, succeeds, for a long time, in extending its market in proportion to the number of hands set free by every new invention.

It immediately employs them in augmenting the produce, which the discovery promises to furnish at a cheaper rate. But a period arrives at last, when the whole civilized world is but one market, and when new customers cannot be found in new nations. The demand of the universal market is then a precise quantity, which the different industrious nations dispute with each other; if one furnish more, another must furnish less. The total sale can only be increased by the progress of general opulence, or because conveniences, formerly confined to the rich, are brought within the reach of the poor.


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