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Was Malthus Right?

by Michael Knox Beran
What’s Wrong with Benevolence: Happiness, Private Property, and the Limits of Enlightenment, by David Stove, edited by Andrew Irvine (Encounter, 221 pp., $23.95)

‘We live in an age in which humanity is the fashion.” So Sir John Hawkins (he had the misfortune to write the other biography of Dr. Johnson) lamented in 1787. David Stove, an Australian philosopher whose lucid and original writings have provoked fresh interest since his death in 1994, knew what Sir John meant. In his posthumously published book What’s Wrong with Benevolence, Stove argues that a misplaced faith in the virtues of altruism is the great humbug of our age, one that has conjured a welfare state of such colossally good intentions that, even as it devours the substance of the commonwealth, there is (in Stove’s view) “no social force in sight” capable of stopping it.

It might seem paradoxical that charity, which St. Paul ranks among the virtues, should be at times an evil. But one has only to consider 20th-century Communism, Stove says, to know that it is so. For it “is quite certain,” he writes, “that the psychological root of 20th-century Communism is benevolence.” What Stove wants to know is why some acts of benevolence, if they are not actually good, are far from patently noxious, while other kinds end in cruelty, horror, and the gulag.

Stove believes that bad benevolence is likely to be vast and even universal in scope; it has for the objects of its solicitude not a particular person or a small group of people, but great multitudes of men — often, indeed, all of humanity. Bad benevolence, moreover, is what Stove calls “external” in its operation. The altruist proposes to bring about the happiness of others, not by changing their characters, but by altering their circumstances: He does nothing to buck up the inner man.

Stove argues, finally, that the dispenser of bad benevolence is likely to be disinterested. Marx and Bentham could not know personally all of those whom they intended to help, nor did they expect a material reward for their philanthropic exertions. There was, Stove writes, “‘nothing in it’ (as we say)” for them. I wonder if this is quite right. The dispenser of bad benevolence is less a disinterested figure than an uninterested one. He yearns to save Mankind, and has little sympathy for actual men. His kindness, being a perpetual abstraction, is compatible not only with intensely selfish motives, but also with appalling cruelty. So subtly has self-love been woven into the fabric of our natures that it is in many instances vain to conjecture where kindness ends and selfishness begins. But surely Henry James was on to something when in The Princess Casamassima he showed that the benevolence of the princess herself — a great lady who goes in for slumming and social reform — is prompted by the acutest self-love. The princess wants to feel herself virtuous (for her riches have given her a bad conscience), and she wants to have others in her power (for their own good, of course).

Can there be any doubt that the philanthropic insanity of, say, Bentham was the fruit of morbid self-regard and passionate will? “But for George the Third,” Bentham said, “all the paupers in the country would, long ago, have been under my management.” Stove is closer to the truth when he says that benevolence is moral heroin. It intoxicates the conscience, and dulls the pain that even a morally obtuse person may feel when he plays the tyrant. Thus the slaveholder, affecting a paternal interest in his chattels, persuades himself that slavery is a benevolent institution; thus Bentham, designing his various geometrical torture chambers, persuades himself that he is saving humanity.

Defenders of the modern welfare state indignantly deny that its modest, Fabian forms of benevolence have anything in common with the fanatic philanthropy of Bentham or Lenin. Modern Sweden is not, to be sure, Bolshevik Russia, but Stove argues that, whatever form it takes, bad benevolence is characterized by the same evil: It creates more misery than it relieves.

Stove is right — but for the wrong reason. At the heart of his book is a Malthusian critique of the welfare state. In 1798, Thomas Malthus, curate of a Surrey parish, published An Essay on the Principle of Population. In it he argued that anti-poverty programs create the poor they maintain. Poverty, Malthus reasoned, checks the growth of population; anti-poverty programs counteract the check. “Exemption from anxiety about how your children are to live,” Stove writes, “must tend to produce a larger number of children than you would otherwise have had.” More children, but not, alas, more food. The result? Food grows dearer; more people fall into penury and throw themselves on the parish. Taxes rise to support the swelling dole, driving still others into poverty. The program has created more of the thing it was intended to eliminate.

But do even the most improvident people really base their sexual commerce on assumptions about the poor laws? Western Europe has some of the most comprehensive welfare regimes on the planet, yet the French welfare state, far from stimulating improvident procreation, has been compelled to offer Frenchmen special bounties — on top of the usual welfare-state subsidies — to bring more Jacqueses and Mariannes into the world.

Malthus wrote his essay to explode the fantasies of William Godwin, but he was forced by the necessities of his theory to question the political economy of Adam Smith as well. Malthus argued that, given a limited supply of food, man’s passion to propagate will always leave the poorest of the poor at the edge of subsistence. Manufacturing labor cannot change the equation: Wealth derived from it, Malthus wrote, has “little or no tendency to better the condition of the labouring poor” or give them “a greater command of the necessaries and conveniences of life.” Smith, by contrast, argued that liberty of action and the division of labor produce a “universal opulence which extends itself to the lowest ranks of the people,” a vision at odds with the dismal calculus of Malthus.

History during the last two centuries has vindicated Smith. The “global population increased fourfold in the 20th century,” writes Matthew Taylor, head of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce, “but per capita resource consumption multiplied nineteen fold.” The technological revolution that produced this embarrassment of riches might seem to refute Malthus’s pessimism. Stove, however, believes that the most significant of the advances, energy derived from oil, was a lucky break — a fluke that has enabled the welfare states temporarily to evade the pains nature inflicts upon those who transgress her Malthusian laws. The benevolent state might, Stove concedes, “be saved again by another energy revolution,” but this, he thinks, is unlikely.

Stove may be right: It is possible that we have reached the limit of innovation — the end, not of history, but of progress. Such a conclusion, however, plays into the hands of the welfare state’s defenders. If, as Oliver Wendell Holmes believed, the “crowd has got all there is,” the “howl against the rich is really a howl against the present possibilities of life.” A Malthusian pessimism about the “present possibilities of life” undercuts the strongest argument against the redistribution of wealth that the cult of benevolence enjoins. “That some should be rich,” President Lincoln said in 1864, “shows that others may become rich, and hence is just encouragement to industry and enterprise. Let not him who is houseless pull down the house of another, but let him labor diligently and build one for himself, thus by example assuring that his own shall be safe from violence when built.”

Guizot was blunter: “Enrichissez-vous,” he said — get rich yourself. But if the age of heroic growth is over — if the possibilities of life are as sharply circumscribed as they seemed to be to  Malthus — the howl against the rich, muted in good times, will grow fiercer, and the advocates of confiscatory benevolence more popular. Gloom and doom — to borrow President Reagan’s phrase — are the twins of tax and spend.

Until we are certain that the party is over, it is better to make the case against the welfare state on Smithian rather than Malthusian grounds. Those who become reliant on its subsidies are not (in the Smithian view) dragging the poor as a whole closer to famine, but their dependence has shut them out from the possibilities — the upside — of an expanding economy. At the same time, the tribunes who administer the wealth the benevolent state exists to redistribute have an interest in creating new kinds of dependence. In doing so they enlarge their own power and steadily sap the vitality of the productive element of the nation, which alone can generate the wealth and possibility Smith foresaw.

The other difficulty with What’s Wrong with Benevolence is Stove’s argument that the Enlightenment “invented” benevolence. This is too simple. The English poor law of 1601, an early example of flawed benevolence, antedated the utopias of the philosophes by several generations. Elizabeth I’s measures were a response to the dissolution of the charitable institutions of medieval Christianity: The Virgin Queen replaced the Virgin Mary as the regnant dispenser of mercy. The modern cult of benevolence, like the modern cult of social reform, has carried further the work of the Reformation. Henry VIII and Elizabeth made the church an arm of the state. Condorcet and Godwin would make the state into a church. The children of light sought to build with purely secular materials an ersatz version of the redemptionary architecture and pastoral care of traditional Christianity. Peter Gay said of Diderot that atheism “repelled him even though he accepted it as true,” while Catholicism “moved him even though he rejected it as false.” Writing to his mistress, Sophie Volland, Diderot “cursed the philosophy — his own — that reduced their love to a blind encounter of atoms. ‘I am furious at being entangled in a confounded philosophy which my mind cannot refrain from approving and my heart from denying.’”

The prophets of benevolence wanted the universe to be again adorable, as it had been for their forebears, who believed it to be the work of a divine hand. Unable to live without a messianic compensation of their own, the architects of the benevolent state substituted for the redeemer God a redeemer statesman, for the inspired church an inspired state, for the priestly clerisy an administrative clerisy, for the kindly friar a benevolent social worker, for voluntary almsgiving (conceived as a duty) compulsory expropriations (conceived as a prerogative of sovereignty). The imitation has everything to recommend it except the spirit that made the original work.

– Mr. Beran is a contributing editor of City Journal and the author, most recently, of Pathology of the Elites.