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John Weyland on Encouragements to Population Increase

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Modern worries about the economic and social consequences of low fertility and eventual population decline have led to numerous proposals for subsidy arrangements aimed in effect at “buying” healthy and potentially productive children. The most innocuous of such schemes, typically with welfare rather than population goals in mind, is the institution of the family wage—paying labor based on family size. The passage reproduced below, from John Weyland's Principles of Population and Production (1816), offers an early instance of such a scheme being argued for on demographic grounds. Weyland's account of the “artificial” encouragement of population increase begins with an artless analogy to managing a stud-farm, but the stance is mercantilist rather than totalitarian and is leavened by a strong concern for the health and morals of the future citizens.

That the state might wish to raise its population growth was of course contrary to Malthusian doctrine. The long and contentious debates on Britain's Poor Laws gave more prominence to the opposite goal: that of preventing births that threatened to become a charge on the community. Weyland, however, asserted that the tendency of population was to “keep within the powers of the soil to afford it subsistence.” A prior population increase (to a level “just beyond the plentiful supply of the people's want”) was a necessary stimulant to productivity—indeed, was “the cause of all public happiness, industry, and prosperity.” (Modern versions of this view are found in the writings of Ester Boserup and Julian Simon.) Moreover, he argued, with urbanization came an inevitable fall-off in population growth—reaching “a point of non-reproduction” when around a third of the population lived in towns.

Malthus responded to Weyland in an appendix to the fifth (1817) edition of the Essay: Weyland's premise, he wrote, is “just as rational as to infer that every man has a natural tendency to remain in prison who is necessarily confined to it by four strong walls.” Weyland's book as a whole he dismissed in unusually intemperate terms: “It is quite inconceivable how a man of sense could bewilder himself in such a maze of futile calculations, and come to conclusions so diametrically opposite to experience.” More concisely, and specifically on the subject of the extract below, an entry in the Essay's highly distinctive index reads “Encouragements, direct, to population, futile and absurd.”

John Weyland (1774–1854) was an English rural magistrate of independent means. He took an active part in the Poor Law debates of the early nineteenth century, arguing for payments under them to include child allowances. The full title of his major work is: The Principles of Population and Production as they are affected by the Progress of Society with a View to Moral and Political Consequences (London, 1816). There are modern reprints by A. M. Kelley and Routledge/Thoemmes Press. The excerpt is from pp. 167–175.
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: March 1, 2006

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