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Farther Illustrations of the Subjects treated in
the two preceding Chapters.
It would undoubtedly have been my wish to lay before the reader, in this place, such an illustration of the preceding view of society in its highest stages, as might be afforded by the series of facts, and by the observations on human life and conduct, which have gradually led my own mind to the conclusions stated at the close of the last chapter. Some of them, however, are, as I have candidly acknowledged, more a matter of hypothesis than of experience; and upon investigating the others in detail, so many are found to refer to the COMMON-WEALTH OF BRITAIN, which fully deserves to be treated at length in a separate work, that I cannot anticipate the discussion in this place. I may be permitted however, to remark, that there is no record, in ancient or modern history, of a country in so advanced a state of society as Great Britain. I do not mean to assert, that higher degrees of refinement and luxury have not existed among what has been thought the favoured portion of the community in other countries ;—in the Roman empire, for example, where the fish of the Epicure were fattened on the body of his slave.
If this may be called civilization, states more civilized than Britain certainly have existed; and, doubtless, the view of society, taken in the preceding chapters, would be far from being borne out by any reference to the practical operations of a system, involving such a
complication of enormities. But I do mean to assert, and with a feeling of honest joy and profound gratitude, that there is no record of any country, where real civilization, that is, where the moral and political equality of every individual, of all ranks and stations, has been practically secured to any thing like the same extent as in Britain; where the laws of the land and the spirit of the constitution have so amply guaranteed to every man the freedom to exercise his industry, and to seek his happiness in the way best suited to his interests and inclinations, and the assurance that the fruits of his exertions shall be preserved to him; and where the laws, and the actions of individuals are, upon the whole, and notwithstanding some lamentable exceptions, so much guided by the spirit of enlightened morality. It is therefore to a country, which has been thriving for many years under such a system, that the illustration of an hypothesis, drawn from the spontaneous operations and distribution of a community of moral agents, may most properly be referred. It is indeed from a detailed view of the workings of such a society that the truth or falsehood of such an hypothesis can alone be well determined.
I have no doubt that the result would be found to be, that although scarcely more than a third of the population resides in large towns, yet were not the restraining power, imposed upon the increase of the people by the progress of wealth and civilization, in some degree weakened by the system connected with the legal, public, and individual charities; the population, except in times of extraordinary demand for labour and consequent high wages, would scarcely be sustained at its actual number, much less would
it increase so as to press against the diminishing powers of the soil to afford it a plentiful subsistence. Nay, is it not a fact, that, 'notwithstanding the rapid increase which by artificial assistance the population has attained, we find that food is comparatively so much more plentiful, (Jan. 1816,) and has increased so much more rapidly, even though produced from a soil whose most fertile spots have been long since occupied, that the actual difficulty is not now how to feed the people, but how profit, ably to dispose of the superfluity of the food raised for their support. Can a more convincing proof be imagined of the gratuitous nature of the fears entertained concerning the unobstructed increase of popu. lation, and the tendency which it naturally has in such a society to exceed the limits of the food provided for its support ? Even actively excited, and accelerated beyond its natural rate, it has still kept considerably within those limits. The spring, has been bent, much beyond the point which calculators assigned as its utmost limit, and so far from break. ing, has only the better executed its purpose.
It must, however, be admitted that if an authentic account can be any where found of an extensive country cultivated up to its full capacity of production, in which the population shall nevertheless be found to press perniciously against the means of subsistence, my hypothesis cannot be sustained. The only nation which has ever been asserted to be in this condition is China. An inquiry therefore into the truth or falsehood of this assertion is very necessary. Now, I think, it will appear that much exaggeration has always prevailed with respect to the extreme populousness of China, and the alleged necessity for
the practice of infanticide as a check to its redundant numbers.
In order to form a fair judgment upon this subject it is necessary, first, to inquire into the extent of the fact as far as materials for ascertaining it can be had; and, having thus reduced the evil to its real amount, to investigate its cause, and to form a judgment of its necessity. The accounts given by the missionaries and Jesuits concerning China must be received with great caution; the interests of their order having rendered necessary to them a continued residence in a country under a despotic government, peculiarly jealous of foreigners, it was incumbent upon them to report nothing which might eventually give it offence. Their desire also of magnifying their own importance, by enhancing the numbers, knowledge, and virtues of the people they had undertaken to convert, might naturally lead to exaggeration. When we read, therefore, of the crowded numbers, the perfection in arts, sciences, and agriculture, the full state of cultivation, the ingenious methods of improving land, and the various features of an high state of civilization, recorded of the Chinese by those authors, we cannot consent to receive the account as perfectly unprejudiced: particularly where it directly contradicts all the known principles of political economy, and is equally at variance with other accounts from persons who could have no possible inducement, either to form, or to state to the world, erroneous conclusions on the subject.
The embassy of Lord Macartney to China has produced such accounts, and has falsified, in a great measure, all the fine theories built upon the romances
of the Jesuits and missionaries, has reduced the information to be obtained by a candid inquirer into the condition of China to the level of common sense, and has enabled us to argue upon its state of society upon data applicable to the known principles of political economy. We are no longer to be told (without the power of detecting the imposture) of a highly civilized, enlightened, and well governed people exerting their utmost industry upon a soil cultivated nearly to the utmost, yet unable to provide subsistence for their still increasing numbers, and reduced to the murder of their children from the mere physical impossibility of supporting them! But we are presented with the account of a country, from the vices of its government, lying one third waste, with industry depressed, property insecure, the harvest (except in the immediate neighbourhood of the towns) liable to be swept away by bands of plunderers; and a people reduced to the lowest state of distress, not from any physical impossibility of further improving their country, or of raising further produce, but from the want of capital to undertake improvement, and the uncertainty of reaping any of the profit. At the same time, China, from the general uniformity and mildness of its climate, from the fertility of its soil, and the prolific nature of its staple article of food, rice, is even in its present state capable of supporting a very large absolute population, called into existence by direct encouragement to marriage, and the absence of all those moral and political causes, which, among an enlightened and well governed people, naturally and spontaneously produce an abatement in the progress of population. The public policy of China, therefore, is