How Cruelty Became the Point of Our Labor and Welfare PoliciesRoundup
tags: labor, social welfare, COVID-19, unemployment insurance
Gail Savage is a professor of history at St. Mary's College of Maryland, specializing in modern Britain.
As pandemic restrictions ease, the demand for labor has seemingly outstripped the number of those willing to reenter the labor force, threatening the smooth reopening of the economy. Some have blamed this gap between demand and supply on the federal relief programs that provided enhanced unemployment benefits to those idled by pandemic conditions. As of May 13, 16 Republican governors had announced plans to end their participation in these programs to encourage, or rather to coerce, people to reenter the labor market.
The logic of this view rests on an implicit and often unexamined premise: The poor lack an intrinsic work ethic, and so their work must be prompted by the threat of destitution. In fact, much government policy over the past 50 years assumes that harsh measures are necessary to motivate or deter human behavior. “Hostile environment” immigration policies, which have included family separations, and draconian law-and-order regimes belong to this category.
These ideas governing the poor and marginalized have deep historical roots, going back at least to Thomas Malthus. But, as his critics at the time pointed out, they also have dire consequences.
Malthus was a pioneering thinker in political economy and demography who laid the intellectual groundwork for classical economics. He is most famous for his 1798 “Essay on the Principle of Population,” which he revised in 1803 and which gave us the concept of Malthusianism, the idea that exponential population growth will outpace food production, dooming us all to a lower quality of life.
Malthus wrote in response to the utopian writings of William Godwin and the Marquis de Condorcet — two men deeply influenced by the French Revolution. Godwin was a political philosopher and journalist who believed that evil was rooted in ignorance and could be ameliorated by education. Condorcet, a philosopher and mathematician, also advanced radical positions, advocating for the equality of women and the abolition of slavery.
Both Godwin and Condorcet argued that society’s afflictions were caused by human-made institutions that could be reconstructed by people to produce greater flourishing.
But Malthus thought they failed to take into account what he saw as unalterable realities of human nature and human biology. He believed that the future prosperity they envisioned would lead to younger marriages and more births, thus increasing the size of the population beyond the capacity of agriculture and Earth to sustain it. Population growth would lead to misery caused by war, disease and famine. But, rather than decrying these, Malthus thought they would provide the “positive checks” necessary to keep the human population within bounds.
Malthus also saw danger in what he believed was a too-generous provision of charitable relief, as this would also stimulate burdensome surplus births.