Markets, Productivity, and Happiness in a Historical Perspective

John Barton’s View on Overpopulation and Moral Restraint

Ishii Jou, Kanto Gakuin University

John Barton (1789-1852) is acknowledged by historians of economic thought for his pioneering theory on the effect of machinery. However, it is not well known that he came to appreciate the Malthusian principles of population in his second pamphlet in 1820 and his subsequent works. Barton stressed on the importance of moral restraint in relieving the problem of overpopulation. At the same time, he approved the Poor Laws, colonization, and the Corn Laws since he argued that the distressed conditions of people made them imprudent. He made these considerations in view of unorthodox Malthusianism, which took a different stance from Malthus himself on the causes of overpopulation and the necessary conditions of moral restraint. This paper examines Barton's view on moral restraint from 1820 to 1850 and reconsiders his economic thought. In his 1820 pamphlet, Barton asserted that indigent labourers, who were thus imprudent, would take time to acquire prudence. Therefore, he proposed giving incentives to let young labourers delay their marriage. However, in his pamphlets published in the 1830s, there is no reference to the inducement of moral restraint. Instead, he argued that the prudence of labouring classes would be encouraged if emigration achieved the dissolution of overpopulation of the home country. Barton also insisted that it was republican virtues such as liberty, independence, and religious duty that brought national prosperity, rather than capital accumulation and population growth. He reinforced his views on agriculturism by arguing that manufacturing labourers fell into the habit of laziness and drinking more easily than agricultural labourers. In his paper published in 1850, Barton emphasized the rehabilitation of small land ownership as grounds for moral restraint as it would make peasants independent and industrious. He came to consider the distribution of the means of production and to hope for a community that consisted of a peasant with a small land property, which further reinforced his views on agriculturism. Barton suggested redistribution policies and the prevalence of republican virtues to encourage moral restraint based on the principle of population since the 1820s. Furthermore, in his paper published in 1850, the socialist idea of redistributing the means of production or subdivision of the soil was considered as a necessary condition of moral restraint. This can be interpreted as an attempt to incorporate the principle of population with the socialist reform by means of moral restraint.


Keywords: John Barton, Population, Malthus, Moral Restraints

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