Bernard Shaw

The Population Question

Written: 1928;
Source: The Intelligent Woman's Guide to Socialism, Capitalism, Sovietism and Fascism;
Published: Pelican Books, 1937;
Transcribed: 2001 for

THE second of the two stock objections to equal division of income is that its benefits, if any, would soon be swallowed up by married couples having too many children. The people who say this always declare at the same time that our existing poverty is caused by there being already too many people in the world, or to put it the other way round, that the World is too small to produce food enough for all the people in it.

Now even if this were true, it would be no objection to an equal division of income; for the less we have, the more important it is that it should be equally divided, so as to make it go as far as possible, and avoid adding the evils of inequality to those of scarcity. But it is not true. What is true is that the more civilized people there are in the world the poorer most of them are relatively; but the plain cause of this is that the wealth they produce and the leisure they provide for are so unequally divided between them that at least half of them are living parasitically on the other half instead of producing maintenance for themselves.

Consider the case of domestic servants. Most people who can afford to keep a servant keep one only; but in Mayfair a young couple moving in the richest society cannot get on without nine servants, even before they have any children to be attended to. Yet everyone knows that the couples who have only one servant, Or at most two (to say nothing of those who have none), are better attended to and more comfortable in their homes than the unfortunate young people who have to find room for nine grown-up persons downstairs, and keep the peace between them.

The truth is, of course, that the nine servants are attending mostly to one another and not to their employers. If you must have a butler and footman because it is the fashion, you must have somebody to cook their meals and make their beds. Housekeepers and ladies' maids need domestic service as much as the lady of the house, and are much more particular about not putting their hands to anything that is not strictly their business. It is therefore a mistake to say that nine servants are ridiculous with only two people to be attended. There are eleven people in the house to be attended; and as nine of them have to do all this attendance between them, there is not so much to spare for the odd two as might be imagined. That is why couples with nine servants are continually complaining of the difficulty of getting on with so few, and supplementing them with charwomen and jobbing dressmakers and errand boys. Families of ordinary size and extraordinary income find themselves accumulating thirty servants; and as the thirty are all more or less waiting on one another there is no limit except that of sleeping room to the number wanted: the more servants you have, the less time they have to attend to you, and therefore, the more you need, or rather the more they need, which is much jollier for them than for you.

Now it is plain that these hordes of servants are not supporting themselves. They are supported by their employer; and if he is an idle rich man living on rents and dividends: that is, being supported by the labor of his tenants and of the workers in the companies in which he has shares, then the whole establishment, servants, employer and all, is not self-supporting, and would not be even if the world were made ten times as large as it is to accommodate them. Instead of too many people in the world there are too many idlers, and much too many workers wasting their time in attending to idlers. Get rid of the idlers, and set these workers to useful work, and we shall hear no more for a long time yet about the world being overcrowded. Perhaps we shall never hear of it again. Nature has a way with her in these matters.

Some people will find it easier to understand this if I put it to them like a sum in arithmetic. Suppose 20 men are producing by their labor L100 a year each, and they agree, or are forced by law, to give up L50 of it to the owner of the estate on which they work. The owner will receive L1,000 a year, not for work, but for owning. The owner can afford to spend L500 a year on himself, which makes him ten times as rich as any of the twenty workers, and use the other L500 to hire six men and a boy at L75 a year each to wait on him as servants and act as an armed force to deal with any of the twenty men who may attempt to rebel and withhold the L50 from him. The six men will not take the part of the men with L5O a year because they themselves get L75; and they are not clever enough to see that if they all joined to get rid of the owner and do useful work, they could have L100 a year apiece.

You have only to multiply the twenty workers and the six or seven retainers by millions to get the ground plan of what exists in every country where there is a class of owners, with a great police force and an army to protect their property, great numbers of servants to wait on them, and masses of workers making luxuries for them, all supported by the labor of the really useful workers who have to support themselves as well. Whether an increase of population will make the country richer or poorer depends, not on the natural fruitfulness of the earth, but on whether the additional people are set to do useful work or not. If they are, then the country will be richer. If, however, the additional people are set to work unproductively for the property owners as servants, or armed guardians of the rights of property, or in any of the other callings and professions to minister only to the owners, then the country will be poorer, though the property owners may become richer, the display of diamonds and fine dresses and cars much more splendid, and the servants and other retainers receiving higher wages and more schooling than their grandfathers.

In the natural course of things the more people there are in a country the richer it ought to be, because of the advantage of division of labor. Division of labor means that instead of every man having to do everything for himself like Robinson Crusoe, the different sorts of work are done by different sets of men, who become very quick and skilful at their job by doing nothing else. Also their work can be directed by others who give their whole minds to directing it. The time saved in this way can be used in making machinery, roads, and all sorts of contrivances for saving more time and labor later on. That is how twenty workers can produce more than twice what ten can produce, and a hundred much more than five times what twenty can produce. If wealth and the labor of producing it were equally shared, a population of a hundred would be much better off than a population of ten, and so on up to modern populations of millions, which ought to be enormously better off than the old communities of thousands The fact that they are either very little better off or sometimes actually worse off, is due wholly to the idlers and idlers' parasites who are plundering them as we plunder the poor bees.

I must not, however, let you believe that if we all shared equally the increase of wealth per head could go on for ever. Human beings can multiply very fast under favorable conditions. A single pair, if their posterity managed their affairs well enough to avoid war, pestilence, and premature death, might have twenty million descendants alive at the end of four hundred years. If all the couples now alive were to multiply at that rate there would soon not be standing room on the earth, much less fields to grow wheat in. There is a limit to the quantity of food the earth can yield to labor; and if there were no limit to the increase of population we should at last find that instead of increasing our shares of food by breeding more human beings, we should diminish them.

Though we now cultivate the skies by extracting nitrogen from the air, other considerations than that of food will check our multiplication. Man does not live by bread alone; and it is possible for people to be overfed and overcrowded at the same time. After the war there was no exceptional scarcity of food in England; but there was a terrible scarcity of houses. Our cities are monstrously overcrowded: to provide every family they contain with a comfortably spacious house and garden some of our streets would have to be spread over miles of country. Some day we may have to make up our minds how many people we need to keep us all healthy, and stick to that number until we see reason to change it.

In this matter the women who have to bear the children must be considered. It is possible for a woman to bear twenty children. In certain country districts in Europe families of fifteen are not uncommon enough to be regarded as extraordinary. But though a properly cared-for woman of vigorous constitution, with her confinements reasonably spaced out, can apparently stand this strain without permanent disablement or damage, and remain as well and strong as women who have borne no children at all, yet the bearing of each child involves a long period of discomfort and sickness, culminating in temporary disablement, severe pain, and a risk of death. The father escapes this; but at present he has to earn wages to support the children while they are growing; and though there may be plenty of employment for them when they come to working age, that does not provide any bread and butter for them in the Centime. ConsequentlY an increase of population that benefits the country and the world may be an almost unbearable burden to the parents. They therefore restrict their families to the number the father can afford, or the mother cares to bear, except when they do not know how this can be done, or are forbidden by their religion to practise birth control.

This has a very important bearing on the equal distribution of income. To understand this I must go back a little, and seem to change the subject; but the connexion will soon be plain.

If the workers in all occupations are to receive the same income, how are we to deal with the fact that though the cost of living is the same for all workers, whether they are philosophers or farm hands, the cost of their work varies very greatly. A woman in the course of a day's work may use up a reel of cotton costing a few pence whilst her husband, if a scientific worker, may require some radium, which costs L12,500 a gram. The gunners on the battlefields in Flanders, working at a dreadful risk of life and limb, needed very little money for themselves; but the cost of the materials they used up in a single day was prodigious. If they had had to pay on the nail, out of their wages, for the cannons they wore out and the shells they fired, there would have been no war.

This inequality of expense cannot be got over by any sort of adjustment of leisure or holidays or privileges of any sort between worker and worker. Still less can it be met by unequal wages. Even the maddest upholder of our wage system will not propose that the man who works a steam hammer costing many thousands of pounds should have wages proportionately higher than the wages of the navvy who swings a sledgehammer or the woodcutter who wields a beetle costing shillings instead of thousands of pounds. The worker cannot bear the cost of his materials and implements if he is to have only an equal share of the national income: he must either be supplied with them, or repaid for them in the cases in which he has to supply them at his own cost.

Applying this to the labor of child-bearing and the cost of supporting children, it is clear that the expenses of both should not be borne by the parents. At present they are repaid very insufficiently by maternity benefits and by an allowance off income tax for each child in the family. Under a system of equal division of income each child would be entitled to its share from birth; and the parents would be the trustees for the children, subject, no doubt, to the obligation of satisfying the Public Trustee, if any neglect were reported, that the children were getting the full benefit of their incomes. In this way a family of growing children would always be in easy circumstances; and the mother could face the labor and risk of bearing them for the sake of motherhood's natural privileges, dignities, and satisfactions.

But it is conceivable that such pleasant conditions, combined with early marriages and the disappearance of the present terrible infant mortality, would lead to a greater increase of population than might seem desirable, or, what is equally inconvenient, a faster increase; for the pace of the increase is very important: it might be desirable to double the population in a hundred years and very undesirable to double it in fifty. Thus it may become necessary to control our numbers purposely in new ways.

What are the present ways? How is the population kept down to the numbers our system of unequal sharing can support? They are mostly very dreadful and wicked ways. They include war, pestilence, and poverty that causes multitudes of children to die of bad feeding and clothing and housing before they are a year old. Operating side by side with these horrors, we have the practice of artificial birth control by the parents on such an enormous scale that among the educated classes which resort to it, including the skilled artisan class, population is actually decreasing seriously. In France the Government, dreading a dearth of soldiers, urges the people to have more children to make up a deficiency of twenty millions as compared with Germany. To such restrictions on population must be added the criminal practice of abortion, which is terribly prevalent, and, in eastern countries, the more straightforward custom of frank infanticide by literally throwing away the unwanted child, especially the female child, and leaving it to perish of exposure. The humane Mahomet could not convince the Arabs that this was sinful; but he told them that on the Day of Judgment the female child that was exposed would rise up and ask 'What fault did I commit?' In spite of Mahomet children are still exposed in Asia; and when exposure is effectually prevented by law as it is in nominally Christian countries, the unwanted children die in such numbers from neglect, starvation, and ill-usage, that they, too, may well ask on the Day of Judgment 'Would it not have been kinder to expose us?'

Of all these methods of keeping down the population there can be no doubt that artificial birth control: that is, the prevention of conception, is the most humane and civilized, and by far,the least demoralizing. Bishops and cardinals have denounced it as sinful; but their authority in the matter is shaken by their subjection to the tradition of the early Christians, for whom there was no population question. They believed also that marriage is sinful in itself, whether conception be prevented or not. Thus our Churchmen are obliged to start by assuming that sex is a curse imposed on us by the original sin of Eve. But we do not get rid of a fact by calling it a curse and trying to ignore it. We must face it with one eye on the alternatives to birth control, and the other on the realities of our sexual nature. The practical question for the mass of mankind is not whether the population shall be kept down or not, but whether it shall be kept down by preventing the conception of children or by bringing them into the world and then slaughtering them by abortion, exposure, starvation, neglect, ill-usage, plague, pestilence and famine, battle, murder and sudden death. I defy any bishop or cardinal to choose the latter alternatives. St Paul abhorred marriage; but he said 'Better many than burn'. Our bishops and cardinals may abhor contraception (so do I, by the way); but which of them would not say, when put to it like St Paul,'Better have no children, by whatever means, than have them and kill them as we are killing them at present'.

We have seen how our present unequal sharing of the national income has forced this question of Birth Control prematurely on us whilst there is still plenty of room left in the world. Canada and Australia seem underpopulated; but the Australians say that their waste spaces are uninhabitable, though the overcrowded Japanese are restrained only by our military prestige from saying 'Well, if you will not inhabit them, we will'. We have birth control even where the Churches struggle hardest against it. The only thing that can check it is the abolition of the artificial poverty that has produced it prematurely. As equal division of income can do this, those who dislike birth control and would defer it to the latest possible moment, have that reason as well as all the others we have studied, for advocating equal division.

When the last possible moment comes, nobody can foresee how the necessary restriction of the population will be effected. It may be that Nature will interfere and take the matter out of our hands. The possibility is suggested by the fact that the number of children born seems to vary according to the need for them. When they are exposed to such dangers and hard conditions that very few of them can be expected to survive, Nature, without any artificial interference, produces enormous numbers to provide against the complete extinction of the species. We have all heard of the codfish with its million eggs and of the queen bee laying four thousand eggs a day. Human beings are less prolific; but even within human limits Nature apparently distinguishes between poor, undernourished, uncultivated, defective people whose children die early and in great numbers, and people who are fullycultivated mentally and physically. The defectives are appallingly prolific; the others have fewer children even when they do not practise birth control. It is one of the troubles of our present civilization that the inferior stocks are outbreeding the superior ones. But the inferior stocks are really starved stocks, slum stocks, stocks not merely uncultivated but degraded by their wretched circumstances. By getting rid of poverty we should get rid of these circumstances and of the inferior stocks they produce; and it is not at all unlikely that in doing so we should get rid of the exaggerated fertility by which Nature tries to set off the terrible infant mortality among them.

For if Nature can and does increase fertility to prevent the extinction of a species by excessive mortality, need we doubt that she can and will decrease it to prevent its extinction by overcrowding? It is certain that she does, in a mysterious way, respond to our necessities, or rather to her own. But her way is one that we do not understand. The people who say that if we improve the condition of the world it will be overpopulated are only pretending to understand it. If the Socialists were to say positively that Nature will keep the population within bounds under Socialism without artificial birth control, they would be equally pretending to understand it. The sensible course is to improve the condition of the world and see what will happen, or, as some would say, trust in God that evil will not come out of good. All that concerns us at present is that as the overpopulation difficulty has not yet arisen except in the artificial form produced by our unequal distribution of income, and curable by a better distribution, it would be ridiculous to refrain from making ourselves more comfortable on the ground that we may find ourselves getting uncomfortable again later on. We should never do anything at all if we listened to the people who tell us that the sun is cooling, or the end of the world coming next year, or the increase of population going to eat us off the face of the earth, or, generally, that all is vanity and vexation of spirit. It would be quite sensible to say 'Let us eat and drink; for tomorrow we die' if only we were certain about tomorrow; but it would be foolish anyhow to say 'It is not worth while to live today; for we shall die tomorrow'. It is just like saying 'It will be all the same a thousand years hence' as lazy people do when they have neglected their duties. The fact is that the earth can accommodate its present population more comfortably than it does or ever did; and whilst we last we may as well make ourselves as comfortable as we can.

Note that as long as two persons can produce more than twice as much as one, and two million very much more than twice as much as one million, the earth is said by the political economists to be under the Law of Increasing Return. And if ever we reach a point when there will be more people than the earth can feed properly, and the next child born will make the whole world poorer, then the earth will be under the Law of Diminishing Return. If any gentleman tries to persuade you that the earth is now under the Law of Diminishing Return you may safely conclude that he has been told to say so at a university for the sons of the rich, who would like you to believe that their riches, and the poverty of the rest, are brought about by an eternal and unchangeable law of Nature instead of by an artificial and disastrous misdistribution of the national income which we can remedy.

All the same, do not overlook the fact that there may be over-population in spots whilst the world as a whole is underpopulated. A boat in mid ocean, containing ten castaways, a pint of water, and a pound of biscuits, is terribly overpopulated. The cottage of a laborer with thirty shillings a week and eight children is over-populated. A tenement house with twelve rooms and fifty people living in them is overpopulated. London is abominably overpopulated. Therefore, though there is no world population question, and the world is under the law of increasing return, there are innumerable spots in the world which are overpopulated and under the law of diminishing return. Equality of income would enable the unfortunate denizens of these plague spots to escape from the slavery of diminishing returns to the prosperity of increasing returns.