Thomas De Quincey

Measure of value

To the reader.—This article was written and printed before the author heard of the lamented death of Mr. Ricardo.

It is remarkable at first sight that Mr. Malthus, to whom Political Economy is so much indebted in one chapter (viz. the chapter of Population), should in every other chapter have stumbled at every step. On a nearer view, however, the wonder ceases. His failures and his errors have arisen in all cases from the illogical structure of his understanding; his success was in a path which required no logic. What is the brief abstract of his success? It is this: he took an obvious and familiar truth, which until his time had been a barren truism, and showed that it teemed with consequences. Out of this position—That in the ground which limited human food lay the ground which limited human increase—united with this other position—That there is a perpetual nisus in the principle of population to pass that limit, he unfolded a body of most important corollaries. I have remarked in another article on this subject—how entirely these corollaries had escaped all Mr. Malthus’s[2] predecessors in the same track. Perhaps the most striking instance of this, which I could have alleged, is that of the celebrated French work—L’Ami des Hommes, ou Traite de la Population (written about the middle of the last century), which sets out deliberately from this principle, expressed almost in the very words of Mr. Malthus,—’Que la mesure de la Subsistance est celle de la Population;’—beats the bushes in every direction about it; and yet (with the exception of one corollary on the supposed depopulating tendency of war and famine) deduces from it none but erroneous and Anti-Malthusian doctrines. That from a truth apparently so barren any corollaries were deducible—was reserved for Mr. Malthus to show. As corollaries, it may be supposed that they imply a logical act of the understanding. In some small degree, no doubt; but no more than necessarily accompanies every exercise of reason. Though inferences, they are not remote inferences, but immediate and proximate; and not dependent upon each other, but collateral. Not logic but a judicious choice of his ground placed Mr. Malthus at once in a station from which he commanded the whole truth at a glance—with a lucky dispensation from all necessity of continuous logical processes. But such a dispensation is a privilege indulged to few other parts of Political Economy, and least of all to that which is the foundation of all Political Economy, viz. the doctrine of value. Having therefore repeatedly chosen to tamper with this difficult subject, Mr. Malthus has just made so many exposures of his intellectual infirmities—which, but for this volunteer display, we might never have known. Of all the men of talents, whose writings I have read up to this hour, Mr. Malthus has the most perplexed understanding. He is not only confused himself, but is the cause that confusion is in other men. Logical perplexity is shockingly contagious: and he, who takes Mr. Malthus for his guide through any tangled question, ought to be able to box the compass very well; or before he has read ten pages he will find himself (as the Westmorland guides express it) ‘maffled,’—and disposed to sit down and fall a crying with his guide at the sad bewilderment into which they have both strayed. It tends much to heighten the sense of Mr. Malthus’s helplessness in this particular point—that of late years he has given himself the air too much of teasing Mr. Ricardo, one of the ‘ugliest customers’ in point of logic that ever entered the ring. Mr. Ricardo is a most ‘dangerous’ man; and Mr. Malthus would do well not to meddle with so ‘vicious’ a subject, whose arm (like Neate’s) gives a blow like the kick of a horse. He has hitherto contented himself very good-naturedly with gently laying Mr. Malthus on his back; but, if he should once turn round with a serious determination to ‘take the conceit’ out of him, Mr. Malthus would assuredly be ‘put into chancery,’ and suffer a ‘punishment’ that must distress his friends.—Amongst those whom Mr. Malthus has perplexed by his logic, I am not one: in matter of logic, I hold myself impeccable; and, to say nothing of my sober days, I defy the devil and all the powers of darkness to get any advantage over me, even on those days when I am drunk, in relation to ‘Barbara, Celarent, Darii, or Ferio.’

[Footnote 1: MR. JOHN STUART MILL in his Principles of Political Economy, Book III chaps, i. and ii., makes some interesting and appreciative remarks on De Quincey’s settlement of ‘the phraseology of value;’ also, concerning his illustrations of ‘demand and supply, in their relation to value.’]

[Footnote 2: In a slight article on Mr. Malthus, lately published, I omitted to take any notice of the recent controversy between this gentleman—Mr. Godwin—and Mr. Booth; my reason for which was—that I have not yet found time to read it. But, if Mr. Lowe has rightly represented this principle of Mr. Booth’s argument in his late work on the Statistics of England, it is a most erroneous one: for Mr. Booth is there described as alleging against Mr. Malthus that, in his view of the tendencies of the principle of population, he has relied too much on the case of the United States—which Mr. Booth will have to be an extreme case, and not according to the general rule. But of what consequence is this to Mr. Malthus? And how is he interested in relying on the case of America rather than that of the oldest European country? Because he assumes a perpetual nisus in the principle of human increase to pass a certain limit, he does not therefore hold that this limit ever is passed either in the new countries or in old (or only for a moment, and inevitably to be thrown back within it). Let this limit be placed where it may, it can no more be passed in America than in Europe; and America is not at all more favourable to Mr. Malthus’s theory than Europe. Births, it must be remembered, are more in excess in Europe than in America: though they do not make so much positive addition to the population.]

In a slight article on Mr. Malthus, lately published, I omitted to take any notice of the recent controversy between this gentleman—Mr. Godwin—and Mr. Booth; my reason for which was—that I have not yet found time to read it. But, if Mr. Lowe has rightly represented this principle of Mr. Booth’s argument in his late work on the Statistics of England, it is a most erroneous one: for Mr. Booth is there described as alleging against Mr. Malthus that, in his view of the tendencies of the principle of population, he has relied too much on the case of the United States—which Mr. Booth will have to be an extreme case, and not according to the general rule. But of what consequence is this to Mr. Malthus? And how is he interested in relying on the case of America rather than that of the oldest European country? Because he assumes a perpetual nisus in the principle of human increase to pass a certain limit, he does not therefore hold that this limit ever is passed either in the new countries or in old (or only for a moment, and inevitably to be thrown back within it). Let this limit be placed where it may, it can no more be passed in America than in Europe; and America is not at all more favourable to Mr. Malthus’s theory than Europe. Births, it must be remembered, are more in excess in Europe than in America: though they do not make so much positive addition to the population.

(1823)

MLA Citation

De Quincey, Thomas. “Measure of value.” 1823. Quotidiana. Ed. Patrick Madden. 3 Jun 2015. 26 Jul 2017 <http://essays.quotidiana.org/dequincey/measure_of_value/>.

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