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ever, that the consequence would be, the collection of a larger sum, which would only serve to increase beggary and dependance, and, instead of relieving the poor, to render them more wretched. Having now concluded our remarks on the work before us, we shall lay before our readers a general view of the spirit and tendency of all those plans which have been adopted for ameliorating the condition of the poor.
When persons belonging to that class of society by whom the rest are clothed, lodged and fed, fall into misery and poverty, not through any fault of their own, but from the visitation of providence, it appears, at first view, to be exceedingly just and reasonable, that those who have profited by their industry, should, in the day of their calamity, help to mitigate their distress. In order to give effect to this apparently benevolent principle, various schemes have been suggested. It has sometimes been proposed to regulate the wages of labour so as always to ensure to the labourer a competent command over the necessaries and simpler luxuries of life; at other times, large sums of money have been levied on the rich to relieve the sufferings of the poor; or when labour was supposed to be scarce, plans have been set on foot for their support by finding work for the labourer. The impossibility, however, of raising by artificial regulations the wages of those who work, or of relieving their sufferings when their wages are inadequate, either by giving them money or by furnishing them with work when the effectual fund for the support of labour has declined, has been very clearly demonstrated by several writers, particularly by Mr Malthus, whose reasonings have thrown quite a new light on this interesting subject.
In the system of English poor laws, all these different expedients are occasionally made use of to relieve the distresses of the poor. By the 43d of Elizabeth, the justices are empowered to levy a general assessment for the relief of the impotent; they are also required to set poor children to work, or those who are able to work and cannot find employment. What is this (Mr Malthus observes) but saying that the funds for the maintenance of labour in this country may be increased at will, and without limit, by the fiat of government, or an assessment of the overseers? Strictly speaking, this clause is as arrogant, and as absurd, as if it had enacted that two ears of wheat should in future grow, where one only had grown before. Canute, when he commanded the waves not to wet his princely feet, did not in reality assume a greater power over the laws of nature. No directions are given to the overseer how to increase the funds for the maintenance of labour; the necessity of industry, economy, and enlightened exertion, in the management of agricultural capi
tal, is not insisted on, for this purpose; but it is expected that a miraculous increase of these funds should immediately follow an edict of government made at the discretion of some ignorant parish officer.'
The same act gives to the justices an unlimited power of levying whatever assessment they may think necessary for the relief of the poor; it enables them also, to judge who are fit objects of public charity. Nothing is so contrary to the spirit of sound legislation, as the unnecessary creation of discretionary power; and it need excite little surprise, when the legislators of the land, abdicating their own natural functions, have confided the exercise of such a delicate trust to the justices of the peace, that abuse and corruption have been the consequence. To provide a full and certain relief, even for the infirm and the impotent, must tend to render them beggarly and improvident. But in England the objects of parochial relief have been greatly multiplied. It has been thought necessary to offer charity to the labourer in full possession of health and strength. And what is still more revolting to every idea of sound policy and common sense, the quantum of relief given to him is proportioned to the high price of corn; which is the same thing as saying, that he shall consume the same quantity of subsistence when it is scarce, as when it is plenty; when it is not to give him, as when it is to give him; in short, that the great majority of the community shall never feel the pressure of scarcity. Agreeably to these notions, a table was published for the information of magistrates and overseers, in which the sum necessary for the support of the labourer was computed according as the price of bread should vary, or as the labourer's family should be either small or large. By this mode of computation, it may easily be conceived, what an enormous assessment would be requisite in a time of scarcity, to give to the labourer the sum necessary for his support according to the price of bread in 1795. Twenty-five shillings in the week was the sum allotted for the support of a labourer with a family of seven children. This principle was acted upon very generally during the scarcity of 1795, and during the scarci ties also of 1799 and 1800; and the weekly allowance which the labourer received frequently exceeded his wages. Mr Malthus mentions, that he has known a labourer whose earnings amounted to ten shillings per week, receive fourteen shillings from the parish. Such instances (he observes) could not possi bly have been universal, without raising the price of wheat very much higher than it was during any part of the dearth. But similar instances were by no means infrequent; and the system itself, of measuring the relief given by the price of grain, was general.' After being made acquainted with these facts, it need
excite very little surprise, that the poor laws, as they are administered, have succeeded in some measure in debasing the character of the common people in England; and that, in some parishes, every fourth man receives parish relief. The enormous sums which have been squandered away for the vain purpose of enabling the labourer to consume the same quantity of corn when it is scarce as when it is plenty, have an obvious tendency to raise its money price, and thus to depress the condition of all those who do not receive parish relief. The poor laws thus contribute to create the poor whom they maintain.
When there is a scarcity of subsistence, it is perfectly evident, that want must be felt somewhere; and even if it were possible entirely to relieve the labourer, the evil would not be removed; it would be only transferred to another class of the community. The good to be done in a time of scarcity by pecuniary contributions is quite partial: it does not even palliate the general evil; it only relieves one person at the expense of another. The middling classes of the community, were, according to Mr Malthus, visibly depressed by the extravagant largesses which were squandered on the poor in 1799 and 1800. And he shows, clearly indeed, that this must have been the case. The reasonings of that writer on the subject of the poor laws, are truly admirable for their clearness and their originality. The evils which were at that time produced by the inconsiderate profusion with which parochial relief was granted, were too visible to escape the notice of the most superficial observer; but while other writers busied themselves in criticising and in amending paltry details, Mr Malthus went to the bottom of the evil, and showed that the system was so vicious in its principle, that no amendments could render it beneficial. Even if eighteen shillings in the pound were levied for the relief of the poor, Mr Malthus shows, that the poor would not be relieved. Great changes (he observes) might indeed be made. The rich might become poor, and some of the poor rich; but, while the present proportion between the population and the food continues, a part of society must necessarily find it difficult to support a family; but this dif ficulty will necessarily fall on the least fortunate members.' That the poor laws may mitigate cases of severe distress, appears probable. But when it is considered, that they necessarily require a system of harsh and tyrannical restraint that they obstruct the free circulation of labour-that they are a constant source of tyranny, contention, and legal wrangling, and that they tend to produce alienation between the rich and the poor, rendering the poor thankless and beggarly, and the rich hard-hearted; we may
well inquire whether the good which they produce, could not be procured without such a lamentable train of attendant evils.
The mischief produced by the poor laws, seems to have been insisted on by almost every writer on the subject; and Burnet * in the excellent remarks with which he closes his history, seems to be decidedly of opinion, that they ought to be abolished. Most writers, however, object rather to the administration of the poor laws, than to the principles on which they are founded; and they have accordingly suggested various improvements and emendations. They put down the present scheme of regulations, in order to make way for a set of their own, which are no doubt sufficiently plausible in theory, but which could not be reduced to practice, without producing the evils already complained of. In 1796, a plan for reforming the poor laws was brought forward by Mr Pitt, full of device and regulation, provided with work-houses, schools of industry, superintendants, visitors, warehousemen, justices of the peace vested with large discretionary powers, the whole a most complex contrivance, and leading to every species of abuse. Another plan has been since brought forward by Mr Whitbread, for the avowed purpose of rendering the poor laws obsolete. This desireable object, was to be effected by the establishment of schools, where the lower classes of society might be instructed, and gradually so improved in their habits, as to be set above receiving parish relief. However highly we may approve of this institution, and however much we may have been surprised, that a plan for improving the faculties of rational creatures should have met with any obstruction, we doubt much whether it would have brought about any general change in the manners of the English populace, particularly while fuch a fource of moral depravation as the poor laws was fuffered to exift. There were other regulations in this plan, of which we have already expreffed our opinion, such as the establishment of banks for receiving the hoardings of the poor, and the erection of cottages for their comfort. The grant-. ing of honorary badges as a reward for decent conduct, feems quite fantaftical. The great point in all thofe arrangements ought to be, to free fociety as much as poffible from burdenfome reftraints. And we cannot help thinking, that legiflators would fucceed much better in their plans, if their minds could be weaned from that love of device and contrivance with which they seem to have been in all ages too much infected.
Mr Malthus has, however, propofed a plan of his own for giving effect to his principles, which feems more fimple, and bet
Burnet, Hift. of his own times, Vol. VI. p. 314.
ter calculated for anfwering its purpose, than any of those complicated schemes. He is of opinion, that a regulation fhould be made, declaring that no child born from any marriage, taking place after the expiration of a year from the date of the law, and that no illegitimate child born two years after the fame date, fhould ever be entitled to parish affiftance. To give a more general knowledge of this law, he propofes that the clergyman of the parifh fhould, previous to every marriage, read a fhort addrefs to the parties, ftating the ftrong obligation on every man to fupport. his own children, and the neceflity which had at length appeared, from regard to the poor themselves, of abandoning all public inftitutions for their relief, as they had produced effects totally oppofite to thofe which were intended.
This plan has been reprobated as iniquitous and cruel; but if the poor laws are to be abolifhed, it is impoffible to conceive in what way this great reformation can be brought about with. lefs hardship to thofe concerned. Thofe who had been accuftomed to depend upon parochial relief, would have that dependance ftill left them; fo that they could not be faid to suffer any injury, and the rifing generation would have a plain warning that they had nothing to depend upon for their fupport but their own exertions. The plan, therefore, feems, in this refpect, to be perfectly unexceptionable, and to accord with that enlightened humanity which the writings of Mr Malthus generally difplay. The scheme appears, however, to be in fome refpects unfatisfactory and incomplete. It does not feem to be founded on that full and diftinct view of the poor laws, on which alone a fuitable remedy can be founded. When we confider how much Mr Malthus must have reflected on the poor-laws, and that it is principally to the writings of that eminent philofopher, that we are indebted for any clear views on the fubject, it is with the most refpectful diffidence that the following obfervations are offered to the attention of the reader.
It is the opinion of Sir F. M. Eden, and it seems, indeed, extremely probable, that the law passed in the reign of Queen Elizabeth had no relation to the able-bodied labourer, but was only meant for the relief of those who either had not work, or who were unable to work. In later years, however, they have been generally extended to the relief of the labourer; and the quantity of that relief has been measured by the high price of provisions. The poor rates have accordingly increased enormously; so that, in the year 1801, they were said to amount to the incredible sum
VOL. XI. NO. XXI.
* Vol. 9. p. 584.