The health and strength of the population

Book 4, Chapter 5

§1. This chapter is coincidentally “timely” in these days of coronavirus. Marshall begins by noting that physical, mental and moral strength is what leads to wealth but also that the same wealth “if wisely used” contributes to strength. I think it’s pretty clear that some countries are using their wealth wisely… and some not.

§2. Marshall then opines that population depends on vigour, which depends on climate and race, where he veers onto dangerous ground — and backs off again:

In warm countries we find early marriages and high birth-rates, and in consequence a low respect for human life: this has probably been the cause of a great part of the high mortality that is generally attributed to the insalubrity of the climate. [Footnote: A warm climate impairs vigour. It is not altogether hostile to high intellectual and artistic work: but it prevents people from being able to endure very hard exertion of any kind for a long time.] Vigour depends partly on race qualities: but these, so far as they can be explained at all, seem to be chiefly due to climate. [Footnote: Race history is a fascinating but disappointing study for the economist: for conquering races generally incorporated the women of the conquered; they often carried with them many slaves of both sexes during their migrations, and slaves were less likely than freemen to be killed in battle or to adopt a monastic life. In consequence nearly every race had much servile, that is mixed blood in it: and as the share of servile blood was largest in the industrial classes, a race history of industrial habits seems impossible.] p162

§3. Marshall sometimes sounds wiser than he was (p164):

  • The great mortality of infants among the poor is largely due to the want of care and judgment in preparing their food; and those who do not entirely succumb to this want of motherly care often grow up with enfeebled constitutions. This statement is wrong not complete, since infant mortality was also linked to dirty water and milk.
  • Badly-built houses with imperfect drainage cause diseases which even in their slighter forms weaken vitality in a wonderful way; and overcrowding leads to moral evils which diminish the numbers and lower the character of the people. Although the first part of this statement seems to make sense, it’s not the construction of the buildings that causes diseases, but the manner in which poor drainage pollutes drinking water drawn from communal wells. The second part on overcrowding and “moral evils” leaves much to the imagination.
  • Overwork of every form lowers vitality; while anxiety, worry, and excessive mental strain have a fatal influence in undermining the constitution, in impairing fecundity and diminishing the vigour of the race. This is still true!

§4. In another comment that deserves prominence these days, Marshall says (p 164):

Next come three closely allied conditions of vigour, namely, hopefulness, freedom, and change. All history is full of the record of inefficiency caused in varying degrees by slavery, serfdom, and other forms of civil and political oppression and repression.[Footnote: Security of person and property are two conditions of this hopefulness and freedom; but security always involves restraints on freedom, and it is one of the most difficult problems of civilization to discover how to obtain the security which is a condition of freedom without too great a sacrifice of freedom itself.] In all ages colonies have been apt to outstrip their mother countries in vigour and energy… the most important cause of all is to be found in the hope, the freedom and the changefulness of their lives. [Footnote: …a shifting of places enables the more powerful and original minds to find full scope for their energies and to rise to important positions: whereas those who stay at home are often over much kept in their places. Few men are prophets in their own land; neighbours and relations are generally the last to pardon the faults and to recognize the merits of those who are less docile and more enterprising than those around them. It is doubtless chiefly for this reason that in almost every part of England a disproportionately large share of the best energy and enterprise is to be found among those who were born elsewhere.]

Take that, Brexiteers!

§5. Another section that deserves to be quoted (p165):

Bodily and mental health and strength are much influenced by occupation. At the beginning of this century the conditions of factory work were needlessly unhealthy and oppressive for all, and especially for young children. But Factory and Education Acts have removed the worst of these evils from factories; though many of them still linger about domestic industries and the smaller workshops.

The higher wages, the greater intelligence, and the better medical facilities of townspeople should cause infant mortality to be much lower among them than in the country. But it is generally higher, especially where there are many mothers who neglect their family duties in order to earn money wages.

§6. The young, best and the brightest migrate to towns to seek opportunity. Some move to the suburbs, for clean air and water (“supply and drainage”, so Marshall did understand clean water), better schools &c. Going further, “there is no better use for public and private money than in providing public parks and playgrounds in large cities, in contracting with railways to increase the number of the workmen’s trains run by them…

§7. Marshall ventures into Social Darwinism with fears that the upper classes — due to their “selfish” desire to gain social standing for their children — are being displaced by the faster-breeding working classes, that the weak are kept alive by medical advances, and that progress slows when the “conquoring races” have fewer babies. [Footnote: “Again, on the Pacific Slope, there were at one time just grounds for fearing that all but highly skilled work would be left to the Chinese; and that the white men would live in an artificial way in which a family became a great expense. In this case Chinese lives would have been substituted for American, and the average quality of the human race would have been lowered” p 167]. So, yeah, Marshall was sympathetic to Social Darwinist racist ideas when he was not confronted by data (see §2, above).

§8. Marshall ends the chapter by noting that children should have better physical and mental development than their parents, how progress and government health programs are prolonging lives, and how racial progress slows with too many children, too few children, or over-crowding towns. Overall, he is optimistic, with “the average duration of life for both men and women increasing steadily…” [p169].


Author: David Zetland

I'm a political-economist from California who now lives in Amsterdam.

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