The debate on the colonies

The Malthusian principle of population, namely the idea that population growth exerts pressure on the means of subsistence, had every appearance of realism in England at the time of the Napoleonic wars, when the continental blockade obstructed imports from continental countries producing low-cost agricultural goods. In the years immediately following the 1815 Congress of Vienna, recollection of the war years could still account for the persistent and widespread acceptance of a theory already overtaken by the realities of the time. One field where the population principle was already quite clearly wearing thin was the debate on the

42 Senior's preoccupations concerned industriousness, foresight (hence parsimony) and charity. More generally, Senior identified the progress of society with the gradual development of individual freedom and self-determination, which was obstructed by the constraints (on mobility, for instance) necessitated by administration of the poor law. Cf. Bowley 1937, pp. 288-90.

43 In this respect, a characteristic example of the conservative view is offered by Senior. Cf. Bowley 1937, pp. 282-334, for ample illustration of Senior's participation in the debate. Among the economists who accepted the principle of assistance to the able-bodied poor we find a number of authors that we will be meeting again in chapter 8 among the Ricardians: McCulloch, Torrens, James and John Stuart Mill.

colonies, now largely ignored by historians of economic thought but a burning issue of the time.

This debate, too, had begun well before the period we are considering here. On the relations between colonies and fatherland, for instance, Adam Smith wrote some extremely interesting pages in the conclusion of his magnum opus itself, published in the same year as the Declaration of Independence of the American colonies. In these pages, and in a memorandum of February 1778, Smith not only appeared ready to recognise the rights of the colonies, but went so far as to delineate a 'commonwealth', similar to that which took shape only much later on, grasping the potentialities of North America as future leader of the world economy.44 Even before Smith, we may recall Petty's participation in the American adventure of his friend Penn that led to the foundation of Pennsylvania,45 or the role played by Cantillon and, above all, by the Scottish banker-economist John Law in the financial vicissitudes involved in the colonisation of Mississippi.46

But let us return to the debate on the colonies in the golden period of classical political economy. One of the main problems for countries across the oceans - both the recently independent United States and the new colonial frontier of Australia - lay in the extremely sparse population. The land available for cultivation was vast, the number of immigrants scant, which meant enormous difficulties for the newborn manufacturing firms seeking wage workers, thwarting the development of an integrated economic system with a manufacturing sector thriving on the division of labour between firms and within each productive process.

These problems were dealt with by authors such as Wakefield, Torrens and others. Without departing from the framework of the Malthusian principle of population, Torrens (we shall have more to say about him later: ยง 8.2) was among the first authors to present the colonies as outlets for the emigration that was to improve the conditions of the workers of the kingdom, and in particular of the Irish.47 Soon, however, Torrens converted to Wakefield's ideas on systematic colonisation.

44 Smith (1776, pp. 934-47), and above all (1977, pp. 377-85). On the sequence of countries acting as leaders in the world economy, cf. Kindleberger 1996.

45 Cf. Fitzmaurice 1895. 46 Cf. Murphy 1986 and 1997.

47 Cf., for instance, Torrens 1817. Other authors, however, including Senior, utilised the Malthusian theory against the colonisation policies, maintaining that the 'void' left by emigration would soon be replenished by an increase in population, thus cancelling out the positive effects of emigration. A century and a half earlier, Petty (1691a, pp. 157; 1899, pp. 551 ff.; 1927, pp. 256, 262, 265-6) had repeatedly advanced a proposal of an opposite sign concerning the Irish 'colony': that 'transplantation', or mass deportation of the Irish people, would transform the island into an immense cattle-raising pasture with few workers.

Edward Gibbon Wakefield (1774-1854) argued that land in the colonies should be sold to the settlers at a price that not all could afford in order to guarantee the availability of wage labour; were they to take possession of land to cultivate freely, the settlers would scatter over vast areas and the division of labour would thus be rendered impracticable, with enormous loss in productivity and poverty looming for the new colonies.48

Once he embraced Wakefield's ideas, Torrens defended them with his characteristic vigour, playing an active role in the colonisation of South Australia, first (since 1831) as a founding member of the South Australian Land Company, then (since 1835) as chairman of a commission created by the British government to organise new provinces in South Australia.49 Population theory thus turned away from the old, pessimistic views on the possibility of progress of human societies to form the basis for theoretical rationalisation of the expansionist forces leading to the formation of the British Empire.

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