Food For Thought: Hazlitt, Malthus and the Tragedy of Food Banks

William Hazlitt, right, issued a scathing critique of the ideas of Thomas Malthus, left.

William Hazlitt, right, issued a scathing critique of the ideas of Thomas Malthus, left.

Whatever the outcome of this year’s general election, the most notable legacy of the last coalition government will be the critically under-discussed revival of the nation’s food banks. Despite promises from the Con-Dem government of economic recovery, of increased levels of employment, and an improvement in wages, there was still an 163 per cent increase in the number of people needing to use food banks between 2012/13 and 2013/14, bringing the total up to 913,138 – more than one person in every hundred in the UK – roughly a third of whom were children. [1] The disparity is particularly remarkable considering that it occurs at a time when 4.2 million tonnes of avoidable food waste – the equivalent of roughly six meals per household per week – is being created in the UK every year. [2]

Recent reforms to the UK welfare system, said to be designed “to help claimants and their families to become more independent” [3] cheerfully disguise the language of a much older agenda. Making his case for the abolition of the Poor Laws in 1807, Thomas Robert Malthus called for a system that would “throw off the rising generation from that miserable and helpless dependence upon the government and the rich” [4]. In his Essay on the Principle of Population, Malthus proposes that population growth naturally exceeds our ability to produce food, and that unchecked population growth (it is suggested, among the poor), is reset and brought down to subsistence levels by “misery, and vice”. [5]

As a resolution to this problem, Malthus proposes that the poor man should be warned against marriage or fornication lest such relations produce children that he could not support independently. If he fails to heed this warning, he should be left “to the punishment of want”. [6] The permission that the rich give themselves to moralise and legislate against the whims of the poor whilst ignoring similar behaviour within their own ranks is a cruelty that was not lost upon essayist William Hazlitt:

“When Mr Malthus asserts, that the poor man and his family have been doomed to starve by the laws of nature, which are the laws of God, he means by the laws of God and nature, the physical and necessary inability of the earth to supply food for more than a certain number of human beings; but if he means that the wants of the poor arise from the impossibility of procuring food for them, while the rich roll in abundance, or, we will say, maintain their dogs and horses, &c. out of their ostentatious superfluities, he asserts that he knows not to be true.”

[7]

The Department of Work and Pensions may claim that it wants to end a “something for nothing culture” [8], but as Hazlitt countered in 1807, such arguments miss the point: namely, that punishing the poor does not address the causes of poverty within society:

“Mr. Malthus wishes to confound the necessary limits of the produce of the Earth with the arbitrary and artificial distribution of that produce according to the institutions of that society, or the caprice of individuals.”

[9]

Unfortunately, over a century later, it seems that we not become much better at protecting the vulnerable from the caprices of such institutions and individuals. The collective riches of Britain’s wealthiest people has doubled in the last ten years [10], and yet the deficit (yes, that old chestnut) continues to be fought through cuts to the welfare state. Almost a decade after the financial crisis, with so little justice brought upon the shoulders of those responsible, it is hard not to hear the clamour of Hazlitt’s questions ringing in one’s ears:

“Have not the government and the rich had their way in every thing? Have they not gratified their ambition, their pride, their obstinacy, their ruinous extravagance? Have they not squandered the resources of the country as they pleased?”

[11]

The World Bank estimates that we will need to “produce at least 50% more food to feed 9 billion people by 2050” and that climate change “could cut crop yields by 25%”. [12] This will be particularly challenging if we do not diversify our food sources: currently 75 per cent of our food is derived from 12 plant and 5 animal species [13], leaving us vulnerable not only to environmental changes, but increasingly, the will of the corporations who control and patent these varieties. The greatest challenge, however, may be ensuring that our hunger for profit does not go unchecked by human heart.

[1] Trusselltrust.org. ‘The Trussell Trust – Foodbank Figures Top 900,000’. N.p., 2015. Web. 18 Apr. 2015.

[2] Wrap.org.uk. ‘Household Food And Drink Waste In The UK 2012 | WRAP UK’. N.p., 2015. Web. 18 Apr. 2015.

[3] Gov.uk, ‘Government Policy On Universal Credit: An Introduction – Welfare Reform – Policies – GOV.UK’. N.p., 2013. Web. 18 Apr. 2015.

[4] Hazlitt, W., Political Essays. London: Printed for W. Hone, 1819. Print, pp.424-430.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid. Hazlitt did not approve of the Poor Laws, but believed them better than nothing at all: “I think the poor laws bad things; and that it would be well, if they could be got rid of, consistently with humanity and justice.”

[8]  Gov.uk, ‘Benefit Sanctions – Ending The ‘Something For Nothing’ Culture – Press Releases – GOV.UK’. N.p., 2013. Web. 18 Apr. 2015.

[9] Hazlitt, Political Essays.

[10] Gov.uk, ‘Benefit Sanctions – Ending The ‘Something For Nothing’ Culture – Press Releases – GOV.UK’. N.p., 2013. Web. 4 May 2015.

[11] Hazlitt.

[12] Worldbank.org, ‘Food Security’, N.p., 2015, Web. 18 Apr. 2015

[13]  Fao.org, ‘What Is Agrobiodiversity?’. N.p., 2015. Web. 4 May 2015.

Concepta Cassar

About Concepta Cassar

Concepta is a journalist, forager and food writer, with a particular interest in food anthropology, sustainability, and agricultural affairs. Her recipes have been featured in the Guardian, and she writes for a number of organisations, including BuzzFeed, Aftertastes, and the Soil Association. Her other great loves are literature and modern languages. Concepta speaks French and Italian, and has a working knowledge of Spanish and Russian.

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