The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How cruelty became the point of our labor and welfare policies

Why do so many politicians think people only work if threatened or forced into doing so?

Job seekers wait to be called into the Heartland Workforce Solutions office in Omaha last summer. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

As pandemic restrictions ease, the demand for labor has seemingly outstripped the number of those willing to reenter the labor force, threatening the smooth reopening of the economy. Some have blamed this gap between demand and supply on the federal relief programs that provided enhanced unemployment benefits to those idled by pandemic conditions. As of May 13, 16 Republican governors had announced plans to end their participation in these programs to encourage, or rather to coerce, people to reenter the labor market.

The logic of this view rests on an implicit and often unexamined premise: The poor lack an intrinsic work ethic, and so their work must be prompted by the threat of destitution. In fact, much government policy over the past 50 years assumes that harsh measures are necessary to motivate or deter human behavior. “Hostile environment” immigration policies, which have included family separations, and draconian law-and-order regimes belong to this category.

These ideas governing the poor and marginalized have deep historical roots, going back at least to Thomas Malthus. But, as his critics at the time pointed out, they also have dire consequences.

Malthus was a pioneering thinker in political economy and demography who laid the intellectual groundwork for classical economics. He is most famous for his 1798 “Essay on the Principle of Population,” which he revised in 1803 and which gave us the concept of Malthusianism, the idea that exponential population growth will outpace food production, dooming us all to a lower quality of life.

Malthus wrote in response to the utopian writings of William Godwin and the Marquis de Condorcet — two men deeply influenced by the French Revolution. Godwin was a political philosopher and journalist who believed that evil was rooted in ignorance and could be ameliorated by education. Condorcet, a philosopher and mathematician, also advanced radical positions, advocating for the equality of women and the abolition of slavery.

Both Godwin and Condorcet argued that society’s afflictions were caused by human-made institutions that could be reconstructed by people to produce greater flourishing.

But Malthus thought they failed to take into account what he saw as unalterable realities of human nature and human biology. He believed that the future prosperity they envisioned would lead to younger marriages and more births, thus increasing the size of the population beyond the capacity of agriculture and Earth to sustain it. Population growth would lead to misery caused by war, disease and famine. But, rather than decrying these, Malthus thought they would provide the “positive checks” necessary to keep the human population within bounds.

Malthus also saw danger in what he believed was a too-generous provision of charitable relief, as this would also stimulate burdensome surplus births. Instead, a bare minimum of relief to avert actual death must conform to the principle of “less eligibility”; that is, any relief provided to the able-bodied must be “less eligible,” or less desirable than the lowest standard of living of waged workers to prod the poor into work.

These ideas became central to the 1834 Poor Law in England that required recipients of relief to be entirely destitute. They had to be willing to conform to the requirement of entering a workhouse, where they would be housed and fed — but then required to work in a prisonlike setting. As Charles Dickens put it in his critique of the workhouse in the second chapter of “Oliver Twist,” “… they established the rule that all poor people should have the alternative … of being starved by a gradual process in the house, or by a quick one out of it.” And when Oliver, in a scene made iconic by the film versions of the story, had the nerve to ask for more than the standard portion of gruel, he was thrown out of the workhouse.

William Hazlitt, a pioneer in engaged essay writing, mounted the most sustained and thoroughgoing attack on Malthus’s ideas in a series of polemics over two decades from 1807 to 1826. Where Malthus saw impoverishing shortages as the consequence of inexorable, impersonal forces, Hazlitt saw shortages created by the monopolies enjoyed by the rich. Rather than accept poverty as inevitable and essential to limit reproduction, as did Malthus, Hazlitt praised Condorcet’s idea for a fund drawing upon contributions from all that could be used to alleviate the hardships of unemployment, old age or widowhood — a conceptual forerunner to Social Security. Hazlitt underlined how Malthus privileged the property rights of the rich over the human rights of the poor by likening new generations of the poor to guests at a dinner party where all the places at the table were already taken.

Perhaps most relevant today, Hazlitt also expressed shock at how Malthus seemed to relish the catastrophes he described, as if the punishments exacted by famine and war became goods in themselves. The undeserving victims thus became objects of revulsion rather than fellow human beings deserving of our sympathy.

In this way, according to Hazlitt in his 1807 “A Reply to the Essay on Population,” Malthus melded “the vices of a bad heart on a perverted understanding.” For Hazlitt, the human connection forged by mutual sympathy was the moral foundation of social institutions. He warned that the hardening of the heart necessary to carry out Malthus’s ideas first blunts the sensibilities of compassion, leading to aversion and finally to hatred and malice. Thus, a policy that begins by working through cruelty risks creating a regime in which the cruelty itself becomes the point.

In the end, Malthus appears to have won the debate, as his ideas continue to have considerable, if often unacknowledged, salience, especially among GOP politicians and neoliberal economists. Contemporary conservative and Republican defenders of these punitive practices warn of the moral hazards attached to the distribution of money and benefits as vulnerable to waste, fraud and abuse as well as the dangers associated with a bloated underclass.

And yet, Hazlitt warned us against another kind of moral hazard: the severing of the human connections needed to sustain a healthy social body and the withering of the human sympathy that nourishes social life, leaving behind a society animated by mean-spiritedness, anger and resentment.