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How the Land Can Sustain Population

Tags Global EconomyWorld HistoryHistory of the Austrian School of EconomicsPrivate Property

11/26/2010Richard Cantillon

[This article, written in the year 1755, is excerpted from part 1, chapter 15 of An Essay on Economic Theory.]

Experience shows that trees, plants, and other kinds of vegetation can be increased to any quantity, to the extent that the land allocated to them can support.

The same experience shows that all the animal species can be multiplied to any quantity that the land allotted to them can support. Horses, cattle, and sheep can easily be multiplied up to the number that the land will support. One can even improve the fields allocated for this purpose by irrigation, as in Milan.1 Hay can be grown to raise cattle in stables and feed them in larger numbers than if they were allowed to freely roam in the fields. Sheep may be fed on turnips, as in England, so that more can be fed with an acre of land than if it were pasture.

In a word, we can multiply all sorts of animals in such numbers as we wish to maintain, even to infinite numbers if we could find lands in infinite quantity to nourish them; and the multiplication of animals has no other bounds than the greater or lesser means allotted for their subsistence. There is no doubt that if all land was devoted to the simple sustenance of man, the race would increase up to the number that the land would support in the manner to be explained.

There is no country where population is carried to a greater height than in China. The common people are supported by rice and rice water; they work almost naked and in the southern provinces, they have three plentiful harvests of rice each year thanks to the great care they give to agriculture. The land is never fallow and yields more than a hundredfold every year.2 Those who wear clothes generally have cotton clothing, which needs so little land for its production that an acre of land, it seems, is capable of producing a quantity of clothing sufficient for 500 adults.

The Chinese, by the principles of their religion, are obliged to marry and raise as many children as their means of subsistence will afford. They look upon it as a crime to use land for pleasure gardens or parks, cheating the public of food. They transport travelers in sedan chairs and save the work of horses upon all tasks that men can perform.

Their number is incredible, according to the descriptions of China's visitors,3 however, they are forced to let many of their children die in the cradle when they are unable to support them, keeping only the number they can feed. By hard and persistent labor, they draw from the rivers an extraordinary quantity of fish, and from the land, all that is possible.

Nevertheless, when bad years come, they die of hunger by the thousands in spite of the care of the emperor, who stores rice for such contingencies. Numerous then as the people of China are, they are necessarily proportioned to their means of living and do not exceed the number the country can support, according to their standard of living; and on this level, a single acre of land will support many of them.

On the other hand, there is no country where the increase of population is more limited than among the savages in the interior parts of America. They neglect agriculture, live in the forests, and live by hunting the animals found there. As the trees consume the sap and substance of the earth, there is little pasture for animals, and since an Indian eats several animals in a year, 50 or 100 acres often supply only enough food for a single Indian.

A small tribe of these Indians will have 40 square leagues4 for its hunting ground. They wage regular and bitter wars over these boundaries, and always proportion their numbers to their means of support from hunting.

The Europeans cultivate the land and draw grain from it for their subsistence. The wool of their sheep provides them with clothing. Wheat is the grain on which most of them are fed, but some peasants make their bread of rye, and in the north from barley and oats. The food of the peasants and the people is not the same in all countries of Europe, and land is often different in quality and fertility.

"On the other hand, there is no country where the increase of population is more limited than among the savages in the interior parts of America. They neglect agriculture, live in the forests, and live by hunting the animals found there."

Most of the land in Flanders,5 and part of that in Lombardy,6 yields 18 to 20 times the wheat sown, without lying idle. The countryside of Naples yields still more. There are some parts of France, Spain, England, and Germany that yield the same amount. Cicero tells us that the land of Sicily in his time yielded tenfold, and the elder Pliny says that the Leontine7 lands in Sicily yielded 100 times the seed sown, those of Babylon 150 times, and some African lands a good deal more.

Today, land in Europe yields on the average six times what is sown, so that five times the seed remains for the consumption of the people. Land usually lays fallow the third year, producing wheat the first year, and barley and oats the second.

A man who lives on bread, garlic, and roots, wears only hemp garments, coarse linen, wooden shoes, and drinks only water, like many peasants in the south of France, can live on the produce of an acre and a half of land of average quality, yielding a sixfold harvest and laying fallow every third year.

On the other hand, an adult man, who wears leather shoes, stockings, woolen cloth, who lives in a house and has a change of linen, a bed, chairs, table, and other necessities, moderately drinks beer or wine, eats meat every day, butter, cheese, bread, vegetables, etc., sufficiently and yet moderately, needs less than the product of four to five acres of average quality. It is true that in these estimates no land is allotted for horses, except those needed to plow and for the transport of the products a distance of ten miles.

History records that the first Romans each maintained his family on two journaux8 of land, equal to one Paris acre, and approximately 330 square feet. They were almost naked, had no wine or oil, slept in straw, and hardly had any comforts, but because they intensely cultivated the land, which is fairly good around Rome, they drew from it plenty of grains and vegetables.

If the property owners had the desire to increase the population, they would encourage peasants to marry young and raise children by promising to provide them with subsistence, devoting the land entirely to that purpose, and they would doubtless increase the population up to the point that the land could support, according to the products allotted for each person, whether those of an acre and a half, or four to five acres.

But if instead, the prince, or the property owners, made them use the land for other purposes than the upkeep of the people. If, by the prices they offer in the market for commodities and merchandise, they determine that the farmers will employ the land for other purposes than the maintenance of men (for we have seen that the prices they offer in the market and their consumption determine the use made of the land, just as if they cultivated it themselves), the people will necessarily decrease in number. Some will be forced to leave the country for lack of employment while others, not having the necessary means of raising children, will not marry or will only marry late, after having saved for the support of the household.

If the property owners who live in the country move to the cities far away from their land, horses must be fed for the transport of food into the city for both the owner and all the domestic servants, artisans, and others, whom their residence in the city will attract.

The transport of wine from Burgundy to Paris often costs more than the wine itself costs in Burgundy. Consequently, the land employed for the upkeep of wagon horses, and those who look after them, is more considerable than the land that produces the wine and supports those who have taken part in its production. The more horses there are in a state, the less food will remain for the people. The upkeep of wagon, hunting, or show horses often takes three or four acres of land each.

But when the nobility and property owners draw from foreign manufactures their cloths, silks, laces, etc., and pay for them by sending to the foreigner their native products, they significantly diminish the subsistence of the inhabitants and increase that of foreigners, who often become enemies of the state.

If a nobleman or property owner in Poland, to whom his farmers yearly pay a rent equal to about one-third of the product of his land, uses the cloths, linens, etc., of Holland, he will pay, for these goods, one-half of the rent he receives, and perhaps use the other half for the subsistence of his family, on other products and rough manufactures of Poland.

However, half his rent, on our assumption, corresponds to one-sixth of the production of his land, and this sixth part will be carried away by the Dutch, to whom the farmers of Poland will deliver wheat, wool, hemp, and other products. Here then is a sixth part of the land of Poland withdrawn from its people, to say nothing of the feeding of the wagon horses, carriage horses, and show horses maintained in Poland, because of the lifestyle of the nobility.

Furthermore, if out of the two-thirds of the production of the land allotted to the farmers, the latter, imitating their masters, consume foreign manufactures that they also pay to the foreigners in raw products of Poland, there will be a good third of the production of the land in Poland removed from the food of the people, and, what is worse, mostly sent to foreigners and often serving to support the enemies of the state.

If the property owners and the nobility in Poland would consume only the manufactures of their own state, bad as they might be at the outset, the products would soon become better, and it would maintain a greater number of their own people at work, instead of giving this advantage to foreigners. And if all states took precautions not to be the dupes of other states in matters of commerce, each state would be considerable only in proportion to its products and the industry of its people.9

If the ladies of Paris enjoy wearing Brussels lace, and if France pays for this lace with Champagne wine, the production of a single acre of flax must be paid for with the production of 16,000 acres of vineyards, if my calculations are correct. Suffice it to say that in this transaction, a great amount of the production of the land is withdrawn from the subsistence of the French, and all the products sent abroad — unless an equally considerable amount of products is brought back in exchange — tend to diminish the number of people in the state.10

When I said that the property owners might multiply the population as far as the land would support them, I assumed that most men desire nothing better than to marry if they are set in a position to maintain their families in the same style as they are content to live themselves. That is, if a man is satisfied with the production of an acre and a half of land, he will marry if he is sure of having enough to maintain his family in the same style. However, if he is only satisfied with the product of five to ten acres, he will be in no hurry to marry, unless he thinks he can support his family in the same manner.

In Europe, the children of the nobility are brought up in affluence; and as the largest share of the property is usually given to the eldest sons, the younger sons are in no hurry to marry. They usually live as bachelors, either in the army or in the monasteries, but will seldom be found unwilling to marry if they are offered heiresses and fortunes, or the means of supporting a family on the level they consider appropriate and without which they think they will make their children unhappy.

"If the ladies of Paris enjoy wearing Brussels lace, and if France pays for this lace with Champagne wine, the production of a single acre of flax must be paid for with the production of 16,000 acres of vineyards."

In the lower classes of the state, there also are men who, from pride and from reasons similar to those of the nobility, prefer to live in celibacy and to live on the little that they have, rather than settle down in family life. But most of them would gladly set up a family if they could count on supporting their family as they wish. They would consider it an injustice to their children if they brought them up only to fall into a lower class than themselves.

Only a few men in a state avoid marriage because of a pure libertine spirit. All the lower classes wish to live and raise children who can live at least like themselves. When laborers and artisans do not marry, it is because they wait until they save enough to enable them to set up a household or to find some young woman who brings a little capital for that purpose. Every day, they see others like themselves who, for lack of such precautions, start a family and fall into the most frightful poverty, being obliged to deprive themselves of their own food in order to nourish their children.

From the observations of Mr. Edmond Halley,11 at Breslaw in Silesia [a region in Poland], it is found that of all the females capable of child bearing, from 16 up to 45 years of age, not one in six actually bears a child every year. Instead, says Mr. Halley, there ought to be at least four in six who should have children every year, without including those who are barren or have stillbirths.

The reason why four women out of six do not bear children every year is that they cannot marry because of the discouragement and difficulties in their way. A young woman takes care not to become a mother if she is not married; she cannot marry unless she finds a man who is ready to run the risk of it.

Most of the people in a state are hired or are entrepreneurs; most are dependent and live in uncertainty whether they will find by their labor or their enterprise the means of supporting their household on an acceptable level. Therefore, they do not all marry, or marry so late that of six women, at least four should produce a child every year, but there is actually only one in six who becomes a mother.

If the property owners help to support the families, a single generation would suffice to push the increase of population as far as the production of the land will supply the means of subsistence. Children do not require as much of the land's production as adults. Both can live on more or less according to their consumption.

The northern people, where the land produces little, have been known to live on so little production that they have sent out colonists and swarms of men to invade the lands of the south, destroy the inhabitants, and appropriate their land.12 According to the different manner of living, 400,000 people might subsist on the same products of the land, which ordinarily supports only 100,000. A man who lives on the production of an acre and a half of land, may be stronger and braver than one who consumes the production of five or ten acres.

Therefore, it seems pretty clear that the number of inhabitants in a state depends on their means of subsistence. As the means of subsistence depend on the method of cultivating the soil, and this method depends chiefly on the taste, desires, and manner of living of the property owners, the increase and decrease of population also stand on the same foundation.

Editor's Notes by Mark Thornton
  • 1. Here Cantillon notes that technology in the form of irrigation increases the productivity of resources. He has been criticized for ignoring the role of technological progress.
  • 2. Yields more than 100 times the amount of seed that is planted.
  • 3. Higgs translated this as "Relations of Voyages," a common title of books written by travelers and explorers of foreign lands.
  • 4. Roughly 100 square miles.
  • 5. Now located in northern Belgium.
  • 6. Now located in northern Italy.
  • 7. Leontini was a city-state on the east coast of Sicily, just north of Syracuse.
  • 8. Higgs did not translate Cantillon's journaux, but the Roman jugerum was their unit of land measurement and is equal to approximately two-thirds of an English acre.
  • 9. The long-distance transportation of bulky commodities entails a reduced purchasing power for property owners and less sustenance for the local people.
  • 10. Notice that Cantillon is not arguing over the gains from trade, but that trading necessities for luxuries has the effect of reducing the population. Recall from previous chapters that such reductions involve poverty, starvation, and emigration.
  • 11. Edmond Halley, "An Estimate of the Degrees of the Mortality of Mankind, drawn from curious Tables of the Births and Funerals at the City of Breslaw; with an Attempt to ascertain the Price of Annuities upon Lives," Philosophical Transactions 196 (London, 1693), pp. 596–610.
  • 12. Cantillon is here referring to the Vikings of Scandinavia.

Richard Cantillon

The honor of being called the "father of modern economics" belongs not to its usual recipient, Adam Smith, but to a gallicized Irish merchant, banker, and adventurer who wrote the first treatise on economics more than four decades before the publication of the Wealth of Nations. Richard Cantillon (1680s–1734) — a proto-Austrian — is one of the most fascinating characters in the history of social or economic thought.