Thomas Robert Malthus

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I think that I may fairly make two postulata.

First, That food is necessary to the existence of man.

Secondly, That the passion between the sexes is necessary and will remain nearly in its present state.

Assuming then my postulata as granted, I say, that the power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man.

Population, when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio. Subsistence increases only in an arithmetical ratio.

A slight acqaintance with numbers will shew the immensity of the first power in comparison of the second.

The above frequently used quotation is from An Essay on the Principle of Population as it affects the Future Improvement of Society, with Remarks on the Speculations of Mr. Godwin, M.Condorcet and other Writers by the English economist, mathematician and clergyman, Thomas Robert Malthus. His principle that population growth will constantly tend to outrun subsistence unless there are severe limits on reproduction is regularly cited to this day. But more cited than read, he is the most misinterpreted scholar in population studies. Published anonymously in 1798 as a long mainly theoretical pamphlet when he was a country vicar aged thirty-two, it was succeeded by five attributed and much more documented editions between 1803 and 1826, becoming a massive and very different work retaining the initial thesis but entitled An Essay on the Principle of Population, or A View of its Past and Present Effects on Human Happiness, with An Inquiry into Our Prospects Respecting the Future Removal or Mitigation of the Evils which It Occasions.

Even by the time of the second edition in 1803, Malthus knew much more about the English population from the returns of the 1801 census as well as from parish registers, and he knew more about the population of Europe from visits to Ireland and several other European countries, leading him to change the way that he discussed the relationships between production and reproduction and to become rather less pessimistic about people breeding themselves into poverty. He came to realize that people were doing something about their lot. But as the work grew in size and scholarship it became less easy to read, so supporters and critics have tended to concentrate on the First Essay, although Malthus later regarded it as an unsatisfactory statement of his views. Nevertheless, it has had an immense influence on subsequent thought during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, so much so that few publications on the relationships between population, economics, environment and development have failed to mention Malthus or Malthusianism. Moreover, the use of statistical data to support his wide-ranging theories in the more mature work of the later editions effectively established Malthus as the father of modern population studies, although some later scholars have felt that the data were not effective in empirically validating those theories.

The second of eight children of a cultured country gentleman, Malthus was destined to be a clergyman. Educated first privately and then at Jesus College, Cambridge, where he excelled, he took holy orders in 1788 and was elected a fellow of Jesus College in 1793. It was a post that enabled him to travel and to nurture his theories and which he retained until after his marriage to Harriet Eckersall in 1804. In the following year he became professor of history and political economy at the East India Company's college at Haileybury, Hertfordshire, the first time that political economy had been used for an academic office in Britain. Although he lived there quietly for the rest of his life, he publicized his views widely and became renowned in his lifetime, his later years being marked by numerous distinctions, including a fellowship of the Royal Society in 1819, a royal associateship of the Royal Society of Literature in 1824, and election to the French Académie des Sciences Morales et Politiques and the Royal Academy of Berlin in 1833. A good-natured, kindly and tolerant man to friends and foes alike, he is an unlikely figure to become one of the most controversial social scientists of all time.

His First Essay on the Principle of Population was written partly as a reaction to the unbridled optimism of his father, Daniel Malthus, who was an admirer of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment and a friend of contemporary philosophers of humanitarian optimism, including David Hume, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Adam Smith. It was also written to prove the imperfectibility of mankind and to demonstrate the error of two recent Utopian visions that extolled a future of reason, science, abundance, equality, peace and prosperity: An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793), by the radical English political writer and novelist William Godwin, and Esquisse d'un Tableau Historique des Progrès de l'Esprit Humain (1795), by the French statesman and philosopher the Marquis de Condorcet.

Malthus was much more pessimistic, seeing poverty and misery as mankind's inescapable future. The contemporary reality in Britain at the end of the eighteenth century was a largely pre-industrial society in economic and social revolution, with acceleration of the enclosures, imports of corn replacing exports, the decline of rural industries and some rural depopulation, along with early industrial and urban growth, all at the same time as an increasing population. Among the traditional remedies for social troubles were hanging and the Poor Laws, which entitled the poor to increasing public assistance. Malthus did not envisage an egalitarian society and regarded poverty as inevitable, stressing that the poor had no claim by right to be given subsistence and that in helping them population would grow and suffering would be extended. His views have been oversimplified by critics, but in his opposition to the Poor Laws, he influenced social policy by claiming that they encouraged large families and limited the mobility of labour. Workhouses should be established for the most unfortunate, but they should not be 'comfortable asylums'. Although Malthus had humanitarian motives, his views on society were rigid, and it is not surprising that he was regarded by utopians like Godwin as a hard-hearted conservative and a prophet of misery and gloom.

Living at a time when the need for subsistence was the most pressing, Malthus was very concerned with the constant tendency among human beings to increase their species more than the amount of food available to them. Using the youthful populations of the American colonies and United States as an example, he asserted that population could grow geometrically by doubling every twenty-five years, whereas food production can at best only increase arithmetically during this period. In his view, the disparity between the two rates of growth would act as a brake on unlimited population growth, but instead of the natural 'positive checks' of high mortality caused by poverty, disease, wars, famines and 'excesses of all sorts', he wanted to substitute a voluntary mechanism of 'preventive checks'. However, he regarded 'self-restraint' as the only acceptable check, rejecting others such as adultery, prostitution, sexual deviation, birth control and abortion as 'vicious customs with respect to women'. Voluntary limitation of births was rare at the time, and he believed in celibacy and chastity until a person was able to accept the responsibilities of marriage, but after delayed marriage he thought that a family of six was normal. In later editions he recognized that social or preventive checks were more important than he had earlier realized, although he did not believe that they would reduce reproductivity sufficiently that positive checks would not operate more or less continuously.

Malthus continued to publish a variety of tracts and pamphlets on economics, but his only other major published work was Principles of Political Economy Considered with a View to Their Practical Application (1820). It was much less influential than Essay on the Principle of Population, but demonstrated his desire to formulate rigorous economic propositions. Among these were advocacy of public works and private luxury investment to counter economic distress, and criticism of saving as a virtue, which 'pushed to excess, would destroy the motive to production', stating that to maximize wealth a nation had to balance 'the power to produce and the will to consume'. By encouraging low wages and discouraging charity, it put a brake on economic optimism.

Malthus has been called 'a prophet of the past'. Like other classical economists, he did not foresee the impressive power of technology to influence both production and population dynamics. In these circumstances it is surprising that his name has persisted in the public eye for so long, though less surprising that his works have inspired such deeply conflicting intellectual, religious and public reactions throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Other British classical economists, including David Ricardo, a close friend, and John Stuart Mill, acknowledged Malthusian population theory as important to their economic theories of wages and of the stationary state. Much later they were joined by John Maynard Keynes. Malthus also had a catalytic effect on Charles Darwin's studies of evolution, by the idea that a surplus of population would be compensated by excess mortality of the least fit, and by making him realize that the struggle for existence mainly occurs within species. More ironically, the nineteenth-century British radical Francis Place and fellow 'birth controllers' adopted Malthusian theory to publicize birth control methods as a check on population growth, and called the doctrine Neo-Malthusianism despite Malthus's adamant opposition to contraception. Many Western Protestant countries, where individualism was strong and fertility high, later adopted anti-natalist policies usually for social rather than demographic aims, with the result that the name of Malthus has been more associated with family planning than delayed marriage, which became largely redundant as a population policy.

The basic message of Malthus—that production will be outrun by reproduction—saw a considerable resurgence in the second half of the twentieth century especially in English-speaking countries, including those of south Asia. Increasing public concern about acceleration of world population growth, widespread poverty in many countries of the so-called Third World, excessive use of finite resources, and human impact on global environmental change resurrected the concept of 'limits to growth', epitomized for example in reports for the Club of Rome on the predicament of mankind. Although Malthus was no environmentalist, this was regarded as a Malthusian concern, and helped to encourage the wide diffusion of family planning around the world, assisted by rising female status and a growing desire for smaller families. The terms Malthusian and Malthusianism have been so popularized and garbled that their meanings now often owe little to the original works of Malthus; they are sometimes used to indicate little more than either a pessimistic and gloomy view of the relationships between population and resources or even just the advocacy of family planning to solve economic problems.

Anti-Malthusianism has always abounded, academically as well as socio-politically, but expressed most strongly by socialists, Marxists and the Catholic Church, who have all emphasized the advantages of population growth. Socialist writers of the nineteenth century unanimously attacked the morals of Malthusian theory, regarding him as cruelly unfeeling and the incarnation of Manchester individualism. Equally, Malthus was an anathema to Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, as he justified the persistent impoverishment of the poor. Marx attacked him vehemently because he believed that overpopulation did not result from an overall lack of the means of subsistence but from their maldistribution in society, a view which has gained credibility as the gap between the 'haves' and 'have-nots' has grown. During the first half of the twentieth century, Anti-Malthusian populationist policies were adopted enthusiastically by the communist countries of USSR and China as well as by Italy and Germany under fascist, militaristic dictatorships, but all were later abandoned and now all experience low fertility. And despite the prolonged antagonism of the Vatican to Neo-Malthusianism, some of the Catholic countries of southern Europe have the lowest fertility rates in the world. For or against, Malthus lives on as a major influence on thinking in many aspects of social science.

See also in this book

Darwin, Ehrlich, Marx, Wilson

Malthus's major writings

Wrigley, E.A. and Souden, D. (eds), The Works of Thomas Robert Malthus, 8 vols, London: William Pickering, 1986.

Further reading

Coleman, D. and Schofield, R. (eds), The State of Population Theory. Forward from Malthus, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986. Dupaquier, J., Fauve-Chamoux, A. and Grebenik, E. (eds), Malthus Past and

Present , London and New York: Academic Press, 1983. Hollander, S., The Economics of Thomas Robert Malthus, Toronto: University of

Toronto Press, 1997. Petersen, W., Malthus: Founder of Modern Demography, New Brunswick, NJ:

Transaction Publishers, 1998. Teitelbaum, M.S. and Winter, J.M. (eds), Population and Resources in Western Intellectual Traditions, Population and Development Review, A Supplement to vol. 14, New York: The Population Council, 1988.


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