Thomas Malthus (1766 – 1834) was an English cleric and scholar famous for his gloomy predictions about the population growing at a faster rate than food production – causing widespread shortages and famine. Although his worst predictions proved to be completely wrong, he was very influential in shaping attitudes to contraception and future concerns over population growth. His ideas influenced Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution and were also studied by political economists David Ricardo and Karl Marx.
His famous books was “An Essay on the Principle of Population” (1798) – he revised this several times over his lifetime.
“Population, when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio, Subsistence, increases only in an arithmetical ratio. ”
“The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man”
Chapter I, paragraph 18, lines 1-2
Malthus was born near Dorking, Surrey in a country house to a well educated and prosperous family. His father Daniel Malthus knew the philosophers, David Hume and Jean-Jaques Rousseau. As a youngster, Malthus was teased for his webbed feet and cleft palate, which affected his speech. In 1784, he went to Jesus College Cambridge where he studied English, Latin and Greek. He later entered the Church of England, becoming a curate in the parish of Wotton, Surrey.
In the eighteenth century, there was a good deal of optimism about human progress – especially amongst the enlightenment philosophers and writers who knew his father. However, Malthus became interested in the study of demographics, and he argued that whenever the wealth of a nation increased, it would cause a rapid increase in the population – because people could afford to buy more food.
Malthus noted with alarm that the population size tended to multiply geometrically (1, 2, 4, 8, 16). However, Malthus believed that food production would only increase at an arithmetic rate (1, 2, 3, 4, 5). Malthus believed this imbalance in growth would cause a tipping point of increased scarcity where the demand for food was greater than supply – causing a ‘Malthusian catastrophe.’ When this occurred, there would be a fight for the limited resource which would eventually bring the population back down to a more sustainable level.
Malthus’ continued to revise his polemic work and modified his assertions on population growth, but the basic principles remained the same. Unless man mended his ways and lived more virtuously, it would lead to future problems.
Malthus was strongly influenced by religion. He felt the ideal solution would be for man to learn sexual restraint – later marriage or abstinence as a way to avoid population explosion. If man (as he assumed would be likely) failed to restrain population growth, the coming shortages would be a lesson to teach greater virtue to the population.
Malthus also criticised the Poor Laws (limited government support for the very poorest) for leading to inflation. The logic was that if Parishes were given more funds for a limited supply of corn, the price of corn would rise. Giving handouts to the poor only served to delay the inevitable national shortages of food. The original concern of Malthus was not so much over-population but over-population on the dependent poor.
“To remedy the frequent distresses of the common people, the poor laws of England have been instituted; but it is to be feared that though they may have alleviated a little the intensity of individual misfortune, they have spread the general evil over a much larger surface.”
Chapter V, paragraph 2, lines 1-5
“The labouring poor, to use a vulgar expression, seem always to live from hand to mouth. Their present wants employ their whole whole attention, and they seldom think of the future. Even when they have an opportunity of saving they seldom exercise it, but all that is beyond their present necessities goes, generally speaking, to the ale house.”
Chapter V, paragraph 13, lines 8-13
In 1803, he became rector of Walesby, Lincolnshire and two years later gained a teaching post as professor of history and political economy at the East India Company College in Hertfordshire. In 1804, he married Harriet – they had one son and two daughters.
In the nineteenth century, a key political debate was between supporters of free trade (who wanted to abolish the corn laws) and those who supported protectionist methods.
The Corn Laws imposed a tariff on cheap imports – this increased the price of food and reduced the real wages of workers, but benefited the wealth landowners and farmers. Malthus was one of the few economists on the side of supporting protection because he believed it was important to encourage domestic food supplies. David Ricardo, a leading economist, (and friend of Malthus) was on the side of free trade. By 1814, Malthus partially changed his mind due to the increased cost of producing British corn.
Malthus and Ricardo both valued Adam Smith for his groundbreaking work on “Wealth of Nations” and they corresponded on several economic issues – though often in disagreement. They also clashed over economic rent. To Ricardo, rent represented ownership rather than trade. Rent was money that the wealthy could take out of circulation and diminish economic welfare. Malthus saw rent as an economic surplus.
Although Malthus was on the margins of nineteenth-century economics, he still played an important role in the development of economics or political economy as it tended to be called. He was a founding member of the Political Economy Club in 1821. He was also a fellow of the Statistical Society founded in 1834. In 1827, he published Definitions in Political Economy which clarified key terms and definitions to be used in political economy. At that time, there was rarely agreement on the meaning of terms, which could lead to confusion. Malthus can also claim some credit for economics being labelled the ‘dismal science’ due to the dismal prophecies that he and other economists often came up with.
Impact and influence of Malthus
Neo-Malthusianism. Although Malthus himself believed contraception was immoral, his ideas triggered a lot of interest in its advocacy – especially for the ‘working classes.’ It increased support for the idea of the need for birth control and contraception – especially amongst the poor, who tended to have large families. Neo-Malthusianism also evolved into eugenics, with the emphasis on birth control for the ‘unfit’. Eugenics was quite popular in the ninenteenth and early twentieth centurey.
Welfare hurts the poor. Malthus criticism of the poor laws was a factor in the strong Victorian idea that any kind of charity towards the poor – was ill-conceived and only led to a kind of dependency.
Marxism Karl Marx criticised Malthus for being a “lackey of the bourgeoisie”.- Falsely blaming misery and destitution on excessive population growth and the poor themselves. Marx felt the reason for poverty was the imbalance of power between the capitalists and workers. However, Malthusian’s work on the value of labour and the “Iron law of wages – that wages would not rise” influenced Marx adopted it in his own way.
Darwinism. Charles Darwin was influenced by Malthus’ ideas when developing the theory of evolution. The idea of Malthus was that an organism could become so successful it leads to more organisms than can be supported in the long-term. Then in that future period of crunch, there is a period of natural selection, where only the fittest survive.
Ecology. Post-second world war, with issues like climate change and resource depletion becoming topical issues, there has been renewed interest in Malthusian ideas from an ecological perspective. For example, the Club of Rome published a book entitled The Limits to Growth in 1972, which argued use on non-renewable resources meant the global population could soon face constraints on living standards.
Criticism of Malthus
The main criticism of Malthus is that he has been proved spectacularly wrong. Population growth didn’t increase exponentially. In fact, birth rates in high-income countries have sharply fallen in the twentieth century. There appears to be a strong link between higher income and demand for fewer children.
Secondly, Malthus severely underestimated the potential of technology to increase food production. Even modest technological changes have significantly increased food yields more than anyone predicted in the eighteenth century. Often the western world has been dealing with a surplus of food.
Citation: Pettinger, Tejvan. “Niccolo Machiavelli Biography”, Oxford, UK. www.biographyonline.net. Published 30 June 2019.
An Essay on the Principle of Population
An Essay on the Principle of Population Thomas Malthus at Amazon
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