Thomas Malthus:


Thomas Malthus (1766-1834)

"In October 1838, that is, fifteen months after I had begun my systematic inquiry,
I happened to read for amusement Malthus on Population,
 and being well prepared to appreciate the struggle for existence
 which everywhere goes on from long- continued observation of the habits of animals and plants,
it at once struck me that under these circumstances favourable variations would tend to be preserved,
 and unfavourable ones to be destroyed.
The results of this would be the formation of a new species.
Here, then I had at last got a theory by which to work".
 Charles Darwin, from his autobiography. (1876)

This often quoted passage reflects the significance Darwin affords Malthus in formulating his theory of Natural Selection. What "struck" Darwin in Essay on the Principle of Population (1798) was Malthus's observation that in nature plants and animals produce far more offspring than can survive, and that Man too is capable of overproducing if left unchecked. Malthus concluded that unless family size was regulated, man's misery of famine would become globally epidemic and eventually consume Man. Malthus' view that poverty and famine were natural outcomes of population growth and food supply was not popular among social reformers who believed that with proper social structures, all ills of man could be eradicated.

Although Malthus thought famine and poverty natural outcomes, the ultimate reason for those outcomes was divine institution. He believed that such natural outcomes were God's way of preventing man from being lazy. Both Darwin and Wallace independantly arrived at similar theories of Natural Selection after reading Malthus. Unlike Malthus, they framed his principle in purely natural terms both in outcome and in ultimate reason. By so doing, they extended Malthus' logic further than Malthus himself could ever take it. They realized that producing more offspring than can survive establishes a competitive environment among siblings, and that the variation among siblings would produce some individuals with a slightly greater chance of survival.

Malthus was a political economist who was concerned about, what he saw as, the decline of living conditions in nineteenth century England. He blamed this decline on three elements: The overproduction of young; the inability of resources to keep up with the rising human population; and the irresponsibility of the lower classes. To combat this, Malthus suggested the family size of the lower class ought to be regulated such that poor families do not produce more children than they can support. Does this sound familiar? China has implemented a policy of one child per family (though this applies to all families, not just those of the lower class).



Thomas Robert Malthus

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The Reverend[1] Thomas Robert Malthus FRS (13 or 14 February 1766 – 23 or 29 December 1834[2]) was a British scholar, influential in political economy and demography.[3][4] Malthus popularized the economic theory of rent.[5]

Malthus has become widely known for his theories about population and its increase or decrease in response to various factors. The six editions of his An Essay on the Principle of Population, published from 1798 to 1826, observed that sooner or later population gets checked by famine and disease. He wrote in opposition to the popular view in 18th-century Europe that saw society as improving and in principle as perfectible.[6] William Godwin and the Marquis de Condorcet, for example, believed in the possibility of almost limitless improvement of society. In a more complex way, so did Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose notions centered on the goodness of man and the liberty of citizens bound only by the social contract—a form of popular sovereignty.

Malthus thought that the dangers of population growth would preclude endless progress towards a utopian society: "The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man".[7] As an Anglican clergyman, Malthus saw this situation as divinely imposed to teach virtuous behaviour.[8] Believing that one could not change human nature, Malthus wrote:

Must it not then be acknowledged by an attentive examiner of the histories of mankind, that in every age and in every State in which man has existed, or does now exist

That the increase of population is necessarily limited by the means of subsistence,

That population does invariably increase when the means of subsistence increase, and,

That the superior power of population is repressed, and the actual population kept equal to the means of subsistence, by misery and vice.[9]

Malthus placed the longer-term stability of the economy above short-term expediency. He criticised the Poor Laws,[10] and (alone among important contemporary economists) supported the Corn Laws, which introduced a system of taxes on British imports of wheat.[11] He thought these measures would encourage domestic production, and so promote long-term benefits.[12]

Malthus became hugely influential, and controversial, in economic, political, social and scientific thought. Many of those whom subsequent centuries term evolutionary biologists read him,[13] notably Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace, for each of whom Malthusianism became an intellectual stepping-stone to the idea of natural selection.[14][15] Malthus remains a writer of great significance and controversy.

Early life and education

The sixth of seven children of Daniel and Henrietta Malthus,[16] Thomas Robert Malthus grew up in The Rookery, a country house near Westcott in Surrey. Petersen describes Daniel Malthus as "a gentleman of good family and independent means... [and] a friend of David Hume and Jean-Jacques Rousseau".[17] The young Malthus received his education at home in Bramcote, Nottinghamshire, and then at the Dissenting Warrington Academy. He entered Jesus College, Cambridge in 1784. There he took prizes in English declamation, Latin and Greek, and graduated with honours, Ninth Wrangler in mathematics.[18] He took the MA degree in 1791, and was elected a Fellow of Jesus College, Cambridge two years later.[5] In 1797, he took orders[19] and in 1798[5] became an Anglican country curate at Okewood near Albury in Surrey.[20]

His portrait,[21] and descriptions by contemporaries, present him as tall and good-looking, but with a cleft lip and palate.[22] The cleft palate affected his speech: such birth defects had occurred before amongst his relatives.[23] Malthus apparently[original research?] refused to have his portrait painted until 1833 because of embarrassment over the cleft lip.

Personal life

Malthus married his cousin Harriet on 12 April 1804 and had three children: Henry, Emily and Lucy. In 1805 he became Professor of History and Political Economy at the East India Company College (now known as Haileybury) in Hertfordshire.[24] His students affectionately referred to him as "Pop" or "Population" Malthus. In 1818 Malthus became a Fellow of the Royal Society.

Malthus's tomb is in Bath Abbey.

An Essay on the Principle of Population

Between 1798 and 1826 Malthus published six editions of his famous treatise, An Essay on the Principle of Population, updating each edition to incorporate new material, to address criticism, and to convey changes in his own perspectives on the subject. He wrote the original text in reaction to the optimism of his father and his father's associates (notably Rousseau) regarding the future improvement of society. Malthus also constructed his case as a specific response to writings of William Godwin (1756–1836) and of the Marquis de Condorcet (1743–1794).

Malthus regarded ideals of future improvement in the lot of humanity with skepticism, considering that throughout history a segment of every human population seemed relegated to poverty. He explained this phenomenon by arguing that population growth generally expanded in times and in regions of plenty until the size of the population relative to the primary resources caused distress:

"Yet in all societies, even those that are most vicious, the tendency to a virtuous attachment is so strong that there is a constant effort towards an increase of population. This constant effort as constantly tends to subject the lower classes of the society to distress and to prevent any great permanent amelioration of their condition".
—Malthus T.R. 1798. An essay on the principle of population. Chapter II, p18 in Oxford World's Classics reprint.

"The way in which these effects are produced seems to be this. We will suppose the means of subsistence in any country just equal to the easy support of its inhabitants. The constant effort towards population... increases the number of people before the means of subsistence are increased. The food therefore which before supported seven millions must now be divided among seven millions and a half or eight millions. The poor consequently must live much worse, and many of them be reduced to severe distress. The number of labourers also being above the proportion of the work in the market, the price of labour must tend toward a decrease, while the price of provisions would at the same time tend to rise. The labourer therefore must work harder to earn the same as he did before. During this season of distress, the discouragements to marriage, and the difficulty of rearing a family are so great that population is at a stand. In the mean time the cheapness of labour, the plenty of labourers, and the necessity of an increased industry amongst them, encourage cultivators to employ more labour upon their land, to turn up fresh soil, and to manure and improve more completely what is already in tillage, till ultimately the means of subsistence become in the same proportion to the population as at the period from which we set out. The situation of the labourer being then again tolerably comfortable, the restraints to population are in some degree loosened, and the same retrograde and progressive movements with respect to happiness are repeated".
—Malthus T.R. 1798. An essay on the principle of population. Chapter II, p19 in Oxford World's Classics reprint.

Malthus also saw that societies through history had experienced at one time or another epidemics, famines, or wars: events that masked the fundamental problem of populations overstretching their resource limitations:

"The power of population is so superior to the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race. The vices of mankind are active and able ministers of depopulation. They are the precursors in the great army of destruction, and often finish the dreadful work themselves. But should they fail in this war of extermination, sickly seasons, epidemics, pestilence, and plague advance in terrific array, and sweep off their thousands and tens of thousands. Should success be still incomplete, gigantic inevitable famine stalks in the rear, and with one mighty blow levels the population with the food of the world".
—Malthus T.R. 1798. An essay on the principle of population. Chapter VII, p61[25]

Proposed solutions

Malthus argued that two types of checks hold population within resource limits: positive checks, which raise the death rate; and preventive ones, which lower the birth rate. The positive checks include hunger, disease and war; the preventive checks, abortion, birth control, prostitution, postponement of marriage and celibacy.[26] Regarding possibilities for freeing man from these limits, Malthus argued against a variety of imaginable solutions. For example, he satirically criticized the notion that agricultural improvements could expand without limit:

"We may be quite sure that among plants, as well as among animals, there is a limit to improvement, though we do not exactly know where it is. It is probable that the gardeners who contend for flower prizes have often applied stronger dressing without success. At the same time, it would be highly presumptuous in any man to say, that he had seen the finest carnation or anemone that could ever be made to grow. He might however assert without the smallest chance of being contradicted by a future fact, that no carnation or anemone could ever by cultivation be increased to the size of a large cabbage; and yet there are assignable quantities much greater than a cabbage. No man can say that he has seen the largest ear of wheat, or the largest oak that could ever grow; but he might easily, and with perfect certainty, name a point of magnitude, at which they would not arrive. In all these cases therefore, a careful distinction should be made, between an unlimited progress, and a progress where the limit is merely undefined."

He also commented on the notion that Francis Galton later called eugenics:

"It does not... by any means seem impossible that by an attention to breed, a certain degree of improvement, similar to that among animals, might take place among men. Whether intellect could be communicated may be a matter of doubt; but size, strength, beauty, complexion, and perhaps longevity are in a degree transmissible... As the human race, however, could not be improved in this way without condemning all the bad specimens to celibacy, it is not probable that an attention to breed should ever become general".
—Malthus T.R. 1798. An essay on the principle of population. Chapter IX, p72[25]

In the second and subsequent editions Malthus put more emphasis on moral restraint. By that he meant the postponement of marriage until people could support a family, coupled with strict celibacy (sexual abstinence) until that time.[citation needed] "He went so far as to claim that moral restraint on a wide scale was the best means—indeed, the only means—of easing the poverty of the lower classes."[27] This plan appeared consistent with virtue, economic gain and social improvement.[citation needed]

Malthus emphasises the difference between government-supported welfare, and public charity. He proposed the gradual abolition of poor laws by gradually reducing the number of persons qualifying for relief. Relief in dire distress would come from private charity.[28] He reasoned that poor relief acted against the longer-term interests of the poor by raising the price of commodities and undermining the independence and resilience of the peasant.[citation needed] In other words, the poor laws tended to "create the poor which they maintain."[29]

It offended Malthus that critics claimed he lacked a caring attitude toward the situation of the poor. In the 1798 edition his concern for the poor shows in passages such as the following:

Nothing is so common as to hear of encouragements that ought to be given to population. If the tendency of mankind to increase be so great as I have represented it to be, it may appear strange that this increase does not come when it is thus repeatedly called for. The true reason is, that the demand for a greater population is made without preparing the funds necessary to support it. Increase the demand for agricultural labour by promoting cultivation, and with it consequently increase the produce of the country, and ameliorate the condition of the labourer, and no apprehensions whatever need be entertained of the proportional increase of population. An attempt to effect this purpose in any other way is vicious, cruel, and tyrannical, and in any state of tolerable freedom cannot therefore succeed.

In an addition to the 1817 edition he wrote:

I have written a chapter expressly on the practical direction of our charity; and in detached passages elsewhere have paid a just tribute to the exalted virtue of benevolence. To those who have read these parts of my work, and have attended to the general tone and spirit of the whole, I willingly appeal, if they are but tolerably candid, against these charges ... which intimate that I would root out the virtues of charity and benevolence without regard to the exaltation which they bestow on the moral dignity of our nature...[30]

Some, such as William Farr[31] and Karl Marx,[32] argued that Malthus did not fully recognize the human capacity to increase food supply. On this subject, however, Malthus had written: "The main peculiarity which distinguishes man from other animals, in the means of his support, is the power which he possesses of very greatly increasing these means."[33]

On religion

As a believer and a clergyman, Malthus addressed the question of how an omnipotent and caring God could permit suffering. In the First Edition of his Essay (1798) Malthus reasoned that the constant threat of poverty and starvation served to teach the virtues of hard work and virtuous behaviour.[8] "Had population and food increased in the same ratio, it is probable that man might never have emerged from the savage state,"[34] he wrote, adding further, "Evil exists in the world not to create despair, but activity."[35]

Nevertheless, although the threat of poverty could be understood to be a prod to motivate human industry, it was not God's will that man should suffer. Malthus wrote that mankind itself was solely to blame for human suffering:

"I believe that it is the intention of the Creator that the earth should be replenished; but certainly with a healthy, virtuous and happy population, not an unhealthy, vicious and miserable one. And if, in endeavouring to obey the command to increase and multiply,[36] we people it only with beings of this latter description and suffer accordingly, we have no right to impeach the justice of the command, but our irrational mode of executing it."[37]

Demographics, wages, and inflation

Malthus wrote of the relationship between population, real wages, and inflation. When the population of laborers grows faster than the production of food, then real wages fall, because the growing population causes the cost of living (i.e., the cost of food) to go up. Difficulties of raising a family eventually reduce the rate of population growth, until the falling population again leads to higher real wages:

"A circumstance which has, perhaps, more than any other, contributed to conceal this oscillation from common view, is the difference between the nominal and real price of labour. It very rarely happens that the nominal price of labour universally falls; but we well know that it frequently remains the same, while the nominal price of provisions has been gradually rising. This, indeed, will generally be the case, if the increase of manufactures and commerce be sufficient to employ the new labourers that are thrown into the market, and to prevent the increased supply from lowering the money-price.10 But an increased number of labourers receiving the same money-wages will necessarily, by their competition, increase the money-price of corn. This is, in fact, a real fall in the price of labour; and, during this period, the condition of the lower classes of the community must be gradually growing worse. But the farmers and capitalists are growing rich from the real cheapness of labour. Their increasing capitals enable them to employ a greater number of men; and, as the population had probably suffered some check from the greater difficulty of supporting a family, the demand for labour, after a certain period, would be great in proportion to the supply, and its price would of course rise, if left to find its natural level; and thus the wages of labour, and consequently the condition of the lower classes of society, might have progressive and retrograde movements, though the price of labour might never nominally fall.[38]

In later editions of his essay, Malthus clarified his view that if society relied on human misery to limit population growth, then sources of misery (e.g., hunger, disease, and war, termed by Malthus "positive checks on population") would inevitably afflict society, as would volatile economic cycles. On the other hand, "preventive checks" to population that limited birthrates, such as later marriages, could ensure a higher standard of living for all, while also increasing economic stability.[39]

Editions and versions

Other works

1800: The present high price of provisions

In this work, his first published pamphlet, Malthus argues against the notion prevailing in his locale that the greed of intermediaries caused the high price of provisions. Instead, Malthus says that the high price stems from the Poor Laws which "increase the parish allowances in proportion to the price of corn". Thus, given a limited supply, the Poor Laws force up the price of daily necessities. Then he concludes by saying that in time of scarcity such Poor Laws, by raising the price of corn more evenly, produce a beneficial effect.[41]

1814: Observations on the effects of the Corn Laws

Although government in Britain had regulated the prices of grain ("Corn" was, at the time, a generic word for all grains) since the 17th century[citation needed], the Corn Laws originated in 1815. At the end of the Napoleonic Wars that year, Parliament passed legislation banning the importation of foreign corn into Britain until domestic corn cost 80 shillings per quarter. The high price caused the cost of food to increase and so caused great distress among the working classes in the towns. This led to serious rioting in London and to the "Peterloo Massacre" (1819) in Manchester.[42][43]

In this pamphlet, printed during the parliamentary discussion, Malthus tentatively supported the free-traders. He argued that given the increasing expense of raising British corn, advantages accrued from supplementing it from cheaper foreign sources. This view he changed the following year.

1815: The Nature of Rent

Rent constitutes a major concept in economics. David Ricardo, Malthus' contemporary and friendly rival, defined a theory of rent in his Principles of Political Economy (1817). Ricardo regarded rent as value in excess of real production—something caused by incident of ownership rather than by fundamental economic value imparted by free and equal trade. For Ricardo, rent represented a kind of negative money that landlords could pull out of the production of the land by measure of land's scarcity.[44]

Contrary to this concept of rent, Malthus states that rent cannot exist except in the case of surplus. Also he says that rent, once accumulated, becomes subsequently a source of capital re-investment, causing positive effects through the growth and accumulation of productive wealth. He proposes rent to be a kind of surplus.

1815: The policy of restricting the importation of Grain

Malthus emerged as the only economist of note to support customs duty on imported grain.[45]

He had changed his mind from the previous year, siding now with the protectionists. Foreign laws, he noted, often prohibit or raise taxes on the export of corn in lean times, which meant that the British food supply could become captive to foreign politics. By encouraging domestic production, Malthus argued, the Corn Laws would guarantee British self-sufficiency in food.[46]

1820: Principles of political economy

1836: Second edition, posthumously published.

Malthus intended this work to rival Ricardo's Principles (1817). It, and his 1827 Definitions in political economy (below), defend Sismondi's views on general glut as against Say's Law. Say's Law states, "there can be no general glut". A general glut falls under the general category of what one might term Malthus's "Surplus Theory", as opposed to his "main", and earlier, body of work, which presents a "Scarcity Theory".

1823: The Measure of Value, stated and illustrated

1827: Definitions in political economy

"The question of a glut is exclusively whether it may be general, as well as particular, and not whether it may be permanent as well as temporary...[The] tendency, in the natural course of things, to cure a glut or scarcity, is no more a proof that such evils have never existed, than the tendency of the healing processes of nature to cure some disorders without assistance from man, is a proof that such disorders never existed."[47]

Other publications

Surplus theory

Whereas Malthus's main body of work presents a theory of irremediable, if not untreatable, scarcity, three of his other works present a theory of surplus: The Nature of Rent, Principles of political economy,[48] and Definitions in Political Economy.[48]

The Nature of Rent proposes rent as a kind of surplus, whereas the previous general definition of rent portrayed it as a societal economic loss caused by personal financial gain derived from land scarcity.[49]

Principles of Political Economy and Definitions in Political Economy defend[48] the concept of the general glut, a theory that surplus value can present a problem. Rent as surplus, and a glut or surplus of goods as problems differ somewhat or stand in contradistinction to Malthus's earlier scarcity theory of The Principle of Population.

Reactions to his ideas

Malthus became subject to extreme personal criticism. People who knew nothing about his private life criticised him both for having no children and for having too many. In 1819, Shelley, berating Malthus as a priest, called him "a eunuch and a tyrant" (though the Church of England does not require celibacy, and Malthus had married in 1804).[50] Marx repeated the lie, adding that Malthus had taken the vow of celibacy, and called him "superficial", "a professional plagiarist", "the agent of the landed aristocracy", "a paid advocate" and "the principal enemy of the people."[51] In the 20th century an editor of the Everyman edition of Malthus claimed that Malthus had practised population control by begetting eleven girls.[52] (In fact, Malthus fathered two daughters and one son.) Garrett Hardin provides an overview of these personal insults.[53]

Early responses

William Godwin criticized Malthus's criticisms of his own arguments in his book On Population (1820).[54]

Other theoretical and political critiques of Malthus and Malthusian thinking emerged soon after the publication of the first Essay on Population, most notably in the work of the reformist industrialist Robert Owen, of the essayist William Hazlitt (1807)[55] and of the economist Nassau William Senior,[56] and moralist William Cobbett. Note also True Law of Population (1845) by politician Thomas Doubleday, an adherent of Cobbett's views.

John Stuart Mill strongly defended the ideas of Malthus in his 1848 work, Principles of Political Economy (Book II, Chapters 11-13). Mill considered the criticisms of Malthus made thus far to have been superficial.

The American economist Henry Charles Carey rejected Malthus's argument in his magnum opus of 1858-59, The Principles of Social Science. Carey maintained that the only situation in which the means of subsistence will determine population growth is one in which a given society is not introducing new technologies or not adopting forward-thinking governmental policy, and that population regulated itself in every well-governed society, but its pressure on subsistence characterized the lower stages of civilization.

Marxist opposition

Another strand of opposition to Malthus's ideas started in the middle of the 19th century with the writings of Friedrich Engels (Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy, 1844) and Karl Marx (Capital, 1867). Engels and Marx argued that what Malthus saw as the problem of the pressure of population on the means of production actually represented the pressure of the means of production on population. They thus viewed it in terms of their concept of the reserve army of labour. In other words, the seeming excess of population that Malthus attributed to the seemingly innate disposition of the poor to reproduce beyond their means actually emerged as a product of the very dynamic of capitalist economy.

Engels called Malthus's hypothesis "...the crudest, most barbarous theory that ever existed, a system of despair which struck down all those beautiful phrases about love thy neighbour and world citizenship."[57] Engels also predicted[57] that science would solve the problem of an adequate food supply.

In the Marxist tradition, Lenin sharply criticized Malthusian theory and its neo-Malthusian version,[58] calling it a "reactionary doctrine" and "an attempt on the part of bourgeois ideologists to exonerate capitalism and to prove the inevitability of privation and misery for the working class under any social system".

Other dissenters

Some 19th-century economists[who?] believed that improvements in finance, manufacturing and science rendered some of Malthus's warnings implausible. They had in mind the division and specialization of labour, increased capital investment, and increased productivity of the land due to the introduction of science into agriculture (note the experiments of Justus Liebig and of Sir John Bennet Lawes). Even in the absence of improvement in technology or of increase of capital equipment, an increased supply of labour may have a synergistic effect on productivity that overcomes the law of diminishing returns. As American land-economist Henry George observed with characteristic piquancy in dismissing Malthus: "Both the jayhawk and the man eat chickens; but the more jayhawks, the fewer chickens, while the more men, the more chickens." In the 20th century, those who regarded Malthus as a failed prophet of doom included an editor of Nature, John Maddox.[59]

Economist Julian Lincoln Simon has criticised Malthus's conclusions.[60] He notes that despite the predictions of Malthus and of the Neo-Malthusians, massive geometric population growth in the 20th century did not result in a Malthusian catastrophe. Many factors have been identified as having contributed: general improvements in farming methods (industrial agriculture), mechanization of work (tractors), the introduction of high-yield varieties of wheat and other plants (Green Revolution), the use of pesticides to control crop pests. Each played a role.[61]

The enviro-sceptic Bjørn Lomborg presents data showing that the environment has actually improved[relevant? ].[62] Calories produced per day per capita globally went up 23% between 1960 and 2000, despite the world population doubling during that period.[63]

Most of the increase was due to increased use of fossil fuel, a point that Lomborg ignores. Anthropologist Eric Ross depicts Malthus's work as a rationalization of the social inequities produced by the Industrial Revolution, anti-immigration movements, the eugenics movement[clarification needed] and the various international development movements.[64]

Few commentators on the anti-Malthusian side of the debate have seen the human food system in thermodynamic terms. Critics of these critics of Malthus, like Herman Daly, Joshua Farley, Lester Brown, Amory Lovins, Richard Heinberg, et al., argue that doing so reveals that Malthus wasn't so much "proven wrong" by subsequent developments, as it is the case that the dynamic he pointed to was placed on hold for several centuries because humans learned how to exploit past solar income--fossil fuel--to do work (and augment agricultural production) in the present.

Agriculture is a net for capturing sunlight and converting it into energy in a form humans can use. The amount of sunlight that falls on the planet is finite, and the amount of arable land that can capture sunlight is also finite. The amount of food the planet can grow for humans is therefore finite. As a net for capturing solar flow, agriculture has the potential to make a net positive energy contribution to economies. It did so in Malthus' time. It does not do so today; it takes between eight and ten calories of energy to put a single calorie of food energy on an American plate. Food production has outpaced population growth in some areas, and kept steady with it in others, only because we have drawn down the planet's stored stock of fossil sunlight at an ever-increasing pace. The dynamic that supposedly vanquished Malthus' dire predictions was the innovative use of this past stored sunlight, in the form of fossil fuel, to augment agricultural production today. The mechanization of agriculture--the use of coal-, gasoline-, and diesel-powered tractors for plowing--means that current agriculture output is subsidized by past solar income. So too does the use of petrochemical pesticides; the use of fossil-fuelled pumps (or fossil fuelled electricity) to pump water for irrigation; and--the largest form of subsidy--so too is the energy-intensive Haber-Bosch process for fixing nitrogen into artificial fertilizers.

Malthus, writing in the 1780s, can be faulted not for being "wrong," but for not anticipating the discovery of a finite supply of carbon-based energy that would stave off for two centuries the dynamic he outlined. Without this subsidy from past solar income, agriculture would certainly have run into Malthusian limits. Absent the discovery of another significant on-planet stock of carbon fuel, it is likely (critics of Malthus' critics say) that the Malthusian logic will return. There is some indication (they say) that the return is well underway today.

Arguments that attempt to refute Malthus and do not discuss the energy foundation of the economy are spurious and incomplete. Those that attempt to refute Malthus and take account of the economy as an energy system are led into absurd statements--as when Julian Simon declared flatly that "the second law of thermodynamics does not apply" to humans, that "oil is infinite" and that "energy is infinite." These infinite-planet doctrines have delayed nations from dealing with physical limits, and have thereby added enormously to the sum total of pain and suffering that humans will experience as Malthusian logic reasserts itself on the downslope of Hubbert's Peak.


Early influence

Malthus belonged amongst a group of high-quality intellectuals employed by the British East India Company. They included both James Mill and his son, John Stuart Mill;[3] Jeremy Bentham had a major influence on the policy of the company, though not as an employee. Malthus became a respected member of this elite group, and his position as professor at the Haileybury training college, which he held until his death in 1834, gave his theories some influence over Britain's administration of India. As an indication of the group's influence, note Lord William Bentinck's remark to James Mill at a farewell dinner before he left to take up the post of Governor-General of India (in office: 1828-1835): "It is you that will be Governor-General".[65]

According to Malthus's biographer William Peterson, British Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger (in office: 1783–1801 and 1804–1806), upon reading the work of Malthus, withdrew a Bill he had introduced that called for the extension of Poor Relief. Concerns about Malthus's theory helped promote the idea of a national population census in the UK. Government official John Rickman became instrumental in the carrying out of the first modern British census in 1801, under Pitt's administration. In the 1830s Malthus's writings strongly influenced Whig reforms which overturned Tory paternalism and brought in the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834.

Before Malthus, commentators had regarded high fertility as an economic advantage, because it increased the number of workers available to the economy. Malthus, however, looked at fertility from a new perspective and convinced most economists that even though high fertility might increase the gross output, it tended to reduce output per capita. A number of other notable economists, such as David Ricardo (whom Malthus knew personally) and Alfred Marshall admired Malthus and/or came under his influence. Malthus took pride in the fact that some of the earliest converts to his population theory included Archdeacon William Paley, whose Natural Theology first appeared in 1802. Ironically, given Malthus's own opposition to contraception, his work exercised a strong influence on Francis Place (1771–1854), whose neo-Malthusian movement became the first to advocate contraception. Place published his Illustrations and Proofs of the Principles of Population in 1822.[66]

Later influence

At Haileybury, Malthus developed a theory of demand-supply mismatches which he called gluts. Considered ridiculous at the time, his theory foreshadowed later theories about the Great Depression of the 1930s, and the works of economist and Malthus-admirer John Maynard Keynes (1883–1946).

Malthusian ideas continue to have considerable influence. Paul R. Ehrlich has written several books predicting famine as a result of population increase: The Population Bomb (1968); Population, resources, environment: issues in human ecology (1970, with Anne Ehrlich); The end of affluence (1974, with Anne Ehrlich); The population explosion (1990, with Anne Ehrlich). In the late 1960s Ehrlich predicted that hundreds of millions would die from a coming overpopulation-crisis in the 1970s. Other examples of applied Malthusianism include the 1972 book The Limits to Growth (published by the Club of Rome) and the Global 2000 report to the then President of the United States of America Jimmy Carter. Science-fiction author Isaac Asimov issued many appeals for population-control reflecting the perspective articulated by people from Robert Malthus through Paul R. Ehrlich.

More recently, a school of "neo-Malthusian" scholars has begun to link population and economics to a third variable, political change and political violence, and to show how the variables interact. In the early 1980s, James Goldstone linked population variables to the English Revolution of 1640-1660[citation needed] and David Lempert devised a model of demographics, economics, and political change in the multi-ethnic country of Mauritius. Goldstone has since modeled other revolutions by looking at demographics and economics[citation needed] and Lempert has explained Stalin's purges and the Russian Revolution of 1917 in terms of demographic factors that drive political economy. Ted Robert Gurr has also modeled political violence, such as in the Palestinian territories and in Rwanda/Congo (two of the world's regions of most rapidly growing population) using similar variables in several comparative cases. These approaches suggest that political ideology follows demographic forces.

Malthus, sometimes regarded as the founding father of modern demography,[67] continues to inspire and influence futuristic visions, such as those of K Eric Drexler relating to space advocacy and molecular nanotechnology. As Drexler put it in Engines of Creation (1986): "In a sense, opening space will burst our limits to growth, since we know of no end to the universe. Nevertheless, Malthus was essentially right."

The Malthusian growth model now bears Malthus's name. The logistic function of Pierre Francois Verhulst (1804–1849) results in the S-curve. Verhulst developed the logistic growth model favored by so many critics of the Malthusian growth model in 1838 only after reading Malthus's essay. Malthus has also inspired retired physics professor, Albert Bartlett, to lecture over 1,500 times on "Arithmetic, Population, and Energy", promoting sustainable living and explaining the mathematics of overpopulation.

Social theory

Despite use of the term "Malthusian catastrophe" by detractors such as economist Julian Simon (1932–1998), Malthus himself did not write that mankind faced an inevitable future catastrophe. Rather, he offered an evolutionary social theory of population dynamics as it had acted steadily throughout all previous history.[70] Eight major points regarding population dynamics appear in the 1798 Essay[citation needed]:

  1. subsistence severely limits population-level
  2. when the means of subsistence increases, population increases
  3. population-pressures stimulate increases in productivity
  4. increases in productivity stimulate further population-growth
  5. because productivity increases cannot maintain the potential rate of population growth, population requires strong checks to keep parity with the carrying-capacity
  6. individual cost/benefit decisions regarding sex, work, and children determine the expansion or contraction of population and production
  7. checks will come into operation as population exceeds subsistence-level
  8. the nature of these checks will have significant effect on the larger sociocultural system—Malthus points specifically to misery, vice, and poverty

Malthusian social theory influenced Herbert Spencer's idea of the survival of the fittest,[71] and the modern ecological-evolutionary social theory of Gerhard Lenski and Marvin Harris[citation needed]. Malthusian ideas have thus contributed to the canon of socioeconomic theory.

The first Director-General of UNESCO, Julian Huxley, wrote of The crowded world in his Evolutionary Humanism (1964), calling for a world population policy. Huxley openly criticised communist and Roman Catholic attitudes to birth control, population control and overpopulation.


Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace each read and acknowledged the role played by Malthus in the development of their own ideas. Darwin referred to Malthus as "that great philosopher",[72] and said: "This is the doctrine of Malthus, applied with manifold force to the animal and vegetable kingdoms, for in this case there can be no artificial increase of food, and no prudential restraint from marriage".[73] Darwin also wrote:

"In October 1838... I happened to read for amusement Malthus on Population... it at once struck me that under these circumstances favourable variations would tend to be preserved, and unfavourable ones to be destroyed. The result of this would be the formation of new species."
—Barlow, Nora 1958. The autobiography of Charles Darwin. p128

Wallace stated:

"But perhaps the most important book I read was Malthus's Principles of Population... It was the first great work I had yet read treating of any of the problems of philosophical biology, and its main principles remained with me as a permanent possession, and twenty years later gave me the long-sought clue to the effective agent in the evolution of organic species.
—Wallace, Alfred Russel 1908. My life: a record of events and opinions.[74]

Ronald Fisher commented sceptically on Malthusianism as a basis for a theory of natural selection.[75] Fisher did not deny[citation needed] Malthus's basic premises, but emphasised the role of fecundity.[76] John Maynard Smith doubted that famine functioned as the great leveller, as portrayed by Malthus, but he also accepted the basic premises:

"[A population] cannot increase logarithmically for ever. Sooner or later, a shortage of resources must bring the increase to a halt. It was this insight which led both Darwin and Wallace acquired by reading... Malthus, and which led to the idea of natural selection."
—Maynard Smith, John 1998. Evolutionary genetics. 2nd ed Oxford. p17

References in popular culture


The epitaph of Malthus in Bath Abbey reads:

Sacred to the memory of the Rev Thomas Robert Malthus, long known to the lettered world by his admirable writings on the social branches of political economy, particularly by his essay on population.

One of the best men and truest philosophers of any age or country, raised by native dignity of mind above the misrepresentation of the ignorant and the neglect of the great, he lived a serene and happy life devoted to the pursuit and communication of truth.

Supported by a calm but firm conviction of the usefulness of his labours.

Content with the approbation of the wise and good.

His writings will be a lasting monument of the extent and correctness of his understanding.

The spotless integrity of his principles, the equity and candour of his nature, his sweetness of temper, urbanity of manners and tenderness of heart, his benevolence and his piety are still dearer recollections of his family and friends.

Born February 14, 1766 Died 29 December 1834.

See also


  1. ^ Palmer, Joy; Cooper, David Edward; Corcoran, Peter Blaze (2001). Palmer, Joy; Cooper, David Edward; Corcoran, Peter Blaze. eds. Fifty key thinkers on the environment. Routledge key guides. Routledge. p. 70. ISBN 978-0-415-14699-9. Retrieved 2009-11-06. "[...] Malthus was destined to be a clergyman. Educated [...] at Jesus College, Cambridge, [...] he took holy orders in 1788 [...]"
  2. ^ Several sources give Malthus's date of death as 29 December 1834. See Meyers Konversationslexikon (Leipzig, 4th edition, 1885-1892), "Biography" by Nigel Malthus (the memorial transcription reproduced in this article). But the 1911 Britannica gives 23 December 1834.
  3. ^ a b c Petersen, William. 1979. Malthus. Heinemann, London. 2nd ed 1999.
  4. ^ Malthus used his middle name Robert, though work after his lifetime often refers to him as Thomas Malthus.
  5. ^ a b c Venn, J.; Venn, J. A., eds. (1922–1958). "Malthus, Thomas Robert". Alumni Cantabrigienses (10 vols) (online ed.). Cambridge University Press.
  6. ^ Geoffrey Gilbert, introduction to Malthus T.R. 1798. An essay on the principle of population. Oxford World's Classics reprint. viii in Oxford World's Classics reprint.
  7. ^ Malthus T.R. 1798. An essay on the principle of population. Chapter 1, p 13 in Oxford World's Classics reprint.
  8. ^ a b Bowler, Peter J. (2003). Evolution: the history of an idea. Berkeley: University of California Press. pp. 104–105. ISBN 0-520-23693-9.
  9. ^ Malthus T.R. 1798. An essay on the principle of population, in Oxford World's Classics reprint. p 61, end of Chapter VII
  10. ^ Malthus T.R. 1798. An essay on the principle of population. Chapter V, p 39–45. in Oxford World's Classics reprint.
  11. ^ Geoffrey Gilbert, introduction to Malthus T.R. 1798. An essay on the principle of population. Oxford World's Classics reprint. xx.
  12. ^ Malthus T.R. An essay on the principle of population, Ed. 6 1826, Book 3, Chapter 6. "[...] a country which so restricts the importations of foreign corn as on an average to grow its own supplies, and to import merely in periods of scarcity, is not only certain of spreading every invention in manufactures and every peculiar advantage it may possess from its colonies or general commerce on the land, and thus of fixing them to the spot and rescuing them from accidents; but is necessarily exempt from those violent and distressing convulsions of property which almost unavoidably arise from the coincidence of a general war and an insufficient home supply of corn."
  13. ^ Not only after Darwin: some of the British proto-evolutionists (such as William Lawrence) read him, and Patrick Matthew certainly did: Matthew published in 1839 a short book, Emigration fields (Black, Edinburgh) encouraging emigration, in part as a solution to the problem of over-population.
  14. ^ Browne, Janet 1995. Charles Darwin: Voyaging. Cape, London. p 385–390
  15. ^ Raby P. 2001. Alfred Russel Wallace: a life. Princeton. p 21 and 131
  16. ^ "Malthus TRM Biography". Retrieved 2010-02-13.
  17. ^ Petersen, William. 1979. Malthus. Heinemann, London. 2nd ed 1999. p21
  18. ^ Petersen, William. 1979. Malthus. Heinemann, London. 2nd ed 1999. p28
  19. ^ Compare: Pullen, John M. (1987). "Some". History of Political Economy 19:1. p. 127ff. Retrieved 2009-11-06. "The following testimonial was sent on 12 March 1789 [...] the purpose of the testimonial was to support Malthus' application for ordination as deacon of Okewood Chapel [...]"
  20. ^ Castles, Ian. "From the desk of Malthus: How the population debate began". National Academies Forum. Retrieved 2008-12-28. "He was, in fact, living at his parents' home at Albury in Surrey, about 50 kilometres south-west of London. As curate of Okewood, some fifteen kilometres from Albury, Robert Malthus rode regularly on narrow bridle paths to conduct Sunday services and meet his parishioners in their wattle and daub cottages."
  21. ^ Painted by Linnell, and seen here in a cropped and scanned monochrome version.
  22. ^ Hodgson, M.H. 2004. Malthus, Thomas Robert (1766–1834). In Rutherford D (ed) Biographical Dictionary of British Economists. Continuum, Bristol.
  23. ^ Martineau, Harriet 1877. Autobiography. 3 vols, Smith, Elder, London. vol 1, p327.
  24. ^ Malthus T.R. 1798. An essay on the principle of population. Oxford World's Classics reprint: xxix Chronology.
  25. ^ a b Oxford World's Classics reprint
  26. ^ Geoffrey Gilbert, introduction to Malthus T.R. 1798. An essay on the principle of population. Oxford World's Classics reprint. viii
  27. ^ Geoffrey Gilbert, introduction to Malthus T.R. 1798. An essay on the principle of population. Oxford World's Classics reprint. xviii
  28. ^ Malthus T.R. 1798. An essay on the principle of population. Chapter V, p39-45, in Oxford World's Classics reprint.
  29. ^ By doing what appears good, we may do harm. Unintended consequences play a major role in economic thought; see the invisible hand and the tragedy of the commons.
  30. ^ p607, cited in
  31. ^ Eyler, John M (1979). Victorian Social Medicine: the ideas and methods of William Farr. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. ISBN 0-8018-2246-7.
  32. ^ R. L. Meek, ed. (1953). Marx and Engels on Malthus. London: Lawrence & Wishart.
  33. ^ Quoted in Tellegen, Egbert; Wolsink, Maarten (1998). Society and its environment: an introduction. Routledge. p. 16. ISBN 978-90-5699-125-8. Retrieved 2010-02-12. "Malthus, 1976, p.225"
  34. ^ Malthus, Thomas (1959). Population: The First Essay. University of Michigan Press. p. 127. ISBN 978-0-472-06031-3.
  35. ^ Malthus T.R. 1798. An essay on the principle of population. Oxford World's Classics reprint. p158 Similarly, Malthus believed that "the infinite variety of admirably adapted to further the high purpose of the creation and to produce the greatest possible quantity of good." Malthus, An Essay on the Principle of Population, 1st ed., published anonymously, (St. Paul's Churchyard, London: J. Johnson, 1798), p. 73.
  36. ^ Genesis I:28
  37. ^ Malthus T.R. 1826. An essay on the principle of population, Sixth Edition, App.I.6.
  38. ^ Essay (1798), Chap. IV. Accessed from on 2010-02-13
  39. ^ Essay (1826), I:2. See also A:1:17
  40. ^ dates from Malthus T.R. 1798. An essay on the principle of population. Oxford World's Classics reprint: xxix Chronology.
  41. ^ 1800: The present high price of provisions, paragraph 26
  42. ^ Hirst F.W. 1925. From Adam Smith to Philip Snowden: a history of free trade in Great Britain. Unwin, London. p88
  43. ^ Also: "The Corn Laws... safeguarded farmers from the consequences of their wartime euphoria, when farms had changed hands at the fanciest prices, loans and mortgages had been accepted on impossible terms." Eric Hobsbawm 1999. Industry and Empire: the birth of the Industrial Revolution. p175
  44. ^ On The Principles of Political Economy and Taxation London: John Murray, Albemarle-Street, by David Ricardo, 1817 (third edition 1821) -- Chapter 6, On Profits: paragraph 28, "Thus, taking the former . . ." and paragraph 33, "There can, however . . ."
  45. ^ Geoffrey Gilbert, introduction to Malthus T.R. 1798. An essay on the principle of population. Oxford World's Classics reprint. xx in Oxford World's Classics reprint. xx
  46. ^ Cannan E. 1893. A history of the theories of production and distribution in English political economy from 1776 to 1848. Kelly, New York.
  47. ^ Malthus T.R 1827. Definitions in political economy. p62–63
  48. ^ a b c
  49. ^ David Ricardo, Principles (1817)
  50. ^ Percy B. Shelley: "A philosophical view of reform." In The Complete Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley. London: Gordian, 1829. (vol. 7, p. 32)
  51. ^ Dupaquier J. (ed). 1983. Malthus past and present. New York: Academic Press. p258
  52. ^ Fogarty, Michael P. 1958. Introduction to Malthus, Essay on the principle of population. Dent, London. vi
  53. ^ Hardin, Garrett 1998. "The feast of Malthus: living within limits". The Social Contract.
  54. ^ Godwin, William (1820). Of population: an enquiry concerning the power of increase in the numbers of mankind, being an answer to Mr. Malthus's essay on that subject. Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme and Brown. pp. 648. Retrieved 2010-03-29.
  55. ^ A Reply to the Essay on Population, by the Rev. T. R. Malthus. For an annotated extract, see: Malthus And The Liberties Of The Poor, 1807
  56. ^ Two Lectures on Population , 1829
  57. ^ a b Engels, Friedrich, "Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy", original in DEUTSCHFRANZÖSISCHE JAHRBÜCHER, First (and only) Issue, February 1844, reprinted in Meek (1971), (transl. not specified)
  58. ^ See V. I. Lenin: "The Working Class and NeoMalthusianism" in Pravda No. 137, 16 June 1913; see also
  59. ^ Maddox, John 1972. The Doomsday Syndrome: an assault on pessimism.
  60. ^ Simon J.L. 1981. The ultimate resource; and 1992 The ultimate resource II.
  61. ^ Antony Trewavas: "Malthus foiled again and again", in Nature 418, 668-670 (8 August 2002), retrieved 28 December 2008
  62. ^ Lomborg, Bjorn. 2001. The skeptical environmentalist. Cambridge UP, London. Chapter 5 Food and hunger, p60–69; and note also Part III: "Can human prosperity continue?" p91–160.
  63. ^ Graph in Lomberg 2001 p61; data from United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization database
  64. ^ Ross, Eric B. 1998. The Malthus factor: population, poverty, and politics in capitalist development. Zed Books, London, 1998. ISBN 1-85649-564-7
  65. ^ Petersen, William. 1979. Malthus. Heinemann, London. 2nd ed 1999. p32
  66. ^ Petersen, William. 1979. Malthus. Heinemann, London. 2nd ed 1999. Chapter 9: Fertility
  67. ^ Winch, Donald (2003). "Malthus, Thomas Robert". Macmillan Reference USA. Retrieved 2008-07-31. "At this stage, Malthus had not yet reached the level of analysis that would later lead him to be called the founding father of modern demography."
  68. ^ Bonar, James 1885. Malthus and His Work. Macmillan, London. p1
  69. ^ Hart, Michael H. 1992 (1978). The 100: A ranking of the most influential persons in history, revised and updated for the nineties. Citadel, N.Y. First published in 1978, reprinted with minor revisions 1992.
  70. ^ See Elwell (2001) for an extended exposition
  71. ^ Spencer, Herbert 1864. Principles of Biology, vol. 1, p444
  72. ^ Letter to J.D. Hooker, 5 June 1860
  73. ^ Darwin, Charles 1859. On the origin of species by means of natural selection. Murray, London. p63
  74. ^ New edition, condensed and revised. Chapman & Hall, London.
  75. ^ Quoted in: Sober, Elliott (1993). The nature of selection: evolutionary theory in philosophical focus. Bradford books. University of Chicago Press. pp. 400. ISBN 978-0-226-76748-2. Retrieved 2010-03-29. "Malthusianism is not a proper starting point for the theory of natural selection for reasons made abundantly clear by Fisher (1930, pp.46-47). [...] Fisher calls Malthusianism a consequence, not a foundation, of the theory of natural selection"
  76. ^ Quoted in: Sober, Elliott (1993). The nature of selection: evolutionary theory in philosophical focus. Bradford books. University of Chicago Press. p. 194. ISBN 978-0-226-76748-2. Retrieved 2010-03-29. "There is something like a relic of creationist philosophy in arguing from the observation, let us say, that a cod spawns a million eggs, that therefore its offspring are subject to Natural Selection; and it has the disadvantage of excluding fecundity from the class of characteristics of which we may attempt to appreciate the aptitude...."
  77. ^ Dickens, Charles (1845). A Christmas carol in prose. Bradword, Evans. p. 14.
  78. ^ Paroissien, David (2008) A companion to Charles Dickens John Wiley and Sons p. 160 ISBN 1-4051-3097-0


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