Thomas Robert Malthus

Malthus was an English economist, sociologist, and pioneer in modern population study. In addition, he was an English clergyman and political economist; he was the originator of Malthusian population theory. Broadly stated, Malthusian theory holds that human and other populations will increase until checked by natural limitations, principally to do with food supply. Thomas Robert Malthus was born in 1766 in Dorking, just south of London England to Daniel and Henrietta Malthus. He had seven siblings, one brother (Sydenham) and six sisters (Harriet, Eliza Maria, Anne, Catharine Lucy, Mary Catherine Charlotte, Mary Anne Catherine, and another that is not documented).

His father, Daniel Malthus, was a Jacobin and knew Voltaire, Rousseau, and Hume. When Malthus was a young child, Hume brought Rousseau to their home, he was then known as “The Rookery.” Malthus was impressed by their ideas and he was influenced by their presence. As a boy, Malthus was educated privately by Richard Graves. His father took an active role in his education and constantly looked over the teaching methods of his tutors. When Malthus turned eighteen, in 1784, he started attending College at Cambridge. He did well at Cambridge despite having a marked speech impediment.

While at College Malthus became a curate, or clergyman in charge of a parish, in the Church of England. In about 1796, he took up his parochial duties at Albury, Surrey, all the while living with his father Daniel.

In 1804, twenty years after starting college, Malthus got married. This meant that he had to leave the Cambridge, which had been a safe haven for his early years in life. His marriage was a happy one and he had three children. In 1805, he got a job as a professor at Haileybury College. He taught Political economy in the college which was owned and run by the general education of civil servants of the East India Company. He lived a placid existence as a scholar and teacher at Haileybury College. All of his students called him 'Pop'.

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 could not produce more children than they can support. Does this sound familiar? China has implemented such a measure on family size.

Malthus was best known for his assertion that the power of population is greater than the power of the earth to produce subsistence for that population. In his “An Essay on the Principle of Population” he theorized that population grew geometrically-1-2-4-8-16--while food grew arithmetically-1-2-3-4-5. He argued about the destructive potential of unbridled population growth and about the inevitable out come of such growth. He predicted a nightmare of famine, pestilence, and war if the population was not checked.

Originally, he accepted war, famine, and disease as checks on population growth, but in his revised work, he admitted also that 'moral restraint' was an acceptable preventative check. Even though Malthus thought famine and poverty were natural outcomes, he believed the real reason for those outcomes was divine institution. He believed that such natural outcomes were God's way of preventing laziness.

Both Darwin and Wallace formed similar theories of natural selection after reading the writings of Malthus. They used his principles in purely natural terms, in both outcome and ultimate reason. They extended Malthus' logic further than he could ever take it himself. That is not all there is to it, of course; his theories hold enough permutations and implications to rouse objectors and supporters on all sides.

Marx thought him an enemy of the proletariat for his supposed belief that their fate would lead them to be famine victims, and the new- right consider him a killjoy for implying that growth needed to have limits at all. The implications of his theories caused general controversy. His theories were also later adapted by neo-Malthusians, and they influenced classical economists like David Ricardo.

Among other writings, Malthus wrote “Principles of Political Economy” in 1820. This book expresses many of his more controversial ideas in detail and is referenced frequently by modern economists, population researchers, and other experts. Aside from his theories on population, Malthus was and is regarded as one of the great economic thinkers, alongside Adam Smith and John Maynard Keynes, who said, "if only Malthus…had been the parent-stem from which the 19th century economics had proceeded, what a much wiser and richer place the world would be today!” This is high praise from such a well-known economist.

Malthus also concerned himself with the Poor Laws. He argued that any intervention to help the poor, including subsidizing food, was self-defeating because it would encourage early marriage and population growth and so the ultimate result would be starvation resulting from the intervention of positive population checks. He said that the Poor Laws provided “perverse incentives" and created the poverty that they were trying to help relieve. His belief that welfare is counterproductive has gained new popularity thanks to the writing of Charles Murray who has seen many ills of the modern world, from single parenthood to unemployment, as a result of modern welfare.

Malthus' theories are still alive and well. Malthus did not agree with the idea that held that overproduction and unemployment were impossible since supply creates its own demand. He believed that unemployment could never occur when there was a surplus of unwanted products. By the late 19th Century, the "Neo-Malthusians" were advocating artificial contraception, which probably would have offended the good Reverend; he definitely preferred "moral restraint.”

After his death in 1834, he was described in his obituary as "tall elegantly formed…his appearance no less than his conduct, was that of a perfect gentlemen. An amiable and benevolent man.” He was looked up to but his ideas have been frequently misrepresented and abused by both revolutionaries and conservatives. His ideas would probably not go over well in our society today, especially, for his radical ideas about limiting the rights of the lower class.

In this famous work, Malthus stated his hypothesis that unchecked population growth always exceeds the growth of means of subsistence. Actual checked population growth is kept in line with food supply growth by "positive checks," for example: starvation, disease and other things of that nature, elevating the death rate and "preventive checks" for example: postponement of marriage and other things that keep down the birthrate, both of which are characterized as "misery and vice". Malthus' hypothesis implied that actual population always has a tendency to push above the food supply. Because of this tendency, any attempt to improve the living conditions of the lower classes by increasing their incomes or improving agricultural productivity would be pointless, because the extra food would be followed and consumed by an increase in the population. If population grew unchecked, Malthus argued, that the "perfectibility" of society would always be out of reach.

In his revised 1803 edition of the Essay, Malthus concentrated on bringing actual researched evidence to back up his theories. He acquired much of this evidence on his theories while traveling in Germany, Russia, and Scandinavia. He also introduced the idea of "moral restraint," or voluntary abstinence, which leads to neither misery nor vice bringing the unchecked population growth rate down. In practical policy terms, this meant changing the culture and belief system of the lower class. He believed this could be done with the introduction of universal suffrage, state-run education for the poor and, more controversially, the elimination of the Poor Laws and the establishment of a nation-wide labor market. He also argued that once the poor had a taste for luxury, then they would demand a higher standard of living for themselves before starting a family. So although, it seemed contradictory, Malthus suggested the possibility of “demographic transition" which meant that sufficiently high incomes might be enough by themselves to reduce fertility in the lower class.

The Essay transformed Malthus into an intellectual celebrity. He was thought of by many as a hard-hearted monster, a prophet of doom, an enemy of the working class. A sufficient number of people recognized his Essay for what it was: the first serious economic study of the welfare in the lower classes. Even Karl Marx, who disagreed with his conservative policy conclusions, granted him this. Malthus got interested in economics in 1800, when he published a pamphlet, which was praised enthusiastically by Keynes, expounding an endogenous theory of money. Contrary to the Quantity Theory, Malthus argued that rising prices are followed by increases in the quantity supplied of money. Around 1810, Malthus came across a series of tracts by a stockbroker, David Ricardo, on monetary questions. He immediately wrote to Ricardo and the two men began a friendship and correspondence that would last for over a decade. Their relationship was warm in all respects but one--economics. They found themselves on opposite sides of the fence on practically every issue.

In 1814, Malthus got himself involved in the Corn Laws debate, which was raging in parliament at the time. After a first pamphlet, Observations, outlining the pros and cons of the proposed protectionist laws, Malthus lent his support to the free traders, arguing that the cultivation of British corn was increasingly expensive, it was best if Britain at least in part relied on cheaper foreign sources for its food supply. He changed his mind the next year, in his 1815 “Grounds of an Opinion” pamphlet; he now sided with the protectionists. He noticed that foreign laws often prohibit or raise taxes on the export of corn in hard times, which meant that the British food supply was a victim of foreign politics. By encouraging domestic production, Malthus argued, the Corn Laws would guarantee British self-sufficiency in food.

In his 1815 'Inquiry', Malthus came up with the differential theory of rent. Although it was simultaneously discovered by Torrens, West, and Ricardo, Malthus's pamphlet was the first of the four to be published. It refuted older contentions that rent was a cost of production; he argued that it was simply a deduction from the surplus. He argued that rent is enabled by three facts: (1) that agricultural production yields a surplus; (2) that the wage-fertility dynamics guarantee that the price of corn would remains steadily above its cost of production; (3) that fertile land is scarce. Ricardo's own 1815 essay was actually a response to Malthus. Ricardo dismissed Malthus's arguments, stating that Malthus's "third" cause -- that land differs in quality and is limited in quantity -- is sufficient to explain the phenomenon of rent. He incorporated Malthus's theory of rent with his own theory of profits to provide the "Classical" statement of the theory of distribution. He slammed Malthus's feeble attempts to defend parasitical property owners and the Corn Laws as well.

Malthus's own criticism of Ricardo's 1815 essay led them into a debate on the question of "value.” Malthus supported Smith's old "labor-commanded" theory of value, whereas Ricardo supported the "labor-embodied" version. The outcome of the discussion was Ricardo's 'Principles' in 1817, which set down the doctrine of the Classical School on value. Malthus was never comfortable as a member of the Classical school. Nowhere is this more evident than in Malthus's own essay, 'Principles of Economics' (1820). He differs from the Classical Ricardians at several points. For example, Malthus introduced the idea of a demand schedule in the modern sense, as the conceptual relationship between prices and the quantity demanded by buyers rather than the empirical relationship between prices and quantities sold. He also paid a good deal of attention to the short-run stability of prices, insisting on a labor-commanded theory of value. Malthus also denied the validity of Say's Law and argued that there could be a "general glut" of goods. He believed that economic crises were characterized by a general excess supply caused by insufficient consumption. His defense of the Corn Laws rested partly on the need for property owner consumption to make up for shortfalls in demand and by doing this avert the crisis.

In the time between Adam Smith’s “Wealth of Nations” and Rev. Thomas Malthus’ “Essay on the Principle of Population,” the French revolution had caused the downfall of the old social system without improving the condition of the French people. A succession of bad harvests had impoverished the agricultural districts of England, while her credit had become so impaired by the recent wars as to render very hard the importation of supplies from abroad. Although, the rapid development of the textile and other industries through the recent mechanical inventions had brought forth the existence of new towns, and greatly stimulated the increase of population. The system of public allowances of money to all pauper children encouraged improvident marriages among the poorer classes. Although there had been a considerable increase in the national wealth as a whole, the working classes had received none of the benefit. Increased production seemed to mean a disproportionate increase in population, and a decrease in the subsistence of the poor.

William Godwin, a disciple of the French revolutionary philosophers, chiefly in his work “Political Justice,” had been defending the theory that all the evils of society arose from defective social institutions, and that there was more than enough wealth for all, if it were only evenly distributed. Malthus replied to this position with his “Essay on the Principle of Population.” His thesis was that population constantly tends to outrun subsistence, but that it is held in check by vice (abortion, infanticide, prostitution) and by misery in the form of war, plague, famine, and unnecessary disease. If all persons were provided with sufficient subsistence, and these checks removed, the relief would be only temporary: for the increase of marriages and birth would soon produce a population far in excess of the food supply.

The first edition of Malthus’ work had a definite polemical purpose, the refutation of a communistic scheme of society. Its arguments were general and popular rather than systematic or scientific. They were based upon facts easily observed, and upon what the average person would expect to happen if vice and misery ceased to operate as checks to population.

The second edition of the essay came out in 1803 and differed from the first so much in size and content as to constitute, in the words of the reverend himself, “a whole new work.” In the first chapter of the new edition, he declared that “the constant tendency of all animated life to increase beyond the nourishment prepared for it” had not thus far received sufficient attention. Before attempting to prove the existence of this tendency, he inquired what would be “the natural increase of population if left to exert itself in perfect freedom… under the most favorable circumstances of human industry.” Based on North America during the century and a half preceding 1800, and from the opinions of some economists, he concluded that “population when unchecked goes on doubling itself every 25 yrs, or increases in a geometric ratio.” A brief examination of the possibilities of food increase convinced him that this could never be “faster than in an arithmetical ratio.” Applying these conclusions to England with its 11,000,000 inhabitants in 1800, he found that the natural result at the end of the nineteenth century would be a population of 176,000,000, and subsistence enough for only 55,000,000. The remainder of the first volume is occupied with an account of the positive checks, that is, vice and misery, which had thus far concealed this disastrous discrepancy between population and subsistence in the various countries of the world. In the second volume he discusses the means which have been proposed to prevent an undue increase in population, and, therefore, to render unnecessary the action of the positive checks. Some of the means that he recommended were abstention from public provision for the encouragement of population increase and for the relief of the poor, and abolition of existing laws of this kind, especially the Poor Law of England. His chief recommendation was the practice of what he called “moral restraint.” That is, people who were unable to maintain a family properly should line in chaste celibacy until they had overcome this economic disability. In the new edition of his work, consequently, Malthus not only pointed out a new check to population, but also advocated if, in order to prevent and forestall the operation of the cruel and immoral checks set in motion by vice and misery.

The theory may be briefly characterized thus: In its most extreme and abstract form it is false; in its more moderate form it has never been and never can be demonstrated; even if true, it is so hypothetical, and subject to so many disturbing factors, that it is if no practical value or importance. It is, of course, abstractly or theoretically possible that population may exceed subsistence, temporarily and locally, or permanently and universally. This possibility has been frequently realized among savage peoples, and occasionally among civilized peoples, as in the case of famine. However, the theory of Malthus implies something more than an abstract possibility or a temporary and local actuality. It asserts that population shows a constant tendency to outrun the food supply, a tendency, therefore, that is always about to pass into a reality if it is not counteracted. In all six editions of his work that appeared during Malthus’ lifetime, this tendency is described in the formula that population tends to increase in geometrical progression. While, the utmost increase in subsistence that can be expected is according to an arithmetical ratio through any considerable period; but we cannot show that such an increase, by natural means, is physiologically impossible. All that it implies is that every married couple should have on the average four children, who would themselves marry and have the same number of children to each couple, and that this ratio should be kept up indefinitely. It is not, however, true that the means of living can be increased only in an arithmetical ratio. During the nineteenth century, this ratio was considerably exceeded in many countries. Malthus’ view on this point was based upon a rather limited knowledge of what had been happening before his time. He did not foresee the great improvements in production and transportation, which, a few years later, so greatly augmented the means of subsistence in every civilized country. In other words, he compared the potential fecundity of man, the limits of which were fairly well known, with the potential fertility of the earth and the potential achievements of human invention, neither of which was known even approximately. This was a bad method, and its outcome in the hands of Malthus was a false theory.

So far as we can see at present, the Malthusian theory, even if true in the abstract and hypothetical, assumes the absence of so many factors which are always likely to be present, that it is not deserving of serious attention, except as a means of intellectual exercise. As a law of population, it is about as valuable as many of the other laws handed down by the classical economists. It is about as remote from reality as the “economic man.” Although, this theory met with immediate and almost universal acceptance. The book in which it was developed went through five editions while Malthus was still living, and exerted a remarkable influence upon economists, sociology, and legislation during the first half of the nineteenth century. Aside from a section of the Socialists, the most important group of writers rejecting the Malthusian theory have been Catholic economists, such as Liberatore, Devas, Pesch, Antoine, etc. Being pessimistic and individualistic, the teachings of Malthus agreed thoroughly with the temper and ideas of his time. Distress was deep and general, and the political and economic theories of the day favored the policy of laissez faire.

The most notable results of the work and teaching of Malthus may be summed up like this: he contributed absolutely nothing of value to human knowledge or welfare. The facts that he described and the remedies that he proposed had long been sufficiently obvious and sufficiently known. While he emphasized and in a striking way drew attention to the possibility of general overpopulation, he greatly exaggerated it, and thus misled and misdirected public opinion. Had he been better informed, and seen the facts of population in their true relations, he would have realized that the proper remedies were to be sought in better social and industrial arrangements, a better distribution of wealth, and improved moral and religious education. As things have happened, his teaching have directly or indirectly led to a vast amount of social error, negligence, suffering, and immorality.