Malthus: An Overview

11 February 1996

Britain in the 18th century was a nation in transition. The feudal system had been dying a slow death over the past several hundred years, and its aftereffects were visible everywhere, as tenant farmers, relics of the feudal era and a large percentage of the British population, were forced to leave their lands. Wool had become a valuable product. The great landowners, seeing the profits to be made, declared many of the common lands to be private property, evicted the tenants, and began raising sheep. Shepherding was much less labor-intensive than the methods of farming which had predominated until that time, so the vast majority of the dispossessed farmers had no opportunity for work. Factories did not yet exist, so when agricultural work could not be had, the yeomen, lacking other options, were forced into pauperism. By the 1790s, poverty was rampant.

At the same time, the French Revolution had spawned a new group of Utopian writers and philosophers. The Utopians held that the overwhelming poverty in Britain at the time was due to the wealthy and their control over social and political institutions. They felt that economic power lead inevitably to political power, and if this economic power were removed, then the masses would be able to reshape society in a new form, based on logic and reason, which would lead to a better life for all. No one would go hungry, as resources would be allocated according to need, not according to wealth. This course of reason would lead to the abolition of government, law, and private property (Lecture, 22 Jan 96), and a true democratic society would prevail. Humanity would be set on a course of uninterrupted improvement, and eventual perfection.

The Rev. Thomas Robert Malthus published his Essay on the Principle of Population as a response to the Utopians, based on the facts of the poverty he saw around him. As he saw it, there was one simple reason why the Utopian ideas could never work: there could never be enough food to support such an idealistic society. Human misery and suffering were practically inevitable.

Malthus began his argument with two postulates: "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" (Essay... p. 70). In other words, man will continue to eat, and man will continue to reproduce. Assuming these two conditions, Malthus goes on to state the core of his argument within three short paragraphs:

"Population, when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio. Subsistence increases only in an arithmetical ratio. A slight acquaintance with numbers will shew the immensity of the first power in comparison to the second.

"By that law of our nature which makes food necessary to the life of man, the effects of these two unequal powers must be kept equal.

"This implies a strong and constantly operating check on population from the difficulty of subsistence. This difficulty must fall somewhere and must necessarily be severely felt by a large portion of mankind." (Essay... p. 71)

A society of the type the Utopians predicted, without hunger or poverty, was impossible. Mankind will continue to reproduce until he consumes all available food supply, and then will only be prevented from expanding further by simple hunger. Therefore:

"The natural inequality of the two powers of population and of production in the earth, and that great law of our nature which must constantly keep their effects equal, form the great difficulty that to me appears insurmountable in the way to the perfectibility of society.... And it appears, therefore, to be decisive against the possible existence of a society, all the members of which should live in ease, happiness, and comparative leisure; and feel no anxiety about providing the means of subsistence for themselves and families.

"Consequently, if the premises are just, the argument is conclusive against the perfectibility of the mass of mankind." (Essay... p. 72)

This 'conclusive argument' by no means settled the debate; on the contrary, Malthus' grim predictions provoked a storm of rebuttals, which damaged but never quite destroyed the credibility of his theory.

His two initial postulates, that man must eat and will continue to reproduce, Malthus felt needed little defense. Obviously, a person must eat in order to survive, and despite some speculation by the Utopian William Godwin that the sexual instinct may eventually diminish, Malthus saw little sign of this occurring at any point in the near future, and dismissed the possibility as mere conjecture.

Populations in general have the capacity to increase geometrically, but this capacity is almost never fully exploited. While this distinction was fully understood by Malthus, it was often misrepresented by his critics, who chose to interpret his Essay as claiming that population did, in actuality, increase in a geometric ratio (Introduction, p. 31-32). Malthus used as a hypothetical example of geometric growth a certain strain of wheat, which, under normal circumstances, produced six grains for every one planted. Therefore, this wheat had the capacity to sextuple in population every year - at which rate, a single acre would have expanded to cover the earth's surface in fourteen years (A Summary View, p. 224). Obviously, wheat did not reproduce at its full capacity.

However, the question of the maximum growth rate of a human population was somewhat more obscure. Humans, unlike wheat, cannot be said to simply double in number every nine months. In his attempt to find such a maximum growth rate, Malthus turned to the newly independent United States of America, using the country, with its vast surpluses of land and food, as his main evidence for the natural increase of human population in a geometric ratio.

Fortunately for Malthus, the recently-formed US government had readily available demographic statistics, in the form of census data. Strangely, however, in his first Essay on the Principle of Population, he summarized these statistics with the single phrase, "the population has been found to double itself in twenty-five years," (Essay.. p. 74). While in later works, notably his 1830 Summary View of the Principle of Population, Malthus would make full use of this data, in the first Essay it was all but ignored.

Malthus' proof of the growth of the food supply in an arithmetic ratio was even less supported. He dismissed the possibility of geometric growth of the food supply as "contrary to all our knowledge of the qualities of land," and proposed instead that, at most, the produce of the land could be increased every twenty-five years by an amount equal to its present production, justifying this with the statement, "The most enthusiastic speculator cannot suppose a greater increase than this," (Essay.. p. 74). This illustrates a persistent weakness in Malthus' "proof"; namely, his apparent love of theory and disregard for more convincing empirical evidence.

Accepting Malthus' ideas of the relative growth rates of the population and the food supply, the next, and perhaps more important stage of his argument is the analysis of the consequences of this hypothesis. Within several twenty-five year generations, the population, if unchecked, would far surpass the available food supply: "In two centuries and a quarter, the population would be to the means of subsistence as 512 to 10: in three centuries as 4096 to 13, and in two thousand years the difference would be almost incalculable, though the produce in that time would have increased to an immense extent," (Essay.. p. 75). The effects of these vast differences are easy to predict for plants and animals: excess population would be cut down by lack of food. But with intelligent, reasoning human beings, the prediction is made more difficult.

Malthus first classified the checks on the growth of human population into two broad categories: positive and preventative checks. The positive checks were active in nature, and included such things as disease, war, and the most powerful check of all, famine. These were simple, effective, and brutal means of reducing population, the same found throughout nature. A population of plants might be pushed back by an encroaching weed, a situation analogous to war; deer may starve to death in an unusually snowy winter; and disease and plague can be imagined spreading through any conceivable population, though most especially in areas of high population density, where the disease is easily transmitted. The effects of the positive checks were dramatic and easy to see, but no less significant were what Malthus termed the preventative checks:

"The labourer who earns eighteen pence a day and lives with some degree of comfort as a single man, will hesitate a little before he divides that pittance among four or five, which seems to be just sufficient for one," stated Malthus (Essay.. p. 91). This idea that a human can look ahead to the possibility of future difficulties, perhaps choosing not to have children rather than simply reproducing blindly, is the basic form of the preventative check. According to Malthus, similar restraints, primarily economic in nature, exist at all levels of society, though they increase in strength as one goes down the societal ladder. A nobleman had little to prevent him from having a family; his wealth would more than likely be sufficient to support many offspring, though they would be a slight drain on his finances. However, in the case of a man well educated but only barely wealthy enough to maintain his upper-class status, the financial burden of children would perhaps be enough to drive him down into the society of common tradespeople, a sacrifice he may be unwilling to make. These same tradespeople, Malthus states, are encouraged to postpone marriage until later in life, when they have established themselves with a farm or business of their own - a late marriage, of course, would provide far less time to bear children. Stepping down further, into the ranks of the laborers, Malthus sees not only diminished social standing, but also the possibility of incurring the dreaded positive checks, as reasons to hold off marriage. At the lower ranks of society are the preventative checks strongest, as only the common man must face the real possibility of being unable to feed his children (Essay... p. 89-91). It was here, at the low end of society, that Malthus saw the force of his checks to population acting in full force, being responsible, in the long run, for the undisputed misery and discontent of the lower classes.

Malthus was not content with one classification system for his checks - or, perhaps, in the overwhelming disorganization of the first Essay, dashed off at the spur of the moment as it were, he simply lost track of the fact that he had, in fact, developed two parallel systems. The second, which took a more moralistic view, divided checks into misery and vice. This system, like the first, was exclusive, all checks falling into one category or the other: "In short," stated Malthus, "it is difficult to conceive any check to population which does not come under the description of some species of misery or vice," (Essay.. 106). Roughly speaking, these were checks visited upon man by the outside world, and checks which came from man himself. Misery included such things as hunger, poverty, and disease. "Vice," was a concept which Malthus, with sensibilities typical of the time, was reluctant to define closely. The closest he came to defining vice explicitly was not until the publication of A Summary View, wherein he listed the checks of vice that operated in a preventative manner: "the sort of intercourse which renders some of the women of large towns unprolific; a general corruption of morals with regard to the sex, which has a similar effect; unnatural passions and improper arts to prevent the consequences of irregular connections," (Summary... p. 250). With these delicate terms, Malthus referred to prostitution, venereal disease, homosexuality, and, notably, abortion and birth control.

Malthus realized, apparently after the publication of the first Essay, that his classification of the checks to growth into vice and misery left little room for the preventative checks he discussed earlier. The decision to postpone having a family could neither be categorized as misery nor as vice. By the time of A Summary View, Malthus had changed his original stance, adding to vice and misery the category of moral restraint (Summary.. p. 249). Moral restraint, according to Malthus, was the only possible way to avoid the brutal forces of misery and vice.

Malthus was not blind to the grim nature of the future he forecast for mankind. Indeed, he stated in the preface to the Essay that, if proven wrong, he would "rejoice in a conviction of his error," (Essay.. p. 62). The ideas Malthus laid out, if true, spelled the end for hopes of human perfection on earth - misery was all but inevitable. If this was the case, why, wondered the Anglican minister, had God created such a world?

The final two chapters of the Essay attempted to answer this question, what theologists and philosophers termed the Question of Evil. Given a God who was both all-powerful and completely good, how, then, could the evil which Malthus predicted was inevitable exist? Could not God have simply created a world where Malthusian factors never came into play?

The answer Malthus settled upon was that, in the divine plan, human suffering was not meaningless evil, but only a path to a greater good yet to come. A world where there was no pain would provide no stimulus to mental and spiritual growth, and would lead to a race of mankind grown lazy and stupid with lack of exertion. "The heart that has never known sorrow," said Malthus, "itself will seldom be feelingly alive to the pains and pleasures, the wants and wishes, of its fellow beings," (Essay.. p.209). Some suffering was necessary for true goodness to appear, argued Malthus, for in a world without evil, of what significance is good? The petty misery caused by Malthus' checks was part of a divine plan, calculated so that, in the end, it would produce the "greatest possible quantity of good," (Essay.. p. 212). It is ironic that an essay begun with the express purpose of disproving a hypothesis of human perfectibility on earth, and maintaining throughout that suffering is inevitable, should end with such an optimistic statement.

Despite disorganization, mathematical weaknesses, and an almost complete lack of supporting evidence, Malthus' first Essay was still an extremely important work, with influences extending to the present day. The ideas expressed by Malthus were read by Darwin, and played a major role in Darwin's development of the theory of evolution (Introduction, p. 50). Malthus' economic ideas are visible today as the Law of Diminishing Returns, a principle articulated by David Ricardo but originally expressed, albeit implicitly, in the Essay on Population (lecture, 5 Feb. 96). And, of course, though Malthus himself would no doubt be dismayed, the dark image of the future he depicted played a major role in the gradual acceptance of the "improper arts" of birth control.

Interestingly, Malthus himself is today famous as much for being wrong as for being right. In the Western world today, there is little sign of encroaching Malthusian population pressures. Population has increased far beyond what Malthus predicted possible, and starvation, in the First World countries at least, is not a significant problem. Advancements in agricultural technology have made possible tremendous food production, which so far has been able to keep up with the expanding population without overt Malthusian checks. But the fact that Malthus' dire predictions have not come true does not mean his basic ideas were without merit - indeed, they are the ancestors of economic and sociological theory today.

Reference: Malthus, Thomas An Essay on the Principle of Population and A Summary View of the Principle of Population Penguin Books, London 1985

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Last Modified 4/18/96 by the authors.
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