Thomas Robert Malthus

All Sources -
Updated Media sources (1) About content Print Topic Share Topic
views updated

Malthus, Thomas Robert 1766-1834








Malthus is now a word, like Luther or Marx or Darwin, that connotes both much more and much less than the individual to whom it refers. The important social-scientific ideas associated with Malthus are:

  1. the inevitability of population pressures in human societies,
  2. scarcity as the central principle of economic analysis,
  3. spontaneous order and the futility of political revolution,
  4. Poor Laws and welfare dependency,
  5. the theory of general unemployment, and
  6. the struggle for existence.

Thomas Robert Malthusalways known as Robert or Bob, never as Thomaswas born in Surrey, England, on February 13, 1766, the younger son of Daniel Malthus (17301800), a country gentleman. He died in Bath on December 29, 1834, and is buried in Bath Abbey. Educated first privately, then at Warrington Academy and at Jesus College, Cambridge, he graduated BA as Ninth Wrangler in 1788, residing at Cambridge for a further year to read divinity, then was ordained deacon in June 1789 and priest in 1791. Although elected a fellow of his college in 1793, he served a country curacy at Okewood in Surrey from 1789 until 1803, when he became rector of Walesby in Lincolnshire, relinquished his fellowship, and married. In 1805 Malthus was appointed first professor of history and political economy at the East India College, a position he held until his death. He also retained the benefice of Walesby as a nonresident, appointing a curate.

While still curate of Okewoood, Malthus wrote the book that made him famous: An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798). Though greatly enlarged in 1803 and appearing in four further editions during his lifetime, the first Essay contains the seeds of all Malthusian social-scientific ideas save possibly the theory of general unemployment.


The first Essay was written to show the unfeasibility of William Godwins Political Justice (1796). Godwin (17561836) believed that humans are naturally benevolent, and that the moral evil we perceive is caused by social institutions, which should therefore be dismantled. But if Godwins beautiful system of equality is fully realized, all property equally divided, and marriage, wage labor, government, and law abolished, the economic and social constraints on procreation are removed and population can grow geometrically (exponentially) at first. As fertile land becomes scarce, food needed to support more people cannot be produced at the same rate. Malthus assumes no limits ... to the productions of the earth (p. 26), but suggests that food can only be made to increase, at the utmost, arithmetically (linearly). Hence per capita income must fall. Long before it reaches the subsistence (zero population-growth) level, falling real income reawakens the mighty law of self-preservation: Theft and falsehood undermine the mutual trust on which benevolence depends; self-love resumes his wonted empire and lords it triumphant over the world (p. 190); and the most able and powerful convene to institute some immediate measures to be taken for general safety (p. 195). Property rights reappear, together with sanctions for their violation, requiring the restoration of government. Wage labor is reintroduced to ration scarce food to the landless. Marriage comes back to assign responsibility for the feeding and care of children. Godwins beautiful fabric of the imagination vanishes at the severe touch of truth (p. 189).

Malthus acknowledged that the principle of population was not new. That human populations multiply like mice in a barn (Cantillon [1755] 2001, p. 37) when unconstrained by resource scarcity was taken for granted by all eighteenth-century social theorists. Malthuss new wrinkle, occasionally hinted at by his predecessors and recognizably formulated by James Anderson in 1777, was an analysis of the effects of population growth with scarce land. When natural resources are limited, human fecundity makes population pressure inevitable. Rational individuals may and often do respond with some variety of the preventive check : measures to restrict procreation ranging from moral restraint (delay of marriage without irregular gratification, Malthuss preferred solution) to contraception, as recommended by neo-Malthusians such as the young John Stuart Mill (18061873), but which Malthus himself ruled out as un-Christian, and subversive of the work ethic. Failing any or enough of these, the real incomes of some must fall so low that the positive check will operate: Population will be arrested by famine, starvation and disease, high infant mortality, and shortened adult lifespan.


Though the economists Richard Cantillon (16801734), François Quesnay (16941774), Adam Smith (17231790), and others were conscious of land scarcity, they did not integrate the concept into their economic analyses. For Smith, the brake upon economic growth was shortage of capital, not of land. Now a capital shortage can always be remedied by the parsimony of capitalists, and hence is not a necessary feature of economic analysis. But land scarcity is given by nature and is permanent.

Successive applications of labor and capital to a given supply of land result in ever-diminishing returns: at the extensive margin as lower-quality land is brought into cultivation; and at the intensive margin as each successive unit of the variable factor (labor-plus-capital) has less of the fixed factor (land) to work with. Between 1798 and 1815 the analytical implications of the first Essay gradually became clear to Malthus himself and to Robert Torrens (18141884), Sir Edward West (17821828), and David Ricardo (17721823). In the latter year each published papers expounding the so-called classical theory of rent: Land is cultivated up to the point at which the diminishing marginal product of labor-plus-capital is equal in value to the competitively determined factor cost; capitalist farmers divide the factor payment into profits and wages; and landlords get a surplus (rent) equal to the excess value of intramarginal production over total cost of production.

Two years later Ricardo codified all this in his Principles of Political Economy (1817). Adam Smiths chearful study of the Wealth of Nations was replaced by a dismal science of scarcity, and classical political economy was born. Half a century later, economists in England, Austria, Switzerland, and the United States generalized diminishing returns to construct neoclassical production theory. All factors are substitutable, and the contribution of each and every factor is subject to diminishing returns when all other inputs are constant. When the production functions implied by this analysis are confronted with isomorphic utility functions, generalized resource scarcity implies the budget constraints of the latter, and economic theory becomes an investigation of constrained maximization by rational agents. The present-day view of economics as the study of the allocation of scarce resources between competing ends is a direct consequence of Malthuss Essay on Population.


Edmund Burkes Reflections on the French Revolution (1790) rested on a view of civilized human societies as dynamically unstable systems. An exogenous dissolution of the social fabric producing anarchy causes society to collapse into a state of tyranny, from which it can only be dislodged by successful counterrevolutionary action. Godwins answer to Burke accepted the assumption of instability, but supposed that the effect of anarchy is to launch society upon a growth-path of never-ending progress toward the goal of human perfectibility. Malthuss decisive intervention in the debate undermined both Godwins argument and Burkes. Anarchy may be morally superior to the status quo as Godwin believed. But the laws of nature then operate: first to produce a state of affairs inferior to the status quo; and because of this, eventually to restore the system to its original state. Political revolution is therefore costly, futile, and selfreversing.

Malthuss conception of human societies as dynamically stable systems is a corollary of the theory of spontaneous order attributed by F. A. Hayek to Scottish Enlightenment thinkers, in particular David Hume (17111776) and Adam Smith, each of whom Malthus had studied with great care. Things get to be the way they are not because anyone intended and planned the present state; rather, the status quo is the unintended consequence of countless private, self-regarding decisions in the past. It is stable in the sense that those now in a position to effect change prefer things as they are, and have strong incentives to restore equilibrium if it is exogenously disturbed.

This conception is of the highest scientific importance, for Burkes and Godwins arguments are equally defective. By postulating instability of the status quo they leave unexplained and inexplicable the way society becomes what it is. Malthuss stable equilibrium model is not only central to all subsequent economic analysis: It is an essential feature of all present-day attempts to explain social phenomena as the outcome of rational choice by individuals.


In 1798 and in all subsequent recensions of the Essay on Population (1803, 1806, 1807, 1817, 1826), Malthus criticized the Elizabethan Poor Laws then in force in England, first, because they tended to increase population without increasing the food for its support (1803, p. 358); and second, because any transfer to the indigent diminishes the shares that would otherwise belong to the more industrious, and more worthy members of the working class (1803, p. 358). The more worthy are those in whom a spirit of independence still remains, and the poor-laws are strongly calculated to eradicate this spirit by lowering the cost to individuals of carelessness, and want of frugality, and by weakening the incentive to postpone marriage and procreation (1803, p. 359). Because dependent poverty ought to be held disgraceful, the poor laws, by removing that stigma, create the poor which they maintain (1803, pp. 359, 358). What is now called welfare dependency was clearly recognized by Malthus not as moral turpitude among the lower orders but as their rational response to a perverse set of incentives.

The incentives are perverse because it is through the preventive check alone that the working class can obtain higher wages and a larger share of national income. Malthus, following Smith, William Paley (17431805), and many others, saw that the subsistence wage is a cultural variable. If workers raise their sights and come to expect a higher real income before marrying, the aggregate labor supply will be reduced and the equilibrium real wage increased to match their expectations. In terms of the classical theory of rent, factor cost rises and the share of income going to both capitalists and laborers increases at the expense of rents. Welfare dependency, in contrast, reduces both the absolute and the relative income of workers.


Like his eighteenth-century predecessors, Malthus saw economic activity as driven by effectual demand. His Principles of Political Economy (1820), written partly to criticize Ricardos value theory, attempted in chapter 7 to explain the post-1815 depression as a general glut in commodity markets. An increase in parsimony by capitalists diverts expenditure from unproductive to productive labor, thereby increasing the supply of goods while reducing the demand. Therefore, unless landlords and others of the rich can increase unproductive expenditure (personal services, luxuries, etc.) correspondingly, excess supply will drive down prices and profits, check for a time further production, and throw labor out of employment (1820, p. 354).

Ricardo, James Mill (17731886), Jean-Baptiste Say (17671832), and most other contemporaries rejected the possibility of general gluts on the grounds that produced goods must count as expendable income for those who own them, therefore supply creates its own demand. Malthus and Ricardo continued the debate in their celebrated correspondence, but Malthuss formulation was never sufficiently clear to convince the latter, and his theoryshared to some extent by Jean Charles Léonard de Sismondi (17731842) and Thomas Chalmers (17801847)was treated by J. S. Mill and most later economists as a regrettable mistake.

John Maynard Keynes (18831946), however, was a lifelong admirer of Malthus, whom he called the first of the Cambridge economists, and he abetted Piero Sraffa (18981983) in his recovery and edition of the Ricardo-Malthus correspondence. When in the early 1930s Keynes was beginning to construct his own quite different theory of demand-led aggregate production and employment he was inspired, if not exactly influenced, by Malthuss conscientious though flawed attempt to do justice to the whole of economic reality; and he averred that the almost total obliteration of Malthuss line of approach and the complete domination of Ricardos ... has been a disaster to the progress of economics (Keynes 1972, p. 98).


In October 1838, shortly after returning from the voyage of the Beagle, Charles Darwin read for amusement Malthuss Population, and being well prepared to appreciate the struggle for existence ... it struck me that under these circumstances favourable variations would tend to be preserved and unfavourable ones to be destroyed [implied in chapter 3 of the Essay, where the phrase struggle for existence occurs]. Here then I had at last got hold of a theory by which to work (Darwin 1974, p. 71).

Modern biology is Malthusian in two analytically distinct ways. In the short run in which all genes may be taken as given, the science of ecologya study of the general equilibrium of coexisting species in defined spacegeneralizes Malthuss partial equilibrium analysis of human populations to explain what J. S. Mill called the spontaneous order of nature. In the long run in which there is genetic mutation and adaptation of species, the theory of organic evolution generalizes Scottish Enlightenment conjectural history central to Malthuss anti-Godwin polemic.

The dominance of scarcity in human affairs is never a welcome message. From the first, Malthuss work has provoked vigorous controversy, ranging from technical and sometimes cogent objections to details of his arguments by fellow economists to outraged vilification by Romantics, Marxists, Christian Socialists and advocates of the welfare state, few of whom seem to have read what Malthus actually wrote.



Malthus, Thomas Robert. [1798] 1966. An Essay on the Principle of Population as It Affects the Future Improvement of Society, with Remarks on the Speculations of Mr Godwin, M. Condorcet, and Other Writers. Facsimile reprint Royal Economic Society. London: Macmillan.

Malthus, Thomas Robert. [1803, 1806, 1807, 1817, and 1826] 1989a. An Essay on the Principle of Population; or A View of Its Past and Present Effects on Human Happiness; with an Inquiry into Our Prospects Respecting the Future Removal or Mitigation of the Evils Which It Occasions. 2 vols. Ed. Patricia James. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press for the Royal Economic Society.

Malthus, Thomas Robert. [1820, 1836] 1989b. Principles of Political Economy, Considered with a View to Their Practical Application. 2 vols. Ed. John Pullen. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press for the Royal Economic Society.

Malthus, Thomas Robert. 1986. The Works of Thomas Robert Malthus. 8 vols. Ed. E. A. Wrigley and David Souden. London: Pickering and Chatto.


Anderson, James. 1777. An Inquiry into the Nature of the Corn Laws, with a View to the Corn Bill Proposed for Scotland. Edinburgh, U.K.: Mundell.

Burke, Edmund. [1790] 2003. Reflections on the Revolution in France and on the Proceedings in Certain Societies in London Relative to that Event. Ed. Frank M. Turner. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Cantillon, Richard. [1755] 2001. Essay on the Nature of Commerce in General. Trans. Henry Higgs, with a new introduction by Anthony Brewer. New Brunswick NJ: Transaction Publishers.

Darwin, Charles, and Thomas Henry Huxley. 1974. Autobiographies. Ed. Gavin de Beer. London: Oxford University Press.

Godwin, William. [1793, 1796, 1798] 1946. Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and Its Influence on Morals and Happiness. 3rd ed. 2 vols. Photographic facsimile, ed. F. E. L. Priestley. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Hollander, Samuel. 1997. The Economics of Thomas Robert Malthus. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

James, Patricia. 1979. Population Malthus: His Life and Times. London: Routledge.

Keynes, John Maynard. [1933] 1972. Thomas Robert Malthus: The First of the Cambridge Economists. In The Collected Writings of John Maynard Keynes, vol. 10. London: Macmillan for the Royal Economic Society.

Ricardo, David. [1817] 1951. On the Principles of Political Economy and Taxation. Volume 1 of The Works and Correspondence of David Ricardo. Ed. Piero Sraffa. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Waterman, Anthony M. C. 1991. Revolution, Economics, and Religion: Christian Political Economy, 17981833. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Waterman, Anthony M. C. 1998. Reappraisal of Malthus the Economist, 19331997. History of Political Economy 30 (2): 293324.

Winch, Donald. 1987. Malthus. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Winch, Donald. 1996. Riches and Poverty: An Intellectual History of Political Economy in Britain, 17501834. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Anthony M. C. Waterman

views updated


(b. near Guildford, Surrey, England, 13 February 1766; d. near Bath, England, 23 December 1834, political economy.

Malthus is known in the history of science almost exclusively for his influence on Charles Darwin, exerted almost accidentally. His life, work, and friends were mainly centered on social conditions and political economy, and his work on population was part of these. He did have early training in mathematics, however, and based his arguments on the careful analysis of observed data.

Robert Malthus (he appears never to have been called Thomas) was the sixth child of seven born to Daniel Malthus and his wife, the former Henrietta Catherine Graham. Daniel Malthus, a scholar and a friend and admirer of Rousseau, provided a stimulating home life and education for the boy, and later sent him to study with Richard Graves at Claverton and at the Dissenting Academy of Warrington under Gilbert Wakefield.

In 1784 Malthus went up to Jesus College, Cambridge, where his tutor was William Frend. He read for the mathematical tripos and graduated in 1788, being ninth wrangler; but he also read widely in French and English history and literature and in Newtonian physics. He had already shown his interest in the practical rather than the abstract. He played games and lived a full social life, apparently unaffected by his cleft palate and harelip. The friends he made at Cambridge influenced the rest of his life; the most important was William Otter (1768–1840), later bishop of Chichester. Malthus and Otter traveled extensively in Europe and maintained the relationship after their marriages. Malthus’ son, Henry, married Otter’s daughter Sophia. Otter probably wrote the memorial to Malthus in Bath Abbey, and he certainly wrote the “Memoir” published with the second edition of the Principles of Political Economy.

Malthus followed graduation with ordination, but more in the tradition of the younger sons of English gentry entering the Church than as a step consistent with his intellectual development. For some years he held a curacy at Okewood Chapel in Surrey, near the home of his parents at Albury, and was active in his pastoral functions from 1792 to 1794. He showed a genuine interest in and concern for the local people and an understanding of their problems, a sympathy which makes surprising his later references to the laboring class almost as though they were a community apart. From 1803 until his death he held a sinecure as rector of Walesbury in Lincolnshire.

In 1799 Malthus and Otter, together with friends from Jesus College, E. D. Clarke and J. M. Cripps, traveled through northern Germany and Norway. Afterward Malthus and Otter went on to Sweden, Finland, and Russia. Malthus’ detailed diaries of these journeys provided some of the evidence he needed to develop his theory of population growth. Clarke also published a record of his travels. In 1800 Malthus’ parents died; by 1802 he was traveling again, this time in France and Switzerland, in a party that included his cousin Harriet Eckersall.

Jesus College elected Malthus to a fellowship in 1793, and he was resident intermittently until he had to resign upon his marriage to Harriet Eckersall in 1804. They had one son, Henry, who followed his father into the ministry, and two daughters: Emily, who married, and Lucy, who died before her father. About the time of Malthus’ marriage, the East India Company founded a new college, first at Hertford and then at Haileybury, to give a general education to staff members before they went on service overseas. The first known professorship of history and political economy was established there, and Malthus was invited to fill the post. He took it up in 1805, and it gave him the security of a home and an income that enabled him to spend the rest of his life writing and lecturing.

In order to teach political economy, Malthus needed to extend his knowledge. He wrote two pamphlets on the Corn Laws (1814, 1815); a short, unexceptionable tract on rent (1815); statements on Haileybury (1813, 1817); and a major work, Principles of Political Economy (1820). This included an analogy of his population theory with the quantity of funds designed for the maintenance of labor and the prudential habits of the laboring classes.

In 1819 the Royal Society elected Malthus to a fellowship. He was also a member of the French Institute and the Berlin Academy, and a founding member of the Statistical Society (1834). In 1827 he was called upon to give evidence on emigration before a committee of the House of Commons.

Although their life was quiet, Robert and Henrietta Malthus traveled and entertained their many friends, including David Ricardo, Harriet Martineau, Otter, and William Empson, who was also at Haileybury. Malthus managed, in spite of the controversy flowing around him, to keep a reputation as a warm, charming, and lively companion.

Principle of Population . Malthus’ first writing was an unpublished pamphlet, The Crisis (extracts are quoted by Otter). Stimulated by Pitt’s Poor Law Bill of 1796, he supported the proposal for children’s allowances, but was already expressing unease at the current idea that an increases in population was desirable.

He was not the first to propound the theory that population tends to increase proportionately faster than the supply of food—and he freely acknowledged that he was not—nor was the first edition of his Essay on the Principle of Population, published anonymously in 1798, a fully worked-out thesis. He wrote: “I had for some time been aware that population and food increased in different ratios; and a vague opinion had been floating in my mind that they could only be kept equal by some species of misery or vice.”

Stimulated by doubts about Pitt’s policy and by publications of William Godwin, Condorect, and others, malthus hammered out the Essay in discussions with his father, who accepted Godwin’s belief in the potential immortality and perfectibility of man. Countering apparently rosy visions, Malthus swung to pessimism about the inevitability of poverty and the irresponsibility of the poor, an attitude which his opponents called inhuman. These observations were based at least partially on experience, for he had, as a curate, seen how in the country many births were registered but few deaths, yet, as he said, “sons of labourers are very apt to be stunted in their growth, and are a long while arriving at maturity.”

The central argument of the Essay lies in two postulates:

“That food is necessary to the existence of man”;

“That the passion between the sexes is necessary, and will remain nearly in its present state” [p.11]; and four conclusions:

…that the power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man.

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

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

This implies a strong and constantly operating check on population from the difficulty of subsistence [p. 13].

The postulates are taken as self-evident; the deduced consequences are examined in more detail, including the various checks on population, such as postponed marriage, infant mortality, epidemics, and famine. He presented no numerical data to support either the tendency to geometrical rate of growth of the population or the arithmetical rate of growth of food supply; these suppositions are reasonable but largely intuitive.

Malthus seems also to have failed to realize that although the existence of checks is a firm deduction, there is no reason to suppose that they operate constantly.

The style of the essay—short paragraphs, pungent sentences, and an elegant but matter-of-fact air— undoubtedly contributed to the impact of the work on a community already deeply concerned with the social problems of the Industrial Revolution. It was also brief—only some 50,000 words—and the edition seems to have been small, since the work is now rare.

Malthus realized that he needed more evidence to support his views and that he had not taken sufficient account of the effects of rising standards of living. He therefore listened to criticisms and used information gathered on his travels in Europe, information which tended to be observational rather than numerical. For example, he correlated the poverty of fishermen in Drontheim with their earlier marriages and larger families—in contrast with the people of the interior parts of the country—without considering other possible variables.

Malthus’ next publication, The present High Price of Provisions (1800), again published anonymously, returned to the problems of poor relief. In it he made the case that linking poor relief to the cost of grain resulted in driving the price even higher. He also pointed out that whereas previously grain had been exported, there was no longer enough to go round; and therefore, assuming that agricultural production had increased or at least not declined, the population must have increased. The first census in Great Britain (1801) tended to confirm this assertion.

The second and greatly expanded edition of the Principle of Population was published in 1803 and carried the author’s name. It provided the theoretical framework to the conclusions of the first Essay, with several additional chapters, including information from China and Japan as well as from countries he had visited. The argument was rewritten in terms more academic if less immediate. He explained that “everything depends on the relative proportions between population and food, and not on the absolute number of people,” and that when the absolute quantity of provisions is increased, the number of consumers more than keeps up with it. If, therefore, he argued, it is not possible to maintain the production of food to satisfy the population, then the population must be kept down to the level of food; failure will result in deprivation and misery. He then went on to reexamine positive and preventive checks, introducing the new idea of voluntary “natural restraint” by late marriage and sexual abstinence before marriage. He does not seem to have considered abstinence after marriage and was strongly opposed to both abortion and contraception.

Later editions of the Essay were rewritten and included new appendixes of evidence, until the sixth edition (1826) required three volumes and contained some 250,000 words. Malthus’ last statement on population was his Summary View of the Principle of Population (1830), rewritten from an article he had done for the 1824 supplement to the Encyclopaedia Britannica. It was condensed again to some 20,000 words, but by now it contained a greater element of social comment. There is not only the observation of tendencies but also reference to the bad structure of society and the unfavorable distribution of wealth. There have been numerous reprints and translations. Malthus has been widely read, but he has also been widely misquoted or quoted out of context. His observations have been interpreted by both his supposed followers and his enemies with overtones which suggest that his work is prescriptive rather than descriptive.

Influence on the Theory of Evolution . Malthus’ Essay was a crucial contribution to Darwin’s thinking about natural selection when he returned in 1836 from the Bealge voyage. In July 1837 Darwin began his “Note book on Transmutation of Species,” in which he wrote:

In October 1838, that is, fifteen months after I had begun my systematic enquiry, I happened to read for amusement “Malthus on Population,” and being well prepared to appreciate the struggle for existence … it at once struck me that under these circumstances favourable variations would tend to be preserved and unfavourable ones to be destroyed. The result would be the formation of a new species [Life and Letters,I, 83].

Later, in the Origin of Species, he wrote that the struggle for existence “is the doctrine of Malthus applied with manifold force to the whole animal and vegetable kingdoms; for in this case there can be no artificial increase of food, and no prudential restraint from marriage”[p.63].

Alfred Russel Wallace, who arrived at a worked-out formulation of the theory of evolution at almost precisely the same time as Darwin, acknowledged that “perhaps the most important book I read was Malthus’s Principles of Population” (My Life,p.232).

Although there were four decennial censuses before Malthus’ death, he did not himself analyze the data, although he did influence Lambert Quetelet and Pierre Verhulst, who made precise statistical studies on growth of populations in developed countries and showed how the early exponential growth changed to an S curve.

Influence on Social Theory . Notwithstanding the anonymity of the first Essay, the authorship soon became known. Godwin wrote to Malthus immediately, and the book loosed a storm of controversy that is still rumbling. It has influenced all demographers since, as well as many students of economic theory and genetic inheritance. The early controversy is described concisely by Leslie Stephen and more fully by Bonar and McCleary. Besides Godwin, Ricardo corresponded lengthily and critically but accepted much of his theory, as did Francis Place. Ricardo and Malthus did not meet until 1811 but formed a valuable friendship. Hazlitt, Cobbett, and Coleridge attacked him for real or supposed views.

The current attitude around the end of the eighteenth century, when need for industrial workers was increasing, was that population growth was desirable in itself and that welfare provisions should encourage large families. Malthus’ principle, that population tends to increase up to the limits of the means of subsistence, could be extended to suggest that if the level of subsistence were lowered by reducing state welfare provisions, then the population would naturally settle at a lower level and the working classes could avoid checks due to both misery and vice by planning and observing “prudential restraint.” Malthus himself believed that the effects of the Poor Laws were harmful, but he never recommended the withdrawal of benefits and believed it to be “the duty of every individual, to use his utmost efforts to remove evil from himself, and from as large a circle as he can influence.”

In 1807 Samuel Whitbread, M.P., introduced a bill to reform the Poor Laws, attempting to reduce misery and vice by a series of proposals which included a national system of education, encouragement of saving, and equalization of county taxes from which the welfare benefits were paid. Malthus wrote him an open letter, published as a pamphlet, in which he supported the plan for general education (he made it clear that the poor should be able to understand both the reason for their condition and the means of alleviating it), but he opposed vigorously the building of tenement cottages on the ground that the rents would increase the number of dependent poor except where there was a high demand for labor. If it were possible, the Poor Laws should be restricted to maintaining only the average number of children that might have been expected from each marriage, and he hoped that “the poor would be deterred from early and improvident marriages more by the fearof dependent poverty than by the contemplation of positive distress.”

Malthus appears to have ignored the point that any average must have many examples above the average. Visualizing a progressive increase in the proportion of the dependent population under the laws then in effect, he admitted to being “really unable to suggest any provision which would effectually secure us against an approach to the evils here contemplated, and not be open to the objection of violating our promises to the poor.” Probably this pamphlet was widely read and was a main source of the image of Malthus as a pessimist and supporter of laissez-faire political economy. He was an analyst, not a creator of imaginative legislation; and the problems he dealt with are still with us in one form or another. He was at least more clear than some politicians about “our promises to the poor.” Nothing came of whitebread’s bill in its original form, and Malthus had produced no constructive amendments, so the law remained unchanged until the Poor Law Amendment Act (1834), which abolished relief outside the workhouses that were to be set up under boards of guardians for those qualified and willing to live there.

More cheerfully and positively, in his Principles of political Economy (1820) Malthus was proposing investment in public works and private luxury as a means of increasing effective demand, and hence as a palliative to economic distress. The nation, he thought, must balance the power to produce and the will to consume.

After all the accretions on Malthusian principles, it was perhaps natural that Marx and Engels should have seen Malthus as an advocate of repressive treatment of the working class, rather than appreciating his anticipation of their own belief that the demand for labor regulates population.

However bitter and distorted the controversy has been, Malthus’ achievement was to show that population studies, although overlaid with emotional and often irrational influences, can be examined and analyzed empirically, discussed on a rational basis, and ultimately can form the subject of positive policy making.


I. Original Works, Malthus’ first major work, published anonymously, was An Essay on the Principle of population, as It Affects the Future Improvement of Society, With Remarks on the Speculations of Mr. Godwin, M. Condorcet, and Other writers (London, 1798). The 2nd ed., An Essay on the Principle of Population, or a View of its past and Present Effects on Human Happiness, With an Enquiry Into Our Prospects Respecting the Future Removal or Mitigation of the Evils Which It Occasions.… (London, 1803), was signed T. R. Malthus. There was a 3rd ed., with appendixes (1806); a 4th ed., (1807), reprinted with additions, 2 vols. (1817); a 5th ed., with appendixes, 3 vols. (1817); a 6th ed., with appendixes (1826); and the 7th and posthumous ed., (1872). There have been numerous other eds. and trans. It is worth mentioning the facs. repr. of the 1st ed., with notes comparing it with the 2nd, by J. Bonar (London, 1926), and a modern repr. of the 7th ed. (New York, 1969). Extracts from the 1798 and 1803 eds. were reprinted in Parallel Chapters From the First and Second Editions of “An Essay on the Principle of Population,” D. Ricardo, ed. (New York, 1895). The last statement was A Summary View of the Principle of population (London, 1830). There was also a repr. of the first Essay and Summary View, edited, with an intro., by A. Flew (London, 1970).

Malthus’ other major work is Principles of Political Economy Considered With a view to Thier Practical Applications (London, 1820); 2nd ed. (London, 1836), with considerable an original memoir by Otter that includes extracts from The Crisis; there is also a modern repr. (New York, 1964).

Malthus’ journal of his travels is P. James, ed., The Travel Daries of Thomas Robert Malthus (Cambridge, 1966).

Malthus’ library of 2,300 volumes is in Jesus College, Cambridge. There have clearly been many letters and other MSS available to students of Malthus, but few can be located now. The travel diaries are in Cambridge University Library. In her introduction James refers briefly to other manuscripts, including the unpublished Recollections of Malthus’niece, Louisa Bray.

II. Secondary Literature. The most comprehensive bibliography is Library of Congress, List of References on Malthus and Malthusianism (Washington, D.C., 1920). Later eds. of Malthus’ works, translations, and works on him may be traced through the national bibliographies, and particularly through the General Catalogue of Printed Books in the British Museum, CLI (1962), cols. 313–314, and supps. There is also an extensive bibliography for 1793–1880 in Glass (see below).

The best source for Malthus’ personal life is P. James, “Biographical Sketch,” in The Travel Diaries (see above), in which she gives full details of all her sources. Otter’s “Memoir”, added to the 2nd ed. of Principles of Political Economy,and W. Empson’s review of this ed. in Edinburgh Review, 64 (1837), 469–506, contain much personal information. The standard biography is J.Bonar, Malthus and His Work (London, 1885; 2nd ed., 1924). There are also C. R. Drysdale, The Life and Writings of Thomas R. Malthus, 2nd ed. (London, 1892); and a short biographical sketch by G. T. Bettany in his ed. of Principle of Population (London, 1890). L. Stephen’s article in the Dictionary of National Biography, XXXVI (1893), 886–890, summarizes the early controversy; and there is an evaluation by J. M. Keynes in his Essays in Biography, new ed. (London, 1951), 81–124.

The three works which provoked Malthus’ Essay are W. Godwin, An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, and Its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness (London, 1793); and The Enquirer: Reflections on Education, Manners and Literature (Dublin-London, 1797); and Condorcet, ed., Outlines of an Historical View of the Progress of the Human Mind(London, 1795) translated from the French.

Works on Malthus’ theories, their influence, and their place in theories of population are numerous. D. V. Glass, ed., Introduction to Malthus (London, 1953), contains three essays, reprs. of the Summary View, and the letter to Whitbread. A general and appreciative account is G. F. McCleary, The Malthusian Population Theory (London, 1953). Ricardo’s reactions are published in The Works and Correspondence of David Ricardo, P. Staffa, ed., II (London, 1951). One of the most vigorous attacks was W. Hazlitt, The Spirit of the Age (London, 1825), 251–276. A detailed study of Malthus’ influence on social history is D. Eversley, Social Theories of Fertility and the Malthusian Debate (Oxford, 1959). There is an account of the relationship of Malthus’ and Darwin’s theories in M. T. Ghiselin, The Triumph of the Darwinian Method (Berkeley-Los Angles, 1969), 46–77, which gives further references.

Diana M. Simpkins

views updated

Malthus, Thomas Robert



Thomas Robert Malthus (1766–1834) was born ten years before the publication of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, and his work as an economist belongs to the broad tradition established by Smith’s treatise. After being privately educated, Malthus entered Jesus College, Cambridge, where he was elected to a fellowship at the age of 27. He took orders in 1797 and held a curacy for a short period. He married in 1805 and shortly thereafter was appointed professor of modern history and political economy at the East India Company’s college at Haileybury, the first appointment of its kind in England. He died at Haileybury in 1834, the year that saw the passage of a new poor law inspired by his writings.

Malthus’ father was a friend of Rousseau and shared the optimistic belief of Condorcet and William Godwin that nothing stood in the way of a regime of ideal equality but private ignorance and public inertia: propaganda and education were therefore the means for bringing about perfect happiness. The younger Malthus disagreed and argued that the effort to realize the perfect human society would always founder on the tendency of population to outrun the food supply. His father urged him to put his ideas on paper, and in 1798 Malthus published a long pamphet entitled An Essay on the Principle of Population, as It Affects the Future Improvement of Society; With Remarks on the Speculations of Mr. Godwin, M. Condorcet, and Other Writers. There was nothing original in Malthus’ argument. It had all been said before, albeit with less force. Nevertheless, Malthus was attacking the dominant contemporary view, which saw under-population rather than overpopulation as a problem. When the first census, in 1801, produced evidence of a sharp rise in population growth in recent decades, Malthus decided to take advantage of the change in the climate of opinion by turning his pamphlet into a book (published in 1803) with a new subtitle that implied a change in emphasis: A View of Its Past and Present Effects on Human Happiness With an Inquiry Into Our Prospects Respecting the Future Removal or Mitigation of the Evils Which It Occasions. What had started out as an occasional tract against certain dangerous ideas held by some contemporary thinkers had become a full-scale treatise on the subject of demography. Further revised editions of the book were published at regular intervals during his lifetime, the sixth edition appearing in 1826.

Although Malthus’ fame in the nineteenth century was based squarely on his theory of population, his modern reputation with economists rests rather on his prescient opposition to the Ricardian doctrine of the impossibility of “general gluts.” As Keynes put it in The General Theory: “Ricardo conquered England as completely as the Holy Inquisition conquered Spain,” in consequence of which, “The great puzzle of Effective Demand with which Malthus had wrestled vanished from economic literature” (1936, p. 32). Malthus’ ideas on gluts, or, as we would now say, business depressions, were embodied in his Principles of Political Economy, first published in 1820. Other minor but significant publications on strictly economic questions are An Inquiry Into the Nature and Progress of Rent (1815); The Measure of Value Stated and Illustrated (1823); and Definitions in Political Economy(1827).

Demographic ideas Malthus’ theory of population is baldly stated in the first two chapters of the Essay. These pages are brilliantly written in terse phrases and striking images, and they help us to understand why the book captured the imagination of its first readers, rousing a storm of controversy that never died down during Malthus’ lifetime. The thesis itself is familiar enough, although all of its implications are not immediately evident: population, when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio, while the food supply at best increases in an arithmetical ratio; hence, population tends to increase up to the limits of “the means of subsistence.” This is the principle of population that Malthus maintained against all his critics. He realized, of course, that in the real world there are checks that prevent population from increasing beyond the food supply. The checks are of two kinds: “positive” checks that show up in the death rate, such as war, famine, and pestilence; and “preventive checks” that show up in the birth rate, such as abortions, infanticide, and birth control. Both checks are the consequences of lack of food, which may, indeed, be regarded as the ulti-mate check on population growth that is always in operation.

Such was Malthus’ argument in the first edition of the Essay. Its weakness was quickly discovered by Godwin, who pointed out that the working classes in the richer countries seemed to be maintaining themselves at a level considerably above the physical minimum of existence, without benefit of either the positive or the preventive checks. Malthus, realizing that he had trapped himself by denying the possibility of any rise in the standard of living, quietly gave way in the second edition of the Essay by recognizing the existence of a new preventive check, namely, “moral restraint.” He defined “moral restraint” as postponement of the age of marriage accompanied by strict sexual continence before marriage, and, while the other checks were frequently described as “misery” or “vice,” the new preventive check was allowed to stand alone without any pejorative tag attached to it. For the first time a hopeful note crept into the argument, although Malthus himself always remained profoundly pessimistic about the capacity of mankind to regulate its numbers by the exercise of prudential restraint. Few readers realized that he had really abandoned his original thesis, and Malthus did nothing to help them appreciate the escape clause thai had now been built into the doctrine.

Any critic who produced evidence of subsistence increasing faster than population without signs of “misery” or “vice” was silenced by the logical implication that the working class must be practicing “moral restraint,” a phenomenon included in trie theory. This left the critic with no reply other than to show that the average age of marriage had not increased or that the rate of illegitimate births had not fallen. Since contemporary population statistics were not adequate to verify such assertions, Malthus had furnished himself with an impregnable defense. There were a few critics who attacked the theory by questioning the notion that birth control constitutes “vice.” Malthus’ argument here was simply that birth control must be wrong, since man, being naturally indolent, could hardly be expected to work or save if it were made so easy for him to escape the consequences of his “natural passions.” He was confident of the support of contemporary opinion in lightly dismissing what were later called neo-Malthusian checks, “both on account of their immorality and their tendency to remove a necessary stimulus to industry” ([1798] page 512 in 1878 edition).

Some hostile critics realized the futility of denying that unchecked populations tend to increase at a geometrical rate, inasmuch as no one had ever observed the growth of an unchecked population. Instead, they attacked the idea that the food supply could not possibly keep pace with the irrepressible tide of population. Here Malthus had recourse to the principle of diminishing returns in agriculture —in fact, he was one of the first to state this general principle in so many words. Since this principle soon became an integral part of orthodox political economy via Ricardo’s theory of rent, it was difficult to criticize Malthus on this score [see Ricardo]. We realize now that Malthus was actu-ally appealing not to the impeccable Ricardian law of diminishing returns to variable factor increments in a situation of given technical knowledge, but to a questionable historical law of diminishing returns from technical progress in agriculture. But the distinction between statics and dynamics was so little understood in those days—even Ricardo switched easily from static analysis to historical generalization, sometimes in the same sentence— that Malthus had no difficulty in meeting criticism along these lines.

The utter simplicity and familiarity of the ideas involved, calling neither for new concepts nor fornew facts, was the essence of Malthus’ popular appeal. All he seemed to be doing was to bring together a few familiar facts of life and to deduce the necessary consequences of these facts. Surely it was true that population nearly always multiplied up to the limits of the available food supply. And surely, where living standards had improved, the gain was necessarily precarious and always liable to disappear in a new spurt of population growth. Was it not self-evident that an unchecked multiplication of human beings must quickly lead to an impossible situation, whatever the plausible rate of increase of the means of subsistence? The contrast that Malthus drew between the two kinds of mathematical progression carried the hypnotic persuasive power of an advertising slogan. It was easy to see—“a slight acquaintance with numbers will show,” as Malthus said—that even the smallest finite sum growing at the smallest compound rate must eventually overwhelm even the largest possible finite sum growing at the highest simple rate, so that, whatever the initial situation, there must soon be “standing room only.” Quod erat demonstrandum I

It did not hurt the Malthusian theory that it justified the resistance of the upper classes to all efforts to reform existing social and political institutions : for if poverty had its roots in the unequal race between population and subsistence, only the working class itself, by practicing prudential restraint, could improve its own conditions. Even the working-class newspapers of the day accepted the desirability of prudential restraint and condemned birth control devices. The Malthusian theory of population was widely appealing: it neatly explained the existence of poverty; it exposed the visionary panaceas of reformers; it enabled everyone to pontificate on questions of public policy; it rationalized the subsistence theory of wages, to which all contemporary economists subscribed; lastly, it underlay Ricardo’s preoccupation with the land-using bias of economic progress, and Ricardo was the foremost economist of the day. Any one of these factors would have been enough to make a theory influential. Put together, they fully account for Malthus’ astonishing success, a success that has few parallels in the history of ideas.

Despite all the attractive features of the Malthusian theory, it is doubtful, however, whether it would have received so wide a hearing if there had not also been a population explosion in the last two decades of the eighteenth century. Strangely enough, when Malthus published the first edition of the Essay in 1798, he shared the general belief of his day that the population of England had actually increased little in the eighteenth century. The census of 1801 showed how wrong everyone had been, and later generations credited Malthus with prophetic foresight in warning of the dangers of overpopulation as early as 1798. But, in fact, Malthus made no effort, nor was it his intention, to explain the unprecedented population explosion, even in the later versions of the Essay. Furthermore, it is evident that he did not provide the tools for such an explanation. The Malthusian theory emphasizes birth and marriage rates, whereas the population explosion of the 1780s was a more complicated phenomenon of rising birth rates in new factory districts and falling death rates in rural areas and congested towns. Unfortunately, the demographic data of the period, based as they are on defective registration of baptisms and burials, are so unreliable that modern authorities are still not agreed on whether the industrial revolution largely created its own labor force by a demand pull on births or whether improved sanitation, nutrition, and housing produced a supply push through a fall in the death rate. The fact remains, however, that Malthus makes a poor guide to the causes of the population explosion that gave such prominence to his views.

Permanent influence Malthus’ magisterial influence on public opinion lasted until the last decades of the nineteenth century. By that time, the record of sustained economic growth, the rise in the standard of living, and the decline in fertility in Western countries made disparagement of the Malthusian doctrine as common as praise had been before. Every schoolboy at the turn of the twentieth century could prove that Malthus had gone wrong by underestimating both the potentialities of technical progress and the possibility of family limitation by birth control devices. As far as it goes, of course, this is a perfectly valid refutation of the Malthusian theory, but it is so obvious now that it is hardly worth stating. One can make a much stronger case against Malthus.

The Malthusian theory of population is a perfect example of metaphysics masquerading as science. So long as we hold with Malthus that birth control is morally reprehensible, the history of population growth in the last two centuries proves him right: nothing has stemmed the tide of human numbers but “misery” and “vice.” If, on the other hand, we consider birth control morally defensible, Malthus is vindicated again: “moral restraint” in the larger sense of the phrase is one of the checks that has limited the tendency of population to outstrip the food supply. The Malthusian theory cannot be refuted because it can be applied to any actual or any conceivable population change: it purports to say something about the real world, and what it says must be true by definition of its own terms.

By the 1920s, the Malthusian theory had lost almost all of its earlier prestige. Indeed, the Malthusian specter of overpopulation had given way to the Keynesian specter of underpopulation. But since World War II, the problem of underdeveloped countries has brought Malthus back into favor. Most underdeveloped countries today have the worst of both worlds: the typical high birth rates of agrarian economies and the typical low death rates of urbanized industrialized economies. Economic development will in time cure these difficulties, as they were cured in industrial Europe, but for the next few generations these countries face the alternative of the Malthusian checks of famine and disease or voluntary family limitation in opposition to prevailing religious mores. The name of Malthus is still bandied about in debates on population policies in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, although it is difficult to believe that the Malthusian theory has much relevance to the discussion of modern population problems. It sheds no light on the causes of decliningfertility in developing societies; it tells us little about the demographic relationship between fertility and mortality; it is silent on the economic and social consequences of changes in the age distribution of a population; and it is of no help in framing policies for areas of heavy population pressure. Be that as it may, there is no doubt that the revival of interest in the Malthusian doctrine in our own day makes it one of the longest-lived social theories of all times. And, popular interest apart, demographers can never ignore him or forget him, for, with all his errors, Malthus put the problem of population growth on the map.

Mark Blaug

[For the historical context of Malthus’ work, see Income and Employment Theory; Population,article On Population Theories;and the biography of Condorcet.For discussion of the subsequent development of Malthus’ ideas, see Population,articles On Optimum Population Theoryand Population Policies;and the biographies of Ricardoand Marx.]


(1798) 1960 On Population. New York: Modern Library.-> First published in pamphlet form as An Essay on the Principle of Population. A paperback edition was published in 1963 by Irwin.

1815 An Inquiry Into the Nature and Progress of Rent, and the Principles by Which It Is Regulated. London: Murray.

(1820) 1964 Principles of Political Economy Considered With a View to Their Practical Application. 2d ed. New York: Kelley.

1823 The Measure of Value Stated and Illustrated, With an Application of It to the Alterations in the Value of the English Currency Since 1790. London: Murray.

1827 Definitions in Political Economy. London: Murray.


Blaug, Mark 1962 Economic Theory in Retrospect. Homewood, 111.: Irwin. -> Reviews the theoretical issues in the inconclusive debate between Ricardo and Malthus, and lists additional readings on both sides of the question. Also considers Malthus’ employment theory.

Bonar, James (1885) 1924 Malthus and His Work. 2d ed. London: Allen … Unwin; New York: Macmillan.

Boner, H. A. 1955 Hungry Generations: The 19th-century Case Against Malthusianism. New York: King’s Crown Press; Oxford Univ. Press.

Cannan, Edwin (1893) 1953 A History of the Theories of Production and Distribution in English Political Economy From 1776 to 1848. 3d ed. London and New York: Staples.

Glass, D. V. (editor) 1953 Introduction to Malthus. London: Watts; New York: Wiley. -* Contains useful background material, as well as a reprint of Malthus’ “Summary View of the Principle of Population,” which he contributed to the Encyclopaedia Britannica in 1830.

Keynes, John Maynard 1936 The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money. London: Macmillan.

Mccleary, George F. 1953 The Malthusian Population Theory. London: Faber. -Ŵ Contains a spirited defense of Malthus’ ideas on population.

Newman, James R. 1956 Commentary on Thomas Robert Malthus. Volume 2, pages 1189–1191 in James R. Newman (editor), The World of Mathematics: A Small Library of the Literature of Mathematics From A’h-mose the Scribe to Albert Einstein. New York: Simon … Schuster.

Smith, Kenneth 1951 The Malthusian Controversy. London: Routledge. -Ŵ Reviews the great nineteenth-century debate on the Malthusian doctrine.

United Nations, Department OF Social Affairs, Population Division 1953 The Determinants and Con-sequences of Population Trends. Population Studies, No. 17. New York: United Nations. -> Covers succinctly the history of population theory before and after Malthus.

views updated


(b. near Dorking, Surrey, England, 13 February 1766; d. Bath, England, 23 December 1834),

political economy. For the original article on Malthus see DSB, vol. 9.

An explosion of secondary literature on Malthus since the original DSB, publication of the catalogue of the Malthus family library in 1983, an important discovery of Malthus family documents in 1986 later sold to Kanto Gakuen University, publication of Malthus’s collected Works (1986), definitive editions of the Essay and Political Economy in 1989, and the development since the 1970s of mathematical modeling in ecology have substantially modified the view of Malthus and his relevance for the history of science presented in the original article:

  1. More accurate details of Malthus’s biography have become known.
  2. Studies of the confrontation of Malthusian population theory with Christian theology, and of the relation of each of these to ethics and political theory, have enriched the intellectual history of nineteenth-century science and religion.
  3. A fuller understanding of Malthus’s importance in the development of economic thought has transformed scholars’ view of “Malthus the economist.”
  4. The mathematical core of the science of ecology can be viewed as a generalization of Malthus’s original model of the equilibrium of a single human population.

Biography and the First Essay. The biography by Patricia James, subsequent biographical studies by John Pullen, and the later publication by Kanto Gakuen University of the Malthus family documents have shown that Malthus remained a faithful clergyman of the Church of England from his diaconal ordering in June 1789 to the end of his life. He was ordained a priest in March 1791 and served his curacy at Okewood punctiliously until preferment to the family living of Walesbury in 1803, the income from which allowed him to marry his “pretty cousin” Harriet Eckersall in 1804 and resign his college fellowship. That preferment was not a sinecure: As a non-residentiary, Malthus appointed and paid a curate and visited the parish regularly. Meanwhile he officiated and preached in the chapel at Haileybury, and like many clergymen of his generation had become “serious” (i.e. evangelical) by 1812 at the latest.

Scholars also know that Malthus made his first acquaintance with Wealth of Nations while still a pupil at Warrington Academy, was reading it six years later during his final term at Cambridge while preparing for ordination, and was undoubtedly the leading authority in England, both on that work and on political economy in general, when he accepted his professorial appointment at the East India College in 1805.

Studies in the early 2000s have shown that Malthus’s first Essay on Population (1798), written while he was still assistant curate of Okewood, was a point-by-point rebuttal of William Godwin’s attack on private property in Political Justice, which had nothing to do with any “Industrial Revolution” but much to do with the French Revolution. At its heart (chapter 10) is a mental experiment in the manner of David Hume. Human society is a system in stable equilibrium. If exogenously shocked, the system will return to equilibrium in the absence of further shocks. Population dynamics of the Essay are used to show that private property in land, combined with competition among landless workers, produces a stable economic equilibrium that is optimal in that it maximizes the surplus of food production over labor and capital costs. Upon that surplus depends everything “that distinguishes the civilized, from the savage state” (p. 287).

Theological Difficulties . In the first Essay the principle of population condemned the human race to “misery and vice” (p. 141). This would appear to deny the coexistence of the Divine attributes—especially those of benevolence and omnipotence—affirmed by orthodox monotheistic theology. Malthus attempted a naturalistic theodicy in the last two chapters (18 and 19) of the first Essay, according to which God is engaged in the creation of “mind” out of matter. But the attempt was confused and unsuccessful, and he was persuaded to omit it from subsequent editions. In the second Essay (1803) Malthus introduced the concept of “moral restraint” (not “natural restraint,” cf. original article in DSB) to evade the inevitability of misery or vice, and made other smaller changes in his argument to render it more consistent with Anglican orthodoxy.

Meanwhile, William Paley and John Bird Sumner provided more satisfactory theodicies of the putative evil produced by population pressures. Their work was the basis of “Christian Political Economy” in the 1820s and 1830s, to which important contributions were also made

by Edward Copleston, Richard Whately and Thomas Chalmers. Whately’s epistemological demarcation between religious and scientific knowledge became important later in the philosophy of science.

Because it adopted and incorporated Malthusian population theory, the nascent science of political economy had been reviled by many critics as “hostile to religion.” “Christian Political Economy” defended the new science against what at that time was a very damaging charge. But its ideological thrust was to legitimatize laissez-faire in social policy, for which reason political economy continued to be viewed with alarm by Romantics, Christian socialists, Marxists and others.

Political Economy . Though his contribution to demography continued to be acknowledged—perhaps exaggerated—throughout the nineteenth century, Malthus’s political economy was generally passed over in silence. This is because of his heterodox theory of “general gluts” which attempted to show that untrammeled market forces might be insufficient to correct mass unemployment. Lord Keynes had always been an admirer of Malthus however, and in 1936 produced his own, immensely influential version of the Malthusian doctrine, which together with his biographical essay on Malthus began a long process of reappraisal. This was stimulated by the international Congrès Malthus in Paris (1980) and fostered by the new literature referred to above. It culminated during the 1990s in major studies by Donald Winch (1996) and Samuel Hollander (1997). The effect of these has been to recognize the conceptual unity of Malthus’s “demography” and his “economics,” and to locate him at the center of the English School of political economy in the first third of the nineteenth century.

The Natural Sciences . It has long been known that Darwin and Wallace came to appreciate the scientific significance of the “struggle for existence” from reading Malthus. It has more recently been recognized that Malthusian population dynamics are the conceptual starting point of modern ecology. Standard textbooks of mathematical ecology in the early twenty-first century acknowledge Malthus as a pioneer (e.g. Kot, 2001, p. 11). An unconstrained, exponential population growth-rate, r, is sometimes labeled the “Malthusian parameter.” More significantly, the related concepts of “density-dependence” and “carrying capacity” are seen to have their origin in Malthus’s analysis of human population growth in a finite world (Vandermeer and Goldberg, 2003, pp. 10–11). For though by supplying more labor a growing population increases food production, the latter is subject to diminishing returns when food-producing resources are inelastic, hence the per-capita food supply will eventually fall to that level at which population is stationary. Malthus himself seems to have glimpsed the general, ecological implications of his argument: “The germs of existence contained in this spot of earth, with ample food, and ample room to expand in, would fill millions of worlds in the course of a few thousand years, Necessity, that imperious all pervading law of nature, restrains them within the prescribed bounds. The race of plants, and the race of animals shrink under this great restriction” (1798, p. 15).



An Essay on the Principle of Population. London: Macmillan, 1966. Reprint of the first (1798) Essay for the Royal Economic Society. Facsimile reprint, essential for Malthus scholarship.

The Works of Thomas Robert Malthus. 8 vols. Edited by E. A. Wrigley and David Souden. London: William Pickering, 1986. The first collected works, especially valuable for Malthus’s scattered and inaccessible pamphlet literature.

An Essay on the Principle of Population. 2 vols. Edited by Patricia James. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1989. The version published in 1803, with the variora of 1806, 1807, 1817 and 1826. Essential for Malthus scholarship.

Principles of Political Economy. 2 vols. Variorum Edition. Edited by John Pullen. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

The Unpublished Papers in the Collection of Kanto Gakuen University. 2 vols. Edited by John Pullen and Trevor Hughes Parry. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, vol. I, 1997; vol. II, 2004. Contains many letters and papers by other members of the Malthus family and circle. Especially valuable as including four of Robert Malthus’s previously unknown sermons.


Dupâquier, Jacques, A. Fauve-Chamoux, and E. Grebenik, eds. Malthus Past and Present. London and New York: Academic Press, 1983. English translations of a small selection of papers from the Paris Congrès, 1980.

Fauve-Chamoux, Antoinette, ed. Malthus Hier et Aujourd’hui. Paris: Éditions du Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, 1984. French translations of a different but slightly overlapping selection of papers from the Paris Congrès, 1980.

Hollander, Samuel. The Economics of Thomas Robert Malthus. Studies in Classical Political Economy IV. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997. Massive, exhaustive, authoritative.

James, Patricia. Population Malthus: His Life and Times. London and Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1979. Best available biography, but must now be supplemented by Pullen (1987), Waterman (1991) and the Kanto Gakuen papers.

Jesus College (University of Cambridge). The Malthus Library Catalogue: The Personal Collection of Thomas Robert Malthus at Jesus College, Cambridge. New York: Pergamon Press, 1983. See “Introductory Essay” by John Harrison.

Keynes, John Maynard. Essays in Biography. The Collected Writings of John Maynard Keynes, Vol. 10. London: Macmillan, for the Royal Economic Society, 1972. Essay 12, “Thomas Robert Malthus” (1933), is characteristically brilliant and still the best place to start.

Kot, Mark. Elements of Mathematical Ecology. Cambridge U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Malthus Hier et Aujourd’hui. Congrès International de Démographie Historique, Paris-UNESCO 27, 28, 29 May 1980: Programme, Agenda. Paris: Société de Démographie Historique, 1980. Program includes papers on the relevance of Malthus for demography, ethnology, sociology, socialism, feminism, geography, theology, economic history, economics, evolutionary biology and ecology.

Pullen, John M. “Some New Information on the Rev. T. R. Malthus.” History of Political Economy 19 (1987): 127–140.

Spengler, Joseph J. “Malthus’s Total Population Theory: A Restatement and Reappraisal.” Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science 11 (1945): 83–110; 234–264. The earliest comprehensive analysis of Malthus’s economic thought (still one of the best), by the leading Malthus scholar of his generation.

Tunzelmann, G. Nick von. “Malthus’s ‘Total Population System’: a Dynamic Reinterpretation.” In The State of Population Theory: Forward from Malthus, edited by David Coleman and Roger Schofield. Oxford: Blackwell, 1986. The most ambitious attempt since Spengler (1945) to capture the whole of Malthus’s population theory.

Vandermeer, John H. and Deborah E. Goldberg. Population Ecology: First Principles. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003.

Waterman, A. M. C. Revolution, Economics and Religion: Christian Political Economy 1798–1833. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1991. Contains the only complete account of the nature and purpose of Malthus’s argument in the first Essay.

_____. “Analysis and Ideology in Malthus’s ‘Essay on Population’.” Australian Economic Papers 31 (1992): 203–217. Mathematical reconstruction of the analysis of the first Essay.

_____. “Reappraisal of ‘Malthus the Economist,’ 1933–97.” History of Political Economy 30 (1998): 293–334. Survey of Malthus scholarship: Bibliography includes all important secondary literature up to 1997.

_____. “New Light on Malthus: The Kanto Gakuen Collection.” Research in the History of Economic Thought and Methodology 24A (2006): 141–152.

Winch, Donald. Malthus. Past Masters series. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987. Combines biography with a lucid and authoritative sketch of the whole range of Malthus’s ideas in just over 100 pages.

_____. Riches and Poverty. An Intellectual History of Political Economy in Britain, 1750–1834. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1996. State of the art in its field. Malthus gets center stage.

Wood, John Cunningham, ed. Thomas Robert Malthus, Critical Assessments. 4 vols. London and Dover, NH: Croom Helm, 1986.

A. M. C. Waterman

views updated



Thomas Robert Malthus was a demographer, political economist, and Christian moral scientist. He was educated privately up to the age of 16 and then sent to a dissenting academy prior to entry into Cambridge, where, from 1784 to 1788, he undertook the course of studies designed to prepare him as a clergyman in the Church of England. These studies centered on theology, history, and mathematics, including Newtonian mechanics. Malthus first became a curate near the family home in Surrey, later adding a living in Lincolnshire. He retained these livings when he was appointed to a professorship at the East India College, Haileybury, in 1805, the post he held for the rest of his life.

It was during his initial period as a rural clergyman that Malthus composed his first published work: An Essay on the Principle of Population as it affects the Future Improvement of Society, with Remarks on the Speculations of Mr. Godwin, M. Condorcet, and other Writers, published in 1798. This anonymous work was originally intended to cast doubt on the doctrine of human perfectibility. By invoking a well-established principle, that population always expands in response to improvements in the supply of subsistence goods, Malthus showed that any attempt to create an ideal society in which altruism and common property rights prevailed would be undermined by its inability to cope with the resulting population pressure. In a context dominated by the hopes aroused by the French Revolution, this amounted to an assertion of the greater power of bioeconomic factors over human agency.

Malthus gave mathematical form to the principle by contrasting a maximum potential rate of population increase, the geometric ratio, with a posited arithmetic rate of increase in subsistence. But this deductive framework had an empirical foundation. Malthus employed Benjamin Franklin's figures for the increase in American population, under conditions in which subsistence posed no limits, to demonstrate that doubling was possible within 25 years. By contrast with his opponents he believed that his conclusions were the result of following a Newtonian procedure of arguing from observed effects to possible causes, rather than by speculating about the possible effects of known causes.

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. Indeed, his estimates of the rate of increase in the British population, like those of most of his contemporaries, were wide of the mark. He believed that it was doubling every 200 years, when it became clear, after the first census evidence collected from 1801 onwards, that it was doing so every 55 years. Thus, although Malthus was an acute observer of rural poverty, he was not, initially at least, reacting to the rapid population increase researchers now know to have been taking place. The special quality of his findings can be found in his contention that population pressure on living standards was "imminent and immediate." His opponents had maintained that while agriculture was in its present underdeveloped state there was no population problem. Although population pressure might threaten living standards at some distant point in the future, it would then be possible to remedy this by improvements in technology and re-course to birth control. Malthus, by contrast, held that the living standards of those who lived by labor had always been, and would remain, under pressure; that positive checks affecting mortality rates were still in operation in most parts of the world; and that preventive checks affecting marriage habits and birth rates were currently in operation in Western Europe and North America.

It followed from the immediacy of the population principle that attention needed to be focused on the way in which these checks operated to maintain the balance between population and available subsistence. In the polemical first edition of his Essay, Mal-thus treated all forms of check as varieties of "misery and vice." In the second much larger and more thoroughly empirical version published in 1803, commonly called the Second Essay, he introduced the idea of a virtuous check–moral restraint. This entailed postponement of marriage together with strict sexual continence during the waiting period. The second essay bore a new subtitle that signaled Malthus's endorsement of more positive solutions, partly via encouragements to individual prudence, partly via changes in social and political institutions. It became An Essay on the Principle of Population; or a View of Its Past and Present Effects on Human Happiness; with an Inquiry into our Prospects respecting the Future Removal or Mitigation of the Evils which It Occasions.

As a Christian moralist, Malthus thought it was his task to propose checks and institutional reforms that would reduce the harmful effect of population pressure on morals and happiness, even where this involved choosing the lesser of two evils. Since Mal-thus regarded birth control within marriage as a vicious practice, he cannot be described as a neo-Malthusian, the position adopted by many of his secular-minded followers. Prudishness plays no part here: he was opposed to birth control on the grounds that such "unnatural" expedients ran contrary to God's beneficent design in placing human-kind under the right degree of pressure to ensure its development. It follows that use of the term "Malthusian devil" (as some have characterized what they consider the pessimistic aspects of Malthus's theories) is peculiarly inappropriate as a description of Malthus's own way of thinking. There had to be a reason why a beneficent Providence had endowed humanity with the sexual passion. It was to provide a spur to advance civilization by finding those means of living with its consequences that were consonant with human kind's long-term happiness. It also follows that Malthus was not an anti-populationist (that is, he did not oppose an increase in population or advocate a decrease) but rather, was a theorist of optimal population growth, inquiring into that relationship between the various physical and moral variables that would produce the best result. For this reason it is not entirely anachronistic to describe him as an early theorist of sustainable development.

Although Malthus was accused of propounding a form of bioeconomic determinism that ignored cultural variables, his mature procedure belies this charge. Once possessed of a fundamental natural law, inquiry could be centered on the surrounding circumstances–social, economic, and cultural–that determined how the law operated in any given setting. By appealing to the evidence provided by historians of the ancient world, and anthropological findings based on travel literature, as well as the new census material and other inquiries into the condition of the poor, Malthus established himself as a demographer in the modern vein: someone committed not merely to an examination of the relationship between births, deaths, and marriages, but to the cultural factors brought to light by other evidence on modes of life.

Studies of the response of population to wages and prices entailed lags that could generate cycles or fluctuations, during which there would be periods of maladjustment and market disequilibrium. Malthus was more impressed by these "irregular movements" than his friend and rival economist, David Ricardo: hence many of the disagreements over the causes of economic growth and the reasons for postwar depression that feature in their correspondence and in Malthus's attempt to provide an alternative to Ricardian economics in his Principles of Political Economy of 1820. This also explains J. M. Keynes's interest in Malthus in the 1920s and 1930s when he was formulating his own attack on economic orthodoxy.

Historical demographers have added greatly to our understanding by stressing the agrarian or essentially pre-industrial nature of Malthus's analysis of population problems. His arithmetic ratio became the basis for the law of diminishing returns, a proposition that dominated political economy up to John Stuart Mill, and has made a reappearance in the works of ecologists concerned with the global limits to growth. Malthus was one of the first to recognize the significance of what became known as the Western European marriage system of delayed marriage and hence lower birth rates. He also came to recognize one of the main features of the demographic transition. Higher incomes might lead not to more children, but to more goods and leisure. Comforts and luxuries could bring with them a desire to protect high and rising standards of living.

See also: Condorcet, Marquis de; Demography, History of; Population Thought, History of.


selected works by thomas robert malthus.

Malthus, Thomas Robert. [1803] 1989. An Essay on the Principle of Population (with the variora of 1806, 1807, 1817, 1826), ed. Patricia James. Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press.

——. [1820] 1989. Principles of Political Economy, ed. John Pullen. Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press.

selected works about thomas robert malthus.

Coleman, David, and Roger Schofield, eds. 1986. The State of Population Theory; Forward from Malthus. Oxford: Blackwell.

James, Patricia. 1979. Population Malthus; His Life and Times. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Petersen, William. 1999. Malthus: Founder of Modern Demography. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers. (Originally published by Harvard University Press, 1979.)

Winch, Donald. 1987. Malthus. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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

Donald Winch

views updated


malthus and political conservatism
malthus, social history, and the birth of the social sciences
the verdict of history

MALTHUS, THOMAS ROBERT (1766–1834), English economist and sociologist.

Thomas Robert Malthus was the son of an unusual Surrey country gentleman who personally knew, and was deeply influenced by, both Jean-Jacques Rousseau and David Hume. Young Robert was educated at home (Rousseau opposed formal schooling) and then at Jesus College, Cambridge. Malthus's many writings can be viewed as sustained critiques of Enlightenment spirit of optimism and utopian reform within which he had been reared.

Some "know" Thomas Robert Malthus as the Briton who predicted the population explosion of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Malthus actually argued the opposite, that "population is necessarily limited by the means of subsistence." He identified many "positive checks" that ensured that population did not outrun food supply (by periodically eliminating unsustainable numbers, mostly among the "lowest orders of society"). These included famine, epidemics, wars, and—new to early-industrial Britain—"the silent though certain destruction of life in large towns and manufactories." The misunderstanding perhaps arises from Malthus's speculation that population, left to itself would grow faster (geometrically, i.e., 2, 4, 8, 16, 32 …) than food production (which would grow arithmetically, i.e., 2, 4, 6, 8, 10 …). Malthus clarified that population is never left to itself, except on a newly discovered island.

Malthus admitted a small ameliorative role for "preventive" (voluntary) checks like late marriage and systematic sexual denial. (An ordained Anglican clergyman, Malthus did not endorse contraception.) By inducing the libidinous "hare" to sleep, "the tortoise [of food production] may have some chance." But broadly, humankind was doomed, by an immutable "law of misery," to bare subsistence.

malthus and political conservatism

The Essay on the Principle of Population was a widely read work that went through six editions by 1826. Ten of the first edition's nineteen chapters are polemical attacks on the optimism of radical contemporaries—William Godwin, Dr. Price, and the French revolutionary Marie-Jean de Caritat, marquis de Condorcet. They had argued that unlimited progress and the elimination of inequality was possible, once antiquated political institutions were swept away. Malthus, a political conservative, countered that revolution, or even institutional reform, would not help. Poverty stemmed from natural (not man-made) scarcities and hence could never disappear.

Malthus opposed state intervention to relieve poverty—making him a founder of modern-day conservatism. In his view, even parish charity and the Speenhamland bread subsidies (instituted in 1795 to save Britain from food riots) would only encourage paupers to start families, which would ultimately become victims of famine, or wards of the state. Malthus provided the British landed gentry "scientific" arguments against higher local taxes ("poor rates")—provoking Karl Marx to call him a "shameless sycophant of the ruling classes"—and provided future conservatives ammunition against the welfare state. In the short term, "Malthusianism" led indirectly to Britain's harsh Poor Law of 1834. Yet Malthus insisted that his prescriptions increased "the aggregate mass of happiness among the common people." Absence of poor relief may create a few cases of "very severe distress" but food-for-work programs for the unemployed would hurt the entire working population, by raising food prices and lowering wages.

The perceived coldness of Malthus's policy prescriptions earned him the ire of his contemporaries, the Romantic poets. Lord Byron condemned Malthus for "turning marriage into arithmetic" and ridiculed him on four occasions in Don Juan (1821). Even Tories like Robert Southey and Samuel Taylor Coleridge joined the more progressive William Hazlitt and William Wordsworth in denouncing Malthus's heartlessness. Malthus countered that he was painting the true face of rural poverty, wryly noting that the "daughters of peasants will not be found such rosy cherubs in real life as described in romances."

malthus, social history, and the birth of the social sciences

Complaining that "the histories of mankind that we possess are, in general, histories only of the higher classes," Malthus called for "a faithful history" that would record changes in marriage age, fertility, and wages of agricultural labor. Malthus argued that such statistics were crucial because these poorer classes bore the brunt of nature's "positive checks," and in 1834 he cofounded the Statistical Society of London. If social, family, and agrarian history took another 150 years to emerge, the fault was scarcely Malthus's.

Second and subsequent editions of Malthus's Essay carefully documented "checks to population" recorded across many societies over many time periods—from ancient Greece to modern Siberia. Universal, timeless laws were derived from this quantitative or anthropological evidence, and predictions and policy prescriptions offered. Arguably, this made Malthus the world's first systematic social scientist. Errors can plausibly be attributed to poor data quality rather than deficient method. Barring Sweden, there were no regular censuses in 1800, and if they soon became the norm in Europe and America it was because Malthus highlighted their importance.

Though Malthus collected no data on nonhuman populations, his most enduring contribution, ironically, is to biological rather than social science. His population theory works far better for animal habitats (and is enshrined in the ecological concept of "carrying capacity") than it has done for human societies, capable of innovation. As Charles Darwin acknowledged in his Autobiography (1887), a chance encounter with Malthus's book in 1838 provided him the crucial mechanism for biological evolution—natural selection. Darwin, in his Origin of Species (1859), extrapolated the Malthusian "struggle for existence" to all species. The best-adapted members survive this struggle, and procreate; the least-adapted die.

It is scarcely known that Malthus was the world's first professional economist. Appointed in 1805 to the first-ever economics professorship (at the East India College, Haileybury), he held it till his death. While the Scottish economist Adam Smith's pioneering Wealth of Nations (1776) had promised growing prosperity through free trade and division of labor, Malthus's Principles of Political Economy (1820) recast economics as a "dismal science" struggling to reconcile unlimited needs with scarce resources. Though witnessing the tremendous productivity gains of the First Industrial Revolution, Malthus (and his friend David Ricardo) predicted declining wages and profits, higher food prices, and threats from grain imports—a declining, or at best a steady-state, economy.

the verdict of history

The nineteenth and twentieth centuries appear to have borne out Enlightenment optimism, not Malthus. Food production and living standards more than kept pace with rapid population growth—even if famines and epidemics in nineteenth-century India and Ireland and, more recently, sub-Saharan Africa, have periodically vindicated Malthusian pessimism in specific locales. Some environmentalists, however, maintain that the jury is still out: Malthus's dire prophecies have not been refuted but merely postponed, because of unprecedented (and unsustainable) technological progress. For others like Amartya Sen, two centuries afford ample time to test any theory, and most famines have had political, not natural, causes. While it is tempting to see Malthus as a protoenvironmentalist, it should be remembered that his focus on the scarcity of natural resources influenced, without doubt, the nineteenth-century scramble for colonies.

As has been argued above, however, Malthus's historical significance does not rest on the validity of his demographic pronouncements. It is by shaping the early contours of conservatism (political and sexual), economics, and social science at large, that Malthus cast his shadow into, and beyond, the nineteenth century.

See alsoEconomists, Classical; Great Britain; Industrial Revolution, First.


Primary Sources

Malthus, Thomas Robert. An Essay on the Principle of Population. 1798. 1st edition. Edited by Anthony Flew. Harmondsworth, U.K., 1982.

——. An Essay on the Principle of Population. 1826. 6th edition. London, 1973.

Secondary Sources

Brown, Lester R., et al. Nineteen Dimensions of Population Challenge. New York, 1999.

Himmelfarb, Gertrude. The Idea of Poverty. New York, 1985.

Sen, Amartya. "Malthusian Delusions?" Nation 271, no. 17 (November 27, 2000).

Winch, Donald. Malthus. Oxford, U.K., 1977.

Cyrus Vakil

views updated

Thomas Robert Malthus

The English economist Thomas Robert Malthus (1766-1834) was of the classical school and was the first to direct attention to the danger of overpopulation in the modern world.

Thomas Malthus was born at the Rookery near Guilford, Surrey, a small estate owned by his father, Daniel Malthus. After being privately educated, Malthus entered Jesus College, Cambridge, where he was elected to a fellowship at the age of 27. He took religious orders at the age of 31 and held a curacy for a short period.

In 1798 Malthus published his Essay on the Principle of Population. This pamphlet was turned into a fullscale book in 1803 with the aid of demographic data drawn from a number of European countries.

In 1805 Malthus married, and shortly thereafter he was appointed professor of modern history and political economy at the East India Company's College at Haileybury—the first appointment of its kind in England. Much to the amusement of his critics, since he advocated controlling the birthrate, he fathered five children. He died at Haileybury on Dec. 23, 1834, the year that saw the passage of a new Poor Law inspired by his writings.

Debates concerning Malthusian Theory

Few thinkers in the history of social science have aroused as much controversy as Malthus. It is not difficult to find reasons for the furor: he consistently opposed all methods of reforming society which did not act directly to reduce the birthrate, and his own remedies for bringing that about were impractical; he reduced all human suffering to the single principle of the pressure of population on the food supply, and all popular proposals for political or economic reform were exposed as irrelevant and immaterial; and he drove home his theme in one harsh passage after another, suggesting that literally every other possible social order was even worse than the existing one. Those on the left hated him because he seemed to be defending the society they hoped to change, and those on the right disliked him for defending that society as merely a necessary evil.

Toward the end of the 19th century, the discussion died down as the rise in living standards and the decline in fertility, at least in Western countries, took the sting out of the fear of overpopulation. But after World War II the problem of the underdeveloped countries brought Malthus back in favor. Most of the emerging nations of Africa, Asia, and Latin America combine the high birthrates typical of agrarian economies with the low death rates typical of industrialized economies, and there is the danger of too many mouths to feed. It is not surprising, therefore, that Malthus's name crops up repeatedly in debates on population policy in underdeveloped countries. The arguments are very different from those employed in Malthus's own day, but the participants of the debate still line up as for or against the Malthusian theory of population.

From Malthus's writings, one receives the impression of an inflexible fanatic and possibly a misanthrope, but everyone who met Malthus found him kind and benevolent. In terms of the politics of that age, he was almost, but not quite, a "liberal," and his professions of concern over the conditions of the poor must be regarded as perfectly genuine. He had unpleasant truths to tell but he told them, as it were, "for their own good."

His Theory of Population

Malthus's theory of population is baldly stated in the first two chapters of the Essay. The argument begins with two postulates: "that food is necessary to the existence of man" and "that the passion between the sexes is necessary, and will remain nearly in its present state." The "principle of population" followed from these with the force of deductive logic: "Assuming, then, my postulata as granted, I say, that the power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man. Population, when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio. Subsistence increases only in an arithmetical ratio. A slight acquaintance with numbers will show the immensity of the first power in comparison with the second. By that law of 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."

In 1798 Malthus described all the checks, such as infanticide, abortion, wars, plagues, and death from disease or starvation, as resolvable into "misery and vice." In 1803 he added a third pigeonhole, moral restraint, defined as "that restraint from marriage which was not followed by irregular gratification." It should be noted that he did not include birth control achieved by artificial devices. In his view, man was naturally lazy and would not work to provide a livelihood for himself and his family except under the threat of starvation. Birth control, even if it could be adopted, would only remove the incentive to work and would, therefore, amount to more "misery and vice." Moral restraint was something else: it implied postponement of marriage and strict chastity until marriage. He doubted that moral restraint would ever become a common practice, and it is precisely this that gave his doctrine a pessimistic hue: there were remedies against the pressure of population, but they were unlikely to be adopted.

The Malthusian law of population has some resemblance to Newtonian mechanics in assuming tendencies which are never observed as such in the real world: the arithmetical ratio is simply a loose generalization about things as they are, whereas the geometrical ratio is a calculation of things as they might be but never are. The saving clause in the theory is the check of moral restraint, which permits the food supply to increase without a corresponding increase in population. But how shall we know that it is in operation, as distinct from the practice of birth control? By virtue of the fact that the food supply is outstripping the growth of numbers, Malthus would answer. In short, the Malthusian theory explains everything by explaining nothing. No wonder that Malthus's critics bitterly complained that the Malthusian theory could not be disproved, because it was always true on its own terms.

Further Reading

The standard biography of Malthus is by James Bonar, Malthus and His Work (1885; 2d ed. 1924). The great 19th-century debate over the Malthusian doctrine is brilliantly reviewed by Kenneth Smith, The Malthusian Controversy (1951), and Harold A. Boner, Hungry Generations: The 19th-century Case against Malthusianism (1955). Mark Blaug, in Ricardian Economics: A Historical Study (1958), shows how Malthus was received by his fellow economists. George F. McCleary, The Malthusian Population Theory (1953), contains a spirited defense of Malthus's theory as still relevant to the 20th century. □

views updated

Malthus, Thomas Robert

Economist 1766-1834

Thomas Robert Malthus, English economist and demographer, proposed a theory suggesting that population growth generally tends to outrun the food supply and that therefore population growth should be curbed. Although most of his work was centered on social conditions and economics, Malthus had a significant impact on the theory of evolution.

Born February 13, 1766, in Surrey, England, Malthus was the sixth child of seven born to Daniel Malthus and Catherine Graham. The young Malthus was educated primarily at home until his admission to Jesus College in Cambridge, England, in 1784. He was graduated with a degree in mathematics, but was well read in French and English history, English literature, and Newtonian physics. A master of arts degree followed in 1791, and in 1797 he was ordained a minister in the Anglican Church. In 1804 the East India Company founded a new college to provide general education to staff members before they went on service overseas. Malthus was asked to join the faculty as professor of history and political science.

The Industrial Revolution encouraged rapid population growth in part to provide an accessible pool of cheap labor for the emerging spinning and textile industries. Public policy during Malthus's time supported the notion that population growth was desirable and that assistance should be given to poor people. Malthus, on the other hand, suggested in An Essay on the Principle of Population, As It Effects the Future Improvement of Society (1798) that overpopulation tends to be a drain on resources and that state welfare should be curtailed so that the population would level off. He argued that if it was not possible to maintain the production of food to satisfy the population, then the population must be kept down to the level of available food. He felt that individuals should marry late and practice "natural restraint" so as to have few or no children.

In addition to its relevance for the social policy of the times, Malthus's work made an important contribution to the development of ideas and theories concerning the evolution of plants, animals, humans, and Earth. In 1859 Charles Darwin published his theory of evolution in a book entitled On the Origin of Species. In this book, he agreed with Malthus's speculation that competition for resources such as food, habitat , and mates would have a cumulative effect on the evolution of different species of plants and animals. This principle became known as natural selection and was considered a primary factor in the evolution of new species. Alfred Russel Wallace, a geologist and contemporary of Darwin, also constructed and published a theory of evolution. He, too, acknowledged that he was influenced by Malthus's work on population and competition for resources.

Malthus was elected to the Royal Society in 1819, the Political Economy Club in 1821, and the Royal Society of Literature in 1824. He was also admitted to the Statistical Society of London in 1834, the French Academy of Sciences in 1833, and the Royal Academy of Berlin the same year. Malthus died on December 23, 1834.

see also Biological Evolution; Darwin, Charles; Wallace, Alfred Russel.

Leslie Hutchinson


Darwin, Charles. On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. New York: Penguin, 1987.

Muir, Hazel, ed. Larousse Dictionary of Scientists. New York: Larousse, 1994.

Winch, Donald. Malthus. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.

views updated

Malthus, Thomas Robert (1766–1834) An early political economist whose Essay on Population, first published in 1798 and frequently revised, had an enormous impact on theories of population. Malthus's father, a liberal English landowner and a friend of Rousseau, educated his own son until he went to Cambridge. There, Malthus was appointed a Fellow in 1793, and in 1797 he took Holy Orders. In 1805 he became Professor of History and Political Economy at the East India Company College at Haileybury.

In his Essay Malthus engaged with the contemporary debate about the perfectibility of humankind. Against writers such as Godwin and Condorcet, who believed that the human race was capable of ever greater improvement and happiness, Malthus, drawing on the work of Adam Smith and David Hume, pointed to the pressures and difficulties for the human race arising from what he called the ‘principle of population’. This was the natural tendency of populations to expand faster than resources. Populations could expand geometrically; resources no more than arithmetically. Inevitably, therefore, actual population growth was checked by insufficiency of resources, either by ‘positive’ checks (deaths from disease and starvation) or by ‘preventive’ checks (postponing marriage or sexual abstinence).

Malthus's views have been widely challenged, not least for the implication that attempts to remedy poverty by increasing resources must be unsuccessful since this only leads to further population expansion and further pressure on the ‘necessaries of life’, a view that was used to justify the harshness of the 1834 Poor Law Reforms in Britain. Karl Marx, for instance, contended that a population's capacity to feed itself depended primarily on economic and social organization: capitalism–not population growth–was to blame for poverty.

views updated


English economist; b. near Guildford, Surrey, England, Feb. 14, 1776; d. Bath, England, Dec. 29, 1834. Malthus was an Anglican clergyman but devoted much attention to economics. In 1805 he became professor of history and political economy at the East India Company's college in Haileybury. Although best known for his theory of population, Malthus also contributed to other topics in economics, especially the theory of market gluts.

Malthus's Essay on Population (1st ed. 1798) was primarily an answer to the "Utopian" writings of William Godwin, who argued that poverty and misery were the result of social institutions and could be cured by the elimination of private property, inheritance, and social classes. In rebuttal, Malthus argued that there is a "natural tendency" for population to increase at a geometric rate. Food production, however, would grow less rapidly, being governed by the law of diminishing returns. The result would be increasing misery, pestilence, and war, which would increase the death rate to match the birth rate and hold population stable. Although without optimism, later editions of the Essay discussed the possibility that "preventive checks" on birth rate could lessen the need for the previously mentioned "positive checks" on the population. Among the preventive checks discussed were moral restraint and postponement of marriage. Contraception, as advocated by later neo-Malthusians, was not mentioned by Malthus and would probably have been opposed by him.

In his theory of market gluts Malthus emphasized effective demand and the necessity to keep purchasing power sufficiently high in order to purchase the output that can be produced. J. M. Keynes gives Malthus credit for being the major forerunner of the ideas he put forth in his General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (London 1936). Malthus has been both praised and condemned, especially for his population theory, but there is little doubt of his significant contributions to the understanding of the economic process.

Bibliography: t. r. malthus, An Essay on the Principle of Population (London 1798); Principles of Political Economy (London 1820). j. m. keynes, Essays in Biography (New York 1933). j. bonar, Malthus and His Work (London 1885).

[j. p. mckenna]