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Thomas Robert Malthus

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Thomas Robert Malthus
Classical economics
Nationality British
Field demography, macroeconomics, evolutionary economics
Opposed William Godwin, Marquis de Condorcet, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, David Ricardo
Influences Adam Smith, David Ricardo
Influenced Charles Darwin, Francis Place, Garrett Hardin, John Maynard Keynes, Pierre Francois Verhulst, Alfred Russel Wallace
Contributions Malthusian growth model

The English political economist and demographer the Reverend Dr Thomas Robert Malthus FRS lived from 13 February 1766 to 23 December 1834). He expressed views on population growth and noted the potential for populations to increase rapidly.

Modern commentators generally refer to him as Thomas Malthus, but during his lifetime he went by his middle name, Robert.


Thomas Robert Malthus, the second son of eight children (six of them girls) born to Daniel and Henrietta Malthus near Guildford, Surrey, came into a prosperous family, with his father a personal friend of the philosopher David Hume and an acquaintance of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The young Malthus received his education at home in Bramcote, Nottinghamshire and at the Dissenting Academy, Warrington until his admission to Jesus College, Cambridge in 1784. There he studied many subjects and took prizes in English declamation, Latin and Greek, but he majored in mathematics. He earned a masters degree in 1791 and won election as a fellow of Jesus College two years later. In 1797, he took orders and became an Anglican country parson.

Malthus married his first-cousin once removed, Harriet Eckersall, on April 12 1804, and had three children: Henry, Emily and Lucy. In 1805 he became Britain's first professor in political economy at the East India Company College (now known as Haileybury) in Hertfordshire. His students affectionately referred to him as "Pop" or "Population" Malthus. In 1818 Malthus became a Fellow of the Royal Society.

Malthus refused to have his portrait painted until 1833 because of embarrassment over a cleft lip. Malthus also had a cleft palate that affected his speech. These cleft-related birth defects occurred relatively commonly in his family.

Bath Abbey in England hosts Malthus's tomb.

The Principle of Population

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

Malthus regarded ideals of future improvement in the lot of humanity with scepticism, considering that throughout history a segment of every human population seemed relegated to poverty. He explained this phenomenon by pointing out that population growth generally preceded expansion of the population's resources, in particular the primary resource of food:

" all societies, even those that are most vicious, the tendency to a virtuous attachment is so strong that there is a constant effort towards an increase of population. This constant effort as constantly tends to subject the lower classes of the society to distress and to prevent any great permanent improvement of their condition."

"The way in which, these effects are produced seems to be this. We will suppose the means of subsistence in any country just equal to the easy support of its inhabitants. The constant effort towards population... increases the number of people before the means of subsistence are increased. The food therefore which before supported seven millions must now be divided among seven millions and a half or eight millions. The poor consequently must live much worse, and many of them be reduced to severe distress. The number of labourers also being above the proportion of the work in the market, the price of labour must tend toward a decrease, while the price of provisions would at the same time tend to rise. The labourer therefore must work harder to earn the same as he did before. During this season of distress, the discouragements to marriage, and the difficulty of rearing a family are so great that population is at a stand. In the mean time the cheapness of labour, the plenty of labourers, and the necessity of an increased industry amongst them, encourage cultivators to employ more labour upon their land, to turn up fresh soil, and to manure and improve more completely what is already in tillage, till ultimately the means of subsistence become in the same proportion to the population as at the period from which we set out. The situation of the labourer being then again tolerably comfortable, the restraints to population are in some degree loosened, and the same retrograde and progressive movements with respect to happiness are repeated."

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

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

To give a mathematical perspective to his observations, Malthus proposed the idea that population, if unchecked, increases at a geometric rate (i.e. 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, etc.), whereas the food-supply grows at an arithmetic rate (i.e. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 etc.).

In the first edition of the Essay, Malthus suggested that only natural causes (such as accidents and old age), misery (war, pestilence, plague, and above all famine) [Book I, Ch. 2], and vice (which for Malthus included infanticide, murder, contraception and homosexuality) [Book I, Ch. 5.] could check excessive population-growth. In the second and subsequent editions, Malthus raised the possibility of moral restraint (marrying late or not at all, coupled with sexual abstinence prior to, and outside of, marriage) as a check on the growth of population. (Others criticised him, however, for implying that restraint applied only to the working and poor classes.) He also proposed the gradual abolition of poor laws that gave no incentive to birth control, supporting instead private charity.

Malthus took offence at criticism that he lacked a caring attitude towards the situation of the poor. He wrote in an addition to the 1817 edition:

"I have written a chapter expressly on the practical direction of our charity; and in detached passages elsewhere have paid a just tribute to the exalted virtue of benevolence. To those who have read these parts of my work, and have attended to the general tone and spirit of the whole, I willingly appeal, if they are but tolerably candid, against these charges ... which intimate that I would root out the virtues of charity and benevolence without regard to the exaltation which they bestow on the moral dignity of our nature.... (p. 607)

Some have argued that Malthus did not fully recognize the human capacity to increase food supply. On this subject Malthus wrote: "The main peculiarity which distinguishes man from other animals, is the means of his support, is the power which he possesses of very greatly increasing these means."

Malthus's expectations of growth in population

Since 1800, global food production has generally kept pace with population growth, but increasing numbers of humans call for new ways "to increase yields while preserving natural habitats and biodiversity".

Elwell states that Malthus made no specific prediction regarding the future; and that what some interpret as prediction merely constituted Malthus's illustration of the power of geometric (or exponential) population growth compared to the arithmetic growth of food-production. Rather than predicting the future, the Essay offers an evolutionary social theory. Eight major points regarding evolution appear in the 1798 Essay:

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

Malthusian theory has had great influence on evolutionary theory, both in biology (as acknowledged by Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace) and in the social sciences (compare Herbert Spencer). Malthus's population theory has also profoundly affected the modern-day ecological-evolutionary social theory of Gerhard Lenski and Marvin Harris. He can thus rank as a key contributing element of the canon of socioeconomic theory.


Malthus's theory of population has proven very influential. In 1978 Michael H. Hart published a book called The 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential Persons in History, which placed Malthus at number 80 in this worldwide ranking.

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

Before Malthus, commentators had regarded high fertility as an economic advantage, since it increased the number of workers available to the economy. Malthus, however, looked at fertility from a new perspective and convinced most economists that even though high fertility might increase the gross output, it tended to reduce output per capita. A number of other notable economists, such as David Ricardo (whom Malthus knew personally) and Alfred Marshall admired Malthus and/or came under his influence.

A distinguished early convert to Malthusianism, British Prime Minister William Pitt The Younger (in office: 1783 - 1801 and 1804 - 1806), after reading the work of Malthus promptly withdrew a bill he had introduced that called for the extension of Poor Relief. Pitt also launched the first modern census in the UK (conducted in 1801). In the 1830s Malthus's writings strongly influenced Whig reforms which overturned Tory paternalism and brought in the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834.

Concerns about Malthus's theory helped promote the idea of a national population census in the UK. Government official John Rickman became instrumental in the carrying out of the first modern British census in 1801.

Malthus took pride in the fact that some of the earliest converts to his population theory included the leading creationist and natural theologian, Archdeacon William Paley, whose Natural Theology first appeared in 1802. Both men regarded Malthus's Principle of Population as additional proof of the existence of a deity.

Ironically, given Malthus's own opposition to contraception, his work exercised a strong influence on Francis Place (1771–1854), whose Neo-Malthusian movement became the first to advocate contraception. Place published his Illustrations and Proofs of the Principles of Population in 1822.

Malthus's idea of man's "struggle for existence" had an influence on the inception of Darwin's theory of evolution, along with A. P. de Candolle's idea of "nature's war". Other scientists related this idea to plants and animals, which helped to define a piece of the evolutionary puzzle. This struggle for existence of all creatures provides the catalyst by which natural selection produces the " survival of the fittest", a phrase coined by Herbert Spencer. Darwin, in his book The Origin of Species, called his theory an application of the doctrines of Malthus in an area without the complicating factor of human intelligence. Darwin, a life-long admirer of Malthus, referred to Malthus as "that great philosopher" and wrote in his notebook that "Malthus on Man should be studied". Wallace called Malthus's essay "...the most important book I read..." and considered it "the most interesting coincidence" that reading Malthus led both himself and Darwin, independently, towards the idea of evolution.

Thanks to Malthus, Darwin recognized the significance of competition between populations of the same species, as well as the importance of competition between species. Malthusian thinking on population also explained how an incipient species could become a full-blown species in a very short time-frame. Robert M. Young, Professor of Psychotherapy and Psychoanalytic Studies at Sheffield University in England, perhaps best highlighted the significance of Malthus's influence on Darwin in Darwin's Metaphor: Nature's Place in Victorian Culture in 1965.

The first Director-General of UNESCO, evolutionist and humanist Julian Huxley, wrote of "The Crowded World" in his Evolutionary Humanism (1964), calling for a "World Population Policy". Huxley openly criticised Communist and Roman Catholic attitudes to birth control , population control and overpopulation. Today world organizations such as the United Nations Population Fund acknowledge that the debate over how many people the Earth can support effectively started with Malthus.

Julian Huxley's brother, the author Aldous Huxley, in his book Brave New World, refers to Malthusian theories on population. The inhabitants of his novel use a popular form of birth control known as the "Malthusian Belt". The females in the novel, including the female protagonist Lenina Crowne, mention it frequently.

Malthusian ideas continue to have considerable influence. Paul R. Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb(1968), furnishes a recent example of this. (Ehrlich predicted, in the late 1960s, that hundreds of millions would die from a coming overpopulation-crisis in the 1970s, and that by 1980 inhabitants of the United States would have a life-expectancy of only 42 years.) Other examples of applied Malthusianism include the 1972 book The Limits to Growth published by the Club of Rome, and the Global 2000 report to the then President of the United States of America Jimmy Carter. Science-fiction author Isaac Asimov issued many appeals for population-control reflecting the perspective articulated by people from Thomas Malthus through Paul R. Ehrlich.

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

Many regard Malthus as the founder of modern demography. Malthus proposed his Principle of Population as a universal natural law for all species, not just humans. Instead, today, commentators widely regard his theory as only an approximate natural law of population dynamics for all species: this because scientists have proven that nothing can sustain exponential growth at a constant rate indefinitely.

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

Malthus has also inspired retired physics professor, Albert Bartlett, to lecture over 1,500 times on "Arithmetic, Population, and Energy", promoting sustainable living and explaining the mathematics of overpopulation.

The Malthusian growth model now bears Malthus's name. The logistic function of Pierre Francois Verhulst (1804-1849) results in the well-known S-curve. Verhulst developed the logistic growth model favored by so many critics of the Malthusian growth model in 1838 only after reading Malthus's essay.

Some commentators have disputed the efficacy of Malthus's arithmetic model of food-supply, noting that food supply has kept pace with population for the past two centuries.

Malthus's position as professor at the British East India Company training college, which he held until his death in 1834, gave his theories considerable influence over Britain's administration of India through most of the 19th century, continuing even under the Raj after the Company's dissolution in 1858. In a major result of this influence, the official response to India's periodic famines (which had occurred every decade or two for centuries) became one of not entirely benign neglect: the authorities regarded the famines as necessary to keep the "excess" population in check. In some cases administrators even banned private efforts to transport food into famine-stricken areas. However, this "Malthusian" policy did not take account of the enormous economic damage done by such famines through loss of human capital, collapse of credit structures and financial institutions, and the destruction of physical capital (especially in the form of livestock), social infrastructure and commercial relationships. As a (presumably unintended) consequence, production often did not recover to pre-famine levels in the affected areas for a decade or more after each disaster, well after the replacement of the lost population.

Malthusian theory also influenced British policies in Ireland during the 1840s: the government neglected relief-measures during the Irish Potato Famine (1845-1849), seeing mass starvation as a natural and inevitable consequence of the island's supposed over-population.

Although many people assume that Malthus's pessimistic views gave economics the nickname "the Dismal Science", the historian Thomas Carlyle actually coined the phrase in 1849 in reference to laissez-faire economic theories in general.


Contemporaries of Malthus

William Godwin responded to Malthus's criticisms of his own arguments with On Population (1820).

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


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

Engels called Malthus's hypothesis "...the crudest, most barbarous theory that ever existed, a system of despair which struck down all those beautiful phrases about love thy neighbour and world citizenship."

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


Biologist Ronald Fisher expressed criticism of the use of Malthus's theory as a basis for the theory of natural selection. John Maynard Smith criticised Malthus's hypothesis, doubting that famine functioned as the great leveler that Malthus saw it as.


Some 19th-century economists believed that improvements in the division and specialization of labor, increased capital investment, and other factors had rendered some of Malthus's warnings implausible. In the absence of any improvement in technology or increase of capital equipment, an increased supply of labor may have a synergistic effect on productivity that overcomes the law of diminishing returns. As American land-economist Henry George observed with characteristic piquancy in dismissing Malthus: "Both the jayhawk and the man eat chickens; but the more jayhawks, the fewer chickens, while the more men, the more chickens."

Many 20th-century economists, such as Julian Lincoln Simon, have also criticised Malthus's conclusions. They note that despite the predictions of Malthus and the Neo- Malthusians, massive geometric population growth in the 20th century has not resulted in a Malthusian catastrophe, largely due to the influence of technological advances and the expansion of the market economy, division of labor, and stock of capital goods. The enviro-sceptic Bjørn Lomborg, echoes such arguments. Some, such as British physicist John Maddox, thus regard Malthus as a failed prophet of doom.


In The Malthus Factor: Population, Poverty, and Politics in Capitalist Development, anthropologist Eric Ross depicts Malthus's work as a rationalization of the social inequities produced by the Industrial Revolution, anti-immigration movements, the eugenics movement and the various international development movements.


Malthus argued that as wages increase within an economy, the birth-rate increases while the death-rate decreases. He reasoned that high incomes allowed people to have sufficient means to raise their children, thus resulting in greater desire to have more children which increases the population. In addition, high incomes also allowed people to afford proper medication to fight off potentially harmful diseases, thus decreasing the death-rate. As a result, wage-increases caused population to grow as the birth-rate increases and the death-rate decreases. He further argued that as the supply of labor increases with the increased population-growth at a constant labor demand, the wages earned would decrease eventually to subsistence, where the birth-rate equals the death-rate, resulting in no growth in population. However, the world generally has experienced quite a different result than the one Malthus predicted. During the late 19th and early 20th century, the population (and wages) increased as the industrial revolution gathered pace. However, birth rates in highly-developed nations have dropped to bare replacement-levels, such that many Western nations like the US and Canada only grow due to immigration, and Japan faces a declining population when the post-World War II generation dies off.

Malthus assumed a constant labor-demand in his assessment of England, and in doing so he ignored the effects of industrialization. As the world became more industrialized, the level of technology and production grew, causing an increase in labor-demand. Thus, even though labor-supply increased, so did the demand for labor. In fact, the labor-demand arguably increased more than the supply, as measured by the historically observed increase in real wages globally with population growth.


Sacred to the memory of the Rev Thomas Robert Malthus, long known to the lettered world by his admirable writings on the social branches of political economy, particularly by his essay on population. One of the best men and truest philosophers of any age or country, raised by native dignity of mind above the misrepresentation of the ignorant and the neglect of the great, he lived a serene and happy life devoted to the pursuit and communication of truth. Supported by a calm but firm conviction of the usefulness of his labors. Content with the approbation of the wise and good. His writings will be a lasting monument of the extent and correctness of his understanding. The spotless integrity of his principles, the equity and candour of his nature, his sweetness of temper, urbanity of manners and tenderness of heart, his benevolence and his piety are still dearer recollections of his family and friends. Born Feb 14 1766 Died 29 Dec 1834.

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