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Thomas Robert Malthus
Classical economics
Thomas Malthus.jpg
Thomas Robert Malthus
Birth February 13, 1766(1766-02-13)
(Surrey, England)
Death December 23, 1834 (aged 68)
(Bath, England)
Nationality British
Field demography, macroeconomics, evolutionary economics[citation needed]
Influences David Ricardo, Jean Charles Léonard de Sismondi
Opposed William Godwin, Jean-Baptiste Say, Marquis de Condorcet, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, David Ricardo
Influenced Charles Darwin, Francis Place, Garrett Hardin, John Maynard Keynes, Pierre Francois Verhulst, Alfred Russel Wallace, Karl Marx, Mao Zedong
Contributions Malthusian growth model

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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 arguing that population growth generally expanded in times and in regions of plenty until the size of the population relative to the primary resources caused distress:

"Yet in all societies, even those that are most vicious, the tendency to a virtuous attachment is so strong that there is a constant effort towards an increase of population. This constant effort as constantly tends to subject the lower classes of the society to distress and to prevent any great permanent amelioration of their condition".
—Malthus T.R. 1798. An essay on the principle of population. Chapter II, p18 in Oxford World's Classics reprint.
"The way in which these effects are produced seems to be this. We will suppose the means of subsistence in any country just equal to the easy support of its inhabitants. The constant effort towards population... increases the number of people before the means of subsistence are increased. The food therefore which before supported seven millions must now be divided among seven millions and a half or eight millions. The poor consequently must live much worse, and many of them be reduced to severe distress. The number of labourers also being above the proportion of the work in the market, the price of labour must tend toward a decrease, while the price of provisions would at the same time tend to rise. The labourer therefore must work harder to earn the same as he did before. During this season of distress, the discouragements to marriage, and the difficulty of rearing a family are so great that population is at a stand. In the mean time the cheapness of labour, the plenty of labourers, and the necessity of an increased industry amongst them, encourage cultivators to employ more labour upon their land, to turn up fresh soil, and to manure and improve more completely what is already in tillage, till ultimately the means of subsistence become in the same proportion to the population as at the period from which we set out. The situation of the labourer being then again tolerably comfortable, the restraints to population are in some degree loosened, and the same retrograde and progressive movements with respect to happiness are repeated".
—Malthus T.R. 1798. An essay on the principle of population. Chapter II, p19 in Oxford World's Classics reprint.

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

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

Proposed solutions

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

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

He also criticized the notion that Francis Galton later called eugenics:

"It does not... by any means seem impossible that by an attention to breed, a certain degree of improvement, similar to that among animals, might take place among men. Whether intellect could be communicated may be a matter of doubt; but size, strength, beauty, complexion, and perhaps longevity are in a degree transmissible... As the human race, however, could not be improved in this way without condemning all the bad specimens to celibacy, it is not probable that an attention to breed should ever become general".
—Malthus T.R. 1798. An essay on the principle of population. Chapter IX, p72[27]

In the second and subsequent editions, Malthus put more emphasis on moral restraint. By that he meant the postponement of marriage until people could support a family, coupled with strict celibacy (sexual abstinence) until that time. "He went so far as to claim that moral restraint on a wide scale was the best means—indeed, the only means—of easing the poverty of the lower classes."[28] This plan appeared consistent with virtue, economic gain and social improvement.[citation needed]

This train of thought counterpoints Malthus's stand on public assistance to the poor. He proposed the gradual abolition of poor laws by gradually reducing the number of persons qualifying for relief. Relief in dire distress would come from private charity.[29] He reasoned that poor relief acted against the longer-term interests of the poor by raising the price of commodities and undermining the independence and resilience of the peasant.[citation needed] In other words, the poor laws tended to "create the poor which they maintain".[30]

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

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

In an addition to the 1817 edition he wrote:

I have written a chapter expressly on the practical direction of our charity; and in detached passages elsewhere have paid a just tribute to the exalted virtue of benevolence. To those who have read these parts of my work, and have attended to the general tone and spirit of the whole, I willingly appeal, if they are but tolerably candid, against these charges ... which intimate that I would root out the virtues of charity and benevolence without regard to the exaltation which they bestow on the moral dignity of our nature...[31]

Some, such as William Farr[32] and Karl Marx,[33] argued that Malthus did not fully recognize the human capacity to increase food supply. On this subject, however, Malthus had written: "The main peculiarity which distinguishes man from other animals, in the means of his support, is the power which he possesses of very greatly increasing these means."[34]

On religion

As a believer and a clergyman, Malthus held that God had created an inexorable tendency to human population growth for a moral purpose, with the constant harsh threat of poverty and starvation designed to teach the virtues of hard work and virtuous behaviour.[8]

The issue has occurred to many believers: why should an omnipotent and caring God permit the existence of wickedness and suffering in the world? Malthus's theodicy answers that evil energizes mankind in the struggle for good. "Had population and food increased in the same ratio, it is probable that man might never have emerged from the savage state". The principle of population represented more than the difference between an arithmetic and a geometric series; it provided the spur for constructive activity:

"Evil exists in the world not to create despair, but activity." [35]

Malthus saw "the infinite variety of nature" which "cannot exist without inferior parts, or apparent blemishes". Such diversity and struggle functioned to enable the development of improved forms. Without such a contest, no species would feel impelled to improve itself.[citation needed] Without the test of struggle, and the failure or even death of some, no successful development of the population as a whole would take place.[citation needed] For Malthus, evil invigorates good and death replenishes life.[citation needed] Malthus painted a picture of fecundity in the face of enduring resource-scarcity, in which adversity and evil can stimulate beneficial outcomes.[36]

Demographics and Wages

Malthus argued that poverty was a positive check to population growth, as people without means were less likely to have children that could not be supported.[37] Similarly, as wages increased, the birth-rate could be expected to increase while the death-rate decreased. Consequently, wage increases caused populations to grow. Malthus believed that this inevitably led to economic oscillations between relative prosperity and distress, though the oscillations were not always apparent:

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

"In savage life, where there is no regular price of labour, it is little to be doubted that similar oscillations took place. When population has increased nearly to the utmost limits of the food, all the preventive and the positive checks will naturally operate with increased force. Vicious habits with respect to the sex will be more general, the exposing of children more frequent, and both the probability and fatality of wars and epidemics will be considerably greater; and these causes will probably continue their operation till the population is sunk below the level of the food; and then the return to comparative plenty will again produce an increase, and, after a certain period, its further progress will again be checked by the same causes."[38]

Editions and versions of The Principle of Population

  • 1798: 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.. Anonymously published.
  • 1803: Second and much enlarged edition: 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. Authorship acknowledged.
  • 1806, 1807, 1817 and 1826: editions 3–6, with relatively minor changes from the second edition.
  • 1823: Malthus contributed the article on Population to the supplement of the Encyclopedia Britannica.
  • 1830: Reprints a long extract from the 1823 article as A summary view of the Principle of Population.[39]

Other works

1800: The present high price of provisions

In this work, his first published pamphlet, Malthus argues against the notion prevailing in his locale that the greed of intermediaries caused the high price of provisions. Instead, Malthus says that the high price stems from the Poor Laws which "increase the parish allowances in proportion to the price of corn". Thus, given a limited supply, the Poor Laws force up the price of daily necessities. Then he concludes by saying that in time of scarcity such Poor Laws, by raising the price of corn more evenly, produce a beneficial effect.[40]

1814: Observations on the effects of the Corn Laws

Although government in Britain had regulated the prices of corn (wheat) since the seventeenth century[citation needed], the Corn Laws originated in 1815. At the end of the Napoleonic Wars that year, Parliament passed legislation banning the importation of foreign corn into Britain until domestic corn cost 80 shillings per quarter. The high price caused the cost of food to increase and so caused great distress among the working classes in the towns. This led to serious rioting in London and to the "Peterloo Massacre" (1819) in Manchester.[41][42]

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

1815: The Nature of Rent

Rent constitutes a major concept in economics. David Ricardo, Malthus' contemporary and friendly rival, defined a theory of rent in his Principles of Political Economy (1817). Ricardo regarded rent as value in excess of real production — something caused by incident of ownership rather than by fundamental economic value imparted by free and equal trade. For Ricardo, rent represented a kind of negative money that landlords could pull out of the production of the land by measure of land's scarcity.[43]

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

1815: The policy of restricting the importation of Grain

Malthus emerged as the only economist of note to support customs duty on imported grain.[44]

He had changed his mind from the previous year, siding now with the protectionists. Foreign laws, he noted, often prohibit or raise taxes on the export of corn in lean times, which meant that the British food supply could become captive to foreign politics. By encouraging domestic production, Malthus argued, the Corn Laws would guarantee British self-sufficiency in food.[45]

1820: Principles of political economy

1836: Second edition, posthumously published.

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

1823: The Measure of Value, stated and illustrated

1827: Definitions in political economy

"The question of a glut is exclusively whether it may be general, as well as particular, and not whether it may be permanent as well as temporary...[The] tendency, in the natural course of things, to cure a glut or scarcity, is no more a proof that such evils have never existed, than the tendency of the healing processes of nature to cure some disorders without assistance from man, is a proof that such disorders never existed." [46]

Other publications

  • 1807. A letter to Samuel Whitbread, Esq. M.P. on his proposed Bill for the Amendment of the Poor Laws. Johnson and Hatchard, London.
  • 1808. Spence on Commerce. Edinburgh Review 11, January, 429-448.
  • 1808. Newneham and others on the state of Ireland. Edinburgh Review 12, July, 336-355.
  • 1809. Newneham on the state of Ireland, Edinburgh Review 14 April, 151-170.
  • 1811. Depreciation of paper currency. Edinburgh Review 17, February, 340-372.
  • 1812. Pamphlets on the bullion question. Edinburgh Review 18, August, 448-470.
  • 1813. A letter to the Rt. Hon. Lord Grenville. Johnson, London.
  • 1817. Statement respecting the East-India College. Murray, London.
  • 1821. Godwin on Malthus. Edinburgh Review 35, July, 362-377.
  • 1823. Tooke – On high and low prices. Quarterly Review, 29 (57), April, 214-239.
  • 1824. Political economy. Quarterly Review 30 (60), January, 297-334.
  • 1829. On the measure of the conditions necessary to the supply of commodities. Transactions of the Royal Society of Literature of the United Kingdom. 1, 171-180. John Murray, London.
  • 1829. On the meaning which is most usually and most correctly attached to the term Value of a Commodity. Transactions of the Royal Society of Literature of the United Kingdom. 2, 74-81. John Murray, London.

Surplus Theory

Whereas Malthus's main body of work presents a theory of irremediable, if not untreatable, scarcity, three of his other works present a theory of surplus: The Nature of Rent, Principles of political economy,[47] and Definitions in Political Economy [47].

The Nature of Rent proposes rent as a kind of surplus, whereas the previous general definition of rent portrayed it as an societal economic loss caused by personal financial gain derived from land scarcity.[48]

Principles of Political Economy and Definitions in Political Economy defend[47] the concept of the general glut, a theory that surplus value can present a problem. Rent as surplus, and a glut or surplus of goods as problems differ somewhat or stand in contradistinction to Malthus's earlier scarcity theory of The Principle of Population.

Reactions to his ideas

Malthus became subject to extreme personal criticism. People who knew nothing about his private life criticised him both for having no children and for having too many. In 1819, Shelley, berating Malthus as a priest, called him "a eunuch and a tyrant" (though the Church of England does not require celibacy, and Malthus had married in 1804).[49] Marx repeated the lie, adding that Malthus had taken the vow of celibacy, and called him "superficial", "a professional plagiarist", "the agent of the landed aristocracy", "a paid advocate" and "the principal enemy of the people." [50] In the 20th century an editor of the Everyman edition of Malthus claimed that Malthus had practised population control by begetting eleven girls.[51] (In fact, Malthus fathered two daughters and one son.) Garrett Hardin provides an overview of these personal insults.[52]

Early responses

William Godwin criticized 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 (1807)[53] and of the economist Nassau William Senior,[54] and moralist William Cobbett. Note also True Law of Population (1845) by politician Thomas Doubleday, an adherent of Cobbett's views.

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

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

Marxist View

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

Engels called Malthus's hypothesis "...the crudest, most barbarous theory that ever existed, a system of despair which struck down all those beautiful phrases about love thy neighbour and world citizenship." [55] Engels also predicted[citation needed] that science would solve the problem of an adequate food supply.

In the Marxist tradition, Lenin sharply criticized Malthusian theory and its neo-Malthusian version,[56] 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".

Technologists' Views

Some 19th-century economists believed that improvements in finance, manufacturing and science rendered some of Malthus's warnings implausible. They had in mind the division and specialization of labour, increased capital investment, and increased productivity of the land due to the introduction of science into agriculture (Justus Liebig; Sir John Bennet Lawes). Even in the absence of improvement in technology or increase of capital equipment, an increased supply of labour may have a synergistic effect on productivity that overcomes the law of diminishing returns. As American land-economist Henry George observed with characteristic piquancy in dismissing Malthus: "Both the jayhawk and the man eat chickens; but the more jayhawks, the fewer chickens, while the more men, the more chickens." In this century, those who regard Malthus as a failed prophet of doom include a former editor of Nature, John Maddox.[57]

Economist Julian Lincoln Simon has criticised Malthus's conclusions.[58] He notes that despite the predictions of Malthus and the Neo-Malthusians, massive geometric population growth in the 20th century did not result in a Malthusian catastrophe. Many factors may have contributed: general improvements in farming methods (industrial agriculture), mechanization of work (tractors), the introduction of high-yield varieties of wheat and other plants (green revolution), the use of pesticides to control crop pests. Each played a role.[59] The enviro-sceptic Bjørn Lomborg presents data showing that the environment has actually improved.[60] Calories produced per day per capita globally went up 23% between 1960 and 2000, despite the world population doubling during that period.[61]

Anthropologist Eric Ross

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.[62]


Early influence

According to biographer William Peterson, British Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger (in office: 1783–1801 and 1804–1806), upon reading the work of Malthus, withdrew a Bill he had introduced that called for the extension of Poor Relief. Concerns about Malthus's theory helped promote the idea of a national population census in the UK. Government official John Rickman became instrumental in the carrying out of the first modern British census in 1801, under Pitt's administration. In the 1830s Malthus's writings strongly influenced Whig reforms which overturned Tory paternalism and brought in the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834. Peterson also contends that Malthus's theories had some influence over Britain's administration of India. [63]

Before Malthus, commentators had regarded high fertility as an economic advantage, because it increased the number of workers available to the economy. Malthus, however, looked at fertility from a new perspective and convinced most economists that even though high fertility might increase the gross output, it tended to reduce output per capita. A number of other notable economists, such as David Ricardo (whom Malthus knew personally) and Alfred Marshall admired Malthus and/or came under his influence. Malthus took pride in the fact that some of the earliest converts to his population theory included Archdeacon William Paley, whose Natural Theology first appeared in 1802. Ironically, given Malthus's own opposition to contraception, his work exercised a strong influence on Francis Place (1771–1854), whose neo-Malthusian movement became the first to advocate contraception. Place published his Illustrations and Proofs of the Principles of Population in 1822.[64]

Later influence

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

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

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

Malthus, sometimes regarded as the founding father of modern demography,[65] continues to inspire and influence futuristic visions, such as those of K Eric Drexler relating to space advocacy and molecular nanotechnology. As Drexler put it in Engines of Creation (1986): "In a sense, opening space will burst our limits to growth, since we know of no end to the universe. Nevertheless, Malthus was essentially right."

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

  • [Malthus] became the best-abused man of the age [66]
  • There is hardly a cherished ideology, left or right, that is not brought into question by the principle of population.[3]
  • One of the 100 most influential people of all time.[67]

Social theory

Despite use of the term "Malthusian catastrophe" by detractors such as economist Julian Simon, Malthus himself did not write that mankind faced an inevitable future catastrophe. Rather, he offered an evolutionary social theory of population dynamics, acting steadily throughout all previous history.[68] Eight major points regarding population dynamics 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. because productivity increases cannot maintain the potential rate of population growth, population requires strong checks to keep parity with the carrying-capacity
  6. individual cost/benefit decisions regarding sex, work, and children determine the expansion or contraction of population and production
  7. checks will come into operation as population exceeds subsistence-level
  8. the nature of these checks will have significant effect on the larger sociocultural system — Malthus points specifically to misery, vice, and poverty

Malthusian social theory influenced Herbert Spencer's idea of the survival of the fittest,[69] and the modern ecological-evolutionary social theory of Gerhard Lenski and Marvin Harris[citation needed]. Malthusian ideas have thus contributed to the canon of socioeconomic theory.

The first Director-General of UNESCO, 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.


Darwin and Wallace both read and acknowledged the role played by Malthus in the development of their own ideas. Darwin referred to Malthus as "that great philosopher",[70] and said: "This is the doctrine of Malthus, applied with manifold force to the animal and vegetable kingdoms, for in this case there can be no artificial increase of food, and no prudential restraint from marriage".[71] Darwin also wrote:

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

Wallace stated:

"But perhaps the most important book I read was Malthus's Principles of Population... It was the first great work I had yet read treating of any of the problems of philosophical biology, and its main principles remained with me as a permanent possession, and twenty years later gave me the long-sought clue to the effective agent in the evolution of organic species.
—Wallace, Alfred Russel 1908. My life: a record of events and opinions.[72]

Ronald Fisher commented on the use of Malthus's theory as a basis for a theory of natural selection. Fisher did not deny Malthus's basic premises, but emphasised that natural selection can alter fecundity.[73] John Maynard Smith doubted that famine functioned as the great leveller, as portrayed by Malthus, but he also accepted the basic premises:

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

References in popular culture

  • Ebenezer Scrooge from A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, represents the perceived ideas of Malthus,[citation needed] famously illustrated by his explanation as to why he refuses to donate to the poor and destitute: "If they would rather die they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population". In general, although Dickens may have had some Malthusian concerns (evident in Hard Times and other novels), he concentrated his attacks on Utilitarianism and on those who preached the achievement of Utopia through work, with labour as the answer to all social ills.[citation needed]
  • In Robert A. Heinlein's novel, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, the character Bernardo de la Paz says to Mannie: "This planet isn't crowded; it is just mismanaged ... and the unkindest thing you can do for a hungry man is to give him food. Read Malthus. It is never safe to laugh at Dr. Malthus; he always has the last laugh."
  • In Aldous Huxley's novel, Brave New World, people generally regard fertility as a nuisance, as cloning has enabled the society to maintain its population at precisely the level the controllers want. The women, therefore, carry contraceptives with them at all times in a "Malthusian belt".
  • In John Fowles's The French Lieutenant's Woman Dr. Grogan' says of Malthus: "For him the tragedy of homo sapiens is that the least fit to survive breed the most".
  • George R. R. Martin's novel Tuf Voyaging features a planet called S'uthlam (a near-palindrome for "Malthus") which constantly faces the danger of mass famine because of its rapidly expanding population.
  • Urinetown, a musical about a world torn by drought, ends with a shout of "Hail Malthus!" after explaining that all the characters in the show die. (The musical portrays a society that cannot sustain itself because of a scarcity of water due to over-consumption. As a result the citizens have to pay to urinate.)
  • Green Lantern #81, released in the heyday of Paul Ehrlich's theories on population explosion, featured a story called "The Population Explosion" that presented the home planet of the mysterious Guardians of the Universe: a world named Maltus or Malthus where overpopulation forced many of its inhabitants to flee into outer space.
  • In the Season 1 finale of the television-series Sliders, "The Luck of the Draw" references Malthus.
  • Bioy Casares's novel La invención de Morel makes frequent mention of Malthus
  • The villanous Anti-Spirals from the television anime Tengen Toppa Gurren-Lagann represent Malthus's sociological theories taken to inhumane extremes.
  • In the second season of the Stephen J. Cannell 1980's television series Wiseguy, the villainous character Mel Profitt (played by Kevin Spacey) bases his arms-dealing philosophy on Malthus, saying: "The population grows geometrically and the food supply grows arithmetically. Three things keep the balance: Famine. Disease. And war."
  • In the June 2009 edition of National Geographic Magazine, Joel K. Bourne, Jr. in his article The End of Plenty, made various references to Malthus's An Essay on the Principle of Population.


The epitaph of Rev. Thomas Robert Malthus, just inside the entrance to Bath Abbey.

The epitaph of Malthus in Bath Abbey reads:

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

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

Supported by a calm but firm conviction of the usefulness of his 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 February 14, 1766 Died December 29, 1834.

See also


  1. ^ Palmer, Joy; Cooper, David Edward; Corcoran, Peter Blaze (2001). Palmer, Joy; Cooper, David Edward; Corcoran, Peter Blaze. eds. Fifty key thinkers on the environment. Routledge key guides. Routledge. p. 70. ISBN 9780415146999. Retrieved 2009-11-06. "[...] Malthus was destined to be a clergyman. Educated [...] at Jesus College, Cambridge, [...] he took holy orders in 1788 [...]" 
  2. ^ Several sources give Malthus's date of death as 29 December 1834. See Meyers Konversationslexikon (Leipzig, 4th edition, 1885-1892), "Biography" by Nigel Malthus (the memorial transcription reproduced in this article). But the 1911 Britannica gives 23 December 1834.
  3. ^ a b Petersen, William. 1979. Malthus. Heinemann, London. 2nd ed 1999.
  4. ^ Malthus used his middle name Robert, though work after his lifetime often refers to him as Thomas Malthus.
  5. ^ a b c Malthus, Thomas Robert in Venn, J. & J. A., Alumni Cantabrigienses, Cambridge University Press, 10 vols, 1922–1958.
  6. ^ Geoffrey Gilbert, introduction to Malthus T.R. 1798. An essay on the principle of population. Oxford World's Classics reprint. viii in Oxford World's Classics reprint.
  7. ^ Malthus T.R. 1798. An essay on the principle of population. Chapter 1, p13 in Oxford World's Classics reprint.
  8. ^ a b Bowler, Peter J. (2003). Evolution: the history of an idea. Berkeley: University of California Press. pp. 104–105. ISBN 0-520-23693-9. 
  9. ^ Malthus T.R. 1798. An essay on the principle of population, in Oxford World's Classics reprint. p61, end of Chapter VII
  10. ^ Malthus T.R. 1798. An essay on the principle of population. Chapter V, p39-45. in Oxford World's Classics reprint.
  11. ^ Geoffrey Gilbert, introduction to Malthus T.R. 1798. An essay on the principle of population. Oxford World's Classics reprint. xx.
  12. ^ Malthus T.R. An essay on the principle of population, Ed. 6 1826, Book 3, Chapter 6. See quote on talk page.
  13. ^ Not only after Darwin: some of the British proto-evolutionists (such as William Lawrence) read him, and Patrick Matthew certainly did: Matthew published in 1839 a short book, Emigration fields (Black, Edinburgh) encouraging emigration, in part as a solution to the problem of over-population.
  14. ^ Browne, Janet 1995. Charles Darwin: Voyaging. Cape, London. p385–390
  15. ^ Raby P. 2001. Alfred Russel Wallace: a life. Princeton. p21 and 131
  16. ^ "Malthus TRM Biography". Retrieved 2010-02-13. 
  17. ^ Petersen, William. 1979. Malthus. Heinemann, London. 2nd ed 1999. p21
  18. ^ Petersen, William. 1979. Malthus. Heinemann, London. 2nd ed 1999. p28
  19. ^ Compare: Pullen, John M. (1987). "Some". History of Political Economy 19:1. p. 127ff. Retrieved 2009-11-06. "The following testimonial was sent on 12 March 1789 [...] the purpose of the tetimonial was to support Malthus' application for ordination as deacon of Okewood Chapel [...]" 
  20. ^ Castles, Ian. "From the desk of Malthus: How the population debate began". National Academies Forum. Retrieved 2008-12-28. "He was, in fact, living at his parents' home at Albury in Surrey, about 50 kilometres south-west of London. As curate of Okewood, some fifteen kilometres from Albury, Robert Malthus rode regularly on narrow bridle paths to conduct Sunday services and meet his parishioners in their wattle and daub cottages." 
  21. ^ Painted by Linnell, and seen here in a cropped and scanned monochrome version.
  22. ^ Hodgson, M.H. 2004. Malthus, Thomas Robert (1766–1834). In Rutherford D (ed) Biographical Dictionary of British Economists. Continuum, Bristol.
  23. ^ Martineau, Harriet 1877. Autobiography. 3 vols, Smith, Elder, London. vol 1, p327.
  24. ^ Malthus T.R. 1798. An essay on the principle of population. Oxford World's Classics reprint: xxix Chronology.
  25. ^ Oxford World's Classics reprint
  26. ^ Geoffrey Gilbert, introduction to Malthus T.R. 1798. An essay on the principle of population. Oxford World's Classics reprint. viii
  27. ^ Oxford World's Classics reprint
  28. ^ Geoffrey Gilbert, introduction to Malthus T.R. 1798. An essay on the principle of population. Oxford World's Classics reprint. xviii
  29. ^ Malthus T.R. 1798. An essay on the principle of population. Chapter V, p39-45, in Oxford World's Classics reprint.
  30. ^ By doing what appears good, we may do harm. Unintended consequences play a major role in economic thought; see the invisible hand and the tragedy of the commons.
  31. ^ p607, cited in
  32. ^ Eyler, John M (1979). Victorian Social Medicine: the ideas and methods of William Farr. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. ISBN 0801822467. 
  33. ^ R. L. Meek, ed (1953). Marx and Engels on Malthus. London: Lawrence & Wishart. 
  34. ^ Quoted in Tellegen, Egbert; Wolsink, Maarten (1998). Society and its environment: an introduction. Routledge. p. 16. ISBN 9789056991258. Retrieved 2010-02-12. "Malthus, 1976, p.225" 
  35. ^ Malthus T.R. 1798. An essay on the principle of population. Oxford World's Classics reprint. p158
  36. ^ Hodgson, M.H. 2004. Malthus, Thomas Robert (1766–1834). In Rutherford D (ed) Biographical Dictionary of British Economists. Continuum, Bristol.
  37. ^ Essay (1798), Chap. IV.
  38. ^ Thomas Robert Malthus, 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 (London: John Murray 1826). 6th ed., Book I, Chapter II. Accessed from on 2010-02-13
  39. ^ dates from Malthus T.R. 1798. An essay on the principle of population. Oxford World's Classics reprint: xxix Chronology.
  40. ^ 1800: The present high price of provisions, paragraph 26
  41. ^ Hirst F.W. 1925. From Adam Smith to Philip Snowden: a history of free trade in Great Britain. Unwin, London. p88
  42. ^ Also: "The Corn Laws... safeguarded farmers from the consequences of their wartime euphoria, when farms had changed hands at the fanciest prices, loans and mortgages had been accepted on impossible terms." Eric Hobsbawm 1999. Industry and Empire: the birth of the Industrial Revolution. p175
  43. ^ On The Principles of Political Economy and Taxation London: John Murray, Albemarle-Street, by David Ricardo, 1817 (third edition 1821) -- Chapter 6, On Profits: paragraph 28, "Thus, taking the former . . ." and paragraph 33, "There can, however . . ."
  44. ^ Geoffrey Gilbert, introduction to Malthus T.R. 1798. An essay on the principle of population. Oxford World's Classics reprint. xx in Oxford World's Classics reprint. xx
  45. ^ Cannan E. 1893. A history of the theories of production and distribution in English political economy from 1776 to 1848. Kelly, New York.
  46. ^ Malthus T.R 1827. Definitions in political economy. p62–63
  47. ^ a b c
  48. ^ David Ricardo, Principles (1817)
  49. ^ Percy B. Shelley: "A philosophical view of reform." In The Complete Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley. London: Gordian, 1829. (vol. 7, p. 32)
  50. ^ Dupaquier J. (ed). 1983. Malthus past and present. New York: Academic Press. p258
  51. ^ Fogarty, Michael P. 1958. Introduction to Malthus, Essay on the principle of population. Dent, London. vi
  52. ^ Hardin, Garrett 1998. "The feast of Malthus: living within limits". The Social Contract.
  53. ^ Malthus And The Liberties Of The Poor, 1807
  54. ^ Two Lectures on Population , 1829
  55. ^ Friedrich Engels 1844. Outlines of a critique of political economy.
  56. ^ See V. I. Lenin: "The Working Class and NeoMalthusianism" in Pravda No. 137, June 16, 1913; see also
  57. ^ Maddox, John 1972. The Doomsday Syndrome: an assault on pessimism.
  58. ^ Simon J.L. 1981. The ultimate resource; and 1992 The ultimate resource II.
  59. ^ Antony Trewavas: "Malthus foiled again and again", in Nature 418, 668-670 (8 August 2002), retrieved 28 December 2008
  60. ^ Lomborg, Bjorn. 2001. The skeptical environmentalist. Cambridge UP, London. Chapter 5 Food and hunger, p60–69; and note also Part III: "Can human prosperity continue?" p91–160.
  61. ^ Graph in Lomberg 2001 p61; data from United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization database
  62. ^ Ross, Eric B. 1998. The Malthus factor: population, poverty, and politics in capitalist development. Zed Books, London, 1998. ISBN 1-85649-564-7
  63. ^ Petersen, William. 1979. Malthus. Heinemann, London. 2nd ed 1999. p32
  64. ^ Petersen, William. 1979. Malthus. Heinemann, London. 2nd ed 1999. Chapter 9: Fertility
  65. ^ Winch, Donald (2003). "Mathus, Thomas Robert". Macmillan Reference USA. Retrieved 2008-07-31. "At this stage, Malthus had not yet reached the level of analysis that would later lead him to be called the founding father of modern demography." 
  66. ^ Bonar, James 1885. Malthus and His Work. Macmillan, London. p1
  67. ^ Hart, Michael H. 1992 (1978). The 100: A ranking of the most influential persons in history, revised and updated for the nineties. Citadel, N.Y. First published in 1978, reprinted with minor revisions 1992.
  68. ^ See Elwell (2001) for an extended exposition
  69. ^ Spencer, Herbert 1864. Principles of Biology, vol. 1, p444
  70. ^ Letter to J.D. Hooker, 5 June 1860
  71. ^ Darwin, Charles 1859. On the origin of species by means of natural selection. Murray, London. p63
  72. ^ New edition, condensed and revised. Chapman & Hall, London.
  73. ^ Sober E. 1984. The nature of selection: evolutionary theory in philosophical focus. Chicago. p193–194.,M1


  • Dupâquier, J. 2001. Malthus, Thomas Robert (1766–1834). International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences, 9151–9156. Abstract.
  • Hollander, Samuel 1997. The Economics of Thomas Robert Malthus. University of Toronto Press.
  • Elwell, Frank W. 2001. A commentary on Malthus's 1798 Essay on Population as social theory. Mellon Press.
  • Evans, L.T. 1998. Feeding the ten billion – plants and population growth. Cambridge University Press. Paperback, 247 pages. Dedicated to Malthus by the author. ISBN 0-521-64685-5.
  • James, Patricia 1979. Population Malthus: his life and times. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
  • Peterson, William 1999. Malthus, founder of modern demography 2nd ed. Transaction. ISBN 0-7658-0481-6.
  • Rohe, John F., A Bicentennial Malthusian Essay: conservation, population and the indifference to limits, Rhodes & Easton, Traverse City, MI. 1997
  • Spiegel, Henry William (1991) [1971]. The growth of economic thought (3 ed.). Durham: Duke University Press. pp. 868. ISBN 0822309653. 

Further reading

  • Negative Population Growth organization: a collection of essays for the Malthus Bicentenary
  • National Academics Forum, Australia: a collection of essays for the Malthus Bicentenary Conference, 1998
  • Conceptual origins of Malthus's Essay on Population, facsimile reprint of 8 Books in 6 volumes, edited by Yoshinobu Nanagita (ISBN 978-4-902454-14-7)
  • The Worldly Philosophers – the lives, times, and ideas of the great economic thinkers. Robert L. Heilbroner.
  • Elwell, Frank W. 2001. A Commentary on Malthus' 1798 Essay on Population as social theory E. Mellen Press, Lewiston, NY. ISBN 0-7734-7669-5.
  • National Geographic Magazine, June 2009 article, "The Global Food Crisis,"[1]

External links


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From Wikiquote

The finest minds seem to be formed rather by efforts at original thinking, by endeavours to form new combinations, and to discover new truths, than by passively receiving the impressions of other men's ideas.

Thomas Robert Malthus (1766-02-131834-12-23) was an English demographer and political economist best known for his pessimistic but highly influential views on population growth.



Essay on the Principle of Population (1798; rev. through 1826)

  • The most successful supporters of tyranny are without doubt those general declaimers who attribute the distresses of the poor, and almost all evils to which society is subject, to human institutions and the iniquity of governments.
  • If I saw a glass of wine repeatedly presented to a man, and he took no notice of it, I should be apt to think that he was blind or uncivil. A juster philosophy might teach me rather to think that my eyes deceived me, and that the offer was not really what I conceived it to be.
  • 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.
  • The perpetual tendency of the race of man to increase beyond the means of subsistence is one of the general laws of animated nature, which we can have no reason to expect to change.
  • The immediate cause of the increase of population is the excess of the births above deaths; and the rate of increase, or the period of doubling, depends upon the proportion which the excess of the births above the deaths bears to the population.
  • 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.
  • The finest minds seem to be formed rather by efforts at original thinking, by endeavours to form new combinations, and to discover new truths, than by passively receiving the impressions of other men's ideas.


Quotes About Thomas Malthus




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1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From LoveToKnow 1911

THOMAS ROBERT MALTHUS (1766-1834), English economist, was born in 1766 at the Rookery, near Guildford, Surrey, a small estate owned by his father, Daniel Malthus, a gentleman of good family and independent fortune, of considerable culture, the friend and correspondent of Rousseau and one of his executors. Young Malthus was never sent to a public school, but received his education from private tutors. In 1784 he was sent to Cambridge, where he was ninth wrangler, and became fellow of his college (Jesus) in 17 9 7. The same year he received orders, and undertook the charge of a small parish in Surrey. In the following year he published the first edition of his great 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. The work excited a good deal of surprise as well as attention; and with characteristic thoroughness and love of truth the author went abroad to collect materials for the verification and more exhaustive treatment of his views. As Britain was then at war with France, only the northern countries of Europe were quite open to his research at that time; but during the brief Peace of Amiens Malthus continued his investigations in France and Switzerland. The result of these labours appeared in the greatly enlarged and more mature edition of his work published in 1803. In 1805 Malthus married happily, and not long after was appointed professor of modern history and political economy in the East India Company's College at Haileybury. This post he retained till his death suddenly from heart disease on the 23rd of December 1834. Malthus was one of the most amiable, candid and cultured of men. In all his private relations he was not only without reproach, but distinguished for the beauty of his character. He bore popular abuse and misrepresentation without the slightest murmur or sourness of temper. The aim of his inquiries was to promote the happiness of mankind, which could be better accomplished by pointing out the real possibilities of progress than by indulging in vague dreams of perfectibility apart from the actual facts which condition human life.

Malthus's Essay on Population grew out of some discussions which he had with his father respecting the perfectibility of society. His father shared the theories on that subject of Condorcet and Godwin; and his son combated them on the ground that the realization of a happy society will always be hindered by the miseries consequent on the tendency of population to increase faster than the means of subsistence. His father was struck by the weight and originality of his views, asked him to put them in writing, and then recommended the publication of the manuscript. It was in this way the Essay saw the light. Thus it will be seen that both historically and philosophically the doctrine of Malthus was a corrective reaction against the superficial optimism diffused by the school of Rousseau. It was the same optimism, with its easy methods of regenerating society and its fatal blindness to the real conditions that circumscribe human life, that was responsible for the wild theories of the French Revolution and many of its consequent excesses.

The project of a formal and detailed treatise on population was an afterthought of Malthus. The essay in which he had studied a hypothetic future led him to examine the effects of the principle he had put forward on the past and present state of society; and he undertook an historical examination of these effects, and sought to draw such inferences in relation to the actual state of things as experience seemed to warrant. In its original form he had spoken of no checks to population but those which came under the head either of vice or of misery. In the 1803 edition he introduced the new element of the preventive check supplied by what he calls "moral restraint," and is thus enabled to "soften some of the harshest conclusions" at which he had before arrived. The treatise passed through six editions in his lifetime, and in all of them he introduced various additions and corrections. That of 1816 is the last he revised, and supplies the final text from which it has since been reprinted.

Notwithstanding the great development which he gave to his work and the almost unprecedented amount of discussion to which it gave rise, it remains a matter of some difficulty to discover what solid contribution he has made to our knowledge, nor is it easy to ascertain precisely what practical precepts, not already familiar, he founded on his theoretic principles. This twofold vagueness is well brought out in his celebrated correspondence with Nassau Senior, in the course of which it seems to be made apparent that his doctrine is new not so much in its essence as in the phraseology in which it is couched. He himself tells us that when, after the publication of the original essay, the main argument of which he had deduced from David Hume, Robert Wallace, Adam Smith and Richard Price, he began to inquire more closely into the subject, he found that "much more had been done" upon it "than he had been aware of." It had "been treated in such a manner by some of the French economists, occasionally by Montesquieu, and, among English writers, by Dr Franklin, Sir James Steuart, Arthur Young and Rev. J. Townsend, as to create a natural surprise that it had not excited more of the public attention." "Much, however," he thought, "remained yet to be done. The comparison between the increase of population and food had not, perhaps, been stated with sufficient force and precision," and "few inquiries had been made into the various modes by which the level" between population and the means of subsistence "is effected." The first desideratum here mentioned - the want, namely, of an accurate statement of the relation between the increase of population and food - Malthus doubtless supposed to have been supplied by the celebrated proposition that "population increases in a geometrical, food in an arithmetical ratio." This proposition, however, has been conclusively shown to be erroneous, there being no such difference of law between the increase of man and that of the organic beings which form his food. When the formula cited is not used, other somewhat nebulous expressions are sometimes employed, as, for example, that. "population has a tendency to increase faster than food," a sentence in which both are treated as if they were spontaneous growths, and which, on account of the ambiguity of the word "tendency," is admittedly consistent with the fact asserted by Senior, that food tends to increase faster than population. It must always have been perfectly well known that population will probably (though not necessarily) increase with every augmentation of the supply of subsistence, and may, in some instances, inconveniently press upon, or even for a certain time exceed, the number properly corresponding to that supply. Nor could it ever have been doubted that war, disease, poverty the last two often the consequences of vice - are causes which keep population down. In fact, the way in which abundance, increase of numbers, want, increase of deaths, succeed each other in the natural economy, when reason does not intervene, had been fully explained by Joseph Townsend in his Dissertation on the Poor Laws (1786) which was known to Malthus. Again, it is surely plain enough that the apprehension by individuals of the evils of poverty, or a sense of duty to their possible offspring, may retard the increase of population, and has in all civilized communities operated to a certain extent in that way. It is only when such obvious truths are clothed in the technical terminology of "positive" and "preventive checks" that they appear novel and profound; and yet they appear to contain the whole message of Malthus to mankind. The laborious apparatus of historical and statistical facts respecting the several countries of the globe, adduced in the altered form of the essay, though it contains a good deal that is curious and interesting, establishes no general result which was not previously well known.

It would seem, then, that what has been ambitiously called Malthus's theory of population, instead of being a great discovery as some have represented it, or a poisonous novelty, as others have considered it, is no more than a formal enunciation of obvious, though sometimes neglected, facts. The pretentious language often applied to it by economists is objectionable, as being apt to make us forget that the whole subject with which it deals is as yet very imperfectly understood - the causes which modify the force of the sexual instinct, and those which lead to variations in fecundity, still awaiting a complete investigation.

It is the law of diminishing returns from land, involving as it does - though only hypothetically - the prospect of a continuously increasing difficulty in obtaining the necessary sustenance for all the members of a society, that gives the principal importance to population as an economic factor. It is, in fact, the confluence of the Malthusian ideas with the theories of Ricardo, especially with the corollaries which the latter deduced from the doctrine of rent (though these were not accepted by Malthus), that has led to the introduction of population as an element in the discussion of so many economic questions in modern times.

Malthus had undoubtedly the great merit of having called public attention in a striking and impressive way to a subject which had neither theoretically nor practically been sufficiently considered. But he and his followers appear to have greatly exaggerated both the magnitude and the urgency of the dangers to which they pointed.' In their conceptions a single social imperfection assumed such portentous dimensions that it seemed to overcloud the whole heaven and threaten the world with ruin. This doubtless arose from his having at first omitted altogether from his view of the question the great counteracting agency of moral restraint. Because a force exists, capable, if unchecked, of producing certain results, it does not follow that those results are imminent or even possible in the sphere of experience. A body thrown from the hand would, under the single impulse of projection, move for ever in a straight line; but it would not be reasonable to take special action for the prevention of this result, ignoring the fact that it will be sufficiently counteracted by the other forces which will come into play. And such other forces exist in the case we are considering. If the inherent energy of the principle of population (supposed everywhere the same) is measured by the rate at which numbers increase under the most favourable circumstances, surely the force of less favourable circumstances, acting through prudential or altruistic motives,, is measured by the great difference between this maximum rate and those which are observed to prevail in most European countries. Under a rational system of institutions, the adaptation of numbers to the means available for their support is effected by the felt or anticipated pressure of circumstances and the fear of social degradation, within a tolerable degree of approximation to what is desirable. To bring the result nearer to the just standard, a higher measure of popular 1 Malthus himself said, "It is probable that, having found the bow bent too much one way, I was induced to bend it too much the other in order to make it straight." enlightenment and more serious habits of moral reflection ought indeed to be encouraged. But it is the duty of the individual to his possible offspring, and not any vague notions as to the pressure of the national population on subsistence, that will be adequate to influence conduct.

It can scarcely be doubted that the favour which was at once accorded to the views of Malthus in certain circles was due in part to an impression, very welcome to the higher ranks of society, that they tended to relieve the rich and powerful of responsibility for the condition of the working classes, by showing that the latter had chiefly themselves to blame, and not either the negligence of their superiors or the institutions of the country. The application of his doctrines, too, made by some of his successors had the effect of discouraging all active effort for social improvement. Thus Chalmers "reviews seriatim and gravely sets aside all the schemes usually proposed for the amelioration of the economic condition of the people" on the ground that an increase of comfort will lead to an increase of numbers, and so the last state of things will be worse than the first.

Malthus has in more modern times derived a certain degree of reflected lustre from the rise and wide acceptance of the Dar, winian hypothesis. Its author himself, in tracing its filiation, points to the phrase "struggle for existence" used by Malthus in relation to the social competition. Darwin believed that man advanced to his present high condition through such a struggle, consequent on his rapid multiplication. He regarded, it is true, the agency of this cause for the improvement of the race as largely superseded by moral influences in the more advanced social stages. Yet he considered it, even in these stages, of so much importance towards that end that, notwithstanding the individual suffering arising from the struggle for life, he deprecated any great reduction in the natural, by which he seems to mean the ordinary, rate of increase.

Besides his great work, Malthus wrote Observations on the Effect of the Corn Laws; An Inquiry into the Nature and Progress of Rent; Principles of Political Economy; and Definitions in Political Economy. His views on rent were of real importance.

For his life see Memoir by his friend Dr Otter, bishop of Chichester (prefixed to 2nd ed., 1836, of the Principles of Political Economy), and Malthus and his Work, by J. Bonar (London, 1885). Practically every treatise on economics deals with Malthus and his essay, but the following special works may be referred to: Soetbeer, Die Stellung der Sozialisten zur Malthusschen Bevälkerungslehre (Berlin, 1886); G. de Molinari, Malthus, essai sur le Principe de population (Paris, 1889); Cossa, Il Principio di popolazione di T. R. Malthus (Milan, 1895); and Ricardo, Letters to Malthus, ed. J. Bonar (1887).

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Thomas Robert Malthus
File:Epitaph of Thomas
Thomas Robert Malthus's epitaph

Thomas Robert Malthus FRS (13 February 1766 – 23 December 1834),[1] was a British writer on political economy and population.[2][3] Malthus popularised the economic theory of rent, and was the first to use the phrase struggle for existence.[4]

Malthus is famous for his theories about population: its increase or decrease in response to various factors. There were six editions of his An Essay on the Principle of Population, published from 1798 to 1826. He said that sooner or later population gets checked, by famine, disease, and widespread mortality. He wrote in opposition to many who saw society as improving, and (in principle) as perfectible.[5]viii William Godwin and the Marquis de Condorcet, for example, believed in the possibility of almost limitless improvement of society. So, in a more complex way, did Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose notions centered on the goodness of man and the liberty of citizens bound only by the social contract.

Malthus thought that the dangers of population growth would prevent endless progress towards a utopian society:

"The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man".[6]p13

As an Anglican clergyman, Malthus saw this situation as divinely imposed to teach virtuous behaviour.[7]p104–105 Believing that one could not change human nature, Malthus wrote:

"Must it not then be acknowledged by an attentive examiner of the histories of mankind, that in every age and in every State in which man has existed, or does now exist
That the increase of population is necessarily limited by the means of subsistence,
That population does invariably increase when the means of subsistence increase, and,
That the superior power of population is repressed, and the actual population kept equal to the means of subsistence, by misery and vice".[6]p61

Malthus placed the longer-term stability of the economy above short-term expediency. He criticised the Poor Laws,[6]p39-45 and (alone among important contemporary economists) supported the Corn Laws, which introduced a system of taxes on British imports of wheat.[5]pxx He thought these measures would encourage domestic production, and so promote long-term benefits.[8]

Malthus became hugely influential, and controversial, in economic, political, social and scientific thought. Many evolutionary biologists read him, especially Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace. For both of them, Malthusianism became a stepping-stone to the idea of natural selection.[9][10] Malthus is still a writer of great significance and controversy.


  1. Several sources give Malthus's date of death as 29 December 1834. See Meyers Konversationslexikon (Leipzig, 4th edition, 1885-1892), "Biography" by Nigel Malthus. But the 1911 Britannica gives 23 December 1834.
  2. Petersen, William. 1979. Malthus. Heinemann, London. 2nd ed 1999.
  3. Malthus used his middle name Robert, though work after his lifetime often refers to him as Thomas Malthus.
  4. Shorter Oxford English Dictiionary.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Geoffrey Gilbert, Introduction to Malthus T.R. 1798. An essay on the principle of population. Oxford World's Classics reprint.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 Malthus T.R. 1798. An essay on the principle of population. Oxford World's Classics reprint.
  7. Bowler, Peter J. 2003. Evolution: the history of an idea. Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-23693-9
  8. Malthus T.R. 1826. An essay on the principle of population. 6th ed, Book 3, Chapter 6.
  9. Browne, Janet 1995. Charles Darwin: Voyaging. Cape, London. p385–390
  10. Raby P. 2001. Alfred Russel Wallace: a life. Princeton. p21 and 131


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