*An Essay on the Principle of Population, by Thomas Malthus
An Essay on the Principle of Population
by Thomas Malthus, 1798; revised edition, 1803
In 1797, Thomas Malthus (1766–1834) read “Of Avarice and Profusion,” an essay by William Godwin, author of the famous and influential An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793). Godwin believed there could be justice and happiness for all in a society regulated by reason. To Malthus, Godwin’s utopianism marked its proponent as a person blind to the biological facts of human nature. For social progress to continue, solutions would have to be found to the problem of an increasing disproportion between population growth and food supplies. This was Malthus’ observation in 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, which he published anonymously in 1798.
His book caused an enormous outcry, with charges that he was barbarous and inhumane, given his underlying belief that if natural disasters did not check the increase of population, then little could be done by humankind itself, short of cruelty to children: a baby is, he pointed out, “comparatively speaking, of little value to the society, as others will immediately supply its place.” Malthus felt the force of his critics’ charges that he lacked feeling in his pessimism. In 1803, he published a revision in which he sought to ameliorate the severity of earlier conclusions by arguing that people should exercise “moral restraint,” and delay marriage, and so children, until they could afford to support them. The revised Essay went through six editions in Malthus’ lifetime, with a seventh shortly after his death in 1834.
Malthus began with the empirical fact that nature wastes a great deal of life.
Everything alive has the potential for enormous proliferation; why, then, doesn’t a single species fill the earth up to its capacity for reproduction? Malthus’ answer included the facts of history and experience, that death and destruction were checks to runaway population growth.
Adam Smith had demonstrated, in his Wealth of Nations (1776), that workers are a commodity which, when increased in production, will suffer a decline in value. In other words, when there are too many people competing for jobs, there will be a consequent decline in the number of people. The economics of wealth production and distribution were functions of population growth and food supplies. Malthus had read Smith’s book, as he had read others on these subjects, and so he began with the widely understood proposition that no species of life can multiply beyond the capacity of nature to provide food. Malthus, appointed as a professor of political economy in 1805, developed the implications of his essay on population for various problems of macroeconomics.
There are two postulates from experience from which Malthus argues: “First, that food is necessary to the existence of man. Secondly, that the passion between the sexes is necessary and will remain nearly in its present state.” The burden of the Essay on Population is to show how these postulates lead to painful conclusions that “the power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man,” and “population, when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio. Subsistence increases only in an arithmetical ratio.” This Malthusian thesis has been debated ever since.
Since Malthus was responding to the rationalist utopias of Godwin and Condorcet, his Essay on Population takes on the tone of polemic and often satirizes the objects of his criticism. He ridicules the argument of Condorcet for indefinite prolongation of human life, saying that “we may shut our eyes to the book of nature, as it will no longer be of any use to read it.” He dismisses Godwin’s abstract reasoning, asserting that “his conjectures certainly far outstrip the modesty of nature.” Of Godwin’s prediction that sexual passion will diminish with the progress of society, Malthus ironically observes that “no observable progress whatever has hitherto been made.”
When Charles Darwin read Malthus’ Essay, he found there a clue to solve the mystery of the origin of species, since Malthus wrote that “the prodigious waste of human life occasioned by this perpetual struggle for room and food was more than supplied by the mighty power of population, acting in some degree, unshackled from the constant habit of emigration.” In his Origin of Species (1859), Darwin refers to “the doctrine of Malthus applied with manifold force to the whole animal and vegetable kingdoms.” Karl Marx, on the other hand, in Das Kapital (1867–95; Capital) attacks Malthus’ Essay as a “schoolboyish, superficial plagiary,” and proceeds to make an ad hominem attack on Malthus as a parson of the English State Church.
Malthus published his Investigation of the Cause of the Present High Price of Provisions in 1800, explaining how increased demand, with population growth, will drive up prices, and higher prices will lead to the necessary “checks” of misery. In 1820 he published Principles of Political Economy Considered with a View to Their Practical Application, in which he makes the radical suggestion of public works for the unemployed, to increase means to meet increased demand. As in the Essay on Population, these later essays wrestled with the challenges of balancing production with consumption, though they posed the problems in less graphic and brutal terms.
Anyone who writes of economics or demographics after the publication of Malthus’ Essay on Population must take into account the issues, problems, and solutions which were raised in that classic statement. From Darwin and Marx to John Maynard Keynes and Barry Commoner, there has continued to be a fierce debate on prospects for social progress and individual happiness in a world of burgeoning population, environmental degradation, and improved technologies for food production. It is a measure of his mark on subsequent history that Malthus has lent his name to opponents in the debate between “Anti-Malthusians” and “Neo-Malthusians.”
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, 1798;
revised edition, 1803; many subsequent editions, including those edited by Antony Flew, 1970, Philip Appleman, 1976, E.A.Wrigley and David Souden, 1986, and Geoffrey Gilbert, 1993
Commoner, Barry, The Closing Circle: Nature, Man, and Technology, New York: Knopf, 1971
Godwin, William, An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, Harmondsworth and New York: Penguin, 1985 (original edition, 1793)
Godwin, William, Of Population, New York: Augustus M.Kelley, 1964 (original edition, 1820)
Heilbroner, Robert L., An Inquiry into the Human Prospect: Updated and Reconsidered for the 1980s, New York: Norton, 1980; revised edition, as An Inquiry into the Human Prospect: Looked at Again for the 1990s, Norton, 1991
James, Patricia, Population Malthus: His Life and Times, London and Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1979
Parsons, Jack, Population Versus Liberty, London: Pemberton, 1971; Buffalo, New York: Prometheus, 1973
Perrot, Michelle, “Malthusianism and Socialism,” in Malthus Past and Present, edited by Jacques Dupaguier, Antoinette FauveChamoux, and E.Grebenik, London and New York: Academic Press, 1983
Smith, Kenneth, The Malthusian Controversy, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1951; New York: Octagon, 1978
Turner, Michael, editor, Malthus and His Time, Basingstoke: Macmillan, and New York: St.Martin’s Press, 1986
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