Robert Malthus Population Theory Essay

Malthus Population Theory, Theory, Malthus Theory Of Population

The principal thesis of Malthus, that population tends to increase faster than the food supply, was not original with him: it can be found in the writings of others, including Adam Smith and Benjamin Franklin. It was Malthus's presentation of the population problem, however, that significantly influenced existing and subsequent economic thinking.

Population Theory as an Intellectual Response to Problems of the Times

Three factors appear to account for the formation of Robert Malthus's theory. The first was the pressure of population on England's food supply. Until about 1790 England had been largely self-sufficient in its food supply, but beginning in that year it became necessary to import food, and prices rose noticeably. A second factor was the perceived increasing poverty of the lower-income classes. England was becoming urbanized as factory production replaced production in the home, and with the growth of the towns the misery of the lower-income class appeared to increase. The third factor, which also occasioned the writing of the first essay on population in 1798, was an argument that developed between Robert Malthus and his father, Daniel who had been impressed by the views expressed by the English and French Utopian writers William Godwin and Marquis de Condorcet. The basic view of Godwin and Condorcet, which Daniel Malthus accepted, was that the character of an individual is not inherited but is shaped by the environment in which he or she lives. Godwin in particular was disturbed by the hardship, misery, unhappiness, and vice he perceived in the world around him. He concluded that the element primarily responsible was government, and for this reason Godwin is sometimes called the father of philosophical anarchism. Robert Malthus wanted to show that the ideas his father had accepted were incorrect. In particular, he tried to prove in the first edition of his essay on population that poverty and misery were not the result of social and political institutions and that changes in these institutions would not remove the evils of the society. When he showed his essay to friends, they encouraged him to publish it. He did so, anonymously, in 1798.
The Population Thesis

Malthus's basic principle, established in the first edition of his essay, was founded on two assumptions: (1) that food is necessary for the existence of humankind, and (2) that passion between the sexes is necessary and will remain unchanged. He concluded that population tends to grow at a faster rate than the food supply. Malthus contended that human beings, in the absence of checks on population, will tend to increase their numbers geometrically (1, 2, 4, 8, 16 ...), but that the food supply can only increase arithmetically (1, 2, 3, 4, 5 . . .). This, he said, is the cause of poverty and misery. In the first edition of his essay, he offered no statistical proof of his assertion on either population or the food supply. Nor did he use the principle of diminishing returns in agriculture to justify his claim that the economy was unable to increase the food supply significantly, although he acknowledged the limitation of the supply of land. Although the principle of diminishing returns was first developed by a French economist, Turgot, in 1765, it had to be rediscovered by West, Malthus, Torrens, and Ricardo in 1815, seventeen years after the first edition of Malthus's essay. Malthus's failure to recognize the possibility of technological developments that could solve the population problem also vitiated much of his theory.

He concluded that checks will develop to keep the rate of population growth in line with the rate of growth of the food supply. He examined various checks, which differ between the first and subsequent editions. In the first edition he postulated two types of checks, positive and preventive. Positive checks are increases in the death rate as a result of wars, famines, disease, and similar disasters. A preventive check is the lowering of the birth rate, which is accom­plished by the postponement of marriage. In the first edition of his essay on population, Malthus concluded that the postponement of marriage would only result in vice, misery, and degradation of character, because premarital sexual relations would occur. Changing the institutional structure would therefore not remove the misery and vice from society as long as humans required food and sexual drives were strong. The specter of population relentlessly pressing on the food supply has led observers to refer to economics as the dismal science, an appellation first used by Thomas Carlyle (although he actually used it in a different context).

Controversy about the Population Thesis

This thesis caused considerable controversy and aroused interest in the popula­tion problem. Dissatisfied with his initial offering, Malthus published a second edition of his essay (in 1803), which differed from the first in purpose, method­ology, argument, and conclusions. He no longer attempted to criticize the views of his father, Godwin, and Condorcet, deciding instead to articulate the popu­lation problem in as scientific a manner as available data permitted. Whereas the methodology of his first edition was wholly deductive, the second was somewhat inductive and the argument was now supported by statistical data. Thus, the second edition was scientific in method as well as purpose. Most important, the argument and conclusions were changed. In the first edition, the checks on population resulted in vice and misery, but in the second edition, a new check was introduced: moral restraint, or the postponement of marriage without premarital sexual activities. This new check destroyed part of Malthus's argu­ment against the Utopians, but he was no longer concerned with refuting them. His essay on population went through seven editions, with little change after the second. The one generally available today is the seventh.


Malthus's population thesis has several obvious flaws. Like most of his contemporaries, he never seriously discussed the feasibility of controlling popu­lation by means of contraception, though many so-called neo-Malthusians in more recent times have advocated contraceptive measures. Moreover, Malthus confused the instinctive desire for sexual relationships with the desire to have children. Although the sexual drive is strong among people of all societies, increasing levels of affluence and education tend to introduce a distinction between sexual desires and the decision to have children. Another difficulty is Malthus's arbitrary assumption that the food supply cannot increase faster than the population. In other words, he failed to consider the possibility that devel­opments in agricultural technology might permit sufficient increases in the supply of food to feed an increased population. But it is unfair to criticize Malthus too severely for this omission, as economists have never developed a theory explaining the rate of technological development and have, therefore, histori­cally underestimated the impact of technology on the economy.

The population thesis of Malthus found an application in classical economic theory and policy. The wages fund doctrine, developed by Smith and extended by Ricardo and his followers, implied that an increase in the real wage of labor would result in increases in population, which would eventually bring the wage rate back to its former level. It was therefore argued that any attempt to improve the economic welfare of the lower-income groups in society would be frustrated by an increase in the size of the population. Thus, although humanitarian feelings might call for social measures to raise the income of the laboring poor, sound economic thinking argued that such efforts would be futile. Attempts to alleviate the economic plight of low-income groups in England by means of legislation began around 1600; they are referred to as the Poor Laws by economic historians. Classical economists used the Malthusian population doctrine as an argument against the Poor Laws. The analysis of wage rates they achieved by combining the Malthusian thesis with the wages fund doctrine has been called the iron law of wages.

The Malthusian model has had far more extensive repercussions than its originator could ever have imagined. The British naturalists Charles Darwin and A. R. Wallace, who independently formulated what has become known as the Darwinian theory of evolution, both acknowledged Malthus as an important influence on their thinking.