Thomas Malthus

Copyright Michael D. Robbins 2005


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   Thomas Malthus—Political Economist

February 14, 1766, Guilford, England, 4:00 PM, LMT. (Source: Speculative by Marc Penfield; Speculative by MDR, 1:30 PM) Died on December 23, 1834, Bath, England

(Also check, Capricorn rising)
(Speculative Ascendant, Leo (Penfield), or Cancer (MDR); with Jupiter in Leo; Sun, late Aquarius; Moon in Taurus; Mercury in Aquarius; Venus and Uranus in Aries; Mars in Sagittarius; Saturn in Taurus square the Sun; Neptune in Virgo; Pluto in Capricorn) A possibility exists that he was born three days late on February 17th, giving him a Moon in Gemini.
(A Capricorn Ascendant is also an interesting possibility)

The name of Malthus is associated with economic pessimism. He developed the theory that population would inevitably outstrip the food supply. He was an ordained minister of the Church of England (Jupiter rising, Mars in sixth ray Sagittarius). He worked as a professor of history and economics.

His theory of scarcity fits well with his Saturn in desirous Taurus square the Sun in Aquarius (the sign of distribution). Saturn is a planet of the third ray, and clearly his fields of history and economics pertain to the third ray. Interestingly, Jupiter is the planet of abundance and is rising in Leo (hardly a sign in which scarcity is considered). The chart, however, remains speculative. Whatever the Ascendant or which of the two given dates of birth is correct, the square from Saturn in Taurus to the Sun remains and is significant of Malthus’ economic philosophy.



A great emigration necessarily implies unhappiness of some kind or other in the country that is deserted.

A writer may tell me that he thinks man will ultimately become an ostrich. I cannot properly contradict him.

Among plants and animals are waste of seed, sickness, and premature death. Among mankind, misery and vice.

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.

Each pursues his own theory, little solicitous to correct or improve it by an attention to what is advanced by his opponents.

Few persons will leave their families, connections, friends, and native land, to seek a settlement in untried foreign climes, without some strong subsisting causes of uneasiness where they are, or the hope of some great advantages in the place to which they are going.

Hard as it may appear in individual cases, dependent poverty ought to be held disgraceful.

I do not know that any writer has supposed that on this earth man will ultimately be able to live without food.

I have read some of the speculations on the perfectibility of man and of society with great pleasure.

In a state therefore of great equality and virtue, where pure and simple manners prevailed, the increase of the human species would evidently be much greater than any increase that has been hitherto known.

In no state that we have yet known has the power of population been left to exert itself with perfect freedom.

No limits whatever are placed to the productions of the earth; they may increase forever.

Population, when unchecked, goes on doubling itself every 25 years or increases in a geometrical ratio.

The histories of mankind that we possess are histories only of the higher classes.

The ordeal of virtue is to resist all temptation to evil.

The passion between the sexes is necessary and will remain nearly in its present state.

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

Through the animal and vegetable kingdoms, nature has scattered the seeds of life abroad with the most profuse and liberal hand.

We are now supposing the existence of a society where vice is scarcely known.

Whether the law of marriage be instituted or not, the dictate of nature and virtue seems to be an early attachment to one woman.


Thomas Robert Malthus was born to a prosperous family, his father Daniel being a personal friend of the philosopher David Hume and an acquaintance of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The young Malthus was educated at home until his admission to Jesus College, Cambridge in 1784. There he studied many subjects and took prizes in English declamation, Latin and Greek, but his principal subject was mathematics. He earned a masters degree in 1791 and was elected a fellow of Jesus College two years later. In 1797, he was ordained and became an Anglican country parson.

Malthus married in 1804 and had three children. In 1805 he became Britain's first professor in political economy at the East India Company College at Hertford Heath, near Hertford in Hertfordshire, now known as Haileybury. His students affectionately referred to him as "Pop", or "Population" Malthus. In 1818, he was selected as a Fellow of the Royal Society.

Thomas Robert Malthus refused to have his portrait painted until 1833 because of embarrassment over a hare lip. This was then corrected by surgery, and Malthus was then considered handsome. Malthus also had a cleft palate (inside his mouth) that affected his speech. These cleft related birth defects were relatively common in his family. Malthus was buried at Bath Abbey in England.

Principle of population
Malthus's views were largely developed in reaction to the optimistic views of his father and his associates, notably Rousseau. Malthus's essay was also in response to the views of the Marquis de Condorcet. In An Essay on the Principle of Population, first published in 1798, Malthus made the famous prediction that population would outrun food supply, leading to a decrease in food per person. (Case & Fair, 1999: 790). He even went so far as to specifically predict that this must occur by the middle of the 19th century, a prediction which failed for several reasons, including his use of static analysis, taking recent trends and projecting them indefinitely into the future, which often fails for complex systems.

“ 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. ”

This Principle of Population was based on the idea that population if unchecked increases at a geometric rate (i.e. 2, 4, 8, 16, etc.) whereas the food supply grows at an arithmetic rate (i.e. 1, 2, 3, 4, etc.).

Only natural causes (eg. accidents and old age), misery (war, pestilence, and above all famine), moral restraint and vice (which for Malthus included infanticide, murder, contraception and homosexuality)[citation needed] could check excessive population growth. See Malthusian catastrophe for more information.

Malthus favoured moral restraint (including late marriage and sexual abstinence) as a check on population growth. However, it is worth noting that Malthus proposed this only for the working and poor classes. Thus, the lower social classes took a great deal of responsibility for societal ills, according to his theory. In his work An Essay on the Principle of Population, he proposed the gradual abolition of poor laws. Essentially what this resulted in was the promotion of legislation which degenerated the conditions of the poor in England, lowering their population but effectively decreasing poverty.

Malthus himself noted that many people misrepresented his theory and took pains to point out that he did not just predict future catastrophe. He argued "...this constantly subsisting cause of periodical misery has existed ever since we have had any histories of mankind, does exist at present, and will for ever continue to exist, unless some decided change takes place in the physical constitution of our nature."

Thus, Malthus regarded his Principle of Population as an explanation of the past and the present situation of humanity as well as a prediction of our future.

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

Malthus’ Evolutionary System
Some claim that there is no specific prediction of Malthus regarding the future; that what some interpret as prediction was merely Malthus's illustration of the power of geometric (or exponential) population growth compared to the arithmetic growth of food production. Rather than a prediction of the future, the Essay is an evolutionary social theory. Eight major points regarding evolution are found in the 1798 Essay:

Population level is severely limited by subsistence
When the means of subsistence increases, population increases
Population pressures stimulate increases in productivity
Increases in productivity stimulates further population growth
Since this productivity can never keep up with the potential of population growth for long, there must be strong checks on population to keep it in line with carrying capacity.
It is through individual cost/benefit decisions regarding sex, work, and children that population and production are expanded or contracted.
Checks will come into operation as population exceeds subsistence level.
The nature of these checks will have significant effect on the rest of the sociocultural system—Malthus points specifically to misery, vice, and poverty. (See Frank W. Elwell, 2001, A Commentary on Malthus' 1798 Essay on Population as Social Theory, The Edwin Mellon Press for an extended exposition.)
It is this theory of Malthus—not some easily dismissed prediction—that has had huge influence on evolutionary theory in both biology (as acknowledged by Darwin and Wallace) and the social sciences (such as Spencer). Malthus's population theory has also profoundly affected the modern day ecological-evolutionary social theory of Gerhard Lenski and Marvin Harris. He can thus be regarded as an element of the canon of socioeconomic theory.

The influence of Malthus
The influence of Malthus's theory of population was substantial. Michael H. Hart published a book called The 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential Persons in History in 1978 which placed Malthus at number 80 in this worldwide ranking. Ironically, Malthus did not make the top 100 Greatest Britons.

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

Previously, high fertility had been considered an economic advantage, since it increased the number of workers available to the economy. Malthus, however, looked at fertility from a new perspective and convinced most economists that even though high fertility might increase the gross output, it tended to reduce output per capita. Malthus has been widely admired by, and has influenced, a number of other notable economists such as David Ricardo (whom Malthus knew personally) and Alfred Marshall.

A distinguished early convert was British Prime Minister, William Pitt The Younger. In the 1830s Malthus's writings strongly influenced Whig reforms which overturned Tory paternalism and brought in the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834.

Concerns about Malthus's theory also helped promote the idea of a national population Census in the UK. Government official John Rickman was instrumental in the first modern British Census being conducted in 1801.

Malthus was proud to include amongst the earliest converts to his population theory the leading creationist and natural theologian, Archdeacon William Paley whose Natural Theology was first published in 1802. Both men regarded Malthus' Principle of Population as additional proof of the existence of a deity.

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

Malthus’ idea of man’s “Struggle for existence” had decisive influence on Charles Darwin and the theory of evolution. Other scientists related this idea to plants and animals which helped to define a piece of the evolutionary puzzle. This struggle for existence of all creatures is the catalyst by which natural selection produces the “survival of the fittest”, a phrase coined by Herbert Spencer (Spiegel 282). Darwin, in his book The Origin of Species, called his theory an application of the doctrines of Malthus in an area without the complicating factor of human intelligence. Darwin, a life-long admirer of Malthus, referred to Malthus as "that great philosopher" (Letter to J.D. Hooker 5th June, 1860) and wrote in his notebook that "Malthus on Man should be studied". Wallace called Malthus's essay "...the most important book I read..." and considered it "the most interesting coincidence" that both he and Darwin were independently led to the theory of evolution through reading Malthus.

Thanks to Malthus, Darwin recognized the significance of intra species competition between populations of the same species (e.g. the lamb and the lamb), not just interspecies competition between species (e.g. the lion and the lamb). Malthusian population thinking also explained how an incipient species could become a full-blown species in a very short time frame. The significance of Malthus's influence on Darwin was perhaps best highlighted by Robert M. Young (Darwin's Metaphor: Nature's Place in Victorian Culture, 1965), Professor of Psychotherapy and Psychoanalytic Studies at Sheffield University, England.

Founder of UNESCO, evolutionist and Humanist, Julian Huxley wrote of "The Crowded World" in his Evolutionary Humanism (1964), calling for a World Population Policy. Huxley was openly critical of Communist and Roman Catholic attitudes to birth control , population control and overpopulation. Today world organizations such as the United Nations Population Fund acknowledge that the debate over how many people the Earth can support effectively started with Malthus. Julian's brother, Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World, also seems to have been influenced by Malthusian theories on population. In Brave New World, the popular form of birth control is known as the Malthusian Belt. It is mentioned frequently by the females in the novel including the female protagonist Lenina Crowne.

Karl Marx's social determinism has its roots in Malthus’s theory as well. Marx however rejected Darwin’s biological determinism and instead embraced social determinism (in other words one’s decisions are made as a direct reaction to one’s circumstances). He saw social ills as caused by unjust or faulty institutions and social arrangements in large part caused by capitalism.

Malthus continues to have considerable influence to this day. One famous recent example of this is Paul R. Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb. Ehrlich predicted, in the late 1960s, that hundreds of millions would die from a coming overpopulation crisis in the 1970s, and that by 1980 life expectancy in the United States would be only 42 years. Other famous examples are the 1972 book The Limits to Growth from the self-styled Club of Rome, and the Global 2000 report to the then President of the United States of America. Science fiction author Isaac Asimov issued many appeals for population control reflecting the perspective articulated by people from Thomas Malthus through Paul R. Ehrlich.

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

Malthus is widely regarded as the founder of modern demography. Malthus had proposed his Principle of Population as a universal natural law for all species, not just humans. Instead, today, his theory is widely regarded as only an approximate natural law of population dynamics for all species. This is because it can be proven that nothing can sustain exponential growth at a constant rate indefinitely.

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

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

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

Malthus's arithmetic model of food supply is almost universally rejected as it can be clearly demonstrated that food supply has kept pace with population for the past two centuries (see below).

Malthus's position as professor at the British East India Company training college, which he held until his death, gave his theories considerable influence over Britain's administration of India through most of the 19th century, continuing even under the Raj after the company's dissolution in 1858. The most significant result of this influence was that the official response to India's periodic famines, which had been occurring every decade or two for centuries, became one of not entirely benign neglect: the famines were regarded as necessary to keep the "excess" population in check. In some cases even private efforts to transport food into famine-stricken areas were forbidden. However, this "Malthusian" policy did not take account of the enormous economic damage done by such famines through loss of human capital, collapse of credit structures and financial institutions, and the destruction of physical capital (especially in the form of livestock), social infrastructure and commercial relationships. The presumably unintended consequence was that production often did not recover to pre-famine levels in the affected areas for a decade or more after each disaster, well after the lost population had been regained. Malthusian theory also influenced British policies in Ireland during the 1840s, in which relief measures during the Irish Potato Famine (1845-1849) were neglected and mass starvation was seen as a natural and inevitable consequence of the island's supposed over-population.

Although it is popularly assumed that Malthus's pessimistic views gave economics the nickname "the Dismal Science", the phrase was actually coined by the historian Thomas Carlyle in reference to laissez-faire economic theories in general.

Criticisms of Malthus

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

Other theoretical and political critiques of Malthus and Malthusian thinking emerged soon after the publication of the first Essay on Population, most notably in the work of the reformist industrialist Robert Owen , the essayist William Hazlitt (Malthus And The Liberties Of The Poor, 1807) and economists John Stuart Mill and Nassau William Senior (Two Lectures on Population , 1829), and moralist William Cobbett. Also of note was True Law of Population (1845) by politician Thomas Doubleday, an adherent of Cobbett's views.

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

After the Russian famine of 1921 and the Soviet-made 1932-1933 famine of Holodomor, which resulted from maldistribution rather than overpopulation, the official Soviet spokesman at the 1954 United Nations conference on population in Rome, T.V. Ryabushkin claimed "...In a socialist country...the problem of excessive population no longer arises...the Malthusian theory is completely wrong..."

Evolutionists John Maynard Smith and Ronald Fisher were both critical of Malthus's hypothesis, though it was Fisher who referred to the growth rate r (used in equations such as the logistic function) as the Malthusian parameter. Fisher referred to "...a relic of creationist philosophy..." in observing the fecundity of nature and deducing (as Darwin did) that this therefore drove natural selection. Smith doubted that famine was the great leveler that Malthus insisted it was.

Economists of the 19th century were well aware that improvements in the division and specialization of labor, increased capital investment, and other factors had rendered Malthus's warnings ever more implausible. Even in the absence of any improvement in technology or increase of capital equipment, an increased supply of labor may have a synergistic effect on productivity that overcomes the law of diminishing returns. As American land economist Henry George observed with characteristic piquancy in dismissing Malthus, "Both the jayhawk and the man eat chickens; but the more jayhawks, the fewer chickens, while the more men, the more chickens." Many 20th century economists, such as Julian Lincoln Simon, have also criticised Malthus's conclusions. They note that despite the predictions of Malthus and the Neo-Malthusians, massive geometric population growth in the 20th century has not resulted in a Malthusian catastrophe, largely due to the influence of technological advances (see below) and the expansion of the market economy, division of labor, and stock of capital goods. Such arguments are echoed by skeptical environmentalist, Bjørn Lomborg. Malthus is thus regarded by some such as British physicist John Maddox as little more than a failed prophet of doom.

To date, the most sustained and trenchant critique of Malthusian doctrine and its influence on policy is from anthropologist Eric Ross. In The Malthus Factor: Population, Poverty, and Politics in Capitalist Development, Ross depicts Malthus's work as a pseudo-scientific rationalization of the social inequities produced by the Industrial Revolution, anti-immigration movements, the eugenics movement, the various international development movements.

Recent research and significant empirical evidence have showed most of Malthus's predictions to be unrealized. For example, the population has continued to grow, yet the prices of resources and food relative to wages has decreased[1], indicating the supply of food (and resources) has grown relative to population size. This paradox can be easily resolved because Malthus made four assumptions which were further elucidated by history after his death.

First, it is widely acknowledged that population growth is almost never exponential, but instead influenced by so many factors that no simple mathematical model can describe it. Demography since Malthus's time show that population growth rates flatten and then invert as a function of economic prosperity. Malthus lived in the time when England went through a geometric growth before birth rates in that country flattened.

Second, the growth of food production has never been restricted to the rudimentary processes Malthus described. Twentieth-century researchers have provided documentation of the process of agricultural intensification (pioneered by economist Ester Boserup) by which production can be raised in response to population increases and market demands. Production has also been expanded by societal and technological advances in agriculture such as the Neolithic Revolution, British Agricultural Revolution, and the Green Revolution, food supply has outgrown population and is expected to continue doing so by the Food and Agriculture Organization. A review of the most recent edition of USDA Agricultural Statistics reveals that the yield of corn has grown from 113.5 to 160.5 bushels per acre between 1995 and 2004. This represents a 3.5% average annual compound rate of growth. Similar results are reported for wheat -- with growth rates varying by type of wheat. (Tables 1-3 and 1-36) However this growth has been based heavily on a finite resource, petrochemicals, and may yet prove unsustainable. This growth has also been based upon exhaustion of certain soil resources, such as creation of the barren central highland plateau of Madagascar, which by definition cannot be repeated. (Some debate exists on the extent to which Genetically Modified Crops will contribute to continued agricultural growth.) However, the market economy - defined as mutually beneficial exchange between decentralized actors - is responsible[citation needed] for increases in productivity, and is internally sustainable. Likewise, Malthus clearly underestimated the power of the human capacity to increase the means of human subsistence on Earth. For example, Malthus did not fully understand the additional leeway built into the agricultural system - diets composed of different kinds of foods can have a wide range of different land-use efficiencies.

Third, Malthus assumed that technology would be held constant, even while population was growing at an exponential rate.

And fourth, historical demography has shown that famines have never killed sufficient numbers of people to qualify as "Malthusian" checks on population. The demographers S. C. Watkins and J. Menken studied historical famines (Population and Development Review 1985), and found that even in the most severe cases, the population deficit created by famine is made up in just a few years. Thus, the populations of India, Ethiopia and the Sahel are far larger today than when these places suffered famines that were described as "Malthusian." Amartya Sen (Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation, Clarendon Press, 1981), has demonstrated that famines are not defined by food availability declines, but rather by the collapse in food entitlement, namely the ability of the poor to purchase sufficient food.

Malthus argued that as wages increase within a country, the birthrate increases while the death rate decreases. His reasoning was that high incomes allowed people to have sufficient means to raise their children such as feeding and clothing them thus resulting in greater desire to have more children which increases the population. In addition, high incomes also allowed people to be able to afford proper medication to fight off potentially harmful diseases thus decreasing the death rate. As a result, wage increases caused population to grow as the birthrate increases and the death rate decreases. He further argued that as the supply of labor increases with the increased population growth at a constant labor demand, the wages earned would decrease eventually to subsistence where the birthrate is equal to the death rate resulting in no population growth. However, the world generally has experienced quite a different result than the one Malthus predicted with his theory. During the late 19th and early 20th century, the population increased as did the wages, with the spread of the industrial revolution. Malthus assumed a constant labor demand in his assessment of England and in doing so he ignored the effects of industrialization. As the world became more industrialized, the level of technology and production grew causing an increase in labor demand. Thus, even though labor supply increased so did the the demand for labor. In fact, the labor demand arguably increased more than the supply, as measured by the historically observed increase in real wages globally with population growth.

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

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

Supported by a calm but firm conviction of the usefulness of his labors.

Content with the approbation of the wise and good.

His writings will be a lasting monument of the extent and correctness of his understanding.

The spotless integrity of his principles, the equity and candour of his nature, his sweetness of temper, urbanity of manners and tenderness of heart, his benevolence and his piety are still dearer recollections of his family and friends.

Born Feb 14 1766 Died 29 Dec 1834.


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