Thomas Malthus (1766-1834) was a Tory minister in the United Kingdom Parliament who, contrasting to Bentham, believed in strict government abstention from social ills.
Robert Malthus (he went by his middle name) was born in "the Rookery", a country estate in Dorking, Surrey (south of London). He was the second son of Daniel Malthus, a country gentleman and avid disciple of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and David Hume (both of whom he knew personally). Accordingly, Malthus was educated according to Rousseauvian precepts by his father and a series of tutors. Malthus entered Jesus College, Cambridge, in 1784 and was ordained a minister of the Church of England in 1788. He earned his M.A. in 1791.
Around 1796, Malthus became a curate in the sleepy town of Albury, a few miles from his father's house. Having been elected Fellow of Jesus College in 1793, he divided his time between Cambridge and Albury. It was in the course of his interminable intellectual debates with his father over the "perfectibility of society" thesis then being advanced by William Godwin and the Marquis de Condorcet, that Malthus's decided to set his ideas down on paper. It was eventually published as a pamphlet known as the Essay on Population (1798).
In this famous work, Malthus posited his hypothesis that (unchecked) population growth always exceeds the growth of means of subsistence. Actual (checked) population growth is kept in line with food supply growth by "positive checks" (starvation, disease and the like, elevating the death rate) and "preventive checks" (i.e. postponement of marriage, etc. that keep down the birthrate), both of which are characterized by "misery and vice". Malthus's hypothesis implied that actual population always has a tendency to push above the food supply. Because of this tendency, any attempt to ameliorate the condition of the lower classes by increasing their incomes or improving agricultural productivity would be fruitless, as the extra means of subsistence would be completely absorbed by an induced boost in population. As long as this tendency remains, Malthus argued, the "perfectibility" of society will always be out of reach.
In his much-expanded and revised 1803 edition of the Essay, Malthus concentrated on bringing empirical evidence to bear (much of it acquired on his extensive travels to Germany, Russia and Scandinavia). He also introduced the possibility of "moral restraint" (voluntary abstinence which leads to neither misery nor vice) bringing the unchecked population growth rate down to a point where the tendency is gone. In practical policy terms, this meant inculcating the lower classes with middle-class virtues. He believed this could be done with the introduction of universal suffrage, state-run education for the poor and, more controversially, the elimination of the Poor Laws and the establishment of an unfettered nation-wide labor market. He also argued that once the poor had a taste for luxury, then they would demand a higher standard of living for themselves before starting a family. Thus, although seemingly contradictory, Malthus is suggesting the possibility of "demographic transition", i.e. that sufficiently high incomes may be enough by themselves to reduce fertility.
The Essay transformed Malthus into an intellectual celebrity. He was reviled by many as a hard-hearted monster, a prophet of doom, an enemy of the working class, etc. The ridicule and invective rained down on Malthus by the chattering and pamphleteering classes was relentless. But a sufficient number of people recognized his Essay for what it was: the first serious economic study of the welfare of the lower classes. Even Karl Marx, who deplored his conservative policy conclusions, grudgingly granted him this.
In 1804, Malthus got married and thereby forfeited his fellowship at Cambridge. In 1805, Malthus was appointed Professor of Modern History and Political Economy at the East India College in Haileybury, thereby becoming the England's first academic economist.
Malthus got interested in monetary in 1800, when he published a pamphlet (much praised by Keynes), expounding an endogenous theory of money. Contrary to the Quantity Theory, Malthus argued that rising prices are followed by increases in the quantity supplied of money. Around 1810, Malthus came across a series of tracts by a stockbroker, David Ricardo, on monetary questions. He immediately wrote to Ricardo and the two men initiated a correspondence (and a friendship) that would last for over a decade. The Malthus-Ricardo relationship was warm in all respects but one -- economics. They found themselves on opposites sides of the fence on practically every issue.
In 1814, Malthus launched himself into the Corn Laws debate then raging in parliament. After a first pamphlet, Observations, outlining the pros and cons of the proposed protectionist laws, Malthus tentatively supported the free traders, arguing that as cultivation as British corn was increasingly expensive to raise, it was best if Britain at least in part on cheaper foreign sources for its food supply. He changed his mind the next year, in his 1815 Grounds of an Opinion pamphlet, 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 was captive to foreign politics. By encouraging domestic production, Malthus argued, the Corn Laws would guarantee British self-sufficiency in food.
In his 1815 Inquiry, Malthus came up with the differential theory of rent. Although it was simultaneously discovered by Torrens, West and Ricardo, Malthus's pamphlet was the first of the four to be published. Refuting older contentions that rent was a cost of production, Malthus argued that it was merely a deduction from the surplus. Rent, Malthus argued, is enabled by three facts: (1) that agricultural production yields a surplus; (2) that the wage-fertility dynamics guarantee that the price of corn would remains steadily above its cost of production; (3) that fertile land is scarce. Ricardo own 1815 essay was actually a response to Malthus. Ricardo dismissed Malthus's arguments, arguing that Malthus's "third" cause -- that land differs in quality and is limited in quantity -- is sufficient to explain the phenomenon of rent. He incorporated Malthus's theory of rent with his own theory of profits to provide the "Classical" statement of the theory of distribution. He also dismissed Malthus's feeble attempts to defend parasitical landlords and the Corn Laws.
Malthus's own criticism of Ricardo's 1815 essay led them into a debate on the question of "value". Malthus supported Smith's old "labor-commanded" theory of value, whereas Ricardo favored the "labor-embodied" version. The outcome of the discussion was Ricardo's Principles in 1817, which set down the doctrine of the Classical School on value, distribution and production, incorporating at least two of Malthus's own contributions: the "natural wage" version of Malthus's population theory and an expanded version of Malthus's theory of rent.
Malthus was never comfortable as a member of the Classical school. Nowhere is this more evident than in Malthus's own treatise, Principles of Economics (1820). He differs from the Classical Ricardians at several points. For instance, Malthus introduced the idea of a demand schedule in the modern sense, i.e. as the conceptual relationship between prices and the quantity sought by buyers rather than the empirical relationship between prices and quantities sold. He also paid much attention to the short-run stability of prices. insisting on a labor-commanded theory of value and,
Thirdly, and most famously, Malthus denied the validity of Say's Law and argued that there could be a "general glut" of goods. Malthus believed that economic crises were characterized by a general excess supply caused by insufficient consumption. His defense of the Corn Laws rested partly on the need for landlord consumption to "make up" for shortfalls in demand and thus avert crisis. See our more extensive discussion of the General Glut Controversy.
Major Works of T. Robert Malthus
* 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, Copy (2), Copy (3)
* An Investigation of the Cause of the Present High Price of Provisions, Containing an illustration of the nature and limits of fair price in time of scarcity and its application to the particular circumstances of the country, 1800.
* 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 Removal or Mitigation of the Evils which it occasions, 1803, revised and expanded 2nd edition of 1798. [3rd ed., 1806; 4th ed., 1807; 5th ed. 1817; 6th ed., 1826; 7th ed., 1872]
* A Letter to Samuel Whitbread, Esq., M.P. on his proposed bill for the amendment of the Poor Laws, 1807.
* A Letter to the Right Honourable Lord Grenville occasioned by some observations of his lordship on the East India Company's establishment for the education of their civil servants, 1813.
* Observations on the Effects of the Corn Laws, and of a rise or fall in the price of corn on the agriculture and general wealth of the country, 1814. (NAR 1815 version)
* An Inquiry into the Nature and Progress of Rent, and the principles by which it is regulated, 1815.
* The Grounds of an Opinion on the Policy of Restricting the Importation of Foreign Corn , 1815.
* Statements Respecting the East-India College, 1817.
* Principles of Political Economy: Considered with a view to their practical application, 1820. - (French transl.)
* The Measure of Value Stated and Illustrated, With an Application of it to the alterations in the value of English currency, 1823.
* "Tooke -- On High and Low Prices", 1823, Quaterly Review
* "Political Economy", 1824, Quarterly Review
* "Population", 1824, Encyclopedia Britannica.
* Definitions in Political economy: Preceded by an inquiry into the rules which ought to guide political economists in the definition and use of their terms; with remarks on the derivation from these rules in their writings, 1827. (French transl.)
* A Summary View of the Principle of Population, 1830
Modern History Sourcebook:
Thomas Malthus: Essay on Population, 1798
The Rev. Thomas R. Malthus (1766-1834) began modern analysis of population in terms of "laws" - a classic Enlightenment approach. His arguments were directed againts William Godwin (1756-1836) whose Enquiry Concerning Political Justice argued in favor of a more egalitarian society and economics in order to end poverty.
From Thomas Malthus. First Essay on Population (1798)
The following Essay owes its origin to a conversation with a friend, on the subject of Mr. Godwin's Essay, on avarice and profusion, in his Enquirer. The discussion, started the general question of the future improvement of society; and the Author at first sat down with an intention of merely stating his thoughts to his friend, upon paper, in a clearer manner than he thought he could do, in conversation. But as the subject opened upon him, some ideas occurred, which he did not recollect to have met with before; and as he conceived, that every, the least light, on a topic so generally interesting, might be received with candour, he determined to put his thoughts in a form for publication....
I think I may fairly make two postulata.
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.
These two laws ever since we have had any knowledge of mankind, appear to have been fixed laws of our nature; and, as we have not hitherto seen any alteration in them, we have no right to conclude that they will ever cease to be what they now are, without an immediate act of power in that Being who first arranged the system of the universe; and for the advantage of his creatures, still executes, according to fixed laws, all its various operations.
I do not know that any writer has supposed that on this earth man will ultimately be able to live without food. But Mr. Godwin has conjectured that the passion between the sexes may in time be extinguished. As, however, he calls this part of his work, a deviation into the land of conjecture, I will not dwell longer upon it at present, than to say, that the best arguments for the perfectibility of man, are drawn from a contemplation of the great progress that he has already made from the savage state, and the difficulty of saying where he is to stop. But towards the extinction of the passion between the sexes, no progress whatever has hitherto been made. It appears to exist in as much force at present as it did two thousand, or four thousand years ago. There are individual exceptions now as there always have been. But, as these exceptions do not appear to increase in number, it would surely be a very unphilosophical mode of arguing, to infer merely from the existence of an exception, that the exception would, in time, become the rule, and the rule the exception. Assuming then, my postulata as granted, I say, that the power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man.
Population, when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio. Subsistence increases only in an arithmetical ratio. A slight acquaintance with numbers will shew the immensity of the first power in comparisonof the second.
By that law of our nature which makes food necessary to the life of man, the effects of these too unequal powers must be kept equal. This implies a strong and constantly operating check on population from the difficulty of subsistence. This difficulty must fall some where; and must necssarily be severely felt by a large portion of mankind.
Through the animal and vegetable kingdoms, nature has scattered the seeds of life abroad with the most profuse and liberal hand. She has been comparatively sparing in the room, and the nourishment necessary to rear them. 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. Necessity, that imperious all pervading law of nature, restrains them within the prescribed bounds. The race of plants, and the race of animals shrink under this great restrictive law. And the race of man cannot, by any efforts of reason, escape from it. Among plants and animals its effects are waste of seed, sickness, and premature death. Among mankind, misery and vice. The former, misery, is an absolutely necessary consequence of it. Vice is a highly probable consequence, and we therefore see it abundantly prevail; but it ought not, perhaps, to be called an absolutely necessary consequence. The ordeal of virtue is to resist all temptation to evil.
This natural inequality of the two powers of population, and of production in the earth, and that great law of our nature which must constantly keep their effects equal, form the great difficulty that to me appears insurmountable in the way to the perfectibility of society. All other arguments are of slight and subordinate consideration in comparison of this. I see no way by which man can escape from the weight of this law which pervades all animated nature. No fancied equality, no agrarian regulations in their utmost extent, could remove the pressure of it even for a single century. And it appears, therefore, to be decisive against the possible existence of a society, all the members of which, should live in ease, happiness, and comparative leisure; and feel no anxiety about providing the means of subsistence for themselves and families.
Consequently, if the premises are just, the argument is conclusive against the perfectibility of the mass of mankind.
I have thus sketched the general outline of the argument; but I will examine it more particularly; and I think it will be found that experience, the true source and foundation of all knowledge, invariably confirms its truth....
No limits whatever are placed to the productions of the earth they may increase for ever and be greater than any assignable quantity; yet still the power of population being a power of a superior order, the increase of the human species can only be kept commensurate to the increase of the means of subsistence, by the constant operation of the strong law of necessity acting as a check upon the greater power.
The effects of this check remain now to be considered.
Among plants and animals the view of the subject is simple. They are all impelled by a powerful instinct to the increase of their species; and this instinct is interrupted by no reasoning, or doubts about providing for their offspring. Wherever therefore there is liberty, the power of increase is exerted; and the superabundant effects are repressed afterwards by want of room and nourishment, which is common to animals and plants; and among animals, by becoming the prey of others.
The effects of this check on man are more complicated.
Impelled to the increase of his species by an equally powerful instinct, reason interrupts his career, and asks him whether he may not bring beings into the world, for whom he cannot provide the means of subsistence. In a state of equality, this would be the simple question. In the present state of society, other considerations occur. Will he not lower his rank in life? Will he not subject himself to greater difficulties than he at present feels? Will he not be obliged to labour harder? and if he has a large family, will his utmost exertions enable him to support them? May he not see his offspring in rags and misery, and clamouring for bread that he cannot give them? And may he not be reduced to the grating necessity of forfeiting his independence, and of being obliged to the sparing hand of charity for support?
These considerations are calculated to prevent, and certainly do prevent, a very great number in all civilized nations from pursuing the dictate of nature in an early attachment to one woman. And this restraint almost necessarily, though not absolutely so, produces vice. 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.
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, which is found to act even in the most vicious societies, 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 t 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....
The theory, on which the truth of this position depends, appears to me so extremely clear; that I feel at a loss to conjecture what part of it can be denied.
That population cannot increase without the means of subsistence, is a proposition so evident, that it needs no illustration.
That population does invariably increase, where there are the means of subsistence, the history of every people that have ever existed will abundantly prove.
And, that the superior power of population cannot be checked, without producing misery or vice, the ample portion of these too bitter ingredients in the cup of human life, and the continuance of the physical causes that seem to have produced them bear too convincing a testimony.
From: Thomas R. Malthus, First Essay on Population (London: Macmillan,1926), pp. i, 11-17, 26-31, 37-38.
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(c)Paul Halsall Aug 1997