Malthus, Thomas Robert

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Malthus, Thomas Robert (1766-1834): British Political Economist.

The Reverend T. Robert Malthus is known for the thesis that population, which increases at a geometric rate, is likely to outstrip the available food supply, which only increases arithmetically.

Born to a prosperous, progressive family, Malthus excelled at Jesus College, Cambridge University, where he studied mathematics. He married his cousin and sired three sons. After being appointed curate in his native Surrey, he accepted a professorship of history and political economy at East India College in Haileybury, which prepared students for the imperial civil service. His major writings included the Essay on the Principle of Population (1798) and The Principles of Political Economy (1820). As his fame grew, Malthus won many honors, such as election to the Royal Society and other prestigious institutions at home and abroad. He supported the laissez-faire doctrines of Smith, Adam, and was affiliated with New Whig reformers.

In the anonymously authored first edition of the Essay, Malthus opposed both the pro-natalist policies of mercantilism, for which population growth signified national well-being, and the optimistic speculations of Godwin, William and Condorcet, Marie Jean Antoine Nicholas Caritat, Marquis de, who believed that social or technological change could generate universal abundance. It is mistaken, Malthus claimed, to regard social arrangements as the primary cause of suffering while ignoring the role of nature, or human nature. No society, however prosperous, egalitarian, or advanced it may be, can eradicate biological imperatives like food consumption and reproduction. Without misery to restrain popular behavior, the rate of reproduction will outpace the food supply. This conclusion depended on utilitarian calculation. By nature, humans are lazy rather than industrious, and if given more leisure, they are likely to squander it on pleasures of the flesh, such as intercourse. As population growth skyrockets, food will become scarce, and conflict, famine, and pestilence will ensue, depressing the population growth rate. Thus, nature itself will step in to regulate the size of the human population whenever social arrangements fail to do so. There are natural barriers to happiness.

Malthus revised his argument substantially in the second edition (1803), after gathering demographic data and researching Norwegian efforts to discourage early marriage. He now acknowledged that the capacity for reason makes the human case unique. Humans can replace, or at least supplement, nature’s “positive checks” on population, such as famine, warfare, and infant mortality, with the “negative check” of self-restraint. Accordingly, Malthus championed sexual abstinence.

The influence of Malthus has been far-reaching. His theories found favor with many political economists (famously excepting Marx, who criticized “the Parson’s” opposition to the Poor Laws), as well as utilitarians like Bentham, Jeremy and the Mills and evolutionary biologists like Darwin and Wallace. More recently, a neo-Malthusian wing of the environmental movement has embraced the doctrine that there are physical limits to growth.

Further Reading:

Donald Winch, Malthus, 1987.

Sandra Hinchman

St. Laurence University