1902 Encyclopedia > Thomas Robert Malthus

Thomas Robert Malthus
(commonly known as: Thomas Malthus)
English political economist and demographer


MALTHUS, THOMAS ROBERT (1766-1834), the scientific expounder of the principle of population, was born in 1766 at the Rookery, a small estate owned by his father in the county of Surrey. His father was a gentleman of good family and independent fortune, - a man of considerable culture both in literature and philosophy, the friend and correspondent of Rousseau, and one of his executors, one, too, who showed no little interest in those social problems in which his son was to be an original inquirer. Young Malthus was never sent to a public school, but received his education from private tutors, who were themselves men of some distinction. In 1784 he was sent to Cambridge, where he was ninth wrangler, and became fellow of his own college (Jesus) in 1797. The same year lie received orders, and undertook the charge of a small parish in Surrey, still, however, retaining his fellowship. In the following year lie published the first edition of his great work, An Essay on the Principle of Population as it ajects the Future Improvement of Society, with remarks ata. the speculations of Mr Godwin, II. Condorcet, and other larders. The work excited a good deal of surprise as well as attention ; and with characteristic thoroughness and love of truth the author went abroad to collect materials for the verification and more exhaustive treatment of his views. As Britain was then at war with France, only the northern countries of Europe were quite open to his research at that time; but during the brief peace of Amiens Malthus Company's College at Haileybury. This situation he retained till hit; death in 1834. Malthus was one of the most amiable; candid, and cultured of men. In all his private relations he was not only without reproach, but distinguished for the beauty of his character. He bore the popular abuse and misrepresentation without the slightest murmur or sourness of temper. The aim of his inquiries was to promote the happiness of mankind, which could be better accomplished by pointing out the real possibilities of progress than by indulging in vague dreams of perfectibility apart from the actual facts which condition human life.

Malthus's Essay on Population grew out of some discussions which he had with his father respecting the perfectibility of society. His father shared the theories on that subject of Condorcet and Godwin ; and his son combated them on the ground that the realization of a happy society will always be hindered by the miseries consequent on the tendency of population to increase faster than the means of subsistence. His father was struck by the weight and originality of his views, asked him to put them in writing, and then recommended the publication of the manuscript. It was in this way the Essay saw the light. Thus it will be seen that both historically and philosophically the doctrine of Malthus was a corrective reaction against the superficial optimism diffused by the school of Rousseau. It was the same optimism, with its easy methods of regenerating society and its fatal blindness to the real conditions that circumscribe human life, that was responsible for the wild theories of the French Revolution and many of its consequent excesses.

The Essay on the Principle of Population will best be considered under two heads : - (I) the principle itself, with the arguments and illustrations by which it is supported; and (2) remarks on its origin and its applications.

I. The principle itself. The idea with which Malthus starts is the improvement of society. In an inquiry concerning the improvement of society there are two things to be done, - (1) to investigate the causes that have hitherto impeded the progress of mankind to happiness, and (2) to examine the probability of the total or partial removal of these causes in future. Waiving the consideration of such an immense field of thought, Malthus restricts himself to the examination of one great cause intimately connected with human nature and its effects on society, which, though operating since the commencement of society, has been little noticed by writers. This cause is the constant tendency in all animated life to increase beyond the nourishment prepared for it. Throughout both the animal and vegetable kingdoms, nature has scattered the seeds of life abroad with the most profuse and liberal hand. Life on this planet is so prolific that, if allowed free room to develop itself, it would fill millions of worlds in the course of a few thousand years. There is only one limit to the indefinite increase, and that is necessity. In plants and irrational animals, which are impelled by blind instinct untroubled by doubts about providing for their offspring, the problem is simple ; in their case increase is checked only by want of room and nourishment. As regards man, whose equally powerful instinct is controlled by reason, the question is more complicated. In his case, increase must either be checkedby preventive restraint, which too frequently produces vice ; or a constant check, from the difficulty of acquiring food, must be in operation.

That population tends to increase beyond the means of subsistence is obvious in two ways, - (1) from a comparison of the natural increase of population, if left to exert itself with perfect freedom, with the available increase of subsistence under the most favourable conditions, and (2) from a review of the different states of society in which man has existed. Under the first head, Malthus considers it a safe calculation that population, when unchecked, goes on doubling itself every twenty-five years. It has even been calculated that it may double itself in about thirteen years ; that proportion has actually occurred for short periods in more countries than one. Malthus, however, contents himself with the more moderate rate, namely, that population, when unchecked, doubles itself every twenty-five years, or increases in a geometrical ratio. If so, how is the rate of increase of the means of subsistence to be estimated ? If we take a limited area, no improvement in developing the resources of the soil will keep pace with the unchecked increase of population. We may allow that, through the great improvements of agriculture in Great Britain, the average produce of the island could be doubled in the first twenty-five years ; but in the next twenty-five it is impossible to suppose that the produce could be quadrupled. The utmost we can allow is that the produce might be increased every twenty-five years by a quantity equal to what it at present yields. If we apply this supposition to the whole earth, we shall assume an increase much greater than any possible exertions of mankind could effect. On the whole, then, in the present average state of the earth, the means of subsistence could not be made to increase faster than in an arithmetical ratio. With such a disproportion between the ratio of increase of population and of the means of subsistence, population can be kept down to the level of the means of subsistence only by the strong law of necessity operating as a check on the greater power. In fact, the ultimate check to population is the want of food ; but this ultimate check is never the immediate cheek, except in cases of actual famine. The immediate check consists of all those customs and all those diseases which are generated by a scarcity of food, and all the causes independent of the scarcity which tend to weaken and destroy the human frame. These checks are either preventive or positive ; and the former consist either of moral restraint or of vice, always so pernicious to society. The positive checks are extremely various, including everything that contributes to shorten the natural duration of human life. Under this head may be enumerated all unwholesome occupations, severe labour and exposure to the seasons, extreme poverty, bad nursing of children, large towns, excesses of all kinds, the whole train of common diseases and epidemics, wars, plague, and famine." The checks of all kinds may be reduced to three heads - moral restraint, vice, and misery. This theoretical exposition of the checks to population Malthus supports and illustrates by an exhaustive examination of the checks which have operated or still operate in the various countries and states of society from the brutal and revolting practices prevalent among the savages of Tierra del Fuego and Australia to the moral self-control of the highest nations. It is not a pleasant picture, but it is merely a presentation of historical and statistical facts for which 'Malthus is in no way responsible. Throughout his entire exposition he does not theorize, but seeks only to systematize and elucidate facts which cannot be controverted, belonging as they do to the history of the world. The only notable exception is his attempt to express in mathematical language the possible increase of the means of subsistence. The conditions determining such increase are too vague and various to be calculated in such a way. On this point Malthus is not followed by subsequent economists, and it is not essential to his principle. At the same time, in spite of its unsoundness, it does help us to realize the disproportion between the possible increase of population and the means of subsistence.

II. What remains to be said of the Essay on the Principle of Population may be embraced in the following notes. (1) Origin of the principle. The population question has always had a great influence on the development of mankind. In the most barbarous nations the problem of preserving the balance between food and population must always have been a pressing one, and has led to some of their cruellest and most immoral customs. The more theoretic consideration of the question has a large place in the political treatises of Plato and Aristotle. Just before Malthus's time it had been touched by such writers as Benjamin Franklin (01,9o-- rations concerning the Increase of Mankind), Hume (Populousness of the Ancient Nations), Wallace (On the Numbers of Mankind in Ancient and Modern Times), Townshend (Travels in Spain), not to mention many other modern writers of less recent date. (2) The remedy for over-population usually proposed is emigration. No doubt there are immense fertile areas yet unpeopled. But the difficulty of transferring the surplus population, and especially of conveying surplus capital to these regions, and of co-ordinating the two, is a point that must not be overlooked. In spite of the great development of steam as a means of emigration, it remains a fact that population tends to excess in many of the most important centres of the world. Besides, emigration is only a postponing of the difficulty. In another century even the Mississippi valley will be well stocked. (3) Relation of Malthus to Darwin. In his book Animals and Plants under Domestication, vol. i. p. 10, Darwin expressly acknowledges his indebtedness to Malthus in thinking out his cardinal principle of natural selection. After the study of domestic productions had given him a just idea of the power of selection, he saw, " on reading Malthus On Population, that natural selection was the inevitable result of the rapid increase of all organic beings." (4) Poor-law reform. The reformed poor law of 1834 was a real triumph of Malthus's teaching. The effect of the old poor law was to encourage population by relieving the labouring classes of the due responsibility of supporting themselves and their families. By discouraging foresight, self-control, and the spirit of self-reliant independence, it demoralized the working man. The great aim of the new poor law was to emphasize the duty of self-support and the responsibilities of parentage. (5) Relation to modern politics. Some of the greatest difficulties in contemporary polities can be correctly understood only in the light of the principle of population. The most striking example of this is India, where, under the good government of England, the old and unhappy cheeks to population, such as war, famine, pestilence, and religious self-immolation, have been removed. As there has been no proportionate improvement in agriculture, and in the ethical development of the people, population has increased beyond the means of subsistence, and there prevails a tendency to chronic poverty, a very low standard of living, a general misery, and an unsatisfactory social morale, which correspond badly with the high European civilization under which such a state of things is maintained. (6) It is only due to the memory of a good man, who was a sincere lover of truth and of the progress of humanity, that we should emphasize the fact that Malthus is in no way responsible for the immoral theories popularly connected with his name. Apart from such increase in the means of subsistence as may be attained by emigration and improved agricultufe, Malthus approved of only one method of solving the population question, namely, moral self-restraint. His single precept is " Do not marry till you have a fair prospect of supporting a family." The greatest and highest moral result of his principle is that it clearly and emphatically teaches the responsibility of parentage, and declares the sin of those who bring human beings into the world for whose physical, intellectual, and moral wellbeing no satisfactory provision is made.

Besides his great work, MaltIms wrote Observations on the Effect of the Corn Laws; An Inquiry into the Nature and Progress of Rent ; Principles of Political Economy; and Definitions in Political Economy. Ills views on rent were of real importance. For his life see Memoir by his friend Dr Otter, bishop of Chichester (prefixed to 2d edition, 1836, of the Principles of Political Economy). (T, K.)

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