Thomas Malthus

Ideas

– Population, when unchecked, increases in a geometric ratio, while subsistence increases only in arithmetic ratio.

– Accordingly, there is a strong and constantly operating check on population because of the difficulty of subsistence.

– The price of food will tend to increase, owing to the necessity of employing additional land of inferior quality to increase production: This os the law of diminishing returns.

Biography

The English economist Thomas Robert Malthus was one of the earliest thinkers to study population growth as it relates to general human welfare. After studying philosophy, mathematics, and theology at Cambridge (1784-88), Malthus took holy orders (1790) and became (1805) professor of history and political economy at East India College near London.

Although Malthus’s youth was dominated by the Enlightenment belief in the rationality of man and the perfectibility of society, the unfolding Industrial Revolution was making it increasingly apparent that society was changing and not necessarily for the better. In 1798, Malthus anonymously published ‘An Essay on the Principle of Population, As It Affects the Future Improvement of Society’. It was an attack on William Godwin‘s and the marquis de Condorcet‘s theories of eternal human progress.

Malthus argued that the standard of living of the masses cannot be improved because “The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man.” Population, he asserted, when unchecked by war, famine, or disease, would increase by a geometric ratio but subsistence only by an arithmetic one. Malthus’s identification of population growth as an obstacle to human progress was bitterly resisted in the Enlightenment climate of the day, and his theories–which greatly influenced classical economists like his friend David Ricardo–were interpreted as opposing social reform. In 1803, Malthus published a revised edition of his work, in which he added “moral restraint”–late marriage and abstinence–as a factor that might limit population growth, and he provided empirical evidence to back up his theories.

In the middle of the 19th century neo-Malthusianism emerged, a movement that, partly influenced by ROBERT OWEN, advocated birth control for the poor. The appearance of Dr. George Drysdale’s Elements of Social Science in 1854, and the founding of the Malthusian League in 1877, laid the foundation of the movement. The league was disbanded in 1927.

Major Works of Thomas Malthus

– Essay on the Principle of Population (1798)
– Principles of Political Economy (1820)

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