Thomas Malthus's social and economic thought centered about his theory of population, which maintained that when unchecked, population increases at a faster rate than the production of food. A corollary of this theory is that the number of people in society will be constantly pressing on the means of physical subsistence. The theory provides for a number of checks that Malthus classified as either positive (things that increase deaths) or preventive (things that reduce births). Each possible check to increased population was seen as being derived from limited food supply, so that the latter constitutes the ultimate check in Malthus's theory. In this way, Malthus introduced the notion of a physiological "standard of living" that regulates population.
The second edition of Malthus's Essay on the Principle of Population (1st ed., 1798) also added the notion of a standard of living determined by habit—a notion designed to explain the empirical fact of Malthus's day that laboring classes in several countries were living at standards considerably above subsistence. However, regardless of how the standard of living was arrived at, Malthus's theory stressed its constancy. The fact that a change in economic conditions ultimately yielded no change in the average quality of life, but only a decrease or increase of people living at this constant standard left almost insurmountable difficulties blocking permanent improvement of the condition of the working classes. Malthusian theory presented a departure from the more optimistic economic growth theory of Adam Smith. In fact, some of the most prominent features of the classical system of economics resulted from the changes in Smithian doctrine introduced by acceptance of Malthus's ideas.
Malthusian population theory was both influential and popular throughout much of the nineteenth century, but lost favor rapidly once scholars recognized that Malthus had underestimated the rate of technical change. In the twentieth century, technological advances have not only greatly expanded food supplies, but have introduced more efficient means of birth control as well. Nevertheless, since World War II the problems facing underdeveloped countries have reawakened interest in Malthus. Many emerging countries today have the worst of both worlds: the high birth rates of a typical agrarian economy and the low death rates of a modern industrialized economy. Barring major and immediate changes, these countries face the unsavory choice of voluntary family limitation—in opposition to prevailing religious beliefs—or the Malthusian checks of famine and disease that stem from limited food supply.
What is not clear today is whether overpopulation is the cause of underdevelopment or whether economic development is the cure for overpopulation. In the advanced economies of the world, children seem to be regarded as "inferior goods." That is, as per capita income increases in these countries, there is a tendency to substitute high living and more leisure for more children, despite the fact that more children can be afforded at the higher income levels. Malthus's theory does not explain this phenomenon, nor does it explain the relationship between fertility and mortality, nor the consequences of changes in the age distribution of a population.
Thomas Robert Malthus showed exceptional
intelligence at a very early age. Recognizing this Daniel Malthus, an
eccentric upper middle class father, had his son privately tutored until his
acceptance in to
On campus "Thomas" was as popular
as he was intelligent. Well liked and always having a witty remark or face to
make, Malthus excelled in oration while studying philosophy and mathematics
for a position in the clergy. He was also considered a fashion pioneer at
Warned that his cleft palate would curtail
his rise within the church, Malthus took his holy orders at Okewood for 5 years. He later returned to
Another motto of the day was "more people means more happiness," which was spawned by the utopian fantasy of William Godwin. In his book Political Justice, Godwin saw the future of humankind in which "there will be no war, no crime, no administration of justice, as it is called, and no government. Besides this there will be no disease, anguish, melancholy, or resentment." For the upper classes this was wonderful, yet daring news. One such excited society member was Daniel Malthus.
In their walks in the woods together Daniel and Thomas would have father and son debates of Godwinl's visions of the future. Disagreeing with his father, as sons often do, Thomas wrote An Essay on the Principles of Population as It Affects the Future Improvement of Society, with Remarks on the Speculations of M. Goodwill, M. Condorcet, and Other Writers. The 50,000 word thesis, anonymously published, sacked the utopian view point thoroughly.
Malthus had laid out a decimating and dark view of the future of humanity. He showed how populations when unchecked grow exponentially ( 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, etc.) while food supplies grow arithmetically (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, etc.). The differences in growth would result in utter starvation and death. Malthus saw only two mechanisms which would curtail the exponential population boom. One was positive checks, which increased deaths, such as disease, war, slavery, child murder, and starvation. The second was preventative checks, which hampered births through later marriages, decreasing family size, and exercising "moral constraint." The latter being the more pleasant alternative, Malthus urged Parliament to dispose of the poor-relief bills.
Somewhat empirically supported, Malthus's view frightened everyone. Instead of taking the work seriously, though, many intellectuals attacked the anonymous author and painted the work black. Another problem, too, which caused even greater resentment amongst intellectuals, was that his dark predictions were gripped with logical sense. Malthus did persist, though, and researched heavily for the second edition. In 1803 the title and tone were slightly less dire: An Essay on the Principles of Population or a View of its Past and Present Effects on Human Happiness, with an Inquiry into Our Prospects Respecting the Future Removal or Mitigation of the Evils Which It Occasions.
With his work armed with meticulous empirical data, Malthus published the second edition with his name attached. For his critics this meant an open hunting season. Intellects and romantics alike used Thomas Malthus to alleviate any of their frustrations. If people are unhappy, blame Malthus. If people are unemployed, blame Malthus. If people were pessimistic about the future, blame Malthus. Sadly, the criticisms Malthus endured overshadowed his reputation for the rest of his life and well after his death.
However, Malthus's positive and preventative checks took effect, but in a different, less dreadful manner. Death rates actually decreased STOPPED.
However, something else was going on in the
English countryside that would stall the starvation of
Imagine a population in a perpetual doubling while food supplies only increase slowly. The lag in food supply growth reaches severe backlash, which Malthus termed "positive and preventative checks." Positive checks in which population Malthus exposed the gap between population growth and food supply. showed that population growths exponentially while food supplies only grow.
Author: Ralph Byrns
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