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Thomas Malthus on Population

Population Growth and Agricultural Production Don't Add Up

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Updated September 09, 2007
In 1798, a 32 year-old British economist anonymously published a lengthy pamphlet criticizing the views of the Utopians who believed that life could and would definitely improve for humans on earth. The hastily written text, 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, was published by Thomas Robert Malthus.

Born on February 14 or 17, 1766 in Surrey, England, Thomas Malthus was educated at home. His father was a Utopian and a friend of the philosopher David Hume. In 1784 he attended Jesus College and graduated in 1788; in 1791 Thomas Malthus earned his master's degree.

Thomas Malthus argued that because of the natural human urge to reproduce human population increases geometrically (1, 2, 4, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, etc.). However, food supply, at most, can only increase arithmetically (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, etc.). Therefore, since food is an essential component to human life, population growth in any area or on the planet, if unchecked, would lead to starvation. However, Malthus also argued that there are preventative checks and positive checks on population that slow its growth and keep the population from rising exponentially for too long, but still, poverty is inescapable and will continue.

Thomas Malthus' example of population growth doubling was based on the preceding 25 years of the brand-new United States of America. Malthus felt that a young country with fertile soil like the U.S. would have one of the highest birth rates around. He liberally estimated an arithmetic increase in agricultural production of one acre at a time, acknowledging that he was overestimating but he gave agricultural development the benefit of the doubt.

According to Thomas Malthus, preventative checks are those that affect the birth rate and include marrying at a later age (moral restraint), abstaining from procreation, birth control, and homosexuality. Malthus, a religious chap (he worked as a clergyman in the Church of England), considered birth control and homosexuality to be vices and inappropriate (but nonetheless practiced).

Positive checks are those, according to Thomas Malthus, that increase the death rate. These include disease, war, disaster, and finally, when other checks don't reduce population, famine. Malthus felt that the fear of famine or the development of famine was also a major impetus to reduce the birth rate. He indicates that potential parents are less likely to have children when they know that their children are likely to starve.

Thomas Malthus also advocated welfare reform. Recent Poor Laws had provided a system of welfare that provided an increased amount of money depending on the number of children in a family. Malthus argued that this only encouraged the poor to give birth to more children as they would have no fear that increased numbers of offspring would make eating any more difficult. Increased numbers of poor workers would reduce labor costs and ultimately make the poor even poorer. He also stated that if the government or an agency were to provide a certain amount of money to every poor person, prices would simply rise and the value of money would change. As well, since population increases faster than production, the supply would essentially be stagnant or dropping so the demand would increase and so would price. Nonetheless, he suggested that capitalism was the only economic system that could function.

The ideas that Thomas Malthus developed came before the industrial revolution and focuses on plants, animals, and grains as the key components of diet. Therefore, for Malthus, available productive farmland was a limiting factor in population growth. With the industrial revolution and increase in agricultural production, land has become a less important factor than it was during the 18th century.

Thomas Malthus printed a second edition of his Principles of Population in 1803 and produced several additional editions until a sixth edition in 1826. Malthus was awarded with the first professorship in Political Economy at the East India Company's College at Halebury and was elected to the Royal Society in 1819. He's often known today as the "patron saint of demography" and while some argue that his contributions to population studies were unremarkable, he did indeed cause population and demographics to become a topic of serious academic study. Thomas Malthus died on Somerset, England in 1834.

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