Thomas Robert Malthus (1766-1834) was an English political economist of the classical school and a representative of utilitarianism as well as of early demographic science. He is best known for his Essay on the Principle of Population (1798), in which he assesses the problems of the growth of the human population in respect to their supply of food and other vital products. Malthus is considered an economic pessimist, an economist of crisis whose theories were of high impact despite their being partially erroneous.
Life and Writings
Thomas R. Malthus was born on February 13, 1766, in Surrey, southern England, as the sixth child of a prosperous family. His father, Daniel Malthus, is said to have known the philosophers David Hume, James Mill, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau personally. Little Thomas was educated by his father and private tutors; starting in 1784, Malthus attended Cambridge University’s Jesus College, where he studied mathematics, classical languages, and literature. He obtained a master’s degree in 1791 and became a fellow of Jesus College only two years later. In 1797 Malthus was ordained in the Anglican Church and decided to officiate as country clericalist in his home county.
In 1804, however, Malthus resigned from the priesthood to marry Harriet Eckersall, with whom he had three children. Soon after, in 1805, he became the first professor of political economy at the college of the East India Company at Haileybury, Hertfordshire. Already in 1798, 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 had been published anonymously. In this, Malthus’s main work, which he revised continually until his death, he showed his deep economic and social pessimism, as he was convinced that any increase in productivity and wealth would inevitably be outrun by the evoked growth in the population’s number. Consequently, he doubted the benefit of a high birth rate for an economy.
Around 1810 Malthus met one of the most important economists of the time, David Ricardo; an active correspondence and a close friendship developed. In 1819 Malthus obtained fellowship in the Royal Society; moreover he became a member of the Political Economy Club, and in 1834, he was one of the founders of the Statistical Society of London.
In his Principles of Political Economy Considered With a View to Their Practical Application (1820) Malthus wrote about the motivating parameters of individual economic decisions as individually rational cost/benefit considerations.
Following David Hume’s empirically scientific attempt, Malthus generated his insights with respect to the constitution and the prospect of the society in a completely nonidealistic way, based solely on direct observation. He thereby formed one contradiction of significance to the French Revolution’s idealists’ and in parts even anarchists’ (e.g., Rousseau, William Godwin, and M.-J.-A.-N. de Caritat marquis de Condorcet) theoretic idea of a perfect society.
Malthus did not believe in any kind of utopia. He instead came to the conviction that a steady state of a society’s economic prosperity would be utterly impossible due to an inevitably geometrical growth of population combined with at best an arithmetical growth of production of food. In consequence, at any time, the population will be too numerous to live in comfort. War, diseases, and famine are considered natural regulators and necessary to constrain the excessive growth of population and following misery. This bad fate Malthus deemed divine destiny to keep morality and to evade profane idleness. However, later in his life Malthus came to regard self-imposed moral restraint as an alternative check on population-food equilibrium.
Malthus sometimes is criticized for his unfounded usage of statistical methods and subsequent generation of his arguments. On the basis of a sophisticated empiricism, Malthus unfortunately built somehow arbitrarily theoretical constructs of ideas.
So-called Malthusianism had a sudden and deep impact, especially on English social policy. Malthus thereby vigorously turned the balance against public generosity toward the poor. On the other hand, in stating public investments as a means to resolve economic slumps by stimulating the aggregate demand in his Principles of Political Economy, Malthus preceded or at least influenced John Maynard Keynes.
For decades, Malthus’s economic doctrine was crucial to the economic and especially welfare- related politics of several European nations. Because of his influence on Ricardo and Keynes, for example, Malthus’s thought remains, to some extent, still vivid today.
In evolutionary theory Malthus left his mark as well; Charles Darwin admired him all his life and followed Malthus’s thoughts about the struggle of existence and the implication of the fitness of a species’ individual representatives for the evolution of the species.
Despite their popularity, wider parts of Malthus’s thoughts proved false. As one of numerous examples, he did not anticipate the technological advances leading to the agricultural revolution, which resulted in discharging growing parts of the population from the necessity of agricultural work, thereby paving the way for industrialization. Industrialization in turn finally led to a considerable increase in prosperity.
Matthias S. Hauser
See also Darwin, Charles; Dying and Death; Economics;
Extinction; Extinction and Evolution; Extinctions,
Mass; Hume, David; Rousseau, Jean-Jacques
Bonar, J. (2000). Malthus and his work. Boston:
Adamant. (Original work published 1885) Hollander, S. (1997). The economics of Thomas Robert
Malthus. Studies in Classical Political Economy/IV.
Toronto, ON, Canada: University of Toronto Press. Malthus, T. R. (1998). An essay on the principle of
population. New York: Prometheus. (Original work published 1798)