Thomas Malthus was an English economist, well known for his
theory on population growth. He published an essay on the principle of
population in 1798 and later published subsequent editions throughout his
travels in Europe. Malthus was the first economist to propose a systematic
theory of population.
In an essay on the principle of population, Malthus argued
that population growth would outrun the rate of food production unless measures
were taken to control the population growth. According to his theory, human
populations grew exponentially while food production grew at an arithmetic rate
(linearly); therefore, there was an unequal power between production and
reproduction. He went on to predict that resources would eventually run out and
humans would not survive, so he urged to control population growth. Malthus
believed that it did not matter how much production increases if it can not
keep up with unrestrained reproduction. Essentially, Malthus applied the law of
supply and demand to food production and population growth. When the supply of
food increases, food becomes cheaper, and population increases. When population
increases, demand for food increases, food becomes more expensive, and more
children people die as a result. To combat population growth, he created
“preventive” and “positive” checks. A
“preventive” check was what he called “moral restraint” men
should refrain from “pursuing the dictate of nature in an early attachment
to one woman.” He suggested that men should marry later in life and have
kids only when they are sure they can support a family. Other methods included
celibacy and contraception, however. Malthus was against the usage of birth
control after marriage. A “positive” check included causes that
shortened one’s lifespan such as disease, famine, and poverty.
After the publication of the first edition of his essay,
Malthus was heavily criticized for his pessimistic views of the world. In
response, he went to Europe to gather data to support his argument, publishing
his results in a second edition of his essay. Some of his many criticisms
1. Failed to foresee opening of new land. When considering
food production, Malthus thought of land as a fixed factor and did not take
into account the possibility of other areas opening up and its land being used
for farming. The opening up of Australia, the U.S, and Argentina allowed for
extensive farming, leading to an abundance of cheap food. Food could also be
imported from these regions.
2. Applied a fixed Economic Law to a period of time
Because of the advancement of science and agriculture, food
supply has increased faster than Malthus predicted in arithmetic progression.
Technological changes also increased the rate of food production with some
bringing revolutionary changes to farming techniques. An increase in food
supply enabled living standards to rise with population growth.
3. Population Related to total wealth
According to the optimum theory of population, if a country
is wealthy and even if it does not produce enough food for its population, it
can feed its people by importing food in exchange for other products or money.
For example, Great Britain focuses on accumulation of wealth so they import
most of their food from Holland, Denmark, etc.
4. Parts of theory proven wrong
Malthus’s theory has actually been proven wrong multiple
times as there have been declines in birth rate adequacy of food supply and an
increase in agricultural and industrial production. Also, in many western
countries, the rate of population growth has been declining.
5. Changed social attitudes
In ore advanced countries, parents and more educated people
began to voluntarily limit the size of their families in order to have a better
standard of living. Improvements in birth control methods and the general acceptance
of them have also contributed to a declining population rate.
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels also strongly opposed Malthus’s
theory on population. In Mary’s theory on population, population growth should
be interpreted within the context of the capitalistic economic system. As a
capitalist replaces more of his workers with machinery, more workers are let go
and poor parents cannot properly raise their children. As a result, poverty and
hunger increases among the unemployed. Mary and Engels both saw Malthus’s
theory as “another instance of the way in which bourgeois economists reify
social relations,” and therefore, the poverty of the working class was not due
to an eternal law of nature but to a misconceived organization of society. Mary
also believed that starvation had nothing to do with population and was the
result of unequal distribution of wealth and the accumulation of wealth by
capitalists. However, he did agree with Malthus in that food production could
not increase rapidly and, like Malthus, failing to take into account
technological advancements in the future.
Although Malthus received much criticism, his essay was very
influential at the time and affected public policies, classical and
neoclassical economists, and evolutionary biologists such as Chares Darwin.
When Darwin read Malthus’s work, he was inspired-the natural struggle for
survival caught his eye and he applied this theory to evolution. Darwin began
to think that some people in Malthus’s theory were better fit, or equipped to
survive: therefore, those who were not would die out. Before reading An Essay
on the principle of population, Darwin believed populations would grow until
they aligned with existing resources and stabilized. Malthus’s work gave Darwin
inspiration to redefine natural selection by providing a reason for the competition
between members of the same species.