Thomas Malthus and the Principle of Population: Why He Was Wrong.

In my previous article on population control, I referenced Thomas Malthus’s protestation that human society has a propensity to ‘utilise abundance for population growth rather than maintain a high standard of living’. In time, he hypothesised that ‘population growth being exponential and food production being arithmetic would inevitably outstrip the production of necessities leading to starvation, poverty, and disorder’. In researching that article, I did not have sufficient leisure to read Mr Malthus’s full essay. Instead, as his famous argument formed only a part of the article, I relied on encyclopaedic references as being a sufficient resource for my purpose.



However, his words piqued my curiosity. As anyone who has compared what a historical writer is purported to have said with their actual words will know, the reports of what an author means often differ significantly from the actual intent of words they wrote. Thus, I was curious about what Mr Malthus had actually meant in his essay, so I picked up a copy of ‘An Essay on the Principle of Population’. The first thing that strikes the reader on opening the book is that, as the title suggests, An Essay on the Principle of Population is not so much a book but an answering essay to Mr Godwin’s essay on ‘avarice and profusion (pg149-165) in the Enquirer’. Thus, throughout the work, Mr Malthus references the assertions of Mr Godwin and seeks to refute his points. This makes for a rather clunky style of writing, which is less than enjoyable for the reader. This is a shame as even with history seeming to disprove Malthus’s core proposition, he makes some interesting points.


Firstly, with his proposition that as population increases exponentially and food production arithmetically, inevitably, population growth will outstrip food production. In this area, Malthus was not as wrong as he first seems. While it is indeed true that while Britain’s population has increased by 650% in the two hundred years since he wrote, and grain production has managed to achieve only a 390% increase in yields per acre, assuming that this shortfall was not made up by increased food production from other sources, Malthus’s prediction would seem to have been realised. However, this deficit has not resulted in, as he had predicted, a rise in poverty, disease and hunger. The reason for this is primarily due to the ability of Britain to import and distribute food in sufficient quantity and at a low enough price to make up the difference.


It was primarily in the field of distribution and transport that Malthus then erred the most in his predictions. He correctly foresaw that increases in agricultural production were possible and even somewhat likely. But he could not anticipate that excepting in small nations blessed by easily navigatable watercourses, the importation and distribution of food could be achieved at a reasonable cost. Of course, we know that when Malthus wrote his essay in 1798, this age-old certainty was about to be disturbed by the commercial development of the steam train and later the steamship.


As an aside, these two inventions would seem to support the proposition we put forward in ‘Population Control’. Namely that, as the cost of a product rises, the economic incentives of producing and procuring the product increases. In 1794, the cost of food was increasing, and the amount of food needing to be imported was rising (see Figure 1). This shortfall in food production only increased into the 1800s yet the price of food decreased by almost 30% (Ralph Turvey, 2010) in the same period. This reduction in price, while the population more than doubled (Schofield, 1981), can only be explained at least in part due to the influence of these happy inventions.


Figure 1 British Self Sufficiency in Food Production (Colman, 2011; RuSource, 2007)

Leaving aside his core proposition, Malthus still offers us much worthy of thought. This is especially the case when he talks about the constraints on population other than those of disease and famine. In Chapter Four, Malthus talks about how, due to economic uncertainty or rather the fear of relative want, many people restrain themselves from marrying or having children. He provides examples that are as readily recognisable to a modern audience as one in his own time. People, according to Malthus, marry late and have children late or not at all, not due to a lack of desire, but rather because they cannot afford to have children and enjoy the same standard of living as before or be confident of being able to provide for them to a sufficient standard.


This is perhaps the most illuminating of Malthus’s realisations and one which is consistently missed by the pundits when they talk of the decline in population growth in much of the rich world and the paradox that the poorest members of a society tend to have more children. Malthus’s realisation is that the biggest determiner of the number of children a person has is their ability to maintain their relative social position. I.e., a person accustomed to living in an inner-city apartment, going out to dinner regularly, and holiday overseas will often limit the number of children they have to maintain that lifestyle or to send their children to a school similar to what they and their friends went to. The poorest members of society don’t face this conundrum as they can maintain or even improve their standard of living (through welfare payments) by having more children. This observation suggests that declining birth rates could be ameliorated partly by financial incentives for parents and partly by raising the social status of families with children and of parents more generally.


Apart from these valuable insights, Mr Malthus’s ‘An Essay on the Principle of Population’ ranges widely, dipping into economics with the observation that ‘if the wealth of a nation increases but the wages of the working class does not increase generally it results in a reduction of the welfare of the nation’. Providing a pre-emptive rejection of the nascent ideas of socialism, saying, ‘If no man could hope to rise or fear to fall, in society and if industry did not bring with it its reward and idleness its punishment’ the middle class would suffer. Before offering some of the most useful and possibly most often ignored advice for those who would improve their societies. Saying that, “Nothing is so easy as to find fault with human institutions; [yet] nothing [is] so difficult as to suggest adequate practical improvements.”


This, of course, is the aim of this site and the whole Codist philosophical system more generally. We hope that by examining the world around us and contemplating the best ways to act in each situation, we can all play some small part in improving our societies and providing a better and more secure life for our families and build better and stronger communities.


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