Malthus Arouses Controversy with His Population Theory Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Malthus published An Essay on the Principle of Population, developing theories about population explosion, food supply, and environmental concerns that laid the foundation for modern socioeconomic theory.

Summary of Event

Thomas Robert Malthus, an English clergyman, was perhaps the first professional economist. The son of a middle-class eccentric, he spent most of his life teaching and doing economic research. He taught with other great economists of the time at the staff college of the East India Company, a vigorous and unscrupulous trading company. East India was the source of income for Malthus and many who did not agree with the company’s labor and colonialism practices. Malthus’s economic thinking was practical in contrast to the dogmatic and rational approach of his friend David Ricardo, who founded the classic school of English economics. Ricardo was an astute stockbroker and businessman who foresaw that an increased population would provide workers for all British businesses, farms, and factories, including his own. [kw]Malthus Arouses Controversy with His Population Theory (1798) [kw]Theory, Malthus Arouses Controversy with His Population (1798) [kw]Population Theory, Malthus Arouses Controversy with His (1798) Demographics Population theory Malthusian population theory [g]England;1798: Malthus Arouses Controversy with His Population Theory[3320] [c]Economics;1798: Malthus Arouses Controversy with His Population Theory[3320] [c]Cultural and intellectual history;1798: Malthus Arouses Controversy with His Population Theory[3320] [c]Social issues and reform;1798: Malthus Arouses Controversy with His Population Theory[3320] Malthus, Thomas Robert Godwin, William Condorcet, marquis de Malthus, Daniel

Although he published several important works in the field of economics, Malthus is famous primarily for An Essay on the Principle of Population, As It Affects the Future Improvement of Society, which appeared in 1798. In order to understand this work and the impact it had, it is necessary to recall the circumstances at the time it was written. For example, there was then no accurate method of computing the actual population of England, the first census not being taken until 1801. Also, many feared that the population was declining at a time when it was almost universally believed that large populations were desirable.

Malthus had another purpose in writing his book, that of refuting various reformers who had predicted universal progress for the human race. This aspect is made clear from the full title of the work as originally printed: 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. Such speculations were common at a time when the French Revolution, which seemed to spring from such ideas, was still taking place. Godwin, William William Godwin wrote An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and Its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness (1793), in which he asserted the principle of human equality, refuting Malthus.

Godwin’s purpose was to justify the inequality found in human institutions according to the laws of the Creator. The marquis de Condorcet wrote on the confrontation between increasing populations and diminishing food Food;shortages supply in his works. Condorcet and Thomas’s father Daniel Malthus were both optimistic about the future, believing that Birth control birth control and other voluntary checks would keep population numbers within reasonable limits. Thomas Malthus had first come into contact with these ideas through Daniel, who was an avid follower of Jean-Jacques Rousseau Rousseau, Jean-Jacques . Thomas himself was more conservative, and his remarks frequently reveal a scorn for the French Revolution typical of the English upper and middle classes, who feared that revolutionary fever would spread to England. A large part of Malthus’s work is devoted to refuting the claims of Godwin and Condorcet.

The theory put forward by Malthus is based on two propositions: that food is necessary for humans to exist, and that passion between the sexes is necessary and does not essentially change in its intensity. The law says whereas food supplies tend to increase in arithmetic progression, population when unchecked tends to increase in geometric progression. The inevitable result is that, if unchecked, population tends to outrun its means of support. Thus, the ultimate check on population is starvation.

What Malthus wished to consider were the checks that prevented this dire state from occurring. He mentioned two checks: first, the preventative check, or foresight into the difficulties of rearing a family, which inclines people not to have more children than they can support; second, the positive check, or the actual distress and misery that prevent the growth of the population. Malthus was convinced that the second check was more significant than the first. The implication of his view was obvious. Given the constant tendency of the population to increase as a result of passion between the sexes, misery and poverty were impossible to eradicate; society seemed to be condemned to the inevitable treadmill of strain, difficulty, and poverty. Malthus saw no way to alter these tendencies but did suggest three palliatives: Assistance to the poor should be limited because it leads them to reproduce beyond the means of subsistence; encouragement should be given to those who produce food; and education should inculcate the virtue of prudence.

Malthus devoted the remainder of his essay to contradicting the utopian hopes of Godwin and Condorcet. Against Godwin, who believed that the evils in society spring from social and civil inequalities, Malthus argued that such inequalities were natural and stem from the inability of the Earth to support a constantly expanding population. Against Condorcet, who believed that human progress would result from essential changes in human nature, Malthus argued that human nature had always been the same in the past and that no reputable scientific method could postulate significant changes in the future when no grounds for such changes existed in the past.

Malthus was aware that his theory was melancholy; he defended himself against charges of inhumanity by pointing out that his ideas were based on fact, not on personal feeling. Moreover, he did not deny the possibility of human progress altogether; he did believe that limited progress, though unlikely, was possible. His chief aim was to refute those who asserted the inevitability of progress.


Three developments allowed the English to change what Malthus had predicted. First, thousands of English citizens and Europeans immigrated to America, Canada, Australasia, and South Africa between 1820 and 1914. Second, as Malthus’s essay was being written, the process that was to be called the Agricultural Farming Agricultural Revolution;England Revolution was beginning, marked by the use of highly improved farming methods. Third, in the two decades previous to Malthus’s essay, Britain was entering the first stages of the Industrial Revolution;England Industrial Revolution, in which steam, internal combustion, and then electricity were to replace human and animal power.

Malthus’s ideas were studied by economists, religious leaders, and politicians. Economist Adam Smith Smith, Adam wrote The Wealth of Nations Wealth of Nations, The (Smith) (1776), which projected optimism. Smith’s writings became the nucleus for the positive views of those who disagreed with Malthus’s pessimism about the future of humankind.

Malthus revised his essay for a second edition in 1803. He documented his arguments and abandoned his ideas of precise arithmetic and geometric progressions for the increases in food and population. He also recognized the influence of moral restraint as a preventive check on population growth, but he remained pessimistic concerning the future progress of humankind.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Avery, John. Progress, Poverty, and Population: Re-reading Condorcet, Godwin, and Malthus. London: F. Cass, 1997. Traces the history of the debate in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries between utopian optimists, such as Condorcet and Godwin, and pessimists, such as Malthus, about the effects of population growth upon society.
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    xlink:type="simple">Ehrlich, Paul, and Anne Ehrlich. The Population Bomb. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1990. Paul Ehrlich has long written on the dangers of overpopulation. Warnings included in this volume are famines, global warming, pollution, and epidemics such as AIDS.
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    xlink:type="simple">Elwell, Frank W. A Commentary on Malthus’s 1798 Essay on Population as Social Theory. Lewiston, N.Y.: E. Mellen Press, 2001. An analysis of the essay that seeks to eliminate some of the dogma and misinterpretation surrounding Malthus’s theories and present his ideas with more subtlety and complexity. Includes a reprint of the original essay.
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    xlink:type="simple">Galbraith, John Kenneth. The Age of Uncertainty. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1977. An overall picture of the workings of economics, those who have made a difference, and changes that have affected the entire world. Witty, many illustrations.
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    xlink:type="simple">George, Henry. Progress and Poverty. New York: Robert Schalkenbach Foundation, 1971. Written in 1879, George’s book reveals his total faith in the Malthusian theory. The entire book takes each part of Malthus’s essay and proves its probability. A contrast to the works of Ehrlich and Wattenberg.
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    xlink:type="simple">Halacy, D. S., Jr. The Geometry of Hunger. New York: Harper & Row, 1972. Covers the various causes of population explosions, the nutritional gaps in parts of the world, and possible solutions by increasing food production and equalizing distribution. Dated but still useful.
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    xlink:type="simple">Kennedy, Paul. Preparing for the Twenty-First Century. New York: Random House, 1993. A worldly look at scarce resources, new technologies, exploding populations, and health concerns. Questions how the major powers will respond to the needs of the rest of the world.
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    xlink:type="simple">Rifkin, Jeremy. Entropy. New York: Viking, 1980. A scholarly book enlarging on the nineteenth century Entropy Law, or Second Law of Thermodynamics. A contrast to the Malthusian theory.
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    xlink:type="simple">Ross, Eric B. The Malthus Factor: Population, Poverty, and Politics in Capitalistic Development. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998. A critique of Malthus’s theory, tracing how it has been used to defend capitalist economic goals when those goals were confronted by struggles for equality and human progress. Describes the origins of Malthus’s theory, its application to land reform and the green revolution, and how the theory was interpreted before and after the Cold War.
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    xlink:type="simple">Wattenberg, Ben. The Birth Dearth. New York: Pharos Books, 1987. Wattenberg notes that the so-called baby boom is over and points out that the resulting “birth dearth” in many of the most technologically advanced countries of the world has long-range implications for world economics and politics.

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