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Economics and Trade • Movers and Shakers: A Discussion about Industry and Power

Thomas Robert Malthus created considerable controversy in early 19th-century Great Britain with his theory about population growth and the inevitability of poverty. During an age when many thinkers were inspired by industrial progress and political revolution to devise utopian ideas forecasting possibilities for the improvement of human society, Malthus argued that the population would always outgrow the available supply of food, thus dooming a percentage of the people to lives that were "nasty, brutish, and short."

Malthus was born in Wooten, Surrey, England on February 13, 1766. His father, Daniel Malthus, was a wealthy and highly cultured man, a friend of two of Europe's most eminent political thinkers in the 18th century, David Hume and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Malthus was liberally educated at home by his father and later by a tutor. At age 16, he entered the Warrington Academy. Upon completing his studies at Warrington, he went to Cambridge University in 1784 to study mathematics at Jesus College. He was an excellent student in this field and also excelled at English and Latin, despite a speech defect resulting from a cleft palate. He graduated with honors in 1788 and was immediately ordained into the priesthood of the Church of England.

Malthusian Theory of Population

In 1793, Malthus returned to his home county of Surrey to serve as curate in the village of Okewood, where he lived with his parents and two sisters. He was also elected as a non-resident fellow of Jesus College the same year. In 1798, Malthus anonymously published his famous economic treatise, An Essay on the Principle of Population, which would have a tremendous impact on the way that legislators and the reading public thought about population issues and society's obligations to the poor.

Malthus articulated his simple formula that "the power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man." According to him, the human population increased geometrically (each generation augmenting not just the number of people but the rate of growth), while the food supply only increased arithmetically. The idea that the food supply was fixed was the starting point for all of Malthus' predictions, though it has since been amply demonstrated that the world's food supply could grow dramatically. Malthus' view was essentially pessimistic, however, warning that population growth necessarily doomed a large number of people to misery and hunger.

Malthus claimed that the tendency of humans to reproduce beyond the available amount of food was a natural law, designed by God to encourage innovation and cultivation of greater portions of the earth. He pointed out that if it were not for this drive created by hunger, man would never have emerged from the state of savagery. Many critics spoke out against his prophesy of doom, but Malthus believed his message to be misunderstood, for his purpose was not to preach doom and destruction but to encourage people to work hard. In his words, "evil exists in the world not to create despair but activity."

In 1799, Malthus embarked on a tour of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia to study population statistics in those countries. Three years later, he visited France and Switzerland with the same project in mind. The result of his research was an expanded version of his 1798 essay that appeared in 1803. In this edition (and in an even more massive edition in 1826), Malthus provided masses of statistics from different countries along with a more outspoken message encouraging people to exercise restraint in their production of offspring to reduce world hunger. Malthus did not approve of contraception; by "restraint" he meant delaying marriage to a later age. Though Malthus did not use his statistical evidence effectively to support his theory, the theory itself was attractive enough that it became an integral part of contemporary economic thought.

Impact on Social Politics

What became known as the Malthusian theory of population had an immediate impact on social politics in England. The country's poor laws were a matter of great debate during this same era, and the ideas of Malthus indicated that it was a waste of resources to offer work and lodging to the unemployed poor who would only be encouraged to reproduce and have large families. To Malthus, it made more sense to eliminate workhouses; though the lives of a few would be far more miserable, he argued that the lower class as a whole would be better off.

Though the Malthusian theory in many ways presaged the ideas on natural selection outlined by Charles Darwin later in the century, Malthus had many detractors. Socialists in general and Karl Marx in particular would be extremely harsh with Malthusian thought, criticizing him for his callous indifference to the poor and the suggestion that their misery was nothing more than an indication that they were surplus, beyond the capacity of the nation to support them.

Later Career

Malthus was appointed as the rector of Walesby in Lincolnshire in 1803. The following year, he married his cousin, Harriet Eckersall, though his marriage made him ineligible for his fellowship at Cambridge and he resigned. In 1805, Malthus was appointed to the faculty of East India College in Haileybury, an institution designed to train those going to serve in the British civil service in the Asian areas of the empire. At Haileybury, Malthus became the first professor of political economy in Britain.

With the exception of a few foreign trips for his health, Malthus lived quietly at Haileybury for the rest of his life. He continued to publish essays on economic topics and to participate actively in the affairs of various economic and other scholarly societies. In 1820, his essay Principles of Political Economy addressed the need to balance the alternating cycles of expansion and recession that characterized the capitalist economy. None of his later work had the same power as his early essay on population, however. Malthus died while visiting in Claverton on December 23, 1834 and was buried in Bath Abbey.

"nasty, short." "the man." "evil activity." "restraint"

Further Reading

Heilbroner, Robert L., The Worldly Philosophers: The Lives, Times and Ideas of the Great Economic Thinkers, 1992; Malthus, Thomas, An Essay on the Principle of Population, 1798; Petersen, William, Malthus, 1979; Winch, Donald, Malthus, 1987.

MLA Citation

Borhani, Christopher. "Thomas Malthus." World History: The Modern Era, ABC-CLIO, 2020, worldhistory.abc-clio.com/Search/Display/317639. Accessed 28 Feb. 2020.

Entry ID: 2169905

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