Who is Thomas Malthus?

Thomas Malthus was an 18th-century British philosopher and economist famous for his ideas about population growth. Malthus' population theories were outlined in his book, An Essay on the Principle of Population, first published in 1798. In it, he theorized that populations will continue to grow until growth is stopped or reversed by disease, famine, war, or calamity. He developed what is now referred to as the Malthusian growth model, an exponential formula used to forecast population growth.

Key Takeaways

  • Thomas Malthus was an 18th-century British philosopher and economist who is most famous for his population theory and the Malthusian growth model, an exponential formula to forecast population growth.
  • The theory states that food production will not be able to keep up with growth in human population, resulting in disease, famine, war, and calamity.
  • He was also active as a statistician and a proponent of political economy, founding the Statistical Society of London.

Understanding the ideas of Thomas Malthus

Thomas Malthus was a controversial figure. The late 18th and early 19th centuries were marked by philosophers who believed that humanity would continue to grow and improve itself and could create a utopian society. Malthus countered this argument by saying that, throughout history, a portion of the general population has always been poor and miserable, that this was unlikely to change, and that these factors actually helped control population growth.

Malthus also wrote "An Inquiry into the Nature and Progress of Rent" (1815) and "Principles of Political Economy" (1820). He wrote these tracts after observing conditions in England during that time. The main tenets of his arguments went against the grain of thinking at the time. He argued that increases in population would eventually decrease the ability of people in the world to feed themselves. He based this conclusion on the idea that populations expand in such a way as to overtake the development of sufficient land for crops. Malthus stated that human population increases at a geometric rate, while production of food increases in arithmetic progression. The faster growth of human population meant that there would come a time when humans would not be able to produce enough food to feed themselves.

Malthus' population theory was criticized by later economists and has been disproved by recent developments. Even as human population continues to increase, technological developments and migration have ensured that the percentage of people living under the poverty line continues to decline. Global interconnectedness helps the flow of aid from regions with plentiful food and resources to developing and poor areas.

In India, which has the world's second biggest population, the Green Revolution in the state of Punjab helped feed its growing population. Western economies like Germany were battered during the Second World War. But an increase in their population numbers did not hamper their growth and development.

Malthus is associated with Darwin, whose natural selection theory was influenced by Malthus' analysis of population growth. Malthus' views enjoyed a resurgence in the 20th century with the advent of Keynesian economics.

Background of Thomas Malthus

In Feb. 1766, Thomas Robert Malthus was born into a prominent family near Guildford, Surrey, in England. Instead of sending him to school, Malthus's father educated him at home. It wasn't until he was accepted to Cambridge University's Jesus College in 1784 that he set foot in an academic institution. He earned his master's degree in 1791, and became a fellow of the college two years later.

In 1805, Malthus went from student to professor, teaching history and political economy at the East India Company's college at Haileybury. The appointment as a political economy professor was notable, because it was the first time the term was applied to an academic office.

Malthus became a fellow of the Royal Society in 1819. Two years later, he became a member of the Political Economy Club, joining others like economist and friend David Ricardo, who he met in 1811. James Mill, a Scottish economist and philosopher, who was considered one of the Ricardan school of economics' founders, was also a member of the club. Malthus was elected among the 10 royal associates of the Royal Society of Literature in 1833. A year later, he was elected to two other groups—the Académie des Sciences Morales et Politiques in France and Berlin's Royal Academy. He also co-founded the Statistical Society of London in 1834. He died at Haileybury in 1834.