Who Is Thomas Malthus?

Thomas Robert Malthus was an influential British economist who is best known for his theory on population growth, outlined in his 1798 book An Essay on the Principle of Population.

In it, Malthus argued that populations inevitably expand until they outgrow their available food supply, causing the population growth to be reversed by disease, famine, war, or calamity.

He is also known for developing an exponential formula used to forecast population growth, which is currently known as the Malthusian growth model.

Key Takeaways

  • Thomas Malthus was an 18th-century British philosopher and economist noted for the Malthusian growth model, an exponential formula used to project population growth.
  • The theory states that the supply of food cannot keep up with the growth of the human population, inevitably resulting in disease, famine, war, and calamity.
  • A noted statistician and proponent of political economy, Malthus founded the Statistical Society of London.
  • Malthus' theories were later used to justify British colonial policies that worsened the human toll of the Irish Potato Famine.
  • His theory is now largely dismissed, as modern farming techniques have allowed food production to scale much faster than Malthus could have anticipated.
Thomas Malthus

Understanding the Ideas of Thomas Malthus

In the 18th and early 19th centuries, some philosophers believed firmly that human society would continue to improve and tilt toward a utopian ideal. Malthus countered this belief, arguing that segments of the general population have invariably been poor and miserable, effectively slowing population growth.

Based on his observation of conditions in England in the early 1800s, Malthus argued that the available farmland was insufficient to feed the increasing population. More specifically, he stated that the human population increases geometrically, while food production increases arithmetically.

Under this paradigm, humans would reproduce until their numbers surpassed their production capacity, at which point the population would be forcibly reduced by famine or some other catastrophe and return to a manageable level.

The Dismal Science

These conclusions inspired the description of economics as the "dismal science." Originally coined by the philosopher Thomas Carlyle, the term was used to describe Malthus' conclusions regarding the inevitability of overpopulation and famine.

The naturalist Charles Darwin based his theory of natural selection in part on Malthus' analysis of population growth. Malthus' views also enjoyed a resurgence in the 20th century with the advent of Keynesian economics.

Malthus' Early Life and Education

Thomas Malthus was born on Feb. 13, 1766, to a prominent family near Guildford, Surrey. Malthus was home-schooled before being accepted to Cambridge University's Jesus College in 1784. He earned a master's degree in 1791 and became a fellow two years later. In 1805, Malthus became a professor of history and political economy at the East India Company's college at Haileybury.

Malthus became a fellow of the Royal Society in 1819. Two years later, he joined the Political Economy Club along with economist David Ricardo and Scottish philosopher James Mill. Malthus was elected to be one of 10 royal associates of the Royal Society of Literature in 1824.

In 1833, he was elected to both the Académie des Sciences Morales et Politiques in France as well as Berlin's Royal Academy. Malthus co-founded the Statistical Society of London in 1834.

He died in St. Catherine, near Bath, Somerset in 1834.

Published Works of Thomas Malthus

Malthus' most famous work was his Essay on the Principle of Population, first published in 1798 and enlarged in later editions. This work contained his famous argument that human populations tend to grow faster than agricultural output, resulting in famines or crises.

Later editions proposed that "moral restraint" could slow population growth.

Malthus was a prolific essayist and exchanged many letters with contemporary economists. His other publications included:

  • The Present High Price of Provisions (1800), in which Malthus criticized England's Poor Laws and argued that aid to the poor would encourage them to have more children than they would otherwise.
  • Observations on the Effect of the Corn Laws (1814), in which Malthus argued in favor of importing corn from abroad rather than supporting the protectionist Corn Laws.
  • Principles of Political Economy (1820), a major work in which Malthus outlined his views on free trade in response to the economist David Ricardo, who had written a book with the same title.

The term "political economy" was first used in academic circles when Malthus joined the faculty of the East India Company's college at Haileybury as a professor of history and political economy. 

Malthus and Population Growth

Malthus' severe theory on population growth was shaped by his status as an 18th-century Anglican cleric. He believed that poor people would work hard enough to produce an abundant food supply in favorable times. However, he thought that they would then abuse their newfound abundance, particularly by producing larger families. At some point, their numbers would exceed their ability to provide the necessities of life. Starvation or some other disaster would inevitably follow until the population was reduced to manageable levels.

In short, Malthus was something of a misanthrope, although he denied it. In his Principle of Population, he wrote that humans are by nature "inert, sluggish, and averse from labour, unless compelled by necessity."

He argued against England's Poor Laws on the grounds that "the aggregate mass of happiness" would be increased if the very poor were denied lifesaving relief.

Criticism of Thomas Malthus

The population theory espoused by Malthus has been largely discredited over time. Technological advances invalidated his main conclusion. His theory was made repugnant by some of the political decisions that it influenced.

However, his theory of the effects of "gluts" or overproduction continued to influence economists, including John Maynard Keynes, who further developed the analysis of the cycle of boom and bust that defines an economy.

An Outdated Conclusion

Malthus' theory that population growth would inevitably exceed its means of production was based largely on his observation of English life in the late 18th century and his later travels in Europe.

The advances of the Industrial Revolution allowed agricultural production to be ramped up to far greater levels than the subsistence farming of his day could sustain. Later advances in farming techniques, chemical fertilizers, and genetic modifications have allowed food production to continue to scale upwards.

For example, the Green Revolution of the 1960s in India, which boasts the world's second-biggest population, helped feed a growing population in the state of Punjab. In Europe after World War II, populations increased steadily without widespread starvation.

An Excuse for Political Malpractice

If simplified enough, Malthus' theory sounds a lot like Ebenezer Scrooge's declaration that the poor might as well just die and "decrease the surplus population."

Malthus' theory of population was used to support genocidal policies in colonial India. Malthus was not even alive at the time of the Irish Potato Famine of the mid-19th century, but contemporary politicians leaned on his theory to blame Irish overpopulation rather than British government policies for the massive death toll.

What Did Malthus Predict About Population Growth?

Malthus predicted that natural population growth would inevitably outpace agricultural output, ultimately resulting in famine and other catastrophes until the population was reduced below a sustainable level.

The cycle is endless, he believed: Relative abundance causes an increase in fertility until the population again grows to an unsustainable level and collapses.

How Did Thomas Malthus Influence Charles Darwin?

Darwin's theory of natural selection was influenced by Malthus' population theories. Darwin found that limited resources place competitive pressures on every species. Darwin's revelation was that a species adapted over time to improve its rate of survival.

What Is the Malthusian Growth Model?

The Malthusian growth model is a mathematical equation for population growth. It holds that the rate of growth is proportionate to the current population. This is functionally equivalent to exponential growth, where the size of the population doubles at predictable intervals.

The Bottom Line

Thomas Malthus was an 18th-century British economist best known for his theory that human populations tend to outgrow their agricultural production capabilities, resulting in famines and other disasters.

These theories have largely been discredited by innovations in agricultural technology, but they remain influential in the field of evolutionary biology.

Article Sources
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  2. Goodreads. "An Essay on the Principle of Population Quotes."

  3. Encyclopedia Britannica. "Thomas Malthus."

  4. The Conversable Economist. "Best Friends, Best Opponents: Malthus and Ricardo."

  5. Virginia Tech Institute for Policy and Governance. "Revisiting the Impacts of the Green Revolution in India."

  6. American Council on Science and Health. "Irish Potato Famine: How Belief in Overpopulation Leads to Human Evil."

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