Robert Malthus

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Thomas Robert Malthus, probably by Amable Nicolas Fournier, printed by Drouart, after John Linnell stipple engraving, before 1861.

Robert Malthus (born Thomas Robert Malthus, 1766-1834) was a British demographer and economist best known for his gloomy prediction that population growth would always outstrip food supply. He warned in 1798 that unless population growth was controlled the world's population would grow faster than the food supply and mass starvation would result. His population theory was one of the first and most important complex socio-economic models for predicting the future. The model inspired Charles Darwin's Theory of Evolution.[1]

Early life

Malthus was born near Wotton, Surrey, England, on Feb. 13, 1766. His wealthy father, educated at Oxford and a friend and admirer of David Hume and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, was a critic of the existing educational system; Malthus was home schooled by his father and by private tutors. He attended Jesus College, Cambridge, graduating with distinction in mathematics and classics in 1788. Malthus was ordained as an Anglican clergyman in 1788 and married in 1804. In 1796 he became an Anglican curate at Albury, Surrey at £40 a year. He was conscientious, devout, and pious in the performance of his clerical duties.


His first published work appeared anonymously in 1798—An Essay on the Principle of Population as It Affects the Future Improvement of Society—and brought him immediate fame. It was a popular pamphlet but the 2nd (1803) and later editions were greatly expanded with much more evidence. Malthus acknowledged his debts to the writings of David Hume, Robert Wallace, Adam Smith, and Richard Price, among others. Malthus was married and the father of three children; he usually signed his essays, "The Rev. Robert Malthus" and seldom used the first name Thomas.

In 1805 Malthus was appointed professor of history and political economy at the East India College, at Haileybury, established for training civil servants for the East India Company. He was Britain's first professor of economics. He was a favorite of students who called him Old Pop (for "Population Malthus"), but sometimes had to deal with student riots. In 1811 he became close friends with the brilliant economist David Ricardo. Malthus helped found the Royal Statistical Society in 1834, the first of the world’s many statistical societies. In 1820 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society. He died suddenly of heart disease on Dec. 29, 1834.


Malthus was an important economist in the field of classical economic. He called economics "the dismal science," believing that the failure and collapse of the economy was inevitable. His professorship allowed him time for his writing. He published six editions of his Essay as well as several economics books, including "An Investigation of the Cause of the Present High Price of Provisions," (1800) in which he argued that food prices were increasing because of the large amount of money being spent to support the poor; An Inquiry into the Nature and Progress of Rent (1815); Grounds of an Opinion on the Policy of Restricting the Importation of Foreign Corn (1815); and the textbook Principles of Political Economy (1820).[2] Most of his writing concerned economic issues of the day such as food prices, corn laws, and rent. He also explored the general principles of economics and is seen as the first economist to formulate the theory of diminishing returns as the explanation of land rent, However Ricardo's later and more explicit exposition replaced it. The Keynesian emphasis on the importance of effective demand and the dangers of underconsumption has its roots in Malthus' ideas. Malthus' economics (apart from his demography) was rejected by most 19th century economists, who disliked Malthus' refutation of Ricardo's labor theory of value, his opposition to free trade and his defense of agricultural tariffs.[3] His population thesis makes Malthus one of the first economists to construct a theory of economic dynamics, and equally, a theory of social development, with the "principle of population" as the mainspring of progress.

Theological background

Malthus's ideas on demography were rooted in latitudinarian natural theology popular in the Anglican church at the time, according to Heavner (1993). Malthus's 1798 Essay put forward a theory of the nature and origin of evil, providence, life after death, a conception of human nature, a moral theory, and a theory of property, on which he based his famous pronouncements on population, poverty, the rights and obligations of the poor, and economic growth. By integrating the newly emerging science of political economy with the older religious traditions, Malthus served as a bridge from the theocentric world of the eighteenth century to what became the secular world of the nineteenth century. Malthus's thought, which articulated allegedly modern concepts of self-interest, utility and natural economic laws in theological terms, demonstrates the crucial role religion played in the legitimation of political economy and utilitarian social theory.[4]

Population theory

Malthus is the outstanding figure in the study of population. Most commentators on population issues before him took a mercantilist perspective, arguing the bigger the population the better for a nation's military prowess. Malthus offered the contrary view—that greater population was dangerous. Specifically he argued that population tended in any case to increase faster than the means of subsistence. His argument was that population tended to increase geometrically (1, 2, 4, 8, 16) (more generally, it increases R% over the previous year's population). However the food supply increased only arithmetically (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) (that is, it depends on new lands being opened up.) His presentation was clear, simple and convincing to a large audience of educated Britons. This race between population and the food supply kept down the standard of living and gave rise to famine, pestilence, and war, because every time the food supply increased the population grew even faster, and kept growing.

Malthus wrote the first version of The Essay after discussions with his father concerning the ideas of the Marquis de Condorcet and William Godwin. These two writers reflected the intellectual ferment of their revolutionary era (especially the French Revolution, but also the American one). They optimistically predicted a future of human progress based upon the assumptions that both man and society were perfectible. These assumptions were flawed, Malthus argued, by neglecting food. An earlier writer, Robert Wallace, had given the essence of the Malthusian reply when he argued that even if it were possible to establish a perfect society, population growth would soon cause such a society to collapse. The earth would become overstocked and "unable to support its numerous inhabitants"; in the end, "force and fraud" would prevail, and mankind would return "to the same calamitous condition as at present."[5] But Malthus took Wallace's argument a step further. Assuming mankind cannot live without food and that "the passion between the sexes is necessary, and will remain nearly in its present state," Malthus concluded population would tend to grow more rapidly than subsistence. This ever-present tendency would result, in practice, in potential population growth being checked by vice (in which he included birth control), misery, or restraint from marriage. Hence, a perfect society was a mirage; it could not be reached, let alone maintained. The hopes of writers such as Condorcet and Godwin were, therefore, doomed to failure.

In 1799 Malthus spent six months in Scandinavia, where he witnessed the deprivation, misery, and mortality that followed a bad harvest. In the second edition of 1803, Malthus expanded an implicit argument in the first edition that prudential restraint should be "moral restraint"—that is, delayed marriage accompanied by strictly moral pre-marital behavior. He allowed that moral restraint would not be easy and that there would be occasional failures. The first edition he had said that all the checks to population would involve either misery or vice, but in the second edition he said he wished to lighten this "melancholy hue" and "to soften some of the harshest conclusions of the first essay" by arguing that moral restraint, if supported by an education emphasizing the immorality of bringing children into the world without the means of supporting them, would tend to increase rather than diminish individual happiness. His ethics thus would be compatible with utilitarianism.

Some critics rejected Malthus out of hand, but most social scientists, except for the socialists, accepted his theories and built around them. Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace explicitly acknowledged Malthus's influence on the theory of natural selection.

Policy Implications

See Malthusianism

After 1800 Malthus' concern was now no longer solely with the theoretical approach to demography but equally with the questions of policy. The "principle of population"—the capacity of population to grow faster than subsistence—was a "natural law"; but its negative effects might be removed or relieved by appropriate social and individual action. Society should abolish practices, he argued, such as the poor law, which encouraged the poor to marry on an income which could not support a family. Such encouragement merely resulted in a further increase in numbers and a further depression of the standard of living. And individuals should practice "moral restraint." They should postpone marriage until they could afford to maintain a family. Before marriage, conduct should be strictly moral; in marriage itself there should be no artificial checks on family size.

Influence on Policy

In that sense Malthus was not the pessimist that he is often made out to be. But it was not in that role that Malthus appeared to his contemporaries. For many members of the upper and middle classes, the main significance of Malthus was in influencing—or reinforcing—their attitudes toward their society and toward social policy. Thus, the abandonment of the existing poor-law system, the financial burden of which was a subject of continued discussion, was even more attractive when supported by Malthusian theory. Hence the Poor Law Act of 1834, which set severe restrictions on aid to the indigent, and hence, too, the view that poverty was in a substantial degree a matter for individual self-help. This view was not seriously challenged among the rich until Charles Booth's studies at the end of the century showed to what a great extent poverty was a basic fact written into the industrial system of the time. Malthus was not himself reactionary except to the extent that, as he wrote to Godwin, he supported the then-existing form of society because he could not "see any other form that can, consistently with individual freedom, equally promote cultivation and population." He did not wish to see depopulation—on the contrary, he hoped for a much larger world population, provided that the annual rate of increase was sufficiently low to be compatible with rising standards of living. He stressed the need to reduce mortality, designating a low rate of infant and child mortality as the "best criterion of happiness and good government." He drew attention to the value of a national system of education.


Among the educated public his name became a byword for all that was callous and hard-hearted about economics. Romantic poets were the harshest critics. Poet Lord Byron ridiculed what he termed Malthus's "eleventh commandment, 'Thou shalt not marry, unless well,'" thus "turning marriage into arithmetic." In Percy Bysshe Shelley's words Malthus was "a eunuch and a tyrant" and "the apostle of the rich"; and to suggest that anyone should exercise a sense of responsibility in begetting showed a "hardened insolence." "The stupid ignorance of the man," Samuel Taylor Coleridge exclaimed in response to Malthus's suggestion that annexing others' land for emigrants might be morally questionable; for Coleridge, it was not "immoral to kill a few Savages in order to get possession of a country capable of sustaining a thousand times as many enlightened and happy men." Although Robert Southey held that "the laboring classes have a natural tendency to increase faster than the higher ranks," because "celibacy is much less frequent among them," he characterized similar statements by Malthus as "rubbish." In William Hazlitt's view, Malthus's Essay was "the most complete specimen of illogical, crude, and contradictory reasoning that perhaps was ever offered to the notice of the public."[6]

Malthus was accused of being reactionary not only by those Romantic critics who believed that the solution of the population problem and of other problems lay in utopian reforms, but also by less radical writers. They complained Malthusian theory was used as a justification of the status quo and as a reason for avoiding positive action to reduce poverty and inequality. William Cobbett, originally convinced that the principle of population is "a doctrine which can never be shaken," subsequently reversed himself and led a tireless, and tiresome, campaign against the "monster" Malthus. Godwin also abandoned his original friendliness; his last major work, Of Population, was a congeries of misrepresentations and pseudo-data that attacked Malthus from every side. Socialists saw the challenge of Malthus to their utopian promises and counterattacked. Karl Marx denounced the contemptible Malthus" as "a shameless sycophant of the ruling classes" who perpetrated "a sin against science."[7]

There were other contemporaries who accepted the Malthusian theory but regarded the policy recommendations as both harsh and ineffective. In a later edition of his Essay, Malthus admitted the probability that "having found the bow bent too much one way, I was induced to bend it too much the other, in order to make it straight."

Birth control

Rev. Malthus, like nearly all religious leaders, was opposed to contraception, not only because he regarded it as immoral but also because he believed that if married couples could easily limit the number of their children, a primary stimulus to economic and social progress would be lost; individuals would become indolent and society would stagnate. For the same reason, a legal bar to marriage was not acceptable; everyone should have the opportunity since that opportunity would act as a spur. Nor would emigration by itself constitute an effective policy; it would be useful only if, at the same time, the country of emigration were to practice "moral restraint," for otherwise the gap left by the emigrants would soon be filled by new births. If population growth were not deliberately controlled by "moral restraint," it would be checked by misery and vice.[8]

Malthus’ ideas were especially influential on social policy and its objectives. Malthus' own recommendations for individual conduct—that is, "moral restraint"—had no visible impact.[9] The main response was one which Malthus strongly disapproved, namely birth control. It was Francis Place who, accepting the Malthusian theory, in 1822, first publicly advocated birth control as the practical means of controlling population growth and who was responsible for publishing a series of handbills recommending specific techniques. From that point on, the idea of birth control spread and its advocates have frequently been referred to as "neo-Malthusians". (Most were hostile to religion.) In the 21st century Catholic bishops still consider sinful all methods except the rhythm system, although in practice married Catholics largely disregard the bishops. Malthus was wrong in predicting the ability to limit the number of children would make people indolent and make society stagnate. On the contrary, the control of family size can be viewed as an aid to socioeconomic viability.


  • James Bonar. Malthus and His Work (1885) 432 pages; classic old biography. online edition
  • Paul Bowler. "Malthus, Darwin and the concept of struggle," Journal of the History of Ideas, 37 (1976), 631-50.
  • Walter Eltis. The Classical Theory of Economic Growth (1984)
  • Frank W. Elwell. "Malthus' Social Theory" (2001) online version
  • D. E. C. Eversley. Social Theories of Fertility and the Malthusian Debate (1959). online edition
  • A. Flew, "Introduction", in T. R. Malthus, An essay on the principle of population (1970)
  • Tim Fulford. "Apocalyptic Economics and Prophetic Politics: Radical and Romantic Responses to Malthus and Burke." Studies in Romanticism. Vol: 40#3 2001. pp 345+. online edition
  • D. V. Glass, ed. Introduction to Malthus. 1953, essays by scholars. online edition
  • Samuel Hollander. The Economics of Thomas Robert Malthus (1997), elaborate details in 1053pp; 200pp on population issues, the rest on classical economics
  • James, Patricia. Population Malthus: His Life and Times (1979), the standard biography
  • Hans E. Jensen. "The Development of T.R. Malthus's Institutionalist Approach to the Cure of Poverty: From Punishment of the Poor to Investment in Their Human Capital." Review of Social Economy. Vol: 57#4 (1999) pp 450+. online edition
  • Petersen, William. "Malthus: the Reactionary Reformer." American Scholar 1990 59(2): 275-282. Issn: 0003-0937 Fulltext: in Ebsco
  • Petersen, William. Malthus (1979), emphasis on his ideas and critics
  • J. M. Pullen, "Malthus, (Thomas) Robert (1766–1834)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 2004 online
  • J. R. Pullen. "Malthus's theological ideas and their influence on his principle of population", History of Political Economy, 13 (1981), 39-54.
  • Michael Turner, ed. Malthus and his Time, (1986), essays by scholars
  • Winch, Donald. Malthus (1987) 117pp
  • Winch, Donald. Malthus in Three Great Economists," ed by D. D. Raphael et al (1997) pp 105-218 online edition
  • Winch, Donald. Riches and poverty (1996), pt 3
  • Winch, Donald. "Introduction", in T. R. Malthus, An essay on the principle of population (1992)

Primary sources

  • Thomas Robert Malthus, The Works of Thomas Robert Malthus, 8 vol (1986) ed. by E. A. Wrigley and David Souden
  • Geoffrey Gilbert, ed. Malthus: Critical Responses (1998), what critics in 19th said about Malthus' ideas
  • Thomas Robert Malthus. An Essay on the Principle of Population, Or, A View of Its Past and Present Effects on Human 6th edition (1826) online vol 1 online version vol 2
  • Thomas Robert Malthus. Parallel Chapters from the First and Second Editions of An Essay on the Principle of Population By Thomas Robert Malthus (1898) online edition


  1. Darwin wrote, "In October 1838... I happened to read for amusement Malthus on Population... it at once struck me that under these circumstances favorable variations would tend to be preserved, and unfavorable ones to be destroyed. The result of this would be the formation of new species."
  2. online edition
  3. Malthus reversed himself in 1826 and came out in favor of free trade. Samuel Hollander, "Malthus's Abandonment of Agricultural Protectionism: a Discovery in the History of Economic Thought." American Economic Review 1992 82(3): 650-659. Issn: 0002-8282 Fulltext in Jstor and Ebsco
  4. Eric Heavner, Eric. "Food, Sex and God: The Christian Social Theory of T. R. Malthus." PhD dissertation Johns Hopkins U. 1993. 417 pp. DAI 1993 54(1): 277-A. DA9313376
  5. John M. Hartwick, "Robert Wallace and Malthus and the Ratios" History of Political Economy 20 (1988) 357-379.
  6. Petersen (1990)
  7. Petersen (1990)
  8. Peter M.Dunn, "Thomas Malthus (1766-1834): population growth and birth control," Arch Dis Child Fetal Neonatal Ed (January 1998) 78:F76-F77 at [1]
  9. Ireland was a rare case where "moral restraint" was practices, with mass emigration a complement to delayed marriage and to a delays in marriage. The Irish pattern was not in any way influenced by Malthus. Some societies--some of the small German principalities, for example--tried to impose "moral restraint" by erecting legal barriers to the marriage of the poor.

External links