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Malthus is now a word, like Luther or Marx or Darwin, that connotes both much more and much less than the individual to whom it refers. The important social-scientific ideas associated with Malthus are:
- the inevitability of population pressures in human societies,
- scarcity as the central principle of economic analysis,
- “spontaneous order” and the futility of political revolution,
- Poor Laws and “welfare dependency,”
- the theory of general unemployment, and
- the struggle for existence.
Thomas Robert Malthus—always known as “Robert” or “Bob,” never as “Thomas”—was born in Surrey, England, on February 13, 1766, the younger son of Daniel Malthus (1730–1800), a country gentleman. He died in Bath on December 29, 1834, and is buried in Bath Abbey. Educated first privately, then at Warrington Academy and at Jesus College, Cambridge, he graduated BA as Ninth Wrangler in 1788, residing at Cambridge for a further year to read divinity, then was ordained deacon in June 1789 and priest in 1791. Although elected a fellow of his college in 1793, he served a country curacy at Okewood in Surrey from 1789 until 1803, when he became rector of Walesby in Lincolnshire, relinquished his fellowship, and married. In 1805 Malthus was appointed first professor of history and political economy at the East India College, a position he held until his death. He also retained the benefice of Walesby as a nonresident, appointing a curate.
While still curate of Okewoood, Malthus wrote the book that made him famous: An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798). Though greatly enlarged in 1803 and appearing in four further editions during his lifetime, the first Essay contains the seeds of all “Malthusian” socialscientific ideas save possibly the theory of general unemployment.
Human Population: the “Ratios” and the “Checks”
The first Essay was written to show the unfeasibility of William Godwin’s Political Justice (1796). Godwin (1756–1836) believed that humans are naturally “benevolent,” and that the moral evil we perceive is caused by social institutions, which should therefore be dismantled. But if Godwin’s “beautiful system of equality” is fully realized, all property equally divided, and marriage, wage labor, government, and law abolished, the economic and social constraints on procreation are removed and population can grow geometrically (exponentially) at first. As fertile land becomes scarce, food needed to support more people cannot be produced at the same rate. Malthus assumes “no limits … to the productions of the earth” (p. 26), but suggests that food can only be made to increase, at the utmost, arithmetically (linearly). Hence per capita income must fall. Long before it reaches the “subsistence” (zero population-growth) level, falling real income reawakens “the mighty law of self-preservation”: Theft and falsehood undermine the mutual trust on which “benevolence” depends; “self-love resumes his wonted empire and lords it triumphant over the world” (p. 190); and the most able and powerful convene to institute “some immediate measures to be taken for general safety” (p. 195). Property rights reappear, together with sanctions for their violation, requiring the restoration of government. Wage labor is reintroduced to ration scarce food to the landless. Marriage comes back to assign responsibility for the feeding and care of children. Godwin’s “beautiful fabric of the imagination vanishes at the severe touch of truth” (p. 189).
Malthus acknowledged that the “principle of population” was not new. That human populations multiply “like mice in a barn” (Cantillon  2001, p. 37) when unconstrained by resource scarcity was taken for granted by all eighteenth-century social theorists. Malthus’s new wrinkle, occasionally hinted at by his predecessors and recognizably formulated by James Anderson in 1777, was an analysis of the effects of population growth with scarce land. When natural resources are limited, human fecundity makes population pressure inevitable. Rational individuals may and often do respond with some variety of the preventive check: measures to restrict procreation ranging from “moral restraint” (delay of marriage without “irregular gratification,” Malthus’s preferred solution) to contraception, as recommended by “neo-Malthusians” such as the young John Stuart Mill (1806–1873), but which Malthus himself ruled out as un-Christian, and subversive of the work ethic. Failing any or enough of these, the real incomes of some must fall so low that the positive check will operate: Population will be arrested by famine, starvation and disease, high infant mortality, and shortened adult lifespan.
Scarcity and Diminishing Returns
Though the economists Richard Cantillon (1680–1734), François Quesnay (1694–1774), Adam Smith (1723–1790), and others were conscious of land scarcity, they did not integrate the concept into their economic analyses. For Smith, the brake upon economic growth was shortage of capital, not of land. Now a capital shortage can always be remedied by the “parsimony” of capitalists, and hence is not a necessary feature of economic analysis. But land scarcity is given by nature and is permanent.
Successive applications of labor and capital to a given supply of land result in ever-diminishing returns: at the extensive margin as lower-quality land is brought into cultivation; and at the intensive margin as each successive unit of the variable factor (labor-plus-capital) has less of the fixed factor (land) to work with. Between 1798 and 1815 the analytical implications of the first Essay gradually became clear to Malthus himself and to Robert Torrens (1814–1884), Sir Edward West (1782–1828), and David Ricardo (1772–1823). In the latter year each published papers expounding the so-called “classical” theory of rent: Land is cultivated up to the point at which the diminishing marginal product of labor-plus-capital is equal in value to the competitively determined factor cost; capitalist farmers divide the factor payment into profits and wages; and landlords get a surplus (“rent”) equal to the excess value of intramarginal production over total cost of production.
Two years later Ricardo codified all this in his Principles of Political Economy (1817). Adam Smith’s “chearful” study of the Wealth of Nations was replaced by a “dismal science” of scarcity, and “classical political economy” was born. Half a century later, economists in England, Austria, Switzerland, and the United States generalized diminishing returns to construct “neoclassical” production theory. All factors are substitutable, and the contribution of each and every factor is subject to diminishing returns when all other inputs are constant. When the production functions implied by this analysis are confronted with isomorphic utility functions, generalized resource scarcity implies the “budget constraints” of the latter, and economic theory becomes an investigation of constrained maximization by rational agents. The presentday view of economics as the study of the allocation of scarce resources between competing ends is a direct consequence of Malthus’s Essay on Population.
“Spontaneous Order” and the Futility of Political Revolution
Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the French Revolution (1790) rested on a view of civilized human societies as dynamically unstable systems. An exogenous dissolution of the social fabric producing anarchy causes society to collapse into a state of “tyranny,” from which it can only be dislodged by successful counterrevolutionary action. Godwin’s answer to Burke accepted the assumption of instability, but supposed that the effect of anarchy is to launch society upon a growth-path of never-ending progress toward the goal of human perfectibility. Malthus’s decisive intervention in the debate undermined both Godwin’s argument and Burke’s. Anarchy may be morally superior to the status quo as Godwin believed. But the “laws of nature” then operate: first to produce a state of affairs inferior to the status quo; and because of this, eventually to restore the system to its original state. Political revolution is therefore costly, futile, and selfreversing.
Malthus’s conception of human societies as dynamically stable systems is a corollary of the theory of “spontaneous order” attributed by F. A. Hayek to Scottish Enlightenment thinkers, in particular David Hume (1711–1776) and Adam Smith, each of whom Malthus had studied with great care. Things get to be the way they are not because anyone intended and planned the present state; rather, the status quo is the unintended consequence of countless private, self-regarding decisions in the past. It is stable in the sense that those now in a position to effect change prefer things as they are, and have strong incentives to restore equilibrium if it is exogenously disturbed.
This conception is of the highest scientific importance, for Burke’s and Godwin’s arguments are equally defective. By postulating instability of the status quo they leave unexplained and inexplicable the way society becomes what it is. Malthus’s stable equilibrium model is not only central to all subsequent economic analysis: It is an essential feature of all present-day attempts to explain social phenomena as the outcome of rational choice by individuals.
The Poor Laws and “Welfare Dependency”
In 1798 and in all subsequent recensions of the Essay on Population (1803, 1806, 1807, 1817, 1826), Malthus criticized the Elizabethan Poor Laws then in force in England, first, because they tended to “increase population without increasing the food for its support” (1803, p. 358); and second, because any transfer to the indigent “diminishes the shares that would otherwise belong to the more industrious, and more worthy members” of the working class (1803, p. 358). The “more worthy” are those in whom “a spirit of independence still remains,” and the “poor-laws are strongly calculated to eradicate this spirit” by lowering the cost to individuals of “carelessness, and want of frugality,” and by weakening the incentive to postpone marriage and procreation (1803, p. 359). Because “dependent poverty ought to be held disgraceful,” the poor laws, by removing that stigma, “create the poor which they maintain” (1803, pp. 359, 358). What is now called “welfare dependency” was clearly recognized by Malthus not as moral turpitude among the lower orders but as their rational response to a perverse set of incentives.
The incentives are perverse because it is through the preventive check alone that the working class can obtain higher wages and a larger share of national income. Malthus, following Smith, William Paley (1743–1805), and many others, saw that the “subsistence” wage is a cultural variable. If workers raise their sights and come to expect a higher real income before marrying, the aggregate labor supply will be reduced and the equilibrium real wage increased to match their expectations. In terms of the “classical” theory of rent, factor cost rises and the share of income going to both capitalists and laborers increases at the expense of rents. Welfare dependency, in contrast, reduces both the absolute and the relative income of workers.
Theory of General Unemployment
Like his eighteenth-century predecessors, Malthus saw economic activity as driven by “effectual demand.” His Principles of Political Economy (1820), written partly to criticize Ricardo’s value theory, attempted in chapter 7 to explain the post-1815 depression as a “general glut” in commodity markets. An increase in parsimony by capitalists diverts expenditure from “unproductive” to “productive” labor, thereby increasing the supply of goods while reducing the demand. Therefore, unless landlords and others of “the rich” can increase “unproductive expenditure” (personal services, luxuries, etc.) correspondingly, excess supply will drive down prices and profits, “check for a time further production,” and throw labor out of employment (1820, p. 354).
Ricardo, James Mill (1773–1886), Jean-Baptiste Say (1767–1832), and most other contemporaries rejected the possibility of “general gluts” on the grounds that produced goods must count as expendable income for those who own them, therefore “supply creates its own demand.” Malthus and Ricardo continued the debate in their celebrated correspondence, but Malthus’s formulation was never sufficiently clear to convince the latter, and his theory—shared to some extent by Jean Charles Léonard de Sismondi (1773–1842) and Thomas Chalmers (1780–1847)—was treated by J. S. Mill and most later economists as a regrettable mistake.
John Maynard Keynes (1883–1946), however, was a lifelong admirer of Malthus, whom he called “the first of the Cambridge economists,” and he abetted Piero Sraffa (1898–1983) in his recovery and edition of the RicardoMalthus correspondence. When in the early 1930s Keynes was beginning to construct his own quite different theory of demand-led aggregate production and employment he was inspired, if not exactly influenced, by Malthus’s conscientious though flawed attempt to do justice to the whole of economic reality; and he averred that “the almost total obliteration of Malthus’s line of approach and the complete domination of Ricardo’s … has been a disaster to the progress of economics” (Keynes 1972, p. 98).
The “Struggle for Existence”
In October 1838, shortly after returning from the voyage of the Beagle, Charles Darwin “read for amusement Malthus’s Population, and being well prepared to appreciate the struggle for existence … it struck me that under these circumstances favourable variations would tend to be preserved and unfavourable ones to be destroyed [implied in chapter 3 of the Essay, where the phrase “struggle for existence” occurs]. Here then I had at last got hold of a theory by which to work” (Darwin 1974, p. 71).
Modern biology is “Malthusian” in two analytically distinct ways. In the short run in which all genes may be taken as given, the science of ecology—a study of the general equilibrium of coexisting species in defined space— generalizes Malthus’s partial equilibrium analysis of human populations to explain what J. S. Mill called “the spontaneous order of nature.” In the long run in which there is genetic mutation and adaptation of species, the theory of organic evolution generalizes Scottish Enlightenment “conjectural history” central to Malthus’s anti-Godwin polemic.
The dominance of scarcity in human affairs is never a welcome message. From the first, Malthus’s work has provoked vigorous controversy, ranging from technical and sometimes cogent objections to details of his arguments by fellow economists to outraged vilification by Romantics, Marxists, Christian Socialists and advocates of the welfare state, few of whom seem to have read what Malthus actually wrote.
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