Thomas Robert Malthus. Born 1766 in Guildford, Surrey Died 1834 in Bath, Somerset
“The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man”
It seems slightly quaint to find the Reverend Thomas Malthus listed so frequently among the most eminent economic thinkers of all time. Didn’t he become famous for claiming that the human species would rapidly outgrow its ability to provide enough food for itself – resulting in a so-called Malthusian Catastrophe that would periodically knock it back down to size through starvation and disease? Couldn’t he have foreseen that selective breeding and other farming technologies would eventually produce the ability to rescue the human race, and largely to eliminate starvation?
Yes, he did say all those things. And, living as he did in the age of the steam engine and the cotton mills, you might have expected a more forward-looking view. Hadn’t Adam Smith’s study of Europe’s industrialising economy, The Wealth of Nations, been published when he was only ten?
Indeed it had. But Malthus the clergyman was at odds with Malthus the economist. The former had set his face against the fashionable theory that society was improving as the world became more wealthy – he said that “the power of population”, which was “indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man”, was in fact a God-given test designed to teach man about virtuous behaviour.
To Hell In A Handcart
Virtuous behaviour had its costs, though. Malthus opposed the Poor Laws, and he stood up (almost uniquely) for the Corn Laws, which penalised British imports of wheat and which drove up the price of basic foodstuffs to the point where they eventually caused riots in many places. His insistence on moral sobriety and propriety, even at the costs of short-term comfort, formed the fundamental underpinnings of his signature work, An Essay on the Principle of Population, which he updated no less than six times between 1798 and 1826.
The impoverished social classes didn’t fare well in other ways either. Having established that low and immoral practices were the main reason why the poor multiplied so prodigiously during the good times, Malthus tinkered with the now-poisonous idea of introducing “preventive checks” to population growth – including forced limits on birthrates and a higher statutory age for marriage. Only thus, he argued, could a higher standard of living be achieved for all, while also increasing economic stability.
Rather than scoffing, we might do better to reflect that Malthus’s views were taken very seriously indeed by even his bitterest adversaries. Contemporaries like David Ricardo, John Stuart Mill and later Charles Darwin treated his theories with respect – this was, after all, a period of enormous leaps in social and economic understanding, and of political turmoil in Europe. The Origin of Species and the seminal plant-genetics research of Gregor Mendel wouldn’t happen until some 25 years after Malthus’s death.
Malthus’s long public exchanges with David Ricardo on the political economy were probably the most important of these. Ricardo was himself an opponent of ‘easy money’ – he had successfully campaigned against letting the Bank of England print extra banknotes, which he was sure would destroy the currency and leave the working man no better off. But in the end they agreed to differ, with Ricardo focusing until his untimely death on the economic dimensions, while Malthus stuck to his insistence that the broader moral and political plane should form a central plank of thinking on the political economy.
The smart money decided that Malthus had lost the debate. And in an important sense, he had.