An Essay on the Principle of Population | Study Guide

Thomas Robert Malthus

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An Essay on the Principle of Population | Chapter 17 | Summary



This chapter concludes Malthus's defense of the principle of population as a basic fact of human life. Continuing his discussion from Chapter 16, he considers whether "wealth" ought to be defined in terms of raw agricultural products to the exclusion of manufactured goods. Although Malthus finds this definition simplistic, he also sees it as more accurately reflecting the "condition of the laboring poor" in any given country. Some manufactured products, he points out, "contribute very considerably" to a country's wealth as measured in money. Yet, these goods—"fine silks and cottons, the laces, and other ornamental luxuries"—contribute little to the well-being of the masses. If all the lace makers were suddenly turned into farmers, Malthus says, the country would be much better off.

Next, Malthus briefly responds to the opinions of Richard Price (1723–91) regarding what makes a society flourish. Price believes the "increase and the happiness of mankind" are greatest when society is in its "simple stages" and that as civilization progresses, humanity suffers. Malthus says Price is misdiagnosing the situation; the "degree of civilization"—the degree of social and technological sophistication—isn't what truly matters. Instead, what drives "increase" in places such as the American colonies is the availability of cheap, fertile land. As the land is divided up and cultivated, the colonies will lose the "bloom of youth" and become more like the old European countries. The social problems of the Old World will gradually reach the New.

"It is," Malthus concludes, a "disheartening reflection, that the great obstacle in the way to any extraordinary improvement in society, is of a nature ... we can never hope to overcome." Still, he says, no good can come from refusing to face the truth. Only by keeping the "obstacles" to human happiness squarely in view can humanity hope to make any progress at all.


Richard Price, who is mentioned in passing in earlier chapters, was a Welsh-born philosopher whose areas of interest included demographics and economics. He, like many other British thinkers of his time, believed there was something special about the American colonies. Like economist Adam Smith, but unlike Malthus, he chalked up much of the colonies' success to their relative political freedom and the inhabitants' simple way of life. His views on this subject are codified in his book Observations on the Nature of Civil Liberty (1776), published to great acclaim both in England and the United States. Price shared with William Godwin a general sense of optimism about the political revolutions of his time. In his view, the French Revolution was an expression of patriotism, not sedition.

Was Malthus right about the insurmountable "obstacle" posed by population growth? It now seems unlikely, and it is safe to say he was wrong on many of the specifics. As many commentators have since noted, Malthus lived and wrote on the cusp of tremendous changes in agricultural technology. Throughout the 19th century, Britain continued to experience rapid population growth fueled by the British Agricultural Revolution. In the 20th century, the introduction of chemical fertilizers and mechanized farming—the Green Revolution—enabled further expansion of the global population. In 1950, around the time the Green Revolution began, the population was approximately 2.5 billion. By 2000 it had risen to six billion.

This growth rate—doubling in about 40 years—is somewhat slower than the 25-year doubling period Malthus takes as the baseline for his predictions. Nonetheless, when compared to the even slower growth rate in Malthus's time, it represents not just exponential growth, but hyperexponential growth. In other words not only did the growth rate increase during the 19th and 20th centuries, but the rate at which the growth rate increased also rose. This indicates the food supply experienced much faster growth than Malthus would have predicted. Rather than steadily, linearly increasing from year to year, agricultural output increased at an accelerating rate.

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