An Essay on the Principle of Population | Study Guide

Thomas Robert Malthus

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An Essay on the Principle of Population | Chapter 2 | Summary



Malthus now attempts to provide some justification for his principle of population. In every country known to history, he says, there have been "checks" (hindrances) to marrying early and having a large family. Thus, Malthus reasons, it is plausible that in a nation free of such checks, the population would increase even more rapidly. The closest approximation to such a society at present is the United States, where "the population has been found to double itself in twenty-five years." Malthus adopts this figure as a rough estimate of the maximum rate at which population will increase.

Yet the productivity of farmland, Malthus argues, cannot keep on doubling every 25 years. It might be possible to double the food supply in the next 25 years (i.e., by 1823) in England, but it will be impossible to double it again by 1848. The best that can be hoped for is an arithmetical increase. If the farmland now supports seven million people, it might be made to support 14 million people by 1823 and 21 million by 1848. This limitation on the increase of the food supply serves as the ultimate check on population growth.

The results, for human society, are "misery" and "vice." For Malthus, vice includes any attempt to prevent, avoid, or suppress procreation—e.g., contraception and abortion. (Abstinence doesn't count as vice, but Malthus doesn't expect many people to practice it.) Despite the widespread nature of these "vices," Malthus observes that there is still a "constant effort toward an increase of population." Consequently, the poor remain poor because they reproduce until they have barely enough—in some cases, not enough—food to survive. Labor becomes cheap, and wages fall, aggravating the distress until the birth rate drops. Labor then becomes scarce, wages rise, the birth rate follows suit, and the whole cycle repeats itself. The existence of such a cycle, Malthus admits, is hard to prove, because written histories have tended to focus on the rich.


Vice is a word that will come up frequently in Malthus's Essay. Out of modesty, or perhaps out of a desire not to offend or aggravate his 18th-century readership, Malthus seldom directly states what vice he is speaking about. Gradually, however, he drops clues as to which "vices" are most important to his discussion of population. They are "vicious customs with respect to women" that serve as "preventive checks" on population growth. Other foibles, such as excessive drinking or gambling, are criticized by Malthus, but he sees these as harming the quality of life, not boosting the death rate.

To a modern reader, "vice" may seem like a roundabout and judgmental way to refer to birth control. In Malthus's England, however, almost every form of contraception was frowned upon, and many were forbidden explicitly by church or civil law. Contraceptive devices such as condoms were not widely available and, when used at all, were employed mainly to stop the spread of disease, not to prevent pregnancy. Natural family planning, promoted by the Catholic Church in the 20th century as an alternative to artificial birth control, was essentially unknown. Modern contraceptive drugs (e.g., the pill) had not yet been developed.

Given all this, it would be easy to infer that the "vicious customs" of birth control were a big contributor to the 19th- and 20th-century decline in birth rate. In fact, the development and popularization of modern birth control strategies played a relatively small part in the decrease. Scholars have identified a number of contributing factors, including the decline in infant mortality; the high costs of raising children; increased female employment outside the home; laws that restricted child labor and required mandatory education, which meant that children no longer contributed to the family income; rising costs of living; poor economic conditions; and cultural practices, for example.

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