An Essay on the Principle of Population | Study Guide

Thomas Robert Malthus

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An Essay on the Principle of Population | Main Ideas

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Population

Malthus's central concern in the Essay is the relationship between population and the food supply. Although his work includes long digressions on other subjects, the discussion always circles back to population and sustenance. In his view, this relationship exerts a pervasive influence on human life, affecting the physical, emotional, and moral well-being of all members of society.

Population, Malthus asserts, tends to grow at a geometrical or exponential rate when food is plentiful and no outside influences "check" (hinder) its progress. In other words, if the population of England was seven million when the Essay was published, it might double in 25 years to reach 14 million and then double again in the 25 years after that. Every 25 years, the population would then keep on doubling indefinitely—assuming an abundance of food and no "checks" such as war or disease.

The food supply, however, does not grow so quickly, or so Malthus argues. It can only grow at a linear rate in the best-case scenario. Linear growth means there is a maximum rate of growth per year. Once this limit is reached, the supply cannot grow any faster. If, for example, there is enough food in 1798 to feed seven million people, it might be possible to double the food supply by 1823. (Malthus considers this a long shot but admits it for the sake of argument.) But the doubling can't go on forever. In the next 25-year period, the food supply might grow to feed yet another seven million, but it won't double. Instead, every 25 years, another seven million people's worth of food is added. By 1848 there should be enough food for 21 million people, and by 1873 there should be enough for 28 million. Meanwhile, if population had continued to grow unchecked, there would have been 28 million people in 1848 and 56 million in 1873. Food quickly ends up being the "limiting reactant" in the process of population growth.

To be clear, most of the "extra" 28 million people—the ones who would have been born by 1873 if population growth continued unchecked—simply aren't born at all. The population might temporarily overshoot the food supply and then be brought back down by famine and disease. Malthus, however, never proposes people will reproduce until half the population dies of starvation. Instead, various "checks" to population growth kick in well before this bleak point is reached. The assumption of linear growth in the food supply is, incidentally, the part of Malthus's theory that has been most seriously challenged—disproved, in fact—by modern developments.

Putting his assumptions about population and food supply together, Malthus arrives at a seemingly immutable rule: some portion of society will always be hungry, impoverished, and miserable. If poverty and malnourishment seem to be scarce or nonexistent within a culture, it's simply because population has not yet caught up to the food supply. Because Malthus accepts the "principle of population" as an unchangeable fact, his practical recommendations tend to focus on what might be called "harm reduction." No matter what is done, he believes, many people will suffer from abject poverty and borderline starvation. Government policy and private philanthropy should, therefore, be aimed at making the lot of the poor more bearable. However, Malthus holds out no hope for a general, permanent improvement in the quality of life for the global population.

Morality

Malthus's Essay is not a moralistic work, but it does contain some reflections on the ethical implications of the "principle of population." A key concept for Malthus is that what feels or sounds morally right may not actually be so in practice. This, for instance, is his view on the Poor Law, which he describes as flawed legislation—though set up with the best of intentions. Designed to help the poor, these laws collected a monetary "subscription" (i.e., a tax) and redistributed it to those too poor to support themselves. On the surface, this sounds like a truly benevolent move. But in reality, he argues, redistributing wealth in this fashion fails to help the poor and may even actively hurt them. The excess cash, far from representing a real increase in wealth, will simply be soaked up by increases in the price of food and lodging. Consequently, the poor will pay more money for the same goods and services. In the meantime they will have more children than they otherwise would, knowing they can fall back (at least in theory) on the public dole.

Malthus seems to have earnestly believed these arguments, but his contemporaries found them harder to accept. In fact, as Malthus learned firsthand, calling for cutbacks in social welfare is an excellent way to find oneself maligned as a Scrooge-like figure (see Context). Malthus did not, however, call for England to simply abandon its poor to their fate. Instead, he proposed an avenue of reform that he viewed as more likely to help them, albeit in a limited way. By diverting resources toward agriculture, he said, the English government could actually increase the food supply and relieve hunger to some extent, at least for a time. Getting the poor to work on farms was healthier and more humane than shutting them away in workhouses.

In Chapter 14 Malthus describes humanity's moral development as largely a product of circumstance—a view also taken by his opponent William Godwin. Using the analogy of a repeated dice roll, he argues some people in any given society will turn out virtuous regardless of circumstances and some will turn out wicked. In the final two chapters, Malthus further develops this discussion of moral issues as he attempts to reconcile God's mercy with the harshness of nature. He does not base his view of morality on the "fallen" state of humankind. For Malthus, there is neither justice nor mercy in the traditional Christian view of hell, because the wicked are victims of bad circumstances as well as poor choices. People whom conventional morality regards as evil are actually more like "misshapen" vessels—by-products of the "great furnace" of creation.

Misery

Malthus believed the consequences of population pressure boil down to "misery" and "vice." These two phenomena, in turn, serve as checks on further population growth—a form of negative feedback built into the natural world. "Vice," for Malthus, is a somewhat vague category including some things one would today see as unhealthy habits or addictions: gambling, drinking, smoking, and so forth. One problem with contemporary social welfare programs, in Malthus's view, is that they encourage such vices. When the laboring classes can fall back on the social safety net, he argues, they have less incentive to save their money. Instead, they spend their earnings at the alehouse or the gambling den. Repealing the Poor Acts would, in Malthus's view, force the poor to plan ahead.

The most important "vices" for Malthus's argument, however, are those relating to procreation. Although he never names contraception, birth control, or abortion specifically, Malthus repeatedly complains of the "vicious customs with respect to women," which are prevalent in many cultures. His meaning can be inferred from the fact these "vicious customs" relate to sexuality and serve to counteract an increase in the birth rate. Although birth control technologies were not very sophisticated in Malthus's time, methods of preventing or aborting a pregnancy were well known and widely decried by religious authorities.

Misery is a more straightforward term. In his survey of different "stages" of civilization, Malthus finds many ways in which population pressure makes people miserable. Some of these forms of misery serve to prevent further population increases. They are, in Malthus's terms, preventive checks. Other forms constitute positive checks on population growth—meaning they kill off, or cause the death of those who have already been born. Disease and malnutrition fall into this subcategory, as does war from the viewpoint of its victims.

For Malthus, the "miseries" of hunter-gatherer tribes (whom he calls "savages") are disturbingly similar to those of the English poor. This forms an implicit argument against the promise of human perfectibility through technological and social progress. If new inventions and forms of government really improved the lot of the lower classes, Malthus observes, the poor in an industrialized society would be better off than those in less "civilized" nations. He is similarly skeptical of other philosophers' attempts to identify the factors that contribute to human happiness. British philosopher Richard Price (1723–91), for instance, argued the North American colonies (later, the early United States) were happy and prosperous because of the residents' simple way of life and generous political freedoms. For Malthus, the explanation is more elementary. These fortunate nations and colonies, he writes, still have plenty of arable land for the taking. Consequently, they haven't reached the limits of their food supply. When their population catches up to the land's capacity, they will experience the same incurable misery and vice as the rest of the world.

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