Malthus Population Essay

homas Malthus believed that natural rates of human reproduction, when unchecked, would lead to geometric increases in population: population would grow in a ratio of 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64 and so on. However, he believed that food production increased only in arithmetic progression: 2, 4, 6, 8, 10. It seemed obvious to him that something had to keep the population in check to prevent wholesale starvation. He said that there were two general kinds of checks that limited population growth: preventative checks and positive checks. Preventative checks reduced the birth rate; positive checks increased the death rate.

Moral restraint, vice and birth control were the primary preventative checks. Moral restraint was the means by which the higher ranks of humans limited their family size in order not to dissipate their wealth among larger numbers of heirs. For the lower ranks of humans, vice and birth control were the means by which their numbers could be limited - but Malthus believed that these were insufficient to limit the vast numbers of the poor.

The positive checks were famine, misery, plague and war; because preventative checks had not limited the numbers of the poor, Malthus thought that positive checks were essential to do that job. If positive checks were unsuccessful, then inevitably (he said), famine would be the resulting way of keeping the population down. Before starvation set in, Malthus advised that steps be taken to help the positive checks to do their work.  He wrote:

It is an evident truth that, whatever may be the rate of increase in the means of subsistence, the increase in population must be limited by it, at least after the food has been divided into the smallest shares that will support life. All the children born, beyond what would be required to keep up the population to this level, must necessarily perish, unless room be made for them by the deaths of grown persons. ... To act consistently, therefore, we should facilitate, instead of foolishly and vainly endeavouring to impede, the operation of nature in producing this mortality, and if we dread the too frequent visitation of the horrid form of famine, we should sedulously encourage the other forms of destruction, which we compel nature to use.

Instead of recommending cleanliness to the poor, we should encourage contrary habits. In our towns we should make the streets narrower, crowd more people into the houses, and court the return of the plague. In the country we should build our villages near stagnant pools, and particularly encourage settlements in all marshy and unwholesome situations. But above all, we should reprobate specific remedies for ravaging diseases: and those benevolent, but much mistaken men, who have thought they were doing a service to mankind by projecting schemes for the total extirpation of particular disorders. If by these and similar means the annual mortality were increased ... we might probably every one of us marry at the age of puberty and yet few be absolutely starved. [Is this passage ironic?]

In Malthus' opinion, the masses were incapable of exercising moral restraint, which was the only real remedy for the population problem. They were therefore doomed to live always at bare subsistence level. If all income and wealth were distributed among them, it would be totally wasted within one generation because of profligate behaviour and population growth, and they would be as poor and destitute as ever. Paternalistic attempts to help the poor were therefore highly likely to fail. Also, they were a positive evil because they drained wealth and income from the higher (and therefore more moral) ranks of society. These people were responsible - either in person or through patronage - for all the great achievements of society: art, music, philosophy, literature and so on owed their existence to the good taste and generosity of these people. Taking money from them to help the poor would deprive the world of culture.

Related Materials

Some recent writings on Malthus

Macfarlane, Alan. Thomas Malthus and the Making of the Modern World. Amazon Create Space, 2014.

Mayhew, Robert J. Malthus: The Life and Legacies of an Untimely Prophet. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press, 2014.

In his admirably rounded Malthus . .. . Mayhew draws our attention to the actual writings of this pioneer of demography and political economy, and to his historical context. . . . [A later phase of Malthusian thought] began in the later twentieth century with a new Malthusianism aligned with ecology” (Jonnathan Benthall, “At Trondheim,” TLS [13 June 2014]: 28.)




Created 2003

Last modified 11 September 2015

Malthusian Theory of Population


Thomas Robert Malthus was the first economist to propose a systematic theory of population.  He articulated his views regarding population in his famous book, Essay on the Principle of Population (1798), for which he collected empirical data to support his thesis. Malthus had the second edition of his book published in 1803, in which he modified some of his views from the first edition, but essentially his original thesis did not change.


In Essay on the Principle of Population,Malthus proposes the principle that human populations grow exponentially (i.e., doubling with each cycle) while food production grows at an arithmetic rate (i.e. by the repeated addition of a uniform increment in each uniform interval of time). Thus, while food output was likely to increase in a series of twenty-five year intervals in the arithmetic progression 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, and so on, population was capable of increasing in the geometric progression 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, and so forth.  This scenario of arithmetic food growth with simultaneous geometric human population growth predicted a future when humans would have no resources to survive on.  To avoid such a catastrophe, Malthus urged controls on population growth. (See here for graphs depicting this relationship.)   


On the basis of a hypothetical world population of one billion in the early nineteenth century and an adequate means of subsistence at that time, Malthus suggested that there was a potential for a population increase to 256 billion within 200 years but that the means of subsistence were only capable of being increased enough for nine billion to be fed at the level prevailing at the beginning of the period. He therefore considered that the population increase should be kept down to the level at which it could be supported by the operation of various checks on population growth, which he categorized as "preventive" and "positive" checks.


The chief preventive check envisaged by Malthus was that of "moral restraint", which was seen as a deliberate decision by men to refrain "from pursuing the dictate of nature in an early attachment to one woman", i.e. to marry later in life than had been usual and only at a stage when fully capable of supporting a family. This, it was anticipated, would give rise to smaller families and probably to fewer families, but Malthus was strongly opposed to birth control within marriage and did not suggest that parents should try to restrict the number of children born to them after their marriage. Malthus was clearly aware that problems might arise from the postponement of marriage to a later date, such as an increase in the number of illegitimate births, but considered that these problems were likely to be less serious than those caused by a continuation of rapid population increase.


He saw positive checks to population growth as being any causes that contributed to the shortening of human lifespans. He included in this category poor living and working conditions which might give rise to low resistance to disease, as well as more obvious factors such as disease itself, war, and famine. Some of the conclusions that can be drawn from Malthus's ideas thus have obvious political connotations and this partly accounts for the interest in his writings and possibly also the misrepresentation of some of his ideas by authors such as Cobbett, the famous early English radical.  Some later writers modified his ideas, suggesting, for example, strong government action to ensure later marriages. Others did not accept the view that birth control should be forbidden after marriage, and one group in particular, called the Malthusian League, strongly argued the case for birth control, though this was contrary to the principles of conduct which Malthus himself advocated.


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