Thomas Robert Malthus
Portrait by John Linnell
|Born||13/14 February 1766|
Westcott, Surrey, England
|Died||23 December 1834 (aged 68)|
Bath, Somerset, England
|Alma mater||Jesus College, Cambridge|
|Influences||David Ricardo, Jean Charles Léonard de Sismondi|
|Contributions||Malthusian growth model|
In his 1798 book An Essay on the Principle of Population, Malthus observed that an increase in a nation's food production improved the well-being of the populace, but the improvement was temporary because it led to population growth, which in turn restored the original per capita production level. In other words, humans had a propensity to utilize abundance for population growth rather than for maintaining a high standard of living, a view that has become known as the "Malthusian trap" or the "Malthusian spectre". Populations had a tendency to grow until the lower class suffered hardship, want and greater susceptibility to famine and disease, a view that is sometimes referred to as a Malthusian catastrophe. Malthus wrote in opposition to the popular view in 18th-century Europe that saw society as improving and in principle as perfectible. He saw population growth as being inevitable whenever conditions improved, thereby precluding real progress towards a utopian society: "The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man". As an Anglican cleric, Malthus saw this situation as divinely imposed to teach virtuous behaviour. Malthus wrote:
That the increase of population is necessarily limited by the means of subsistence,
That population does invariably increase when the means of subsistence increase, and,
That the superior power of population is repressed by moral restraint, vice and misery.
Malthus criticized the Poor Laws for leading to inflation rather than improving the well-being of the poor. He supported taxes on grain imports (the Corn Laws), because food security was more important than maximizing wealth. His views became influential, and controversial, across economic, political, social and scientific thought. Pioneers of evolutionary biology read him, notably Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace. He remains a much-debated writer.
In college and university, Malthus is documented as Robert only.
The sixth child of Henrietta Catherine (Graham) and Daniel Malthus, Robert Malthus grew up in The Rookery, a country house in Westcott, near Dorking in Surrey. He was bullied from an early age because of his syndactyly, or webbed feet. This sparked his controversial ideas about eugenics. Petersen describes Daniel Malthus as "a gentleman of good family and independent means... [and] a friend of David Hume and Jean-Jacques Rousseau". The young Malthus received his education at home in Bramcote, Nottinghamshire, and then at the Warrington Academy from 1782. Warrington was a dissenting academy, which closed in 1783; Malthus continued for a period to be tutored by Gilbert Wakefield who had taught him there.
Malthus entered Jesus College, Cambridge in 1784. While there he took prizes in English declamation, Latin and Greek, and graduated with honours, Ninth Wrangler in mathematics. His tutor was William Frend. He took the MA degree in 1791, and was elected a Fellow of Jesus College two years later. In 1789, he took orders in the Church of England, and became a curate at Oakwood Chapel (also Okewood) in the parish of Wotton, Surrey.
Malthus was a demographer before he was ever considered an economist. He first came to prominence for his 1798 publication, An Essay on the Principle of Population. In it, he raised the question of how population growth related to the economy. He affirmed that there were many events, good and bad, that affected the economy in ways no one had ever deliberated upon before. The main point of his essay was that population multiplies geometrically and food arithmetically; therefore, whenever the food supply increases, population will rapidly grow to eliminate the abundance. Thus eventually, in the future, there wouldn't be enough food for the whole of humanity to consume and people would starve. Until that point, however, the more food made available, the more the population would increase. He also stated that there was a fight for survival amongst humans, and that only the strong who could attain food and other needs would survive, unlike the impoverished population he saw during his time period.
Malthus wrote the original text in reaction to the optimism of his father and his father's associates (notably Rousseau) regarding the future improvement of society. He also constructed his case as a specific response to writings of William Godwin (1756–1836) and of the Marquis de Condorcet (1743–1794). His assertions evoked questions and criticism, and between 1798 and 1826 he published six more versions of An Essay on the Principle of Population, updating each edition to incorporate new material, to address criticism, and to convey changes in his own perspectives on the subject. Even so, the propositions made in An Essay were shocking to the public and largely disregarded during the 19th century. The negativity surrounding his essay created a space filled with opinions on population growth, connected with either praise or criticism of ideas about contraception and the future of agriculture.
The Malthusian controversy to which the Essay gave rise in the decades following its publication tended to focus attention on the birth rate and marriage rates. The neo-Malthusian controversy, comprising related debates of many years later, has seen a similar central role assigned to the numbers of children born. On the whole it may be said that Malthus's revolutionary ideas in the sphere of population growth remain relevant to economic thought even today and continue to make economists ponder about the future.
In 1799 Malthus made a European tour with William Otter, a close college friend, travelling part of the way with Edward Daniel Clarke and John Marten Cripps, visiting Germany, Scandinavia and Russia. Malthus used the trip to gather population data. Otter later wrote a Memoir of Malthus for the second (1836) edition of his Principles of Political Economy. During the Peace of Amiens of 1802 he travelled to France and Switzerland, in a party that included his relation and future wife Harriet.
In 1805 Malthus became Professor of History and Political Economy at the East India Company College in Hertfordshire. His students affectionately referred to him as "Pop", "Population", or "web-toe" Malthus.
Near the end of 1817 the proposed appointment of Graves Champney Haughton to the College was made a pretext by Randle Jackson and Joseph Hume to launch an attempt to close it down. Malthus wrote a pamphlet defending the College, which was reprieved by the East India Company within the same year, 1817.
In 1818 Malthus became a Fellow of the Royal Society.
During the 1820s there took place a setpiece intellectual discussion among the exponents of political economy, often called the "Malthus–Ricardo debate" after its leading figures, Malthus and theorist of free trade David Ricardo, both of whom had written books with the title Principles of Political Economy. Under examination were the nature and methods of political economy itself, while it was simultaneously under attack from others. The roots of the debate were in the previous decade. In The Nature of Rent (1815), Malthus had dealt with economic rent, a major concept in classical economics. Ricardo defined a theory of rent in his Principles of Political Economy and Taxation (1817): he regarded rent as value in excess of real production—something caused by ownership rather than by free trade. Rent therefore represented a kind of negative money that landlords could pull out of the production of the land, by means of its scarcity. Contrary to this concept, Malthus proposed rent to be a kind of economic surplus.
The debate developed over the economic concept of a general glut, and the possibility of failure of Say's Law. Malthus laid importance on economic development and the persistence of disequilibrium. The context was the post-war depression; Malthus had a supporter in William Blake, in denying that capital accumulation (saving) was always good in such circumstances, and John Stuart Mill attacked Blake on the fringes of the debate.
Ricardo corresponded with Malthus from 1817 about his Principles. He was drawn into considering political economy in a less restricted sense, which might be adapted to legislation and its multiple objectives, by the thought of Malthus. Malthus in his own work Principles of Political Economy (1820) and elsewhere, addressed the tension, amounting to conflict, he saw between a narrow view of political economy, and the broader moral and political plane. Leslie Stephen wrote:
If Malthus and Ricardo differed, it was a difference of men who accepted the same first principles. They both professed to interpret Adam Smith as the true prophet, and represented different shades of opinion rather than diverging sects.
After Ricardo's death in 1823, Malthus became isolated among the younger British political economists, who tended to think he had lost the debate.It is now considered that the different purposes seen by Malthus and Ricardo for political economy affected their technical discussion, and contributed to the lack of compatible definitions. For example, Jean-Baptiste Say used a definition of production based on goods and services and so queried the restriction of Malthus to "goods" alone.
In terms of public policy, Malthus was a supporter of the protectionist Corn Laws from the end of the Napoleonic Wars. He emerged as the only economist of note to support duties on imported grain. He changed his mind after 1814. By encouraging domestic production, Malthus argued, the Corn Laws would guarantee British self-sufficiency in food.
Malthus was a founding member of the Political Economy Club in 1821; there John Cazenove tended to be his ally, against Ricardo and Mill. He was elected in the beginning of 1824 as one of the ten royal associates of the Royal Society of Literature. He was also one of the first fellows of the Statistical Society, founded in March 1834. In 1827 he gave evidence to a committee of the House of Commons on emigration.
In 1827, he published Definitions in Political Economy, preceded by an inquiry into the rules which ought to guide political economists in the definition and use of their terms; with remarks on the deviation from these rules in their writings. The first chapter put forth "Rules for the Definition and Application of Terms in Political Economy". In chapter 10, the penultimate chapter, he presented 60 numbered paragraphs putting forth terms and their definitions that he proposed, following those rules, should be used in discussing political economy. This collection of terms and definitions is remarkable for two reasons: first, Malthus was the first economist to explicitly organize, define, and publish his terms as a coherent glossary of defined terms; and second, his definitions were, for the most part, well-formed definitional statements. Between these chapters, he criticized several contemporary economists—Jean-Baptiste Say, David Ricardo, James Mill, John Ramsay McCulloch, and Samuel Bailey—for sloppiness in choosing, attaching meaning to, and using their technical terms.
McCulloch was the editor of The Scotsman of Edinburgh; he replied cuttingly in a review printed on the front page of his newspaper in March, 1827. He implied that Malthus wanted to dictate terms and theories to other economists. McCulloch clearly felt his ox gored, and his review of Definitions is largely a bitter defence of his own Principles of Political Economy, and his counter-attack "does little credit to his reputation", being largely "personal derogation" of Malthus. The purpose of Malthus's Definitions was terminological clarity, and Malthus discussed appropriate terms, their definitions, and their use by himself and his contemporaries. This motivation of Malthus's work was disregarded by McCulloch, who responded that there was nothing to be gained "by carping at definitions, and quibbling about the meaning to be attached to" words. Given that statement, it is not surprising that McCulloch's review failed to address the rules of chapter 1 and did not discuss the definitions of chapter 10; he also barely mentioned Malthus's critiques of other writers.
In spite of this, in the wake of McCulloch's scathing review, the reputation of Malthus as economist dropped away, for the rest of his life. On the other hand, Malthus did have supporters: Thomas Chalmers, some of the Oriel Noetics, Richard Jones and William Whewell from Cambridge.
Malthus died suddenly of heart disease on 23 December 1834, at his father-in-law's house. He was buried in Bath Abbey. His portrait, and descriptions by contemporaries, present him as tall and good-looking, but with a cleft lip and palate. The cleft palate affected his speech: such birth defects had occurred before amongst his relatives.
On 13 March 1804, Malthus married Harriet, daughter of John Eckersall of Claverton House, near Bath. They had a son and two daughters. His firstborn, son Henry, became vicar of Effingham, Surrey, in 1835, and of Donnington, Sussex, in 1837; he married Sofia Otter (1807–1889), daughter of Bishop William Otter, and died in August 1882, aged 76. His middle child, Emily, died in 1885, outliving her parents and siblings. The youngest, Lucille, died unmarried and childless in 1825, months before her 18th birthday.
Malthus argued in his Essay (1798) that population growth generally expanded in times and in regions of plenty until the size of the population relative to the primary resources caused distress:
Yet in all societies, even those that are most vicious, the tendency to a virtuous attachment [i.e., marriage] is so strong that there is a constant effort towards an increase of population. This constant effort as constantly tends to subject the lower classes of the society to distress and to prevent any great permanent amelioration of their condition.— Malthus, T. R. 1798. An Essay on the Principle of Population. Chapter II, p. 18 in Oxford World's Classics reprint.
Malthus argued that two types of checks hold population within resource limits: positive checks, which raise the death rate; and preventive ones, which lower the birth rate. The positive checks include hunger, disease and war; the preventive checks: birth control, postponement of marriage and celibacy.
The rapid increase in the global population of the past century exemplifies Malthus's predicted population patterns; it also appears to describe socio-demographic dynamics of complex pre-industrial societies. These findings are the basis for neo-malthusian modern mathematical models of long-term historical dynamics.
Malthus wrote that in a period of resource abundance, a population could double in 25 years. However, the margin of abundance could not be sustained as population grew, leading to checks on population growth:
If the subsistence for man that the earth affords was to be increased every twenty-five years by a quantity equal to what the whole world at present produces, this would allow the power of production in the earth to be absolutely unlimited, and its ratio of increase much greater than we can conceive that any possible exertions of mankind could make it ... yet still the power of population being a power of a superior order, the increase of the human species can only be kept commensurate to the increase of the means of subsistence by the constant operation of the strong law of necessity acting as a check upon the greater power.— Malthus T. R. 1798. An Essay on the Principle of Population. Chapter 2, p. 8
In later editions of his essay, Malthus clarified his view that if society relied on human misery to limit population growth, then sources of misery (e.g., hunger, disease, and war) would inevitably afflict society, as would volatile economic cycles. On the other hand, "preventive checks" to population that limited birthrates, such as later marriages, could ensure a higher standard of living for all, while also increasing economic stability. Regarding possibilities for freeing man from these limits, Malthus argued against a variety of imaginable solutions, such as the notion that agricultural improvements could expand without limit.
Of the relationship between population and economics, Malthus wrote that when the population of laborers grows faster than the production of food, real wages fall because the growing population causes the cost of living (i.e., the cost of food) to go up. Difficulties of raising a family eventually reduce the rate of population growth, until the falling population again leads to higher real wages.
In the second and subsequent editions Malthus put more emphasis on moral restraint as the best means of easing the poverty of the lower classes."
In this work, his first published pamphlet, Malthus argues against the notion prevailing in his locale that the greed of intermediaries caused the high price of provisions. Instead, Malthus says that the high price stems from the Poor Laws, which "increase the parish allowances in proportion to the price of corn." Thus, given a limited supply, the Poor Laws force up the price of daily necessities. But he concludes by saying that in time of scarcity such Poor Laws, by raising the price of corn more evenly, actually produce a beneficial effect.
Although government in Britain had regulated the prices of grain, the Corn Laws originated in 1815. At the end of the Napoleonic Wars that year, Parliament passed legislation banning the importation of foreign corn into Britain until domestic corn cost 80 shillings per quarter.[clarification needed] The high price caused the cost of food to increase and caused distress among the working classes in the towns. It led to serious rioting in London and to the Peterloo Massacre in Manchester in 1819.
In this pamphlet, printed during the parliamentary discussion, Malthus tentatively supported the free-traders. He argued that given the increasing cost of growing British corn, advantages accrued from supplementing it from cheaper foreign sources.
In 1820 Malthus published Principles of Political Economy. 1836: Second edition, posthumously published. Malthus intended this work to rival Ricardo's Principles (1817). It, and his 1827 Definitions in political economy, defended Sismondi's views on "general glut" rather than Say's Law, which in effect states "there can be no general glut".
The vast bulk of continuing commentary on Malthus, however, extends and expands on the "Malthusian controversy" of the early 19th century.
The epitaph of Malthus in Bath Abbey reads [with commas inserted for clarity]:
Sacred to the memory of the Rev THOMAS ROBERT MALTHUS, long known to the lettered world by his admirable writings on the social branches of political economy, particularly by his essay on population.
One of the best men and truest philosophers of any age or country, raised by native dignity of mind above the misrepresentation of the ignorant and the neglect of the great, he lived a serene and happy life devoted to the pursuit and communication of truth, supported by a calm but firm conviction of the usefulness of his labours, content with the approbation of the wise and good.
His writings will be a lasting monument of the extent and correctness of his understanding.
The spotless integrity of his principles, the equity and candour of his nature, his sweetness of temper, urbanity of manners and tenderness of heart, his benevolence and his piety are still dearer recollections of his family and friends.
Born February 14, 1766 - Died 29 December 1834.
The Corn Laws... safeguarded farmers from the consequences of their wartime euphoria, when farms had changed hands at the fanciest prices, loans and mortgages had been accepted on impossible terms
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