he classical economists who followed in the footsteps of Adam Smith did not enjoy his widespread popularity. Dubbed the "prophets of gloom and doom," they became associated with turning economic thought into a dismal science. Thomas Robert Malthus, in particular, became renown for his pessimistic predictions regarding the future of humanity. His major contribution to economic thought came in the essay "The Principles of Population." Originally, Malthus wrote the piece in response to utopian utilitarians who suggested that population growth constituted an unmitigated blessing. Essentially, Malthus predicted that the demand for food inevitably becomes much greater than the supply of it. This prediction is rooted in the idea that population increases geometrically while foodstuffs grow at an arithmetic rate. Curiously, Malthus offers no explanation as to how he determined these figures. (Encyclopedia of Economic Thought)
The projected population increase was expected to lead to a glut in the supply of labor and hence a fall in the price paid to that labor. At the same time, the growing demand for food and other provisions would surely raise the cost of survival. Malthus postulated that population growth would come to a standstill due to the increased price of supporting a family. The population then remains stagnant until the excess laborers convert enough forest into farmland such that "the means of subsistence become in the same proportion of the populations as at the period from which we set out." In other words, humanity goes back to square one and the process repeats itself. The entire affair becomes a vicious circle where improved conditions lead to an increase in numbers which in turn nullifies any improvements that have been made. As a result, the income of workers inevitably falls to subsistence level. In the long run Malthus expected that forces such as war, pestilence, famine and plague would operate as checks on a swelling population.
In forming his dark forecast Malthus failed to take several factors into consideration. The industrial revolution transformed the very nature of Western society, so that his principles, which assume that agriculture forms the center of the economy, lost their validity by mid-nineteenth century. Focusing exclusively on the birth rates of economically thriving communities, he failed to consider that part of his projected "population explosion" would come from a reduction in death rates. This oversight throws Malthus's theories into disarray. An increase in the elderly population would not have significant repercussions in the labor market. Essentially, wages would not fall to the extent that Malthus originally predicted. In an era where children entered the work force at an early age, an increase in birth rates would have more profound implications than a decrease in deaths.
A more forgivable mistake by Malthus involves his failure to anticipate the growth of technology. The advancements made in agricultural science allowed farmers to make greater use of their lands. The development of effective contraception also made "restraint" a non-issue in terms of checking population growth. Because of these scientific breakthroughs the theories of Malthus have had little relevance in regards to Western society. Many underdeveloped nations, however, never adopted improved farming techniques or new methods of contraception. The results of this failure have mirrored Malthusian predictions to a startling degree. Overpopulation, famine, pestilence and war continue to ravage the third world. These events constitute an unhappy vindication of many of Malthusian doctrine.
- Thomas Malthus' "Essay on Population"
- Irony in Thomas Malthus' "Essay on Population"
- Thomas Robert Malthus on "Corrective" and "Preventative" Checks to Population
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.)
Last modified 11 September 2015