Frank W. Elwell
Who now reads Malthus? He
is usually given only passing mention in social theory texts and monographs,
hardly mentioned at all in our introductory sociology texts. While Malthus
is widely considered to be the founder of social demography, his greater
contribution is perhaps in the area of ecological-evolutionary theory.
And this contribution has been largely ignored. His essay points out that
our ability to produce children will always outstrip our ability to provide
energy for their survival. Population must be kept in line with what the
society can produce in the way of sustenance, and every way available to
keep this population in check (including birth control) has negative consequences
for society. Because of this simple fact, Malthus argues, we can never
achieve the utopia anticipated by his contemporaries.
Thomas Robert Malthus (he
went by Robert) was born on February 13, 1766. He was the second son and
sixth child of Daniel Malthus, a country gentleman. Malthus was educated
at Cambridge in mathematics. He became an ordained minister immediately
after graduating in 1788, and became a curate near his family home in Surrey
(Winch, 1989). Malthus originally published the 1798 Essay as an anonymous
pamphlet. The Essay was later revised in 1802 (and Malthus was identified
as the author) and went through a total of seven editions—each of them
relying more heavily on empirical examples to buttress the basic theory
As the subtitle to his Essay
makes clear, it was intended as a contribution to the then current debate
on the perfectibility of man and society. For many social thinkers in the
18th and 19th centuries social evolutionary thought was linked to "progress"--the
ultimate triumph of some principle or condition such as equality, material
wealth, freedom, science, or reason. Many of these ideals were to find
expression in both the French Revolution and in the early stages of the
Industrial Revolution. Malthus' Essay was intended to emphatically refute
these optimistic notions.
For Malthus, the debate over
progress began with his father, a great admirer of Rousseau. Malthus'
father, Daniel, is the "friend" mentioned in the preface to the first Essay.
Malthus' Essay was also addressed to two important works of the day. Marquis
de Condorcet had recently published Outline of the Intellectual Progress
of Mankind (1795) in which he claimed that societies pass through stages,
each stage representing the progressive emancipation of man's reason from
superstition and ignorance (much of Condorcet's vision gets passed on to
his French successor--Auguste Comte). William Godwin published Enquiry
Concerning Political Justice (1793) which made similar claims regarding
the perfectibility of society. Man's natural goodness was repressed by
corrupt institutions, Godwin claimed. These institutions would be gradually
replaced by the spread of reason and greater social equality (Winch, 1987:
26). The idea of social progress was as ingrained in Malthus' day, as it
is in our own.
The view that no form of
social organization can possibly create or preserve a just and equitable
society permeates the Essay. It is perhaps due to his stand on progress
that many are so hostile to Malthus' work. There is no comparable historical
figure in social thought who has been so vilified and misinterpreted as
Malthus. Almost from the outset of publication Malthus’ ideas have been
bitterly attacked. Samuel Coleridge railed against "the monstrous practical
sophism of Malthus". Robert Southey, the poet laureate, thundered that
"Mr. Malthus is cast in his action against God Almighty". Frederick Engels
referred to Malthus’ "vile, infamous theory, this revolting blasphemy against
nature and mankind", while Karl Marx called him a "shameless sycophant
of the ruling classes" (Short, 1998). In recent times the essay has fared
no better--often being condemned as a radical critique of the sustainability
of industrial society. Malthus' critique of progress goes a long way toward
explaining the hostility Malthus’ work still receives in our own society.
A second set of factors that
affect the interpretation of the Essay is the explosive content
of Malthus’ topics. In the 1798 Essay Malthus deals with such emotionally
charged topics as welfare, infanticide, sex, marriage and family, faith,
evolution (natural and social), inequality, self-interest, and altruism.
Political reactions, usually based on misreading Malthus (or, perhaps,
not reading Malthus) are common in interpreting Malthus' views on many
of these issues. Even when secondary sources interpret his works accurately,
many have become so intent on refuting or defending Malthus for various
political reasons that they often lose sight of the theory itself.
The secondary literature
contains many misconceptions regarding Malthus’ life and thought. He did
not have 11 children. He had three children, one of who survived to adulthood.
The original Essay was not of a dour writer, unremitting in its
pessimism. The Essay is actually quite lively, and generally upbeat
regarding the future of human societies. Malthus is not a "Social-Darwinist."
Social Darwinism comes later in the 19th century, and significantly differs
from Malthus’ theory. Malthus does not "hate" the poor, he does not believe
them morally or mentally unfit, nor does he advocate a policy of benign
neglect. In the Essay Malthus proposes structural reform intended
to address the plight of the poor. Malthus did not discount the potential
of technology to increase the food supply. He is acutely aware of technological
development in his own time, and fully expected this development to continue
far into the future. Malthus does not advocate sexual abstinence as a viable
solution to the population crisis. He holds out an ideal of abstinence
before late marriage, in the full knowledge that this ideal would not be
As most of the secondary
sources point out, Malthus does criticize the use of birth control. But
the widespread adoption of birth-control technology since Malthus does
not negate his theory. Malthus considers birth control a viable preventive
check for some, but a preventive check—like abstinence—that has negative
consequences for the rest of the social system. In addition, Malthus wrote,
the effectiveness of preventive checks depend upon the decisions of couples
regarding such factors as the costs and benefits of children--a calculation
that often favors large families for the poor.
Finally and most emphatically,
Malthus did not claim that population would someday outstrip natural resources
and that society would collapse as a result. Rather, he held that population
growth was continuously being checked—held down to sustainable levels—in
all past, present and future societies. He did not predict a crash in our
distant future, but rather he described environmental constraints within
which all societies must exist. These constraints, Malthus maintained,
were a major obstacle to any real social progress.
While there are self-styled
neo-Malthusians and anti-Malthusians in the popular literature of the day,
the debate tends to focus on the modern ecological situation rather than
Malthus’ theory. When Malthus is directly addressed it tends to be what
Malthus is supposed to have written, rather than The Principle of Population
itself. Today there is a virtual cottage industry centered on the debate
about Malthus’ supposed prediction of out of control population growth
leading to eventual environmental collapse.
Anti-Malthusians claim that
his prediction was wrong because he didn't consider the effects of birth
control on population. They also claim that he failed to anticipate
advances in productive technology. Neo-Malthusians counter with data projections
that supposedly support the prediction of future collapse but admitting
Malthus’ "shortcomings"--particularly on the potential of birth control
to stabilize population. These neo-Malthusians assert that his "prediction"
still has relevance for the future of human societies if we do not get
present population growth under control. They then go on to advocate birth
control to escape what has come to be called the "Malthusian trap."
The social studies (in Mills’
broader sense of the term) have long been caught up in this general popular
debate. But the Malthus being debated is not based on the original manuscript
but rather on the widespread misconception that he predicted the end of
the world (at least as we know it). Thus, the debate rages on and on, fueled
by the debater's hopes or fears—with little direct reference to Malthus’
theory and observations.
Malthus' population theory
is given little systematic treatment in our general theory texts, in our
teaching, and in the sociological discipline. However, it is Malthus’ focus
on the relationships between population and production—and the effects
of this interaction on other parts of the social system—that forms the
foundation for the modern ecological-evolutionary theories of Gerhard and
Jean Lenski, and Marvin Harris. However, the influence of Malthus on this
literature is rarely appreciated. Evolutionary-ecological theory is one
of the only macro-social theories in widespread use in the social sciences
today. The failure to include Malthus in our introductory courses and our
general theory texts leaves little foundation for modern day ecological
theory. To ignore the contribution of Malthus is therefore a disservice
to our students and to our discipline.
As a consequence, students
are left with the impression that contemporary ecological-evolutionary
theory has little root in the social sciences but instead has been borrowed
from the "hard" science of biology. But the social sciences and biology
have always had a symbiotic relationship regarding evolutionary theory.
Malthus, writing in 1798, had huge influence on ecological-evolutionary
theory in both biology and the social sciences. As acknowledged by practitioners
in both biology (Darwin and Wallace)
and the social sciences (Lenski and Harris),
Malthus' population theory has profoundly affected modern day ecological-
evolutionary theory. It is time to more generally recognize Malthus’ contribution
to social thought, time to make him a part of the social science canon.
It is very difficult to convey
the spirit of a book in a few excerpts; it is also very dangerous to rely
only on secondary sources and interpretations. You must read the
to fully appreciate its subtleties and nuances. And Malthus' first
is a delight to read; he is clear, forthright, relentless in his logic,
and truly profound in his conclusions. Malthus was also a pioneer
in the use of empirical data in the inductive/deductive process of theory
building, a necessary discipline that is lacking in many of the early practitioners
of the social science craft. In addition, as part of his "social
system" orientation, much of his analysis pre-figures the functional analysis
of contemporary sociologists and anthropologists.
In sum, Malthus is a far
better social theorist than many believe. He is well worth your time
and your study. Whether or not you agree with his theory, the issues
that he raises must be thoroughly addressed in any attempt to understand
the social world.
Both Condorcet and Godwin
attribute vice and misery of the lower classes to problems in social structure—basically
government and economic institutions. For them, the solution to widespread
misery is to reform elements of the social structure to conform to the
enlightened principles of equality and justice. Under such conditions,
resources can be fairly allocated to all. While Malthus does grant
that structural reform can make some improvement (#74
he maintains that “no possible form of society could prevent the almost
constant action of misery upon a great part of mankind” (#14).
The problems of human societies, Malthus claims, are not primarily due
to social structure (#68).
The problems are of a “nature that we can never hope to overcome”—they
are the consequences of an imbalance between our ability to produce food
and our ability to produce children—we are far better at making babies
than we are at finding food for their survival (#104).
This problem, Malthus writes, exits in all past and present societies,
and must exist in any future society as well. Because of this natural
law of imbalance, Malthus asserts, inequality is built into the structure
of human societies, and the creation of a technological or enlightened
utopia for all is simply not feasible (#89).
Malthus’ basic theory can
be summarized as follows: Humankind has two basic needs: food and sex—one
leading to the production of food and the other to the reproduction of
But the power of reproduction is “indefinitely greater” than the power
of production. If unchecked, Malthus maintained, population levels
would double in size about every 25 years. Malthus based this estimate
on observations of actual population growth in the New World, where resources
were once abundant for the relatively small population size (#8).
Because productive capacity can never maintain this rate of growth for
long—that is, double every 25 years—the growth in population must be continually
checked. This check would fall on all in a state of equality (#14).
However, food and other resources are not distributed equally in any human
society. This means that the “positive checks” in the form of lowered life
expectancy, has to be paid by the poor.
Central to Malthus is a posited
cyclical relationship between production and reproduction. An increase
in productivity will lower the costs of food, thus making it cheaper for
a family to have children. More children would live (or be allowed
to live); fewer efforts would be made to prevent conception. Eventually,
the rise in population would increase the demand for food, driving prices
up, leading to hard times for the poor and—through the more efficient operation
of population checks—a leveling off of population. The high price
of provision, plus the lower wages for labor (because of the surplus of
workers), would induce farmers to increase productivity by hiring more
workers, putting more land under the plow, and using technology to increase
productivity. This increase in productivity, of course, would loosen
the constraints to reproduction—it would continue the cycle (#12).
Malthus recognized that the cycle is not steady-paced. Wars, disease,
economic cycles, technological breakthrough, the lag between change in
the price of food and money wages, and government action (such as the Poor
Laws) can all temporarily disrupt or spur the cycle (Winch, 1987: 22).
The “oscillation” between the growth of subsistence and population, and
the misery that it causes, has not been noted in the histories of mankind
because these are histories of the higher classes (#12).
Nonetheless, Malthus maintains, there is a continuing cycle between population
and production—a cycle that necessitates the operation of severe checks
on population growth.
Malthus illustrates the unequal
growth in production and reproduction with the oft-quoted model--a comparison
of arithmetic and exponential growth. It is this model which is often
taken to be the basic principle of population in the popular press (as
well as some who should know better). Starting with a billion people
(“a thousand million”), Malthus points out, if allowed to double in size
every 25 years, human population would increase in the following manner:
1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512. The means of subsistence,
however, does not necessarily grow exponentially. Assuming an initial
quantity of 1 unit, and adding an additional unit every 25 years, the means
of subsistence would increase as 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, etc.
In 225 years, he states, the population would be at 512 billion—511 billion
more than at time 1. Yet in that same time period, the means of subsistence
would only have increased by 10. In 2000 years, Malthus adds, the
difference between population and production would be incalculable
Note that Malthus is not predicting that the human population is going
to actually grow in these numbers, for that would be quite impossible in
his system of constantly acting checks on population. In fact he
remarks in the Essay that he is aware that such a disparity between production
and population could never exist (#68).
He was merely using a mathematical model to illustrate the unequal powers
of our ability to produce food and children. Through extrapolating
what would happen if there were no checks on population, Malthus is demonstrating
the sheer impossibility of unchecked population growth.
Much of the literature on
Malthus interprets this model as illustrating an inevitable population
“overshoot” of the resource base (some would claim a collapse as well).
This interpretation has been reinforced with elaborations on “cultural
lag,” changes in environmental circumstances (such as a rise in the cost
of living) are slow to be reflected in human reproductive behavior (cutting
down on births). Humans are creatures of learning and habit.
Many behaviors are continued for a time--even when these behaviors are
not adaptive to current circumstances--because of the hold of family and
tradition. The rise in population levels in industrial societies
(often called the demographic transition) is thought to result from a decline
in the death rate (due to better nutrition, sanitation, and eventually
medicine) and a corresponding lag in the dropping of the birthrate for
some thirty to forty years.
Now this element is in Malthus--he
specifically speaks of this type of cultural lag (#12).
The difference between Malthus and many of his interpreters on this point
lies in viewing the possibility of “overshoot” somewhere in the future.
For Malthus, the possibility of overshoot is always present in human societies.
Societies are free from overshoot only when they first settle new lands,
or are recovering from severe de-population (as the result of natural disasters
or plague). In all other situations there is more population than
can be supported by existing production and distribution systems--this
portion of the population is usually called the poor.
The second difference between
Malthus and many of his interpreters lies in the “distribution systems.”
As we will see Malthus maintained a healthy respect for the powers of technology,
but he also asserts that inequality is absolutely necessary in any complex
society. It does not matter what technology is employed, increases
in productivity can never eliminate inequality, can never eliminate the
need to check population growth.
The model is not a prediction
of the future of population growth or of the speed of technological development--it
is a model of the relationship between the two. While Malthus’ illustrative
model was based on an assumption of steady arithmetic growth of productive
capacity--slow or moderate growth in productive capacity is not central
to his theory. An increase in agricultural production--even if it
were exponential--would only result in an increase in the birth rates of
the poor (recall, the price of food will decline, more children will reach
maturity) thus eventually necessitating the operation of the checks on
population when it exceeds productive capacity. It is only by assuming
productive capacity as steady paced, exponential, and endless (in other
words, conceiving the power of production as equal to that of reproduction)
that the checks will not need to be a part of the system. Malthus
is unwilling to make these assumption—to do so flies in the face of both
observation and logic.
It flies in the face of actual
experience since Malthus wrote the essay as well. While it is a commonplace
to claim that productivity more than matched population growth since Malthus,
this is simply not the case. Assuming one billion people at the time
of the essay, and a 25 year doubling time for unchecked population (what
modern demographers call “fecundity”), today's population would now be
up to 256 billion. It is not nearly so high (6 billion as of this
writing)—there have been severe checks on population. While food
productivity has increased substantially, it has not (nor could it) increase
at the same rate as unchecked population growth. Rather, in accordance
with Malthus’ theory, the rise in productivity in the last 200 years has
been met by a substantial rise in population (a rise that has been truly
exponential, though far less than potential unchecked growth).
The poor are still among
us. There is great poverty and misery in the world. Checks
to population are still in operation—steps taken to prevent conception,
and "positive" steps of increased mortality due to disease and malnutrition.
A just, equitable, and enlightened society is still beyond our grasp.
The necessity of checks on
population growth is based on our physical nature as entities in a natural
environment. The checks, Malthus argues, are necessary to keep the
population in line with subsistence from the environment. In the animal
and plant world, Malthus asserts, species are impelled by instinct to propagate
the species. There is only one type of check on plant and animal
life—the lack of room or nourishment for their offspring. That is,
the “positive check” of premature death (#11).
In human populations these positive checks, would include both famine and
disease that would lead to high infant and child mortality rates (#23).
One of the most widely used positive checks, Malthus suggests, has been
infanticide committed throughout human history (#20).
In addition, Malthus saw a good portion of the human population carried
off by war, disease, unwholesome occupations, hard labor, misery and vice
Malthus labels these "positive" checks because they actively cut down existing
population by reducing the human life span.
These checks will operate
on the poor and powerless much more so than the well to do and the elite--for
the poor themselves were the “excess” population--the part of the population
that current production practices can not adequately feed (#23).
But checks on human population
are not confined to the positive checks of nature. For humans, reason
intervenes. In a state of equality, Malthus argues, the only question
is whether or not subsistence can be provided to offspring. In the
real world, however, where inequality is the rule, “other considerations
In this world potential parents will ask such questions as: Will having
children lower my standard of living? Will I have to work much harder to
support my children? Despite my best efforts, will I have to see
my children hungry and miserable? Will I loose a significant amount
of independence, and be forced to accept the handout of charity to support
my children? (#11).
If a couple decides not to have children they must prevent conception.
These preventive checks are accomplished through thousands of independent
decisions of cost-benefit that individuals make regarding children and
Preventive checks, Malthus
recognized, come in many varieties. The ideal, for Malthus, was to
practice celibacy before marriage and to delay marriage until children
can be supported. But this, he asserts, forces individuals to deny
a basic human need—a “dictate of nature” (#11).
Recall that one of Malthus’ main postulates is that the “passion between
the sexes is necessary” and constant (#4).
Therefore, this necessary restraint produces misery for those that practice
celibacy and marry late (#44).
For those who cannot practice such ideal discipline (perhaps the vast majority
of human beings, Malthus implies), the constraints on population growth
lead to “vice” (#11).
Under the category of vice
Malthus is including such practices as frequenting prostitutes, “unnatural
acts” (non-procreative sex), and the use of birth control (#62).
There are several problems caused by vice. First, vice serves to
increase the sum of unhappiness in both men and women (#00).
Second, vice often leads to shortened life spans—say by increasing exposure
to disease and drugs (#57).
Finally, the acceptance or approval of widespread non-procreative sexuality
will “destroy that virtue and purity of manners”—the very goal of those
who profess the perfectibility of society (#62).
Vice, Malthus argues, is a necessary consequence of constraints on population
Included in Malthus’ definition
of vice is the practice of birth control—even birth control confined within
marriage. Some birth control practices were prevalent in his day—particularly
the use of sponges. Malthus alludes to these practices several times
(in the language of his day). What is clear from the Essay
is that he did consider birth control practices as an effective preventive
check (just as he considered other more traditional forms of vice to be
effective in preventing population increase). But he believed the
widespread use of contraception would change the moral behavior of men
and women, and have inevitable effects on family and community life (#62).
Therefore, he did not consider birth control—even in marriage—as an ideal
solution to the necessity of limiting population growth.
His failure to explicitly
consider birth control as a viable and socially acceptable preventive check
on population growth has both puzzled and angered many through the years.
Malthus was urged by some during his lifetime to more explicitly include
the consideration of birth control in subsequent editions of the Essay,
and to advocate or at least sanction their use. He largely ignored
such pleas (Winch, 1987).
Social movements arose in
the 19th century—many calling themselves “Malthusian” —movements that warned
of out of control population growth and that advocated the distribution
of various birth control devices. Many today now recognize a population
crisis and advocate contraception as a viable solution. Malthus also
makes clear that, although he was very concerned about the effects of vice
on society, of the two types of checks on population (positive and preventive),
he much preferred the preventive (#33).
Surely birth control within marriage would be second only to abstinence
as the least objectionable preventive check in Malthus’ system. In
addition, as Malthus well knew, birth control (even within marriage) had
the potential of being a solution for many individuals that could not practice
the ideal of celibacy. Still, he never became an advocate, never
thought of birth control as a viable solution to the population problem.
Part of this reluctance to
embrace birth control undoubtedly lies in reaffirming a social ideal—in
this case the traditional ideal of celibacy before a late marriage—that
people can aspire to (even though it is honored more in the breach).
Malthus, who married at 38, probably believed in the rightness of the prevailing
mores of his time, probably attempted to live in accordance with their
dictates (and suffered much misery as a result?).
But much of his reluctance
to approve of birth control as a viable solution to the population problem
is also rooted in his social theory. Malthus’ system points to difficulties
with relying on preventive checks alone to control population levels.
In societies where children are assets, the individual cost/benefit analysis
is likely to favor high birth rates for poor parents. Thus, making
birth control generally available will not have a significant impact on
the birth rate if it is not in the interests of the parents. And
second, the foresight, opportunity, and discipline to use contraception
or to put off marriage is likely in the most educated and wealthy classes--not
the poor and uneducated who feel the full brunt of the positive checks
Birth control, as well as other methods of preventive checks, operates
with “varied” force among the different classes of society—the poor are
checked more often by the positive checks of rising mortality—and it will
always be so (#23).
The availability of contraception
alone cannot stabilize a population. People must have an interest
in preventing births. For many, in Malthus' day as well as our own,
there is no such interest--in fact the cost/benefit analysis of having
children often favors large families among the poor. This means that
a significant number of children are born with no corresponding increase
in sustenance. Nature—in the form of pestilence and famine—accomplishes
what must be done. The Essay goes on to systematically explore the effects
of these necessary checks on the entire sociocultural system. But
the dynamics between population and production are the material foundation
of all societies, and it is to this foundation that we now turn.
Consistent with Malthus’
functional orientation, he asserts that a working class is absolutely essential
to every society—labor will always be necessary to wrest subsistence from
nature. Malthus views the institution of private property and the
self-interest of individuals as providing the motivation for human thought
and action (#90).
It is the goad of necessity, the desire to avoid poverty or to obtain riches
that motivates much human industry (#118).
Unequal rewards for industry and idleness are the “master spring” of human
The desire for riches, or the fear of poverty, also motivates humans to
regulate the number of their offspring. The poor represent that portion
of the population that is not supported through existing technology and
Improve these systems—provide
more food and sustaining resources to greater numbers of people, and population
will rise. This rise in population will eventually reach sustainable
limits, and the necessity of widespread checks among a large portion of
the population will again come into play (#74).
Therefore, poverty (and
its consequent misery and vice), is an outgrowth of the imbalance between
our ability to produce food and our tendency to reproduce the species (#71).
Because of population's tendency
to outstrip available food supplies, the mass of people must be subjected
to physical distress (lack of food and other necessities) in order to limit
population increase (either through preventive checks, or failing those,
positive checks). It is because of this imbalance that “millions
and millions of human existences have been repressed” (#56).
Malthus asserts that this necessity to repress population has existed in
every society in the past, exists in the present, and will “for ever continue
to exist.” The necessity to repress a large number of our potential
offspring is due to our physical nature—our reliance on food and the necessity
of sexuality (#61).
As part of his functionalism,
Malthus consistently demonstrates the necessity of workers and proprietors
in all societies beyond hunting and gathering levels (#60,
Labor is the only property owned by the poor, which they sell in exchange
for money—money to purchase the necessities of life. “The only way
that a poor man has of supporting himself in independence is by the exertion
of his bodily strength” (#90).
But unlike the latter “Social Darwinists,” Malthus does not see poverty
as a consequence of moral worth or fitness to survive. He does not
believe that the poor are necessarily responsible for their condition,
rather, they “are the unhappy persons who, in the great lottery of life,
have drawn a blank” (#71).
At no point does he attempt
to justify the “present great inequality of property” (#90).
Malthus views severe inequality with horror and asserts that it is not
necessary or very useful to the bulk of mankind (#90).
He further argues that we are morally obligated to alleviate the plight
of the poor—though we must recognize that we can never fully do so (#90
To attain the greatest good for the greatest number of people, Malthus
asserts, institutional reform must be made in recognition of the laws of
Malthus has been too often
associated with the (largely) discredited Social Darwinists perhaps because
of his forceful critique of the British Poor Laws. Many have attributed
the “reactionary stance” of Spencer and the “Social Darwinists” to Malthus.
While Malthus certainly had a profound influence on Social Darwinism he
does not share one of their main tenants--the evolutionary process as progress.
This fundamental difference in the view of evolution between Malthus and
the Darwinists has direct relevance for their conception of the role of
social action in human affairs.
Marvin Harris (1968) explicitly
highlighted this difference between Malthus and the Darwinists over the
idea of progress in his work The Rise of Anthropological Theory (114-118),
and clearly appreciates its implications for the reactionary character
of Social Darwinism. If only the fittest survive, then it would be
unnatural to provide aid and comfort to those that fail, to do so would
be counter to our own evolutionary self-interests, counter to nature itself.
But, unlike the Social Darwinists,
Malthus' critique of the British Poor Laws does not stem from a view of
evolution as survival of the fittest. Malthus’ critique stems from
three very different sources: 1) his functional analysis of poverty, welfare,
and population growth; 2) the high value Malthus places on achieving the
greatest good for the greatest number of people; and, 3) the high value
he places on human liberty. Malthus analyzes the functions and dysfunctions
(though he does not use the terminology) of welfare and concludes that
it does not significantly alleviate the misery of the poor. In fact,
he asserts, it increases the number of people who become dependent on the
charity of others. This does not serve to promote the happiness of
the greatest possible number of people. Finally, such welfare provisions
serve to limit human freedom and promote tyranny.
Malthus believes that the
poor laws are instituted in society through two basic human motivations.
First, he asserts that the poor are abused by elites as they attempt to
further their own self-interest and hold down the cost of labor.
Much of this is achieved by interfering with the labor market, either through
collusion among the rich to put a cap on wages, or through the institution
of welfare laws (#13).
The poor laws are in the interests of both the rich and the state (the
elite), Malthus claims, because poor laws have the effect of stimulating
higher birthrates among the laboring classes—thus lowering the cost of
labor for both manufacture and armies (#53).
The second motivating factor behind welfare—or the attempt to alleviate
the plight of the poor—is human benevolence and a desire for social justice
Sometimes elite self-interest is cloaked in the language of compassion,
at other times the laws are motivated purely by benevolence (as apparently,
in Malthus’ estimation, Pitt’s Poor Bill) (#37
Regardless of motivation—whether
conceived in a purposeful manner to hold down the costs of labor, or conceived
out of compassion to alleviate distress— the provision of welfare removes
the necessity of some population checks on the poor.
The result of the removal
of some of the population checks is that population rises, the labor market
becomes flooded with new laborers and those willing to work longer and
harder to support their increased number of offspring (#94).
The fatal flaw of the poor laws, at least in Malthus’ view (though it would
not be a flaw in the view of elites), is that it encourages population
growth without increasing provisions to support that growth (#28,
In accordance with the law of supply and demand, poor laws will contribute
to “raise the price of provisions and to lower the real price of labour”
Labor, you will recall, is the only commodity that the poor have to sell
in order to obtain provisions. Thus available provisions must be spread
over a greater number of people, and distress becomes more widespread and
Malthus’ harsh criticisms
of welfare laws are based on his desire to promote the greatest good for
the greatest number of people. Poor laws serve to soften the fear
of poverty. They diminish the power of the poor to save (through
lowering the price of labor) and weaken a strong incentive to industry
Worse, the laws remove one of the major checks to early marriage and having
But the only true basis for an increase in population is an increase in
the means of subsistence (#50).
If subsistence does not increase, but population does, available provisions
must be spread over a greater number of people. Thus, a higher proportion
of the next generation will live in poverty as a result (#36
However noble in intentions, poor laws will always subvert their own purpose.
Malthus acknowledges that it may appear hard in individual circumstances,
but holding dependent poverty disgraceful, allowing the preventive checks
on population to operate (Malthus is not an advocate of the positive checks—he
seeks to minimize their operation), will promote the greatest good for
the greatest number (#29).
Malthus is also concerned
with the loss of human freedom that occurs with the establishment of welfare
systems. One of his “principal objections” is that welfare subjects
the poor to “tyrannical laws” that are inconsistent with individual liberties
If you are going to provide assistance, Malthus asserts, you must give
power to a certain class of people who will manage the necessary institutions
to provide the relief. These institutions will be charged with formulating
rules in order to discriminate between those who are worthy of aid and
those who are unworthy—thus exercising power over the life affairs of all
who are forced to ask for support (#35).
He cites a frequent complaint of the poor regarding such administrators,
and observes (somewhat sociologically) that: “the fault does not lie so
much in these persons, who probably, before they were in power, were not
worse than other people, but in the nature of all such institutions” (#35).
Generally, Malthus believes, a government that attempts to “repress inequality
of fortunes” through welfare mechanisms will be “destructive of human liberty
He also greatly fears concentrating so much power into the hands of the
state—as absolute power corrupts absolutely (#91).
Finally, Malthus is also
concerned with the effect of dependence on the poor themselves. Hard
labor, he concedes, is evil, but dependence is far worse (#91).
In feudal society serfs were dependent on the provision of the bounty of
the great lords of the manor. Basic human dignity and liberty for
the masses was non-existent. It was only with the introduction of
manufacture and trade that the poor had something to exchange for their
provision—their labor. This independence from the elite has greatly
contributed to the civil liberties of western society (#92).
The welfare laws, by fostering a population dependent for their subsistence
on others, serves to weaken the foundation of these civil liberties.
No matter how much is collected
for poor relief, the distresses of poverty cannot be removed (#26).
To prevent the misery and distress of poverty is beyond the powers of social
institutions. In our attempts to alleviate the plight of the poor
through welfare laws we sacrifice the liberties and freedom of the poor,
subjecting them to “tyrannical regulations” in exchange for promises of
But society cannot fulfill its part of the bargain, cannot eliminate the
distresses of poverty without removing necessary checks on population—thus
creating more poor (#37
The poor are forced to sacrifice their liberty and get little in return
Malthus concludes that the increase in the number of people living in poverty,
despite proportionately more resources devoted to welfare, is strong evidence
that welfare laws only serve to worsen the conditions of the poor (#101).
Further, Malthus points out,
the poor rates were worsening despite the fact of a significant increase
in the wealth of the nation in the century before Malthus wrote his Essay.
National wealth had been “rapidly advancing” through industrialization
Why wasn’t a significant portion of this great wealth used to benefit the
common man? Malthus addresses the problem by reiterating the fact
that the only true foundation for population is the amount of provision
that can be produced from the land (#96).
Any rise in the wages of laborers must be accompanied by an increase in
the stock of provisions—otherwise, the nominal rise in the cost of labor
will be followed by an increase in the costs of available stocks of food
and other necessities of life (#99).
In Malthus’ time, the increase
of manufacturing had not been accompanied by a comparable increase in the
productivity of the land, thus early industrialization had little impact
on bettering the condition of the poor (#99
In fact, Malthus asserts, industrialization has the effect of crowding
the poor in slums, environments that are conducive to disease and the breakdown
of moral behavior (#100
increasing the operation of positive checks on the poor. Neither
welfare nor industrial manufacturing alleviates the plight of the poor
because neither serves to increase the stock of provisions. Both
welfare and manufacture therefore lead to lowering the cost of labor--the
only commodity that the poor have to exchange for their provisions.
This analysis of welfare
does not lead Malthus to advocate that the poor should be left to their
plight. Rather, he suggests some institutional reforms—reforms consistent
with the law of population—that will serve to make a more just, equitable
society. Malthus’ suggested reforms are not intended to eliminate
poverty, for the law of population makes that impossible. Rather,
Malthus’ reforms are intended to promote the greatest good for the greatest
number of people within the constraints of natural law.
Malthus’ proposals are an
attempt to tie population growth itself to increases in the produce of
the land. First, he advocates the abolition of all parish-laws.
This, he asserts, will serve to give freedom of movement to the peasantry
so that they can move to areas where work is plentiful (#38).
The abolition of parish-laws will allow the operation of a free market
for labor, the lack of which is often responsible for preventing the rise
in laborer’s wages in accordance with demand.
Second, Malthus advocates
incentives for tilling new lands and “encouragements held out to agriculture
above manufactures, and to tillage above grazing” (#38).
Agricultural labor must be paid on a par with labor in manufactures and
trade. This encouragement of agriculture, Malthus maintains, would
furnish the economy with “an increasing quantity of healthy work” as well
as contribute to the produce of the land. This increase of produce
would provide the necessary foundation for population growth among the
poor. Without the prospect of “parish assistance” the laborer
would have the necessary incentive to better his condition (#38).
Third, Malthus advocates
the establishment of “county workhouses” supported by general taxation.
The intent of these workhouses is to provide a place “where any person,
native of foreigner, might do a day’s work at all times and receive the
market price for it” (#39).
The fare should be hard, those that are able would be obliged to work for
the prevailing wage. Malthus advocates the establishment of these
workhouses as an attempt to eliminate the most severe distress while maintaining
the necessary incentive for human industry and the operation of preventive
checks on population.
Finally, Malthus clearly
states, human benevolence and compassion must augment these social policies
For Malthus, “the proper office of benevolence” is to soften the “partial
evils” arising from people acting in their own self-interests. But,
compassion and benevolence can never replace self-interest as the mainspring
of human action (#93).
The poor, Malthus maintains, will always be among us. But it is our
moral obligation to minimize inequalities as much as the laws of nature
will allow. Malthus is no believer in evolution as progress and is therefore
clearly at odds with the Social Darwinists over the proper role of government.
At several points in The
Essay he points out that while inequality is essential to motivate human
beings to activity and productivity, the inequality need not be as great
as existed in his own society. While he criticized welfare his critique
was of welfare’s relationship with population growth. Malthus did not criticize
welfare on the basis that the poor should not receive help because of some
alleged unfitness-- recall, he thought them merely “unlucky” (probably
referring to environmental circumstance as well as choosing the wrong parents).
Welfare, Malthus wrote, would temporarily remove the necessity of population
checks among the poor without a corresponding increase in productivity.
This, he stated, was self-defeating--the numbers of the poor would increase,
production (particularly food) would not, everybody’s share in a stable
output would therefore decrease.
Malthus' reform proposals
clearly put him at odds with the later Social Darwinists, a far cry from
the "reactionary" Scrooge of myth. In later writings he also advocated
universal education and a rise in the price of labor in hopes of promoting
the widespread us of preventive checks among the lower classes (Winch,
1987: 65). Still, he maintained, there will always be a lower class, this
class will always suffer from deprivation of the necessities of life, and
these deprivations will lead to positive checks on population.
Malthus does not consider
this necessary inequality to be a good thing. He sees the injustice
of the system and considers it a partial evil--but he also sees it as absolutely
essential for the total social system. Malthus’ Essay was designed
to demonstrate the impossibility of a social utopia—but he insisted that
we could (indeed, should) reduce social and economic inequality through
*From Elwell, Frank W.
Commentary on Malthus' 1798 Essay on Population as Social Theory.
Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 2001.
To cite this paper you should use the following format:
Elwell, Frank W., 2001, Malthus' Social Theory,
Retrieved April 19, 2001, [use actual date]