Printable Version

Malthus' Social Theory*

by Frank W. Elwell
Rogers State University

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 (McNicoll, 1998). 

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 widely practiced. 

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 Essay to fully appreciate its subtleties and nuances.  And Malthus' first Essay 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 & #89), 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 children (#4).  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  (#10).  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 (#57).  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 occur” (#11).  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 work (#11#45). 

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 growth.

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 (#22).  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 activity (#60). 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 distribution systems. 

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, #74 & #88).  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 & #40).  To attain the greatest good for the greatest number of people, Malthus asserts, institutional reform must be made in recognition of the laws of nature. 

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 (#93).  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 & #53). 

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, #37, & #54). 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” (#30).  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 severe (#25 & #37). 

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 (#31).  Worse, the laws remove one of the major checks to early marriage and having children (#32). 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 & #54).  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 (#34).  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 itself” (#90).  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 relief (#40).  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 & #40).  The poor are forced to sacrifice their liberty and get little in return (#40).  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 (#100 & #101).  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 & #100).  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 & #101)—thus 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 (#39).  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 structural reform.

*From Elwell, Frank W.  2001. A 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]

©2001 Frank Elwell

Malthus' HomePage

Elwell's Professional Page