Reclaiming Malthus

by Frank W. Elwell
Rogers State University

T. Robert (Bob) Malthus, there is no comparable historical figure who has been so thoroughly misunderstood in modern intellectual history.  (Except perhaps for Karl Marx—who ironically contributed much to the misunderstandings). One reason that he is so thoroughly misunderstood has to do with the political ramifications of his arguments.  Communists and socialists hate Malthus because he argued that inequality is rooted in the very nature of man’s relationship to the environment, that mere structural reform could never attain a just and equal society.  Capitalists and conservatives condemn him because he seemingly refutes the possibility of unending industrial progress.

A second set of factors that affect the interpretation of the Essay is the explosive social content of Malthus’ topics: welfare, infanticide, sex, marriage, disease, infant mortality, family, birth control, faith, the poor, self interest, and charity. Because Malthus writes plainly of what is rather than what ought to be, he is often characterized as a miser, one who begrudges charity and help to the poor, a man who even approves of premature death for those who can’t make it on their own.  Even reputable social scientists often equate his thought with the (misnamed) Social Darwinists—some attributing to him the sentiments (if not the phrase) “Survival of the Fittest,” seemingly gloating in the superiority of the upper classes.

Malthus image also suffers among a wider audience.  Dickens, for example, clearly based his Scrooge character on his misreading of Malthus’ characterization of the poor.  When asked to contribute money to help the poor, Scrooge responded:

I wish to be left alone. Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer. I don't make merry myself at Christmas and I can't afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned [the Work Houses and Prisons] they cost enough: and those who are badly off must go there.''  ``Many can't go there; and many would rather die.''  ``If they would rather die,'' said Scrooge, ``they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population."
While this passage from Dickens is clearly based on Malthus’ writings, it is a gross mischaracterization of both the letter and spirit of those writings.  But again, this sort of misrepresentation of Malthus occurs throughout the secondary literature.

It is perhaps because of this misrepresentation and mischaracterization that Malthus is rarely mentioned in introductory social science textbooks, and is usually given short shrift in our social theory texts.

The short shrift consists of a summation of his “prediction.”  And this is usually summarized in the secondary literature like this: “Malthus predicted that population growth would someday outstrip the production of food, and that we would experience a population crash as a result.”  The summary then goes on to explain why his prediction is so very wrong.  “Stupid Malthus, he failed to consider advances in agricultural technology that can feed far more people than he thought.  He also excluded consideration of birth control from his system.  What a jerk!”

And it isn’t just Malthus’ critics that get this wrong, also many of his friends. They usually begin by buying into the caricature of the prediction of some future population crash.  They go on to admit that while Malthus may have been wrong to this point, we can not realistically expect technology to solve the population problem indefinitely.  Sooner or later the “Malthusian trap” will be sprung. My book on Malthus is simply a 120-page commentary that is closely footnoted to the Essay.  By tying my commentary closely to Malthus’ original Essay, I try to demonstrate how wrong the secondary literature is about Malthus.

The second goal of the book is to lay bare the underlying theory of Malthus—for it is a very sophisticated ecological/evolutionary theory Malthus lays out, not a simplistic prediction of some distant population crash—and to point out how relevant this theory is to understanding sociocultural systems.

But I don’t want to talk about my book at this point.  Rather, I want to take a brief side trip and talk about the discovery and writing process before briefly mentioning some of what I discovered.

Discovery & Writing Process:

I first encountered Malthus, like most people in our culture, in the secondary literature.  In the early 1980s, after some 10 years in sociology I became an advocate of ecological-evolutionary theory.  In the literature of ecological- evolutionary theory, some nice things are written about Malthus.  There is actually some reference to his work that does not completely dismiss him as a lightweight.  Gerhard Lenski, for example, cites Malthus as one of his main theoretical influences.  Marvin Harris also pays some homage to Malthus. Though both give some nods to the prevailing myth-information about Malthus’ supposed mistakes with birth control, Social Darwinism, and technology, they also both make clear that they find much that is useful in his thought.

Then, about five years ago I found a rough copy of Malthus’ 1798 Essay on the Web.  I decided to copy it, pretty it up some with nice formatting, and make it available to my undergraduate students.

In the process of cleaning it up I started reading the Essay.  I was astounded first by how eloquent the man was. Second, I was surprised by the amount of myth-information about Malthus that existed in the secondary literature.  The man I was editing on my web pages bore little resemblance to the man I had read about much of my adult life.  After reading, cleaning up and reformatting the Essay, I decided to highlight some key passages that I found particularly relevant for understanding both Malthus’ theory and what was going on in contemporary society.  I got a little carried away and ended up with some 124 hi-lighted passages.

Then I noticed that what Malthus had to say about many topics, Welfare for example, was spread through out the Essay.  So, I started cutting and pasting passages and reorganizing the passages among chapter headings.  I ended up with 10 different topical sections of Malthus quotes, Malthus on Methods, Theory, Materialism, Checks, Evolution, Functionalism, Inequality, Poor Laws, and Progress.  Each quote was then linked back to its original context in the Essay itself.

Concurrently, I had an opportunity to write briefly about Malthus in my book, Industrializing America.  To do that I reviewed more specialized literature on Malthus.  While I did find pieces of Malthus here and there in this literature, I was again surprised to find that even in books about Malthus there were often mischaracterizations, cheap shots, and outright mistakes in describing Malthus’ 1798 Essay.  So, I decided, why not convert my Malthus undergraduate site into a much-needed commentary on Malthus‘ 1798 Essay? So over the course of several months I wrote a commentary on each of my topical headings to better explain Malthus to an audience of undergraduates.

My original plan was to produce a cheap paperback version of Malthus' 1798 Essay with my commentary serving as an introduction and guide.  I had hoped it could compete with all the other $7 to $10 versions of the Essay out there (many with only short introductions).  However, the publisher I had dealt with in the past said there were already too many versions of the Essay out there and rejected the manuscript.  They did write, though, that if I were to drop Malthus' original Essay and expand my commentary to book length, they might be interested.  Well, I am not that wordy.  I figured I wrote everything I wanted to write about Malthus in 120 pages, and I believed the inclusion of Malthus' Essay (which I footnote in my commentary very extensively) set my commentary apart from others.

So, I sent the manuscript off to another publisher.  Mellen publishes books for the research library niche--they do not attempt to market broadly.  If they sell 500 copies, they figure they have done well. They also promise to keep it in print for 35 years.  However, the price of the book is some $90 a copy.  Perhaps I should have tried some others, but when Mellen accepted it, I figured what the heck.  “So,” I rationalized, “rather than try to change the hearts and minds of undergraduates and the ‘intellectual masses’ about Malthus, I would try to change the hearts and minds of graduate students and serious researchers.”  In time, I hope, my interpretations will filter into the secondary literature and Malthus will be rightfully incorporated into introductory texts and theory books where he truly belongs.

The working title of the book was “Reclaiming Malthus.”  I thought this was a particularly catchy title.  You see, the intent of the book was to “reclaim” Malthus from the trash heap of history.  I was also “reclaiming” Malthus’ theory (Malthus claimed it, I simply "reclaimed" it).  Pretty clever, no?  The publisher being prone to serious academic titles, however, changed it to A Commentary on Malthus' 1798 Essay on Population as Social Theory over my objections.  The title of this address, by the way, is “Reclaiming Malthus.”  I use this title because I am reclaiming him from the trash heap of history, and also because I am restating his theory.  Finally, I am reclaiming the title itself.

Back to the Essay:

Now, to get back to the book itself.  Here, finally, is the main theoretical point I want to tell you today: The 1798 Essay—all of the writing Malthus does on inequality, welfare, progress, morals, and evolution--is actually based on the elaboration of two inter-related big ideas in the Essay.  These ideas, for the reasons I have already talked about, are ideas that many people simply cannot or will not acknowledge.

The first big idea is this: “Our ability to produce children will always exceed our ability to secure food for their survival.”  Because of this fact of human existence, population growth must always be checked.  Not in the distant future, but always.  In the past, in the present, and in the future.  Always.  There is simply no getting around this basic biological fact.  Now, Malthus goes on to write there are only two ways to check population growth.  One is through preventive checks— abstinence and delayed marriage, non- procreative sex, and birth control.  The other Malthus calls “positive checks.”  Here Malthus is writing of premature death in some form.  Such checks will include infanticide, abortion, pestilence, and disease leading to lower levels of reproduction and death.

For Malthus this basic imbalance between nature and nurture is expressed in individual lives through self-interested cost/benefit decisions regarding sexual behavior, children, work, and standard of living.

While all classes of men and women are subject to these checks, those that have more resources are more likely to practice preventive checks.  The reason for this is that those with resources are more likely to have the foresight, opportunity, knowledge, and discipline to prevent childbirth.  Also, they are more likely to benefit from preventive decisions.

For the poor, in pre-industrial and industrial societies, children are often assets.  The positive checks of premature death are much more likely to be paid by the poor. Because of unchecked population’s tendency to outstrip available food supplies at any given moment, the mass of people must be subjected to physical distress in order to limit population increase (either through preventive checks, or failing those, positive checks). In a system of perfect equality, all would suffer.  But self-interest and differential access to resources prevent such a system of equality from becoming established or maintained. Social inequality, Malthus argues, is therefore based on our physical nature—our sexuality and our dependence on food.

The second big idea in the Essay is this: “Increase the food supply and you have temporarily removed a check, population will rise until it meets the new level that the environment can support, and then have to be checked again.” The poor represent that portion of the population that is not adequately supported through existing technology and distribution systems.  Improve these systems—provide more food and sustaining resources to greater numbers of people—and remove one of the primary motives for individuals to decrease their fertility.  And population will again rise until it comes up to the new limit.

This means that mere increases in productivity will never address basic problems in distribution.  Structural reform, Malthus maintains, while it can address some of the worse abuses of mal-distribution cannot create a truly just and egalitarian society either.  The type of utopia anticipated by his contemporaries through industrial progress, the spread of democracy, or socialism, is neither attainable nor sustainable. Our own post-industrial dreams are based on the same utopian fantasies.  While we can do better,  progress does not naturally lead to a better world.  The necessity of population checks combined with the self-interest of individuals makes social inequality inescapable.


To conclude I would like to restate the following main points of my talk:

1. Never trust secondary sources unless they are heavily documented and footnoted!
2. Preconceived notions strongly influence a person's interpretation of a text.
3. Teaching and scholarship often build on one another.
4. Malthus deserves to be incorporated into the sociological canon.

Thank you for your time and attention.

* Keynote  address to the Annual Meeting of the Anthropologists and Sociologist of Kentucky, November 2, 2001.  Send comments to

To cite this paper you should use the following format: 
Elwell, Frank W., 2001, "Reclaiming Malthus," Retrieved April 19, 2001, [use actual date]

©2001 Frank Elwell

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