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Summary Article: Malthus, Thomas Robert
from The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

English economist and social scientist. His fame rested on what was in effect a long pamphlet, An Essay on the Principle of Population, As It Affects the Future Improvement of Society (1798), in which he observed that the growth of population is ultimately limited by the food supply. He supported this common thesis with the metaphor that population, when allowed to increase without limit, increases in a geometrical ratio, while the food supply can at best increase in an arithmetical ratio; so, whatever the plausible rate of increase of the food supply, an unchecked multiplication of human beings could be disastrous.

But the powerful impact of the Essay derived as much from its stark implications as from the thesis itself. Poverty had its roots, not in social and political institutions, but in the unequal race between population and the food supply. Nothing could stem the tide of numbers except the voluntary limitation of family size by the poor themselves. Thus, at one stroke, Malthus accounted for the existence of poverty and provided a touchstone for every question of policy relating to the ‘labouring poor’. No wonder then that Malthus achieved instant fame – but also instant vilification.

Robert Malthus was born ten years before the publication of Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations (1776) and he always regarded himself as a disciple of Smith. After being privately educated, he entered Jesus College, Cambridge, graduating in 1788 with a degree in mathematics. He took holy orders in 1797 and held a small curacy for a short period. He married in 1805 and shortly thereafter was appointed professor of modern history and political economy at the East India Company's College at Haileybury, the first appointment of its kind in England. He died in 1834, the year that saw the passage of a new Poor Law that may be said to have been inspired by his writings.

Malthus eventually converted his early essay into a full-scale treatise on demography. In the course of doing so, he virtually abandoned his original thesis. Earlier, he had argued that population is normally prevented from increasing beyond the food supply either by positive checks (war, famine, and pestilence that keep up the death rate) or by preventive checks (abortion and infanticide that hold down the birth rate). Now, however, he granted that population could also be checked by ‘moral restraint’ meaning delaying of marriage with strict sexual abstinence before marriage. Although Malthus always remained profoundly pessimistic about the capacity of mankind to regulate its numbers by moral restraint, nevertheless the addition of this concept lightened the darker tones of his argument. Malthus himself, like almost all figures of his day, regarded birth control devices as morally unacceptable, if not positively sinful.

His works include Principles of Political Economy (1820) and Definitions in Political Economy (1827).


Malthus, Thomas Robert


Malthus' ‘Essay on the Principle of Population’

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