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Malthus Predicted Penury on the Eve of Plenty

Richard M. Ebeling

Those of us fortunate enough to have been born in the so-called Western World (Europe and North America) rarely appreciate the historical uniqueness of our material and cultural well-being compared, not only to many around the globe today, but to westerners just a handful of generations ago.

There emerged a new version of Plato’s belief that human nature was primarily a product of the social environment.

A mere 200 years ago, in 1820, the world population numbered only around 1.1 billion people. About 95 percent of that number lived in poverty, with 85 percent existing in “extreme poverty.” By 2015, the world population had increased to over 7 billion, but less than 10 percent lived in poverty. Indeed, over the last quarter of a century, demographers calculate that every day there are 137,000 fewer people around the world living in extreme poverty.

This escape from poverty originated in Western Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries with the coming of the Industrial Revolution and the freeing of men and markets from the heavy-handed regulations and commercial restrictions of government. Especially since the mid-twentieth century, that liberation from poverty has been slowly but surely enveloping more of the people in the so-called “developing countries.”

Before this economic revolution of human betterment was made possible by free, or at least freer, markets, life around the world was (borrowing part of Thomas Hobbes’s famous phrase) basically nasty, brutish and short for virtually all of mankind.  The idea and ideal of material prosperity for humanity as a whole was merely the dream of a few dreamers who concocted utopian fantasies of remaking society to make a better world. For some at the end of the 1700s, the French Revolution served as the inspiration to believe that now that the “old regime” of power, privilege, and political position was being overthrown and a “new dawn” was opening for humanity.

The destruction of the ancient institutional order opened the door for remaking society and its structure; and with the institutional transformation could come a change in man. There emerged a new version of Plato’s belief that human nature was primarily a product of the social environment. Change the institutions within which men lived and the character of man could be transformed over time, as well.

William Godwin and the Collectivist Remaking of Man and Society

A leading voice in support of this “transformative” vision was William Godwin, a British social philosopher and critic, who argued that selfishness, poverty, and the form and content of human relationships could be radically made over, if only the institution of private property and the political order protecting it was abolished.

The individual had no right to his own life if his foregoing it served the needs of the collective.

He argued for this new understanding and conception of man and society in his books, An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793), and The Inquirer (1798). Indeed, some have argued that Godwin was one of the first of the modern advocates of “anarchism” – an ideal society without a system of political coercion in which men will cooperatively and collectively live and work for a higher “common good.”

The guiding principles in Godwin’s political and economic philosophy (which received some revision and modification between the three editions of Political Justice during his lifetime) were:

First, the moral foundation of all human actions should be based on the individual being concerned with the interests and betterment of the collective society, and not himself; any judgment concerning the ethics in men’s behavior should not be based on the results those actions produce, but the intention or motive behind the actions undertaken.

Second, that human nature is not a universal “given,” but rather man is born like a “blank slate,” the content of which can be influenced by the social environment and the education experienced by the new mind.

Third, that poverty is not and need not be an essential part of the human condition; rather, it is the result of the institution of private property that gives what rightly belongs and should be shared equally by all men to some by arbitrary political power and legitimacy; a “new society” of communal work and sharing will raise production to unimaginable levels, abolishing poverty and creating plenty.

Fourth, this would be coupled with the fact that as there was less concern with material want, people would turn their minds to intellectual pursuits; this would result in a reduction in the sex drive, and a falling off in reproduction and the number of people in society. Thus, concerns that a materially better off world might mean a growth in population exceeding the capacity to feed it was downplayed. Besides, there were plenty of places around the world to which any excess population could migrate.

Said William Godwin in Political Justice:

“If justice have any meaning, it is just that I should contribute everything in my power to the benefit of the whole . . . It is in the disposition and view of the mind, and not in the good which may accidentally and intentionally result, that virtue consists . . .

“Human beings are partakers of a common nature; what conduces to the benefit or pleasure of one man will conduce to the benefit or pleasure of another. Hence it follows, upon the principles of equal and impartial justice, that the good things of the world are a common stock, upon which one man has as valid a title as another to draw for what he wants . . . What can be more desirable and just than that the produce itself should, with some degree of equality, be shared among them?”

What if some individuals refused to sacrifice for the collective, and were unwilling to bend their own self-interest to the betterment of the societal group? Godwin was equally direct that the individual had no right to his own life if his foregoing it served the needs of the collective:

“He has no right to his life when his duty calls him to resign it. Other men are bound . . . to deprive him of life or liberty, if that should appear in any case to be indispensably necessary to prevent a greater evil . . .”

Thomas Malthus on the “Natural” Limits to Human Betterment

Thomas Malthus (1766-1834) was an ordained minister who became interested in various themes in political economy and became famous for arguing against the theories espoused by William Godwin. His father, Daniel Malthus, took a view sympathetic to Godwin’s on man, human nature, and society. Thomas took the opposite view and ended up writing his famous, An Essay on the Principle of Population as It Affects the Future Improvement of Society, with Remarks on the Speculations of Mr. Godwin, M. Condorcet, and Other Writers (1798).

Not surprisingly, the book caused a firestorm of controversy.

The gist of Thomas Malthus’s argument was that physical capacities to regularly increase the supply of food for human survival falls far short of the natural inclinations of human reproduction. Thus, the growth in population, when left unchecked, and given the “passions” of men and women, has the tendency to outrun the supply of food.

Hence, there were natural limits on the improvement of the material conditions of man, which no change in the political, economic, and social institutions of society, by themselves, can assure or bring about a “heaven on earth,” as prophesied and promised by Godwin and others.

Not surprisingly, the book caused a firestorm of controversy. Malthus’s apparent “pessimism” concerning the possibility of improving the human condition through conscious social change led the British social critic and essayist, Thomas Carlyle, to call economics, “the dismal science.”

Malthus argued that human existence is bound by two inescapable principles that have not and are not likely to change, given all of human history: the need for food to exist, and the degree of sexual passions of men and women for each other, which he enunciates in his Essay on the Principle of Population:

“I think I may fairly make two postulata. First, that food is necessary to the existence of man. Secondly, that the passion between the sexes is necessary, and will remain nearly in its present state.

“These two laws ever since we have had any knowledge of mankind, appear to have been fixed laws of his nature; and as we have not hitherto seen any alteration in them, we have no right to conclude that they will ever cease to be what they now are . . . I do not know that any writer has supposed that on this earth man will ultimately be able to live without food.

“But Mr. Godwin has conjectured that the passion between the sexes may in time be extinguished. As, however, he calls this part of his work, a deviation into the land of conjecture, I will not dwell long upon it at present, than to say, that the best arguments for the perfectibility of man, are drawn from a contemplation of the great progress that he has already made from the savage state, and the difficulty of saying where he is to stop.

“But towards the extinction of the passion between the sexes, no progress whatever has hitherto been made. It appears to exist in as much force at present as it did two thousand, or four thousand years ago.”

The Checks on Mouths to Feed: Misery and Vice

Malthus then made his famous statement concerning the relationship between the “geometric” rate of unchecked population growth in comparison to the “arithmetical” growth in the rate of food production. Eventually, the rate of population growth would overtake the rate of food production, the result of which would be a “natural check” on population through poverty, starvation, and death.

“Assuming then, my postulata as granted, I say, that the power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man. Population, when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio. Subsistence increases only in an arithmetical ratio. A slight acquaintance with numbers will show the immensity of the first process in comparison to the second.

“By the law of our nature which makes food necessary to the life of man, the effects of these two unequal powers must be kept equal. This implies a strong and constantly operating check on population from the difficulty of subsistence. This difficulty must fall somewhere; and must necessarily be severely felt by a large portion of mankind . . .

“This natural inequality of the two powers of population and of production in the earth, and that great law of our nature which must constantly keep their effects equal, form the great difficulty that to me appears insurmountable in the way of the perfectibility of society.

“All the arguments are of slight and subordinate consideration in comparison of this. I see no way by which man can escape from the weight of this nature. No fancied equality, no agrarian regulation in their utmost extent, could remove the pressure of it even for a single century. And it appears, therefore, to be decisive against the possible existence of a society, all the members of which, should live in ease, happiness, and comparative leisure; and feel no anxiety about providing the means of subsistence for themselves and families.”

Malthus warned of “the black train of distresses, that would inevitably be occasioned by the insecurity of property.”

Malthus argued that taking periods of 25 years as a benchmark, the accelerating growth in population would finally reach a crisis point relative to the rate of food growth.  What, then, may check this growth in an unsustainable population? Malthus concluded only two factors. What he called “vice” and “misery.

Fearful of marrying before he can support a family and bring about starvation and ruin to his offspring, a man may delay and defer marriage until he feels financially able to care for a wife and children. But this results in “vice,” since the sexual urges lead men to search out physical gratification outside the bonds of matrimony, and the birth of illegitimate offspring.

Or it brings about “misery,” due to a failure to defer marriage, and the bringing into the world children for which means of subsistence do not adequately exist. This results in starvation and premature death of children and adults that brings the population and its growth down, again, to a level sustainable from existing food production.

Malthus added that if Godwin’s proposal for a greater community of property and equality of distribution of its output were to be introduced it would soon diminish the incentives for work and effort and set men into conflict with each other. Or as he put it, weakened private property rights would soon set in motion “the black train of distresses, that would inevitably be occasioned by the insecurity of property.”

Tempering Nature’s Constraints through Moral Restraint

In 1799, after the publication of An Essay on the Principle of Population, and then again in 1802, Thomas Malthus went on trips around parts of Europe. He collected a large amount of historical and demographic data on population (to the extent that such data then existed). He used this to publish a second edition of the book in 1803 that was substantially increased in size and factual information, as he had been able to gather it.

To his previous argument, Malthus now added an additional factor that could serve as a check on population, and could even keep population growth sufficiently under control so that standards of living might rise, even in the long run. This was what he called “moral restraint.”  This was a conscious act to defer marriage until an individual had the financial means to adequately support a family, and the will to renounce the temptations of “vice.” That is, to abstain from sexual gratification outside of marriage. Said Malthus:

“It is of the utmost importance to the happiness of mankind that population should not increase too fast; but it does not appear that the object to be accomplished would admit of any considerable diminishment in the desire for marriage.

“It is clearly the duty of each individual not to marry till he has a prospect of supporting his children; but it is at the same time to be wished that he should retain undiminished his desire for marriage, in order that he may exert himself to realize this prospect, and be stimulated to make provision for the support of greater numbers . . .

“And if moral restraint be the only virtuous mode of avoiding the incidental evils arising from this principle, our obligation to practice it will evidently rest exactly upon the same foundation as our obligation to practice any of the other virtues.”

Unleashing of Free Markets Negated Malthus’ Prediction

Given the seven-fold increase in world population since 1820 discussed above, accompanied by an even more dramatic fall in global poverty over the last two hundred years, Malthus’ warnings and fears seem to have been totally undermined by the facts of history. Population has exploded beyond all experience in human history during the last two centuries, yet all of these billions of additional mouths are increasingly fed and with a rising standard of living for a growing number of them.

What Malthus failed to anticipate was the explosion of production that was soon set loose by expanding economic liberty in the nineteenth century.

Clearly, Malthus, writing in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries underestimated one important influence that was beginning during his lifetime: market-based industrialization. Investment in productive capital equipment, especially in agriculture, began to dramatically increase the output and the nutritive quality of food produced per unit of cultivated land. This included the development of modern chemistry to increase harvests and productive strains of crops. Thus, food production has grown exponentially, and not, as Malthus feared, “arithmetically.”

Urbanization has resulted in a conscious choice by married couples to reduce the size of families. In farming societies with limited mechanization, each child is an additional mouth that comes with two hands to help in the working of the land.  Hence, children are “investment goods” in agricultural society, both for work to be done and offering support for parents in their old age.

In industrial, urban society, children are additional mouths to feed that supply little or no extra income to the family during most of childhood. Hence, children are “consumer goods” that consume income, and reduce the standard of living of the family.  In addition, the cost of urban residential living space has influenced the incentives about sizes of families. And, of course, the development of birth control has greatly influenced the ability and widened of the choice of how many children to have, and when.

In fairness, what Malthus and many others failed to see or anticipate was the explosion of production, industry, and commerce that was soon set loose by expanding economic liberty in the nineteenth century. This unleashed entrepreneurial innovation and discovery of market opportunities in the pursuit of profits. This was made possible by ending the trade protectionism, domestic regulation, heavy tax burdens, and paper money inflations that enveloped all of Europe, including Great Britain, during nearly the quarter of a century of war from 1791 to 1815 between first Revolutionary and then Napoleonic France against practically all of the rest of Europe.

The difference was made by the arrival of peace and the beginning of a conscious introduction of economic liberalism, first in Great Britain and then other parts of the European continent, and independently at the same time in the United States. Only then was free market capitalism’s potential horn-of-plenty able to begin to release its bounty upon humanity.

Malthus’s Contributions to Human Understanding

Malthus, even with the limits and incompleteness of his analysis, can be seen to have made essential contributions to understanding the inescapable human condition.

Many historians of economic thought have pointed out the various weaknesses, exaggerations, inconsistencies, and factual errors in Malthus’s argument and the changing premises and arguments in the various editions of his Essay on the Principle of Population. Indeed, one of the leading such historians, Edwin Cannan, stated that Malthus’s analysis, “falls to the ground as an argument, and remains only a chaos of facts collected to illustrate the effect of laws which do not exist.” And Joseph A. Schumpeter even said that the actual pattern of birth rates with industrialization and urbanization accompanied by growth in food production suggested “a sort of Malthusianism in reverse.”

But even with its weaknesses and factual errors, others have seen an enduringly valuable contribution in Malthus’s theory of population. No less than an authority than the Austrian economist, Ludwig von Mises, in his treatise, Human Action, suggested that in Malthus’s work can be seen a contribution equal to the discovery of the logic of division of labor and the spontaneous workings of the market order for the betterment of human circumstances:

“The Malthusian law of population is one of the great achievements of thought. Together with the principle of the division of labor it provided the foundation for modern biology and the theory of evolution; the importance of these two fundamental theorems for the sciences of human action is second only to the discovery of the regularity in the intertwinement and sequence of market phenomena and their inevitable determination by the market data . . .

“Malthus showed that nature in limiting the means of subsistence does not accord to any living being a right of existence, and that by indulging heedlessly in the natural impulse of proliferation man would never have risen about the verge of starvation. He contended that human civilization and well-being could develop only to the extent that man learned to rein in his sexual appetites by moral restraints...

“Nonhuman beings are entirely subject to the operation of the biological law described by Malthus . . . But the case is different with man. Man integrates the satisfaction of the purely zoological impulses, common to all animals, into a scale of values, in which a place is also assigned to specifically human ends.

“Acting man also rationalizes the satisfaction of his sexual appetites. Their satisfaction is the outcome of a weighing of the pros and cons. Man does not blindly submit to a sexual stimulation . . . He refrains from copulation if he deems the costs – the anticipated disadvantages – too high.”

Thomas Malthus, even with the limits and incompleteness of his analysis, can be seen to have made essential contributions to understanding the inescapable human condition. First, man at any time exists under a scarcity of the means for his ends.  Other things held given, the larger the population the greater needs to be the available supply of food and other necessities of life, if the standard and quality of life are not to be diminished. The only way to prevent a decline in standards of living is for there to be increases in capital investment that increase production and the productivity of the workforce more than any increase in the population.

Second, given the level of capital investment and technological knowledge, there is an optimal size of a society’s population, below which more people means greater net output, and above which there results less net output. And, third, the political and economic institutional circumstances can make a difference in that they may foster capital investment, more forward-looking choices by individuals, and incentives to save and work.

On this latter point, Malthus was well aware of the dangers from overreaching and expanding governmental power in terms of their threat to liberty and popular self-improvement. In the expanded, fifth edition of his Essay on Population, which appeared in 1817, he warned that ignorance of the laws of nature and the essential institutions of a free commercial society can easily lead astray mobs of people whose violent actions may open the door to despotism.

This sets the stage for a dangerous confrontation between individual liberty and political authority, in which people must always be watchful and knowledgeable so as to check the government’s drive for unchecked power. Malthus warned:

“The checks which are necessary to secure the liberty of the subject will always to some degree embarrass and delay the operations of the executive government. The members of the government feeling these inconveniences while they are exerting themselves, as they conceive, in the service of their country, and conscious perhaps of no ill intention towards the people, will naturally be disposed on every occasion to demand the suspension or abolition of these checks; but if once the convenience of ministers be put in competition with the liberties of the people and we get into the habit of relying on fair assurances and personal character, instead of examining with the most scrupulous and jealous care the merits of each particular case, there is an end of British freedom.

“If we once admit the principle that the government must know better with regard to the quantity of power which it wants than we can possibly do with out limited means of information, and that therefore it is our duty to surrender up our private judgments, we may just as well at the same time surrender up the whole of our constitution. Government is a quarter in which liberty is not nor cannot be very faithfully preserved. If we are wanting to ourselves, and inattentive to our great interests in this respect, it is the height of folly and unreasonableness to expect that government will attend to them for us.”

Thus, Thomas Malthus’s contribution may be said to be the following: Man is above all other life forms on earth in that he is able to use his reason to control his passions when they may entail costs greater than the anticipated benefits; at the same time he can use his rational faculties to devise ways to escape limits that nature places upon him by planning ahead to increase his future productive and income earning capacities to improve his standard of living. And that to do so most successfully there must be the necessary institutional prerequisites, among which freedom, property, and peace are the most essential.

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