All Commentary
Thursday, July 1, 1971

Poverty and Population

Henry Hazlitt is well known to FREEMAN readers as author, columnist, editor, lecturer, and practitioner of freedom. This article will appear as a chapter in a forthcoming book, The Conquest of Poverty, to be published by Arlington House.

Since the end of the eighteenth century every meaningful study of the causes of poverty has at some point referred to the growth of the population. It was the achieve­ment of Malthus to have pointed out the connection in so impres­sive a way that it could never again be ignored.

The thesis of his first Essay on Population, published in 1798, was that dreams of universal affluence were in vain, because there was an inevitable tendency of popula­tion to exceed the food supply. “Population, when unchecked, in­creases in a geometrical ratio. Subsistence increases only in an arithmetical ratio.” There is a fixed limit to the supply of land and the size of the crop that can be grown per acre. Malthus spells out what he sees as the fateful consequences of this dispropor­tion:

“In the United States of Amer­ica, where the means of subsist­ence have been more ample… than in any of the modern states of Europe, the population has been found to double itself in twenty-five years…. We will take as our rule, and say, that population, when unchecked, goes on doubling itself every twenty-five years, or increases in a geometrical ratio…. Taking the population of the world at any number, a thousand millions, for instance, the human species would increase in the ratio of—1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 156, 512, &c. and subsistence as—1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, &c. In two centuries and a quarter the population would be to the means of subsistence as 512 to 10: in three centuries as 4096 to 13,” etc.

This fearful arithmetic led Malthus to a despairing conclu­sion. He had started with two postulates: “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.” And as he saw no voluntary way, except a “continence” which he did not believe was possible, to prevent the geometrical increase in popu­lation, he concluded that popula­tion will always tend to expand to the limit of subsistence and be held there by misery, war, pesti­lence, and famine. “That popula­tion does invariably increase where there are the means of subsistence, the history of every people that ever existed will abundantly prove.”

Malthus Made a Concession

The appearance of this Essay brought down on the author’s head a storm of criticism and vitu­peration. As a result, Malthus pub­lished five years later, in 1803, a second edition of the Essay. It was much longer, in effect an entirely new book, and it became the basis of the six subsequent editions.

There were two main changes. Malthus attempted to support his original thesis with a great mass of factual data on population growth and checks taken not only from history but from contempo­rary conditions in a score of other countries. But in addition to bring­ing in this supporting evidence, Malthus made a concession. “Throughout the whole of the present work,” he wrote in the preface to his second edition, “I have so far differed in principle from the former, as to suppose the action of another check to popula­tion which does not come under the head either of vice or misery.” This other check was “moral re­straint”—that is, “the restraint from marriage which is not fol­lowed by irregular gratifications”—the deliberate restraint of the great majority of mankind, by the use of forethought, prudence, and reason, from giving birth as in­dividual couples to an excessive number of children. In contem­porary Europe, Malthus now found, moral restraint “was the most powerful of the checks on population.”

The Principle Stands

Hostile critics have contended that in making this concession Malthus in effect abandoned his theory altogether. “The introduc­tion of the prudential check (‘moral restraint’),” wrote Joseph A. Schumpeter, “makes all the dif­ference…. All the theory gains thereby is orderly retreat with the artillery lost.”1 Even a more sym­pathetic critic like Gertrude Him­melfarb writes:

“Thus the principle of popula­tion ceased to be a fatal obstacle to man’s dreams and ideals. In­deed the principle itself was no longer as inexorable as he had earlier suggested. It now appeared that population did not necessarily outrun food supply, or necessarily keep up with every increase in food…. Men were no longer at the mercy of forces outside their control: ‘Each individual has, to a great degree, the power of avoid­ing the evil consequences to him­self and society resulting from it [the principle of population] by the practice of a virtue dictated to him by the light of nature, and sanctioned by revealed religion.’ Liberated from the eternal men­ace of overpopulation and the eter­nal evils of misery and vice, so­ciety could now look forward to the union of ‘the two grand de­siderata, a great actual population and a state of society in which ab­ject poverty and dependence are comparatively but little known; two objects which are far from be­ing incompatible.”2

Yet in spite of these quotations from Malthus himself, the con­trast between the first and subse­quent editions of the Essay was not as great as these critics imply. The change in tone was greater than the change in substance. Mal­thus had been stunned by the sav­agery of the attacks on his des­pairing conclusions, and wanted to blunt this by emphasizing as much as he could any element of hope. In his first edition he had failed to admit the possibility of a really effective “moral restraint” on the part of the great majority of man­kind; in his subsequent editions he did admit that possibility—but certainly not that probability. In fact, as he would have been ap­palled by the “vice” of our modern mechanical and chemical methods of birth control (now ironically called “neo-Malthusianism”), even if he had foreseen them, how could he have believed in the probability of the almost life-long refrainment from sexual relations necessary to prevent each couple, without “birth control” methods, from having no more than two or three children?

What Did He Say?

The trouble with most discus­sions of Malthus is that they have either tried to prove him wholly right on wholly wrong. Let us try to see, rather, exactly what he did contribute, and both what was right and what was wrong with it.

The great contribution of Mal­thus was to be the first to state clearly, and in relation to each other, two very important proposi­tions. The first was the tendency of all populations, animal and hu­man, to increase in the absence of checks at a geometrical ratio—or, in more modern technical terms, at an exponential rate. Malthus spoke of populations doubling every 25 years, in the United States of his day, or every 40 years, say, in the England of his day. He wrote of rates of growth as measured in generations. Today demographers usually discuss pop­ulation growth in terms of an an­nual rate. But any percentage rate, if continued, is compounded. A population growing at a rate of “only” 2 per cent annually would double itself every 35 years; a population growing at a rate of 3 per cent annually would double it­self in 24 years; and so on. Some hostile critics of Malthus have at­tempted to dismiss this proposi­tion as “trivial” or “obvious.” Its implications are anything but triv­ial, and it was obvious only after Malthus pointed it out.

Law of Diminishing Returns

Malthus’s second great proposi­tion, based on the limited supply and productivity of land, was in fact the first clear though crude statement in English of what afterwards came to be known as “the law of diminishing returns.” No statement of this law is to be found in Adam Smith. (A remark­ably good formulation of it was made by the French economist, Turgot, in 1767, but Malthus ap­pears not to have been familiar with it.) By the time we get to John Stuart Mill’s Principles of Political Economy in 1848, how­ever, we find a careful and quali­fied statement:

“Land differs from the other elements of production, labor and capital, in not being susceptible of indefinite increase. Its extent is limited, and the extent of the more productive kinds of it more limited still. It is also evident that the quantity of produce capable of be­ing raised on any given piece of land is not indefinite….

“It is commonly thought… that for the present limitation of pro­duction or population from this source is at an indefinite distance, and that ages must elapse before any practical necessity arises for taking the limiting principle into serious consideration.

“I apprehend this to be not only an error, but the most serious one to be found in the whole field of political economy. The question is more important and fundamental than any other; it involves the whole subject of the causes of poverty….

“After a certain, and not very advanced, stage in the progress of agriculture, it is the law of pro­duction from the land, that in any given state of agricultural skill and knowledge [italics sup­plied], by increasing the labor, the produce is not increased in an equal degree; or, to express the same thing in other words, every increase of produce is obtained by a more than proportional increase in the application of labor to the land.

“This general law of agricul­tural industry is the most impor­tant proposition in political economy.”

“The produce of land increases, caeteris paribus, in a diminishing ratio to the increase in the labor employed.”3

Advancing Technology

Several points are to be noticed about this formulation. It discards the unrealistic 1-2-3 “arithmeti­cal” rate of increase of subsistence postulated by Malthus for a more generalized and accurate state­ment. And it includes the indispen­sable qualification that I have ital­icized. The law of diminishing returns applies only to a given state of technical knowledge. Mill con­stantly emphasized this: “There is another agency in habitual antago­nism to the law of diminishing return from land”; this is “no other than the progress of civilization,” especially “the progress of agricul­tural knowledge, skill, and inven­tion.”

It is because Malthus overlooked this vital qualification that “Mal­thusianism” fell into disrepute about half a century after his book appeared and then remained so for a full century. For he was writing practically at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. During that Revolution (about 1760 to 1830) there was an unprecedented in­crease in the British population and at the same time an unprece­dented increase in per capita pro­duction. Both of these increases were made possible by the rela­tively sudden introduction of new productive inventions and tech­niques. As Malthus’s statement had utterly failed to allow for this, the law of diminishing returns was thought to have been proved untenable. Fears of excessive popu­lation growth were dismissed as groundless.

It should be pointed out here parenthetically that the law of diminishing returns as applied to land is now seen to be only a spe­cial case of a much wider principle governing both increasing and de­creasing returns. Decreasing re­turns do not apply solely to agri­culture and mining, as the mid-nineteenth century economists thought, nor increasing returns specifically to manufacturing. In its modern form, the law of re­turns simply points out that there is an optimum ratio in which, in any given state of technique, two or more complementary factors of production can be employed for maximum output; and that when we deviate from this optimal combination by, say, increasing the quantity of one factor without in­creasing the quantity of the others, we may indeed get an increase in production, but it will be less than proportionate. The law can be most satisfactorily stated in algebraic form.4 But the old law of dimin­ishing returns from land, properly qualified, remains valid as a spe­cial case.

To resume: Malthus was right in postulating a tendency for popu­lation, if unchecked, to increase at a “geometrical” rate. He was right in postulating a law of diminishing returns from land. But he was wrong in refusing (in his first edition) to recognize the possi­bilities of voluntary population re­straint. He failed to foresee the possibilities of contraception by mechanical and chemical means. He was wrong, again, when he formulated his law of diminishing returns, in failing to recognize the enormous potentialities of techni­cal progress.

So developments in the United States and Europe, in the century and three-quarters since his book appeared, have made Malthus look in some respects like the worst prophet ever. Population in these “developed” countries has in­creased at an unparalleled rate, yet per capita economic welfare has also been advancing to levels once undreamed of. There are no signs that this rate of technical prog­ress will diminish. Professor Dudley Kirk of the Food Research Institute at Stanford University, insisted in 1968, for example, that “far from facing starvation, the world has the best food out­look in a generation.” He at­tributed this to a new “green revo­lution,” based on new seed grains and wider fertilizer use.

A New Hysteria

In spite of the serious errors in Malthus, we have witnessed in the last decade an outburst of “Neo-Malthusianism,” a new widespread fear, sometimes verging on hys­teria, about a world “population explosion.” Paul Erlich, professor of biology at Stanford Univer­sity, in a book entitled The Population Bomb, warns us that we are all doomed if we do not control population growth. Professor Den­nis Meadows of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology says:

“It used to take 1,500 years to double the world’s population. Now it takes about 30 years…. Man­kind is facing mass starvation, epidemics, uncontrollable pollu­tion and wars if we don’t discover new methods of population and in­dustrial control and do it fast. If our society hasn’t succeeded in ten years in coming to grips with these problems, I think it will be too late.”5

Even the usual current esti­mates are almost as alarming. They run something like this: It was not until about 1830 that the world’s population had reached a billion. By 1930 it had reached two billion. Now there are about three­-and-a-half billion. President Nixon estimated in 1970 that, at present rates of growth, world population will be seven billion at the end of the century and thereafter an ad­ditional billion would be added every five years or less.

Most of these predictions are reached by simply extrapolating recent annual growth rates and assuming that they will continue, come what may. When we look at the projections country by coun­try, however, we find that the real problem is created by what is hap­pening, not in Europe and in the United States, but in the so-called “underdeveloped” countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

Based not on simple progres­sion but on calculations of chang­ing birth and death rates and other factors, the United Nations, in its Bulletin of Statistics, esti­mated in April, 1971, that Main­land China’s population, assumed to have been 740 million in 1969, would rise to 1,165 million in the year 2000. India is expected to leap from 537 million in 1969 to 1,084 million in 2000. By the year 2000 the U. N. statisticians esti­mate that the world population will reach 6,494 million—but 5,040 million will be in the less devel­oped countries, and only 1,454 mil­lion in the more developed. In other words, the study foresees an average growth rate of only about 1 per cent a year in the more de­veloped countries, but of about 2.2 per cent in the less developed countries—i.e., most of Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

At the Edge of Subsistence

This outlook is at least a partial vindication of Malthus. His cen­tral thesis, supported in the later editions of his Essay by a wealth of research, was that every ad­vance in the arts of increasing subsistence had been absorbed in the past by a consequent increase of population, thus preventing any rise in the general level of living. He was right regarding the past; he is still right in his forecasts so far as most of the world is con­cerned. It is widely estimated that of the world’s present three-and­ a-half billion people, nearly two billion are underfed. And it seems to be precisely where they are al­ready underfed that they tend to multiply fastest, to the edge of subsistence.

Though the problem of popula­tion growth is most urgent in the backward countries, it exists ev­erywhere. Those who are most concerned about overpopulation in the advanced countries today see it less as an immediate menace to the food supply than as a menace to “the quality of life.” They foresee overcrowding, still bigger cities, “urban sprawl,” more automo­biles, more roads, more traffic jams, more waste products, more gar­bage, more sewage, more smoke, more noxious fumes, more pollu­tants, contaminants, and poisons.

Though these fears may be ex­aggerated, they have a rational basis. We may take it as a reason­able assumption that in most parts of the world today, even in the ad­vanced countries, population has already reached or passed its op­timum level in purely economic terms. In other words, there are very few places left in which it is probable that additional hands would lead to a more than propor­tionate increase in returns. The opposite is nearly everywhere more likely. Therefore we may as­sume that any increase in popu­lation will reduce per capita pro­duction, not necessarily in abso­lute amount, but in comparison with what it could be without a further population growth. From this standpoint the problem of overpopulation is not merely one for some distant future, even in the advanced countries, but one that exists now.

The Macro Solution, by Government Coercion

What, then, is the solution? Most of the neo-Malthusians, un­fortunately, are collectivist in their thinking; they want to solve the problem in the aggregate, and by government coercion. They not only want governments to flood their countries with propaganda for The Pill, The Loop, and other methods of contraception, encour­aging even abortion; they want to sterilize men and women. They de­mand “Zero Population Growth Now.” A professor of “human ecology” at the University of Cali­fornia declares that the com­munity cannot “watch children starve.” Therefore: “If the com­munity has the responsibility of keeping children alive it must also have the power to decide when they may be procreated. Only so can we save ourselves from the degradation of runaway popula­tion growth.”6

The professor surely has the courage of his premises.

It is the great merit of Malthus to have been not only the first to see the problem clearly but also the first to propose the proper path to its solution. He was a re­lentless critic of the poor-laws of his day:

“The poor laws of England tend to depress the general conditions of the poor…. Their first obvious tendency is to increase population without increasing the food for its support. A poor man may marry with little or no prospect of being able to support a family without parish assistance. They may be said, therefore, to create the poor which they maintain….

“If it be taught that all who are born have a right to support on the land, whatever be their num­ber, and that there is no occasion to exercise any prudence in the affair of marriage so as to check this number, the temptations, ac­cording to all the known princi­ples of human nature, will inevita­bly be yielded to, and more and more will gradually become dependent on parish assistance.”7 Malthus’s strictures did influ­ence the Poor Law Reform of 1834. But no government in the world today is willing to accept his unpalatable conclusions. Near­ly all continue to subsidize and re­ward indigent mothers or families in direct proportion to the num­ber of children they bring into the world, legitimately or illegitimate­ly, and cannot support.

Malthus was an individualist and a libertarian. His own pro­posed remedy for overpopulation was both voluntary and simple:

“I see no harm in drawing the picture of a society in which each individual is supposed strictly to fulfill his duties…. The happi­ness of the whole is to be the re­sult of the happiness of individu­als, and to begin first with them. No co-operation is required. Every step tells. He who performs his duty faithfully will reap the full fruits of it, whatever be the num­ber of others who fail. This duty is intelligible to the humblest ca­pacity. It is merely that he is not to bring beings into the world for whom he cannot find the means of support.”8

If each of us adhered to this principle, no overpopulation prob­lem would exist. 


1 History of Economic Analysis, (Ox­ford University Press, 1954), p. 580.

2 Introduction to Modern Library edi­tion (1960) of Thomas Robert Malthus, On Population, p. xxx.

3 Mill’s Principles, Book I, Chap. XII.

4 See, e.g., Ludwig von Mises, Human Action (Henry Regnery, 1966 edition), pp. 127-31 and 341-50; Murray N. Roth-bard, Man, Economy, and State (D. Van Nostrand, 1962), pp. 28-32, and Joseph A. Schumpeter, History of Economic Analysis (Oxford University Press, 1954), p. 587, and passim.

5 National Enquirer, May 16, 1971.

6 Garrett Hardin in The New York 

7 Essay on Population, Book III, Chaps. VI and VII.

Times, May 6, 1971.                

8 Ibid., Book IV, Chap. III.

  • Henry Hazlitt (1894-1993) was the great economic journalist of the 20th century. He is the author of Economics in One Lesson among 20 other books. See his complete bibliography. He was chief editorial writer for the New York Times, and wrote weekly for Newsweek. He served in an editorial capacity at The Freeman and was a board member of the Foundation for Economic Education.