Malthus & Population Theory Debunked

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Rev Thomas Robert Malthus (February, 1766 – December 23, 1834), was an English demographer and political economist best known for his pessimistic but highly influential views.

Malthus was born to a prosperous family. His father was a personal friend of the philosopher and sceptic David Hume and an acquaintance of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The young Malthus was educated at home until his admission to Jesus College, Cambridge in 1784. There he studied many subjects and took prizes in English declamation, Latin and Greek. His principal subject was mathematics. He earned a masters degree in 1791 and was elected a fellow of Jesus College two years later. In 1797, he was ordained and became an Anglican country parson.

In An Essay on the Principle of Population, published in 1798, Malthus predicted population would outrun food supply, leading to a decrease in food per person.

This prediction was based on the idea that population if unchecked increases at a “Exponential rate” (i.e. 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, etc.) whereas the food supply grows at an “Arithmetic” rate (i.e. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, etc.) (See Malthusian catastrophe for more information.) Only misery, moral restraint and vice (which for Malthus included contraception) could check excessive population growth. Malthus favoured “moral restraint” (including late marriage and sexual abstinence) as a check on population growth. However, it is worth noting that Malthus proposed this only for the working and poor classes. Thus, the lower social classes took a great deal of responsibility for societal ills, according to his theory. Essentially what this resulted in was the promotion of legislation which degenerated the conditions of the poor in England.

The foregoing is all taken from “Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.htm” – An Essay on the Principle of Population. Ch 1

The different modes which nature takes to prevent or repress a redundant population, do not appear, indeed, to us so certain and regular; but though we cannot always predict the mode, we may with certainty predict the fact. If the proportion of births to deaths for a few years, indicate an increase of numbers much beyond the proportional increased or acquired produce of the country, we may be perfectly certain, that unless an emigration takes place, the deaths will shortly exceed the births; and that the increase that had taken place for a few years cannot be the real average increase of the population of the country. Were there no other depopulating causes, every country would, without doubt, be subject to periodical pestilences or famine.

“…the Malthusian doctrine, that population tends to increase faster than subsistence. Examination, however, shows that this doctrine has no real support either in fact or in analogy, and that when brought to a decisive test it is utterly disproved”
H .George. Progress & Poverty (Preface 1880ed)

“The current doctrine as to the derivation and law of wages finds its strongest support in a doctrine as generally accepted—the doctrine to which Malthus has given his name—that population naturally tends to increase faster than subsistence. These two doctrines, fitting in with each other, frame the answer which the current political economy gives to the great problem we are endeavoring to solve.”

H. George, Progress & Poverty Bk II, Population and Subsistance.

It is evident from the above sources that the Malthusian theory “that population tends to increase faster than subsistence” was used to blame the poor for their own condition. A very prevalent argument used today by politicians and others who advocate that nature is tardy and has not provided adequately for her offspring: Which is what George objected to and showed how it was wrong.

It was necessary for Henry George to debunk the Malthus theory for the simple reason that it was the accepted reason for the condition of the poor. If that theory was correct then no other reason was of any consequence. George spent four (4) chapters on the subject. Like all things, whether or not you accept his logic, it is a matter for mind and logic. There is little evidence that, today, the world suffers from any Malthusian ailment and the population is greater than anything Malthus could have imagined.

Julian Simon (late professor of business administration at the University of Maryland wrote in a policy report for the Cato Institute – a non-profit public policy research foundation.

“We have in our hands now – actually in our libraries – the technology to feed, clothe, and supply energy to an ever-growing population for the next 7 billion years.”

“This is the economic history of humanity in a nutshell:
“From 2 million or 200,000 or 20,000 or 2,000 years ago until the 18th Century there was slow growth in population, almost no increase in health or decrease in mortality, slow growth in the availability of natural resources (but not increased scarcity), increase in wealth for a few, and mixed effects on the environment. Since then there has been rapid growth in population due to spectacular decreases in the death rate, rapid growth in resources, widespread increases in wealth, and an unprecedently clean and beautiful living environment in many parts of the world along with a degraded environment in the poor and socialist parts of the world.

That is, more people and more wealth has correlated with more (rather than less) resources and a cleaner environment -just the opposite of what Malthusian theory leads one to believe.

The task before us is to make sense of these mind-boggling happy trends.”

“…when I began to work on population studies, I assumed that the accepted view was sound. I aimed to help the world contain its “exploding” population, which I believed to be one of the two main threats to humankind (war being the other). But my reading and research led me into confusion. Though the then-standard economic theory of population (which had hardly changed since Malthus) asserted that a higher population growth implies a lower standard of living, the available empirical data did not support that theory.”

“Let us start the analysis with a given population of workers and a given supply of physical capital – a given farm acreage, a given number of factories, and a given number of machines. If the number of workers increases, then the supply of capital will be diluted; that is, if there are more workers, there is less capital available for each worker to use. If there is less capital per worker, output (and income) per worker will fall. This Malthusian dilution effect is one of the main liabilities of additional population. The extent of the loss can be calculated easily. Twice as many workers with the same capital implies half as much capital per worker. In a typical modern economy this would reduce each worker’s output (and hence income) by about one third.”

Dr. Julian Simon wrote extensively on population:
The Hoodwinking of a Nation – Scarcity or Abundance? A Debate on the Environment – The Ultimate Resource II: People, Materials, and Environment

The Professor devoted much time to debunking ideas of doom, particularly Malthus. Whilst he showed the fallacies of the arguments he did not show or demonstrate an alternative policy for the relief of the poor.

We are left with the policies of George or those of Marx/Engels. All three wrote against Malthus.

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