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Malthus' Essay On Population, Part 3 to the Life & Works of
Thomas Robert Malthus

Twenty-two years before the appearance of Malthus' essay, Adam Smith had inquired into the nature and causes of wealth with his book, The Wealth of Nations. One might well conclude that Malthus' essay is an analysis of the nature and causes of poverty.11 Malthus' work, however, was more of a response to the writers who were then expressing optimism and faith in the nature of man, viz., that man might perfect himself through the application of reason and will power. Two of the writers which Malthus had in mind, indeed, were named in the full title of his work, "An Essay on the Principle of Population as it affects the Future Improvement on Society, with Remarks on the Speculation of Mr. Godwin, M. Condorcet and other Writers." Published five years after Godwin's work, Political Justice, Malthus had his essay published, anonymously. The first edition (a very rare book these days and therefore, likely that few were brought out) consisted of about 50,000 words.12 He spent the next few years revising and enlarging it, and, in 1803, he brought out the second edition, much expanded, -- really, another work. By the fifth edition it "had swollen to some 250,000 words in three volumes." Keynes thought that for posterity, the first edition is the "superior book." As for Malthus, he thought the work contained in his first edition was done "on the impulse of the occasion, and from materials which were in ready reach in a country situation."

The basis of the Malthusian doctrine has already been stated, viz., "population increases in a geometric ratio, while the means of subsistence increases in an arithmetic ratio." This observation Malthus connects to another: there are two principal hungers that nature has instilled in man, that for food and that for sex. Malthus was of the view that neither of these hungers could ever be quelled or controlled. That, in time, because of an ever increasing population rate, man will come up against a ceiling, one created by the fact that the world's resources needed for life, are, limited. Once these resources are exhausted, or spoiled, life as we know it will come to an end.13 The essence of the doctrine is that the population level cannot keep increasing without, at some point, pressing on the limits of the means of subsistence, and that a check of some kind or other must, sooner or later, be opposed to it.

"Through the animal and vegetable kingdoms, nature has scattered the seeds of life abroad with the most profuse and liberal hand. She has been comparatively sparing in the room, and the nourishment necessary to rear them... The race of plants, and race of animals shrink under this great restrictive law. And the race of man cannot, by any efforts of reason, escape from it. Among plants and animals its effects are waste of seed, sickness, and premature death. Among mankind, misery and vice. ...
For let the principles of Mr. Godwin's Enquiry
14 and of other similar works be carried literally and completely into effect; let every corruption and abuse of power be entirely got rid of; let virtue, knowledge and civilization be advanced to the greatest height that these visionary reformers would suppose; let the passions and appetites be subjected to the utmost control of reason and influence of public opinion: grant them, in a word, all that they ask, and the more completely their views are realized, the sooner will they be overthrown again, and the more inevitable and fatal will be the catastrophe. For the principle of population will still prevail, and from the comfort, ease and plenty that will abound, will receive an increasing force and impetus. The number of mouths to be fed will have no limit; but the food that is to supply them cannot keep pace with the demand for it; we must come to a stop somewhere, even though each square yard, by extreme improvements in cultivation, could maintain its man. In this state of things there will be no remedy; the wholesome checks of vice and misery (which have hitherto kept this principle within bounds) will have been done away; the voice of reason will be unheard; the passions only will bear sway; famine, distress, havoc and dismay will spread around; hatred, violence, war and bloodshed will be the infallible consequence; and from the pinnacle of happiness, peace, refinement and social advantage we shall be hurled once more into a profounder abyss of misery, want, and barbarism that ever by the sole operation of the principle of population!"
Malthus asserted that there was only two things that kept population down: vice and misery, two necessary evils (their agents being war, famine, and disease).15 When Malthus brought out the 1803 edition of his work (by then turned into a substantial book) he added "moral restraint" as a further check. "The various checks to population seem all to be resolvable into moral restraint, vice, and misery." "By moral restraint I mean a restraint from marriage, from prudential motives, with a conduct strictly moral." "Delaying the gratification of passion from a sense of duty." It needs to be emphasized that the check of "moral restraint" was by Malthus only admitted in his further editions, indeed, in his later writings Malthus laid considerable stress on moral deterrent.16

The most grating conclusion of the several which Malthus comes to in his Essay is not that eventually population left unchecked will outstrip man's ability to live on this planet (as true a proposition to-day as it was in 1798); or that war, pestilence, and alike were natural checks against population (they are); but rather that we are all left with a Hobson's choice, with nature being the stable keeper. Or, if one likes, two choices with no difference in the result; either leave the old checks in place (as if we could remove them) or suffer the consequences of overpopulation. It is clear from a reading of his writings that Malthus thought there is nothing we might do to help ourselves; indeed, any laws aimed at the betterment of society, to alleviate want and misery, was likely only to aggravate the evils it sought to cure. The only thing for us, is to have faith that the same forces which brought man to his modern state, might be allowed to continue to preserve him.

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Peter Landry

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2011