This essay has a total of 1950 words and 8 pages.


Thomas Robert Malthus is one of the most controversial figures in the history of
economics. He achieved fame chiefly from the population doctrine that is now closely
linked with his name. Contrary to the late-eighteenth-century views that it was possible
to improve people's living standards, Malthus held that any such improvements would cause
the population to grow and thereby reverse these gains. Malthus also sparked controversy
with his contemporaries on issues of methodology (by arguing that economics should be an
empirical rather than a deductive science), over questions of theory (by holding that
economies can experience prolonged bouts of high unemployment), and on policy issues (by
arguing against free trade and against government assistance to the poor).

Malthus was born in 1766 in the town of Wotton, in Surrey. His father was a well-to-do
country squire, who made sure that Malthus received a good education. At first, Malthus
was instructed by his father and private tutors in his home. Then he was sent off to
excellent private schools. At the age of 18 he enrolled at Jesus College, Cambridge where
he studied mathematics and natural philosophy.

Although his father wanted him to become a surveyor, Malthus decided to enter the church.
He was ordained in 1788, thus becoming Reverend Malthus. In 1793 he became a fellow of
Jesus College and curate of Okewood, a little chapel in Wotton.

While he was working at Wotton, Malthus got into a heated argument with his father about
the ability to improve the economic well-being of the average person. His father thought
this was possible; Malthus remained skeptical. The dispute prompted Malthus to do some
reading, and then some writing, on the topic. The outcome was his Essay on Population,
which was first published in 1798.

The population essay brought Malthus instant fame, and then (in 1805) a job as Professor
of History, Politics, Commerce, and Finance at the New East India Company near London. The
college was primarily a training school for employees of the East India Company who were
about to take administrative posts in India. The teaching position made Malthus one of the
first academic economists. And, as is true of many teaching jobs, it required little time
and effort. This left Malthus much free time to socialize, to correspond with his many
friends (especially David Ricardo), and to stir up controversies regarding economic
principles and policies. In addition to the controversies surrounding his principle of
population, Malthus became embroiled in important debates with Ricardo over British Poor
Laws and Corn Laws, the benefits of free trade, and the possibility of gluts or
insufficient demand for goods.

In mid-eighteenth-century England the industrial revolution was in full swing. However,
workers lived near the level of physical subsistence, and their condition worsened in
latter half of the eighteenth century. Monotony and repetition characterized factory work;
the tyranny of the factory clock and the pace of the assembly line were beyond the control
of all workers. The division of labor, praised by Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations as
the means to productivity growth and rising living standards, made work so routine that
women and children could perform jobs just as easily as men. Business owners logically
preferred such workers because they could be hired for less.

These circumstances gave rise to numerous champions of the working class. Among the best
known were the Marquis de Condorcet, Robert Owen and William Godwin. Condorcet (1795)
argued that greater economic equality and more security for workers would improve their
material well-being. Toward this end he advocated two reforms - a welfare system to
provide security for the working poor, and government regulation of credit to keep down
interest rates so that needy families could borrow money at lower cost. Owen attempted to
develop utopian communities in industrial towns that would improve both the economic and
social conditions of working class families. Godwin (1793) was even more radical in his
analysis and his policy proposals. He blamed the capitalist system for the poverty of
workers. He then demanded that property should be taken from its owners and given to those
whom it would benefit the most. This, Godwin claimed, would end all poverty, injustice,
and human suffering in the world.

The Essay on Population (Malthus 1798) was inspired by these men; yet it was written to
refute their arguments about the possibility of improving economic conditions. Malthus
thought that human betterment was impossible because poverty and misery were the
inevitable lot of the majority of people in every society. Moreover, he argued that all
attempts to alleviate poverty and suffering, no matter how well-intentioned and no matter
how well thought out, would only worsen things. It is this position that led Thomas
Carlisle to call economics "the dismal science," an appellation that has stuck for more
than two centuries.

Malthus held that the human condition could not be improved for two reasons. First, he
believed that people were driven by an insatiable desire for sexual pleasure. This led to
population increases which, if left unchecked, would grow geometrically - 1, 2, 4, 8, 16,
etc. Second, Malthus believed that diminishing returns operated in agriculture; that is,
as more and more land was brought into cultivation, each new plot of land would be able to
grow less food than the previous plot. For this reason, food production could at best
increase in arithmetical proportions - 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 etc. Since population was growing
more rapidly than the food supply, at some point the population would exceed the food that
could be grown to feed everyone. Starvation would ensue if there were no other checks on
population growth.

In the first edition of the Essay on Population Malthus allowed only "positive checks" on
a growing population. These were factors that raised death rates - famine, natural
catastrophe, plague, and war. But in the second and subsequent editions of the Essay
Malthus added a set of "preventive checks" - sexual abstinence, birth control, and delayed
marriage. These had the effect of lowering birth rates and population growth. Allowing
preventive checks on population growth also toned down the pessimistic nature of the
economic forecast. But Malthus still held that because of the strong human desire for
Continues for 4 more pages >>