An Essay on the Principle of Population
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- Chapters 6-9
- Chapters 10-15
- Chapters 16-19
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Summary and Study Guide
An Essay on the Principle of Population by Thomas Malthus was first published anonymously in 1798. Its core argument, that human population will inevitably outgrow its capacity to produce food, widely influenced the field of early 19th century economics and social science. Immediately after its first printing, Malthus’s essay garnered significant attention from his contemporaries, and he soon felt the need to reveal his identity. Although it was highly controversial, An Essay on the Principle of Population nevertheless left its impression on foundational 19th century theorists, such as naturalist Charles Darwin and economists Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx. Modern economists have largely dismissed the Malthusian perspective . Principally, they argue Malthus underappreciated the exponential growth brought about by the advent of the Industrial Revolution; by the discovery of new energy sources, such as coal and electricity; and later by further technological innovations. These modern criticisms are easily defended with historical retrospective.
Malthus’s essay has been revised several times since its publication. This summary focuses on the contents of the first edition. In 1806, Malthus revamped his work into four books to further discuss points of contention in the first edition and address many of the criticisms it received. Three more editions followed (published in 1807, 1817, and 1826 respectively), each modifying or clarifying points made in the second version.
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Although Malthus’s basic stance on the unsustainable growth of population to food production remains the same throughout all versions, the most dramatic change in format and content is found between the first and second editions. The first edition is notable for its long and detailed critique of the works of William Godwin, Marquis de Condorcet, and Richard Price on the perfectibility of humankind. Its lack of “hard data” and its unpracticed opinions on sex and reproduction were heavily criticized by his contemporaries. The 1806 publication, written at a later point in Malthus’s life, attempts to address these issues by focusing less on critiquing the works of other theorists and offering better data on the fluctuation of population growth throughout various European countries and colonies (Malthus, Thomas Robert. An Essay on the Principle of Population: the 1803 edition . Yale University Press. 2018).
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An Essay on the Principle of Population begins with a preface and is subsequently separated into eleven chapters. The preface reveals that a conversation with a friend on the future improvement of society was what sparked Malthus’s inspiration for this work. Chapter 1 further credits the works of David Hume, Alfred Russel, Adam Smith, and many others for inspiring his own writing. He postulates that population grows exponentially, whereas food production only increases in a linear fashion. This disparity in power will inevitably lead to overpopulation and an inadequate amount of food for subsistence.
Chapter 2 further details the above premise. Malthus imagines a world of abundance. In such a society of ease and leisure, no one would be anxious about providing for their families, which incentivizes them to marry early, causing birth rates to explode. When there are too many people and too little an increase in food to support them, the lower classes will be plunged into a state of misery. Thus, Malthus concludes that population growth only happens when there is an increase in subsistence, and misery and vice keep the world from overpopulation.
In chapters 3, 4, and 5, Malthus applies his theory to different stages of society. He argues that “savage” and shepherding societies never grow as fast as their “civilized” counterparts because various miseries keep their numbers in check. Among “savage” societies, a lack of food and a general disrespect of personal liberties prevent their numbers from increasing rapidly. Shepherding communities, meanwhile, often wage war over territories and suffer a high mortality rate. Civilized societies grew rapidly after adopting the practice of tilling, but due to exhausting most fertile land, their numbers no longer increase at the same rate as before.
The following two chapters are notable because they are the only ones that contain hard data. Malthus cites philosopher Richard Price for his analysis of population in America and references demographer Johann Peter Süssmilch for his work on Prussia. Malthus uses both these examples to prove that population fluctuates in accordance with the quantity of food produced. Chapters 8 and 9 are dedicated to critiquing mathematician Marquis de Condorcet’s work while chapters 10 to 15 do the same for political philosopher William Godwin. Malthus rejects the idea of mankind as infinitely perfectible and dismisses charity as a method to relieve poverty.
Chapters 16 and 17 propose the increase of food production as the only solution to reduce extreme poverty and misery among the lower class. Malthus maintains that donating funds is but a temporary relief to aid the most unfortunate; only a permanent increase in agricultural yield can grow the lower class’s purchasing power. Nevertheless, the final two chapters remind readers that misery and happiness must coexist. The law of nature, the way of living intended by God and demonstrated by Malthus’s population theory, requires both wealth and poverty to function.
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The Inquisitive Biologist
Reviewing fascinating science books since 2017, book review – an essay on the principle of population: the 1803 edition.
Overpopulation. Is there another topic more likely to bring about an uncomfortable silence during a dinner party? Possibly one of the last taboos even of our era, one name is intimately linked with this topic: Thomas Robert Malthus, author of the much-maligned An Essay on the Principle of Population . Originally published in 1798, Yale University Press here republishes the second edition of 1803, which is much expanded. As a bonus, they throw in five essays to place this work in context and discuss its relevance today. Why would you read a book that is over 200 years old? For the same reason evolutionary biologists still read On the Origin of Species – you cannot really properly discuss, let alone criticise a subject without reading its foundational text, now, can you?
“ An Essay on the Principle of Population: The 1803 Edition “, written by Thomas Robert Malthus, edited by Shannon C. Stimson , published by Yale University Press in March 2018 (paperback, 588 pages)
Not a facsimile reproduction, this reissue features a few typographical updates and some minor corrections, but by and large stays true to the original. It is not the first reissue, nor the most comprehensive. Cambridge University Press published a large two-volume “variorum” version in 1989 that reproduced the 1803 edition but also included additions made to subsequent editions. Even so, Yale’s version is more than adequate. The differences between the 1798 and 1803 edition were enormous, between subsequent editions not so much. As with any topic, I am always mildly shocked to see the vast body of scholarship on it, and two other recent books that are worth reading in this context are Malthus: The Life and Legacies of an Untimely Prophet and The New Worlds of Thomas Robert Malthus: Rereading the Principle of Population .
Briefly, Malthus argued that human population growth is naturally inclined to overtake and outstrip our ability to produce enough food. The inevitable consequences will be misery in the form of malnourishment, famines, and increased mortality, especially among the poorer classes of society. His ideas caused an uproar when published in 1798 and have remained hugely influential ever since, impacting such luminaries as Charles Darwin and modern authors such as Paul Ehrlich who wrote The Population Bomb .
“Why would you read a book that is over 200 years old? For the same reason evolutionary biologists still read On the Origin of Species […] “
Malthus argued that population checks came in the form of either positive checks (misery such as famine, infanticide, warfare, etc.) and preventive checks (moral restraint in the form of putting off marriage and delaying having children). A large part of his work consists of convincing the reader of the need to exercise moral restraint as the more humane option to keep population growth in check (remember, this was a time when contraception barely existed, and marriage was generally the necessary precursor to having lots of children). The first edition was based mostly on conjecture and arguments from first principles. Based on critique, he much expanded the second edition, adding two whole sections (books 1 and 2) based on extensive reading of literature and his own travels around parts of Europe. Here, he surveys checks to population in both the developing world and the Ancient World (amongst the Greeks and Romans), as well as the developed world.
Part of what landed Malthus in hot water was his opposition to the English Poor Laws that were operational at the time. This was a social benefit system for poor people with large families. He argued that this only exacerbated the problem of overpopulation. After all, why bother to carefully consider whether or not to have children and whether you can support them? Heck, why even stick around in a marriage that no longer contents you when the state will provide when you abandon your wife and children? Of course, his views also ran counter to Christian doctrine to go forth and people the Earth – ironic, given that Malthus was himself part of the clergy of the Church of England. Rather than relying on benefits, it was in the hands of the poor to improve their livelihood. Those unwilling to provide for themselves and their family had no right to demand benefits, whether monetary or otherwise, and Malthus strongly argued for the abolishment of the Poor Laws.
Much ink has been spilt in the subsequent two centuries to point out some of his errors. He got certain facts flat out wrong, and his expansion of the essay with a body of supporting material after publication runs the risk of cherry-picking data. It seems he ignored certain findings inconsistent with his claims. And, of course, he did not, and could not possibly, foresee how technological and scientific developments improved both our agricultural yields (e.g. the Green Revolution), as well as our overall health (e.g. vaccines). It is important to place this work in the context of its time. And that is where the introduction and the essays are invaluable, providing much-needed context, explaining the state of the world at the time, as well as the other key players and writings that Malthus was responding to.
“It is important to place this work in the context of its time. And that is where the introduction and the essays are invaluable […]”
Another area where the book is a product of its time is the text itself. It was written in a time of colonialism when the inhabitants of many parts of the world were thought of as “savages”, and Africa was a continent of “negroes”. The attitudes of that time colour this work. And, as was usual, the writing can be rather long-winded and narrative in style, with complex sentences running many lines, full of subclauses. The language employed is necessarily somewhat antiquated and at times quaint. Especially when discussing the “virtue of chastity” and “the passion between the sexes” I could not help but smirk sometimes. Nevertheless, once you get into the rhythm of the writing style of the time, I found Malthus’s essay surprisingly readable. Though I do think he could have compacted the first two books in a bunch of tables. Modern editors would have a field day with writing of this kind…
Of all the essays, especially Kenneth Binnmore’s contribution stood out for me, answering that all-important question: “Was he right or was he wrong?”. Malthus’s argument was one of cold and rational logic. Even though he got some of the particulars wrong, and some scenarios that he put forth were hypothetical more than anything else, Binnmore argues that his main point stands to this day. And I thoroughly agree with that assessment. We have bought ourselves time with our technological prowess and our population has much increased as a consequence – something for which Malthus made allowance in his argument – but it has come at a hefty price to the environment. Those who argue that this can go on forever, that infinite growth is an option, live in looney-land as far as I’m concerned.
As mentioned in my review of The Wizard and the Prophet , the contemporary discussion on how to tackle our environmental woes has split into two opposing camps of techno-optimists and those who champion green solutions such as sustainable development and green energy, but largely ignores overpopulation. Malthus’s call to curb population growth is thus as relevant as ever. How we should go about this is something I will write more about in my next review of Should We Control World Population? Meanwhile, Yale University Press is to be congratulated in again making available such an important text and adding valuable context with the essays included.
Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.
Other recommended books mentioned in this review:
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Malthus�s Population Principle Explained
By Frank W. Elwell
This essay is a faithful summary of Malthus�s original 1798 �Principle of Population .� While nothing will substitute for reading the original essay with an open mind, I hope this summary will go some way toward rehabilitating this man�s reputation.
Here is the key to that riddle: Malthus made the mistake of illustrating the unequal powers of production and reproduction with a mathematical illustration. He supposes that when unchecked, the earth�s human population would double every twenty-five years (a good estimate consistent with current knowledge). Agricultural production at best, he argues, could not possibly keep pace.
He knows full well that population cannot grow long beyond the means of subsistence (�population must always be kept down to the means of subsistence�), he is simply trying to illustrate to his readers the unequal powers of growth in population and food production and therefore the necessity of checks on population. At one point in the Essay he even states: �I am sufficiently aware that the redundant twenty-eight millions, or seventy-seven millions, that I have mentioned, could never have existed� (63). But for various reasons many critics have taken this mental experiment as the theory of population itself and delight in writing that Malthus was wrong, that overshoot and collapse did not occur. Contrary to popular belief (and the belief of many who should know better), Malthus did not predict a future in which population would outrun food supply and eventually collapse.
Other critics write that Malthus was wrong because he did not take into account the possibility of dramatic increases in the production of food. Many criticize him for not taking into account the revolution in agriculture. But he anticipated this argument as well:
No limits whatever are placed to the productions of the earth; they may increase for ever and be greater than any assignable quantity, yet still the power of population being a power of a superior order, the increase of the human species can only be kept commensurate to the increase of the means of subsistence by the constant operation of the strong law of necessity acting as a check upon the greater power (9-10).
What are these checks that Malthus writes about? They are of two types: �Preventive checks� come into play through the �foresight of the difficulties attending the rearing of a family� (22). They include celibacy, contraception, and various forms of non-procreative sex. �Positive checks,� are the �actual distresses of some of the lower classes, by which they are disabled from giving the proper food and attention to their children� (22). Under this heading Malthus includes extreme poverty, diseases, plague, malnutrition, wars, infanticide, and famine. Positive checks are far more likely to operate within poor populations; preventive checks among the upper classes. In Malthus�s view, both positive and preventive checks�or the ways a people go about controlling their fertility�will greatly impact the rest of the sociocultural system.
Malthus�s principle of population is basically the law of supply and demand applied to the relationships between food production and population growth , which he makes clear time and again throughout the Essay. As the food supply increases, food becomes cheaper, and more children are brought into the world. As there are more mouths to feed, food becomes more expensive, thus causing stress on families, more children dying or steps taken to prevent conception itself. As food prices rise, more land is put under the plow, or greater efforts made in intensifying the production of the land itself.
Because people can reproduce faster than they can increase the production of food, population must always be checked through positive or preventive means. This and nothing more, is Malthus�s �Principle of Population.� Over the course of sociocultural evolution, however, the long-term tendency has been for both productivity and population to intensify. This reciprocal growth, of course, has great effect on other parts of the sociocultural system.
For a more extensive discussion of Malthus�s theories refer to Macro Social Theory by Frank W. Elwell. Also see Sociocultural Systems: Principles of Structure and Change to learn how his insights contribute to a more complete understanding of modern societies.
Elwell, F. (2009), Macrosociology: The Study of Sociocultural Systems . Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press.
Elwell, F. (2013), Sociocultural Systems: Principles of Structure and Change. Alberta: Athabasca University Press.
Malthus, T. R. (Thomas Robert) (2012-05-12). An Essay on the Principle of Population. Kindle Edition.
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To reference Malthus's Population Principle Explained you should use the following format:
Elwell, Frank W., 2003, "Malthus's Population Principle Explained," Retrieved August 31, 2013, [use actual date] http://www.faculty.rsu.edu/~felwell/Theorists/Essay/Malthus1.htm
�2013 Frank Elwell, Send comments to felwell at rsu.edu
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An Essay on the Principle of Population
By thomas robert malthus.
There are two versions of Thomas Robert Malthus’s Essay on the Principle of Population . The first, published anonymously in 1798, was so successful that Malthus soon elaborated on it under his real name. * The rewrite, culminating in the sixth edition of 1826, was a scholarly expansion and generalization of the first.Following his success with his work on population, Malthus published often from his economics position on the faculty at the East India College at Haileybury. He was not only respected in his time by contemporaneous intellectuals for his clarity of thought and willingness to focus on the evidence at hand, but he was also an engaging writer capable of presenting logical and mathematical concepts succinctly and clearly. In addition to writing principles texts and articles on timely topics such as the corn laws, he wrote in many venues summarizing his initial works on population, including a summary essay in the Encyclopædia Britannica on population.The first and sixth editions are presented on Econlib in full. Minor corrections of punctuation, obvious spelling errors, and some footnote clarifications are the only substantive changes. * Malthus’s “real name” may have been Thomas Robert Malthus, but a descendent, Nigel Malthus, reports that his family says he did not use the name Thomas and was known to friends and colleagues as Bob. See The Malthus Homepage, a site maintained by Nigel Malthus, a descendent.For more information on Malthus’s life and works, see New School Profiles: Thomas Robert Malthus and The International Society of Malthus. Lauren Landsburg
Editor, Library of Economics and Liberty
First Pub. Date
London: John Murray
The text of this edition is in the public domain. Picture of Malthus courtesy of The Warren J. Samuels Portrait Collection at Duke University.
Table of Contents
- Chapter III
- Chapter VII
- Chapter VIII
- Chapter XII
- Chapter XIII
- Chapter XIV
- Bk.II,Ch.XI, On the Fruitfulness of Marriages
- Appendix II
Preface to the Second Edition
The Essay on the Principle of Population, which I published in 1798, was suggested, as is expressed in the preface, by a paper in Mr. Godwin’s Inquirer. It was written on the impulse of the occasion, and from the few materials which were then within my reach in a country situation. The only authors from whose writings I had deduced the principle, which formed the main argument of the Essay, were Hume, Wallace, Adam Smith, and Dr. Price; and my object was to apply it, to try the truth of those speculations on the perfectibility of man and society, which at that time excited a considerable portion of the public attention.
In the course of the discussion I was naturally led into some examination of the effects of this principle on the existing state of society. It appeared to account for much of that poverty and misery observable among the lower classes of people in every nation, and for those reiterated failures in the efforts of the higher classes to relieve them. The more I considered the subject in this point of view, the more importance it seemed to acquire; and this consideration, joined to the degree of public attention which the Essay excited, determined me to turn my leisure reading towards an historical examination of the effects of the principle of population on the past and present state of society; that, by illustrating the subject more generally, and drawing those inferences from it, in application to the actual state of things, which experience seemed to warrant, I might give it a more practical and permanent interest.
In the course of this inquiry I found that much more had been done than I had been aware of, when I first published the Essay. The poverty and misery arising from a too rapid increase of population had been distinctly seen, and the most violent remedies proposed, so long ago as the times of Plato and Aristotle. And of late years the subject has been treated in such a manner by some of the French Economists; occasionally by Montesquieu, and, among our own writers, by Dr. Franklin, Sir James Stewart, Mr. Arthur Young, and Mr. Townsend, as to create a natural surprise that it had not excited more of the public attention.
Much, however, remained yet to be done. Independently of the comparison between the increase of population and food, which had not perhaps been stated with sufficient force and precision, some of the most curious and interesting parts of the subject had been either wholly omitted or treated very slightly. Though it had been stated distinctly, that population must always be kept down to the level of the means of subsistence; yet few inquiries had been made into the various modes by which this level is effected; and the principle had never been sufficiently pursued to its consequences, nor had those practical inferences drawn from it, which a strict examination of its effects on society appears to suggest.
These therefore are the points which I have treated most in detail in the following Essay. In its present shape it may be considered as a new work, and I should probably have published it as such, omitting the few parts of the former which I have retained, but that I wished it to form a whole of itself, and not to need a continual reference to the other. On this account I trust that no apology is necessary to the purchasers of the first edition.
To those who either understood the subject before, or saw it distinctly on the perusal of the first edition, I am fearful that I shall appear to have treated some parts of it too much in detail, and to have been guilty of unnecessary repetitions. These faults have arisen partly from want of skill, and partly from intention. In drawing similar inferences from the state of society in a number of different countries, I found it very difficult to avoid some repetitions; and in those parts of the inquiry which led to conclusions different from our usual habits of thinking, it appeared to me that, with the slightest hope of producing conviction, it was necessary to present them to the reader’s mind at different times, and on different occasions. I was willing to sacrifice all pretensions to merit of composition, to the chance of making an impression on a larger class of readers.
The main principle advanced is so incontrovertible, that, if I had confined myself merely to general views, I could have intrenched myself in an impregnable fortress; and the work, in this form, would probably have had a much more masterly air. But such general views, though they may advance the cause of abstract truth, rarely tend to promote any practical good; and I thought that I should not do justice to the subject, and bring it fairly under discussion, if I refused to consider any of the consequences which appeared necessarily to flow from it, whatever these consequences might be. By pursuing this plan, however, I am aware that I have opened a door to many objections, and, probably, to much severity of criticism: but I console myself with the refection, that even the errors into which I may have fallen, by affording a handle to argument, and an additional excitement to examination, may be subservient to the important end of bringing a subject so nearly connected with the happiness of society into more general notice.
Throughout the whole of the present work 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; and, in the latter part I have endeavoured to soften some of the harshest conclusions of the first Essay. In doing this, I hope that I have not violated the principles of just reasoning; nor expressed any opinion respecting the probable improvement of society, in which I am not borne out by the experience of the past. To those who still think that any check to population whatever would be worse than the evils which it would relieve, the conclusions of the former Essay will remain in full force; and if we adopt this opinion we shall be compelled to acknowledge, that the poverty and misery which prevail among the lower classes of society are absolutely irremediable.
I have taken as much pains as I could to avoid any errors in the facts and calculations which have been produced in the course of the work. Should any of them nevertheless turn out to be false, the reader will see that they will not materially affect the general scope of the reasoning.
From the crowd of materials which presented themselves, in illustration of the first branch of the subject, I dare not flatter myself that I have selected the best, or arranged them in the most perspicuous method. To those who take an interest in moral and political questions, I hope that the novelty and importance of the subject will compensate the imperfections of its execution.
Preface to the Fifth Edition
This Essay was first published at a period of extensive warfare, combined, from peculiar circumstances, with a most prosperous foreign commerce.
It came before the public, therefore, at a time when there would be an extraordinary demand for men, and very little disposition to suppose the possibility of any evil arising from the redundancy of population. Its success, under these disadvantages, was greater than could have been reasonably expected; and it may be presumed that it will not lose its interest, after a period of a different description has succeeded, which has in the most marked manner illustrated its principles, and confirmed its conclusions.
On account, therefore, of the nature of the subject, which, it must be allowed is one of permanent interest, as well as of the attention likely to be directed to it in future, I am bound to correct those errors of my work, of which subsequent experience and information may have convinced me, and to make such additions and alterations as appear calculated to improve it, and promote its utility.
It would have been easy to have added many further historical illustrations of the first part of the subject; but as I was unable to supply the want I once alluded to, of accounts of sufficient accuracy to ascertain what part of the natural power of increase each particular check destroys, it appeared to me that the conclusion which I had before drawn from very ample evidence of the only kind that could be obtained, would hardly receive much additional force by the accumulation of more, precisely of the same description.
In the two first books, therefore, the only additions are a new chapter on France, and one on England, chiefly in reference to facts which have occurred since the publication of the last edition.
In the third book I have given an additional chapter on the Poor-Laws; and as it appeared to me that the chapters on the Agricultural and Commercial Systems, and the Effects of increasing Wealth on the Poor, were not either so well arranged, or so immediately applicable to the main subject, as they ought to be; and as I further wished to make some alterations in the chapter on Bounties upon Exportation, and add something on the subject of Restrictions upon Importation, I have recast and rewritten the chapters which stand the 8th, 9th, 10th, 11th, 12th, 13th, in the present edition; and given a new title, and added two or three passages, to the 14th and last chapter of the same book.
In the fourth book I have added a new chapter to the one entitled Effects of the Knowledge of the principal Cause of Poverty on Civil Liberty; and another to the chapter on the Different Plans of improving the Poor; and I have made a considerable addition to the Appendix, in reply to some writers on the Principles of Population, whose works have appeared since the last edition.
These are the principal additions and alterations made in the present edition. They consist, in a considerable degree, of the application of the general principles of the Essay to the present state of things.
For the accommodation of the purchasers of the former editions, these additions and alterations will be published in a separate volume.
Book I, Chapter II.
In my review of the different stages of society, I have been accused of not allowing sufficient weight in the prevention of population to moral restraint; but when the confined sense of the term, which I have here explained, is adverted to, I am fearful that I shall not be found to have erred much in this respect. I should be very glad to believe myself mistaken.
It should be observed, that, by an increase in the means of subsistence, is here meant such an increase as will enable the mass of the society to command more food. An increase might certainly take place, which in the actual state of a particular society would not be distributed to the lower classes, and consequently would give no stimulus to population.
Book I, Chapter III.