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The New Worlds of Thomas Robert Malthus: Rereading the Principle of Population

Author(s):Bashford, Alison
Chaplin, Joyce E.
Reviewer(s):Hammond, J. Daniel

Published by EH.Net (July 2017)

Alison Bashford and Joyce E. Chaplin, The New Worlds of Thomas Robert Malthus: Rereading the Principle of Population. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016. vii + 353 pp. $45 (cloth), ISBN: 978-0-691-16419-9.

Reviewed for EH.Net by J. Daniel Hammond, Department of Economics, Wake Forest University.

Alison Bashford and Joyce E. Chaplin have written a richly sourced and finely detailed account of the writing, reading, and interpretation of Thomas Robert Malthus’s Essay on the Principle of Population. Their focus is on the 1798 first edition of the Essay and the enlarged 1803 second edition. Bashford (University of Cambridge) and Chaplin (Harvard University) have distinguished records of scholarship in areas related to this project, including history of science, humans’ encounters with nature in early American history, demographic and environmental history, and history of eugenics. Their aim is to expand and reorient the context for reading Malthus’s Essay beyond the conventional. Thus the element in their title, “Rereading the Principle of Population.” This is important work, not the least because Malthus is so widely known, cited, and used as the basis for an intellectual category (Malthusianism), but little read or understood.

The most historically accurate readings of the Essay have set it within the political and economic discourse of England and France in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the period from just prior to its first edition to the sixth and last (1826). The French Revolution is the event of prime significance for the first edition of the Essay. Malthus wrote in response to ideas of two Englishmen, his father Daniel Malthus and William Godwin, and a Frenchman, Nicolas de Condorcet. Malthus’s father was a political radical and friend of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Malthus himself said that he began the essay from a conversation with his father. The primary subjects of his critique in the text itself are Godwin’s and Condorcet’s Revolution-inspired utopian writings. Bashford and Chaplin have no objection to this orientation for reading the Essay as an argument against utopian political ideas. Rather, they invite us to look beyond the issues that Malthus engaged in 1798 to the sources of data from which he derived his principle of population in the first and second editions. The sources were the new worlds of North America and the South Pacific. Malthus used accounts of European explorers to these new worlds and colonial censuses for evidence of unchecked population growth and the operation of checks on population. Bashford and Chaplin read the Essay in the context of the origins of the principle of population in these new worlds and its implications for them.

The book is in three parts. “Population and the New World” comprises two chapters on “Population, Empire, and America” and “Writing the Essay.” Malthus was a synthesizer of four strands of population analysis, each of which has long historical roots: (1) Judeo-Christian theology, (2) statecraft, (3) political arithmetic, and (4) political economy. Chapter one provides a condensed but fulsome account of these analytical strands as they were available to Malthus. Chapter two includes biographical information on Malthus and his publisher, Joseph Johnson. Their juxtaposition is interesting on several counts. Malthus was an Anglican clergyman and Johnson was a religious dissenter. Malthus was conservative, while Johnson moved in radical circles.  Johnson published a critique of war finance by Malthus’s tutor, Gilbert Wakefield. This led to libel charges against both Wakefield and Johnson. Johnson was fined and sentenced to six months imprisonment. He also published a volume of Benjamin Franklin’s political writings that included “Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind.” This contained an anticipation (or source) of Malthus’s principle of population. Johnson became a force in the publishing trade with a stable of prominent authors including William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Mary Wollstonecraft and her husband and Malthus’s primary intellectual adversary, William Godwin.

The three chapters of part two are on three new worlds that figure prominently in Malthus’s second edition: New Holland (New South Wales), the Americas, and the South Sea. Where the first edition was largely a response to the utopian political theory, the second edition became a universal history of mankind built around the theme of the means by which population is checked. These chapters give richly textured accounts of the sources available to Malthus for incorporating information on the Americas, Australia, and the South Sea into the second edition and the use he made of them.

Part three, “Malthus and the New World, 1803-1834,” has a chapter each on the public issues of slavery and abolition and colonization and emigration as they related to the principle of population. In both cases Malthus’s principle of population was used to form arguments on either side of the issue. Malthus had become a recognized authority on population. The authors depict Malthus as timid about taking a stand on slavery, perhaps because of personal entanglements through income derived from sugar plantations. The West Indies and British slave trade are conspicuously absent from the otherwise worldwide scope of evidence surveyed in the 1806 edition. On the issue of emigration as an outlet for population Malthus opposed clearance and removal of excess population but not voluntary emigration. The final chapter in this section covers the reception of the 1803 essay in the new worlds up to Malthus’s death in 1834.

The book concludes with a coda. The coda opens with accounts of critical commentary after Malthus’s death regarding his purported indifference to the plight of the poor.  The authors conclude that this was far from the truth. Malthus was concerned to understand population dynamics in order to protect the poor from misery and vice. The coda proceeds to draw material and moral implications from Malthus’s analysis of the European settlement of new worlds in the Americas and South Pacific in the 1803 edition for contemporary and future economic development of “new worlds.” The material implications are that today as before, the poor bear the brunt of material “expansion” by the wealthy. The moral implications, referred to as “moral hazards” in the coda, are that the distribution of benefits and costs of economic development between the rich and poor is unjust.

The New Worlds of Thomas Robert Malthus gives considerably more attention to the 1803 edition of the Essay on the Principle of Population than to the 1798 edition, for it was in the enlarged second edition that Malthus dealt extensively with new world demographics. Further, the coda suggests that it is to the 1803 rather than the 1798 edition that we should turn today for insight into contemporary issues. The suggestion is that 1803-edition population principles have more relevance today and will in the future than the 1798-edition population principles. This suggests that Malthus made changes in substance rather than just in coverage between the first and second editions. This is an enduring question in historical interpretation of texts that underwent numerous or large revisions. In responding to reactions and suggestions of readers and to changing circumstances between one edition and the next, has an author more fully developed a thesis common to all editions or has the author changed the subject matter or thesis? The coda suggests the latter for Malthus.

If we accept the interpretation that the first edition was about British and European internal political issues and the second about English and European relations with lands and native peoples of the Americas and South Pacific, it is not clear to this reviewer that the second edition is more germane than the first to our time. The social and political revolutions of 1968 bear a resemblance to the French Revolution of 1789. The ancien régime remains under assault today as it was in the eighteenth century. Utopian visions of humans, their relations with each other, and with nature, are so embedded in modern culture that they go unrecognized. The objects of assault are no longer Monarchy, Aristocracy, and Church. They are the Constitution, Family, and Christianity. Conservatives, such as Malthus was, fight a rear-guard battle against what has become the Western revolutionary establishment of the early twenty-first century. Against this background it is instructive to reread the 1798 edition of An Essay on the Principle of Population.

J. Daniel Hammond is Hultquist Family Professor in the Department of Economics, Wake Forest University. He is the author of “Malthus, Utopians, and Economists,” Research in the History of Economic Thought and Methodology 33 (2015): 179-207.

Copyright (c) 2017 by EH.Net. All rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational uses if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact the EH.Net Administrator (administrator@eh.net). Published by EH.Net (July 2017). All EH.Net reviews are archived at http://www.eh.net/BookReview.

Subject(s):History of Economic Thought; Methodology
Geographic Area(s):Australia/New Zealand, incl. Pacific Islands
Europe
Latin America, incl. Mexico and the Caribbean
North America
Time Period(s):18th Century
19th Century

The State and the Stork: The Population Debate and Policy Making in U.S. History

Author(s):Hoff, Derek S.
Reviewer(s):Hammond, J. Daniel

Published by EH.Net (October 2013)

Derek S. Hoff, The State and the Stork: The Population Debate and Policy Making in U.S. History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012. xii + 378 pp. $49 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-22634-762-2.

Reviewed for EH.Net by J. Daniel Hammond, Department of Economics, Wake Forest University.

The State and the Stork is an economic and political history of ideas about population in the United States since the nation’s founding. The narrative is presented chronologically and structured around three ideas that have waxed and waned in the American economic and political spheres. These are (1) the “Malthusian” fear that growth of the population tends to outpace growth of the resource base; (2) the aesthetic concern that crowdedness reduces the quality of life; and (3) the belief that population growth enhances economic growth and thereby enhances the quality of life. The fact that these ideas run throughout American history is thoroughly documented in this study. Clearly, the question of optimal population has not been settled, and it is unlikely to be settled soon. Whatever one?s opinion might be on population questions, including immigration policy, Hoff’s book will help to set the opinion in historical and intellectual context. Historical documentation in support of Hoff?s narrative is extensive.

The first chapter, Foundations, sets up the narrative from the basis of British ideas on population in classical economics as they were brought to America in the eighteenth and first half of the nineteenth century. Britons John Locke, Adam Smith, David Ricardo, John Stuart Mill, and especially T.R. Malthus, and others appear. Americans Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, among the founders, along with Friedrich List, Henry Carey, John McVickar, George Tucker and others wrote on population and demographics. They made use of or criticized Malthusian ideas in the context of American issues such as slavery, industrialization, and western expansion. Hoff?s thesis is that there was ambivalence among Americans about population from the beginning that has persisted to the present day.

Chapter two, The Birth of the Modern Population Debate, provides a primer on the transition from classical economic theory to marginalist theories of consumers and producers, and a survey of population ideas in economic and political context from the closing of the American frontier in the 1890s to the Great Depression. J.M. Keynes and Keynesian economics in relation to Malthusian ideas of over-population are the subject of chapter three, Population Depressed. Keynes himself regarded population growth as supportive of economic growth. But some Keynesians combined his insights on management of aggregate demand with Malthusian ideas of population management, creating what Hoff calls Stable Population Keynesianism. Chapter four, Population Unbound, covers the post-World War II baby boom and the emerging debate between cornucopianists and doomsayers.

Chapter five moves to the next economic and social era with Managing the Great Society’s Population Growth. This chapter also marks a shift in focus from the ideas of economists to those of politicians during the Kennedy and Johnson presidencies. Chapter six covers the growth of environmentalism and the campaign to halt population growth, which Hoff calls radical Malthusianism. This is personified by Paul Ehrlich and The Population Bomb (1968). Chapter seven, Defusing the Population Bomb, covers the Nixon presidency, with special attention to the Commission on Population Growth and the American Future, established by Congress in 1969 and chaired by John D. Rockefeller III. In chapter eight Hoff argues that in the 1970s fear of the fiscal consequences of an aging population and an emerging conservative political economy that embraced population growth pushed Malthusian concerns off stage. Chapter eight brings the historical account up to the present, setting the stage for the Epilogue.

The primary theme one finds in The State and the Stork is that population questions have loomed large in American public life since the colonial period, with population growth seen at different times as either a portent of danger or of hope. Pessimism is predominant at some times and optimism at others. At the present time Hoff finds Malthusian concerns being suppressed by fear of the economic consequences of an inverted age pyramid. The latest conventional wisdom is optimistic about the effects of population growth, but pessimistic about the prospects for near-term population growth. In the epilogue Hoff makes clear what is indistinct throughout the book, that he is a population pessimist. He is discouraged that few Americans today take seriously the dangers posed by economic growth and overpopulation for natural resources and the quality of life.

Hoff chose to look at population issues through the eyes of economists. But he might have made other choices. He could, for instance, have used biologists ideas on population. It is interesting to ponder what difference this would have made. I suspect that the ebb and flow of concerns about under and over-population would have been much the same, for there is cross pollination between disciplines. Scholars from different disciplines tend to flock together around the same issues and general points of view. Yet the details of Hoff?s history might have been different in crucial ways, hinging on persistent differences in the way economists and biologists view humans.

Biologists tend to view humans as animals. Economists tend to view humans as rational animals. This difference can have profound implications. Animals tend to breed up to the physical limits of their environments. Human beings do not. This was recognized by Malthus, but not by Malthusians, including economists who are Malthusians. Malthusians draw more deeply on the intellectual legacy of the biologist Darwin than they do on the economist Malthus. To explain this point I will attempt to briefly demonstrate that Hoff fundamentally misinterprets Malthus?s 1798 Essay on Population. In misinterpreting Malthus, Hoff is far from alone. His is in fact the conventional interpretation of Malthus by economists, as his book amply illustrates.

Hoff’s conventional interpretation of Malthus is first encountered on page 15: Thus Americans had engaged in substantial population debates long before the Rev. Thomas Malthus argued in An Essay on the Principle of Population as it Affects the Future Improvement of Society (1798) that population growth doomed human societies by overwhelming natural resources.

The book’s first chapter on Foundations is on the theories of Malthus and the other leading classical economists of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, whose ideas, two centuries later, remain the starting point for serious discussion of population, resources, and the economy (p. 16). Further on Hoff writes: Like many in this era, [Benjamin] Franklin assumed that human population growth followed the same biological laws as plants and animals. In a line Malthus echoed, Franklin wrote, There is in short, no Bound to the prolific Nature of Plants or Animals, but what is made by their crowding and interfering with each others Means of Subsistence? (p. 20).

And one final quotation to illustrate Hoff’s biological interpretation of Malthus: But even if Malthus?s Essay on Population detoured from the prevailing optimism of the Enlightenment, it was born of immediate political and intellectual circumstances. It reflected the burgeoning of biological science. It also was part of a broader attack by the classical economists on the doctrine of mercantilism. Insisting that all societies progress toward overpopulation and misery, Malthus conformed to Enlightenment stages theory (p. 26).

Hoff comes to the verge of a more accurate interpretation of Malthus when he notes that Malthus wrote his Essay to challenge the utopian ideas of the radical political philosopher William Godwin … who, inspired by the revolutionary epoch of the late eighteenth century, believed that paradise, plenty, and human perfectibility were within the grasp of the people of his age (p. 25). But Hoff fails to acknowledge how Godwin expected paradise, plenty, and human perfectibility to come about, and thus he fails to grasp the nature of Malthus’s response.

The point of Malthus’s growth projections of food and population was to show what would happen if population was unchecked. But, he wrote, and this is crucial, population is always checked, though differently for plants and animals and for humans. Among plants and animals the view of the subject is simple. They are all impelled by a powerful instinct to the increase of their species; and this instinct is interrupted by no reasoning, or doubts about providing for their offspring. Wherever therefore there is liberty, the power of increase is exerted; and the superabundant effects are repressed afterwards by want of room and nourishment, which is common to animals and plants; and among animals by becoming the prey of others. The effects of this check on man are more complicated. Impelled to the increase of his species by an equally powerful instinct, reason interrupts his career, and asks him whether he may not bring beings into the world, for whom he cannot provide the means of subsistence. In a state of equality, this would be the simple question. In the present state of society, other considerations occur. Will he not lower his rank in life? Will he not subject himself to greater difficulties than he at present feels? Will he not be obliged to labour harder? (Malthus, Essay, Chapter. 2, Online Library of Liberty).

Godwin’s vision of a just society, in which humans reach their full potential of perfection, was one with perfect equality, without private property or accumulation of wealth, without markets, and even without marriage. Life is blissful, with the workday as short as half an hour and with children having no need to know the identity of their parents. Malthus meant to show that in the type of society envisioned by Godwin there would be overpopulation. Overpopulation would follow the dismantling of social institutions, and this would lead people to rediscover the benefits of the very institutions they had pulled down.

Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace both read Malthus’s Essay as they developed their theories of natural selection in the plant and animal worlds. However, as the passages quoted above show, Malthus did not conceive of humans as animals who breed up to the limit of the food supply. With the enormous influence of the theory of natural selection in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, it is reasonable to suspect that Malthusianism and its complement eugenics owe more to the theory of natural selection than to Robert Malthus?s economic and demographic theory. Malthus, as the presumed originator of Malthusianism, looms large in Hoff’s account. But Darwin makes only a brief appearance.

It may be that among the consequences of Hoff’s decision to examine population questions through the lens of economics rather than biology is his presumption that Malthusian concern about population numbers and eugenic concern about population quality are separable. It is widely acknowledged that the eugenics movement was Darwinist. My suggestion is that the population control movement was also Darwinist. Hoff separates concerns about overpopulation, which presumably are from an enlightened point of view, from concerns over the fitness of members of the population, which presumably are from an unenlightened point of view. He also sorts economists into political classifications of liberal and conservative. Liberals are, by the standards of most intellectuals, more enlightened; conservatives less enlightened. If Hoff had covered eugenics, which had very broad appeal across the social and natural sciences in the first three decades of the twentieth century, this might have prompted him to question the usefulness of his political classification of liberals and conservatives.[1]?

In the Epilogue Hoff writes that currently a continued emphasis on the aging of the population, however justified by spiraling deficits, has encouraged policy makers to think of babies as future taxpayers rather than as potential environmental or social externalities (p. 246). If our culture has come to the point where we either welcome the birth of a new human being because he or she is a future taxpayer or bemoan the birth as the arrival of an external cost, we are perhaps in danger of descending from the rational animals studied by Parson Malthus to the non-rational animals studied by Darwin.

Note:
1. See Thomas C. Leonard (2009) “American Economic Reform in the Progressive Era: Its Foundational Beliefs and Their Relationship to Eugenics,” History of Political Economy 41 (1): 109-41.

J. Daniel Hammond will present “Malthus, Utopians, and Economists” at the History of Economics Society session, “New Perspectives on Malthus: What Was He Really Saying about Population Growth and Human Societies?” at the Philadelphia ASSA meeting in January 2014.

Copyright (c) 2013 by EH.Net. All rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational uses if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact the EH.Net Administrator (administrator@eh.net). Published by EH.Net (October 2013). All EH.Net reviews are archived at http://www.eh.net/BookReview

Subject(s):Economic Planning and Policy
Historical Demography, including Migration
History of Economic Thought; Methodology
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):18th Century
19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII