EH.net is owned and operated by the Economic History Association
with the support of other sponsoring organizations.

Thomas Robert Malthus

David R. Stead, University of York

The Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus (1766-1834) is famous for his pessimistic prediction that humankind would struggle to feed itself. Born in Wotton, Surrey, Robert Malthus (he preferred his second name) was the sixth child of Daniel and Henrietta, members of the English country gentry. After graduating from Jesus College, Cambridge University, Malthus entered the Church of England as curate of Okewood, Surrey. In 1798 he published his seminal An Essay on the Principle of Population. It contended that population has the potential to expand in a geometric progression (e.g. 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32…) but that food supplies can only increase in an arithmetic progression (e.g. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6…), probably because of diminishing returns to producing food on the limited available amount of farmland. Since the supply of food cannot keep pace with the burgeoning numbers of people, the population will be reduced by the “positive checks” of war, disease and starvation. Malthus argued that the best means of escaping what has subsequently been called “the Malthusian trap” was for people to adopt the “preventive check” of limiting their fertility by marrying later in life. Malthus himself married Harriet Eckersall at the age of 38 (late for the period) in 1804, a year after he became rector of Walesby, Lincolnshire. The couple had three children.

First published anonymously, An Essay on Population scandalized many but quickly established Malthus as one of the leading economists in England. Appointed professor of political economy at the East India College, Hertfordshire, in 1805, Malthus wrote about a variety of economic issues, including the theory of rent and the Corn Laws. Ironically, at about the time Malthus published his pessimistic view, want of food no longer appears to have provided a serious check to English population growth. Malthus’ predictions proved inaccurate chiefly because he failed to foresee the enormous impact that science and technology was to have in squeezing increasing amounts of food out of each hectare of land. In the two centuries since the publication of An Essay on Population, other writers have similarly forecast mass famines – including Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb of 1968 – but human ingenuity, together with falling birth rates in many parts of the world, has meant that food production has more than kept pace with population growth. The malnutrition present today is largely a result of an inadequate distribution of food, not insufficient production.

Bibliography

Ehrlich, Paul R. The Population Bomb. New York: Ballantine Books, 1968.

Hollander, Samuel. The Economics of Thomas Robert Malthus. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997.

James, Patricia. Population Malthus: His Life and Times. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1979.

Kelley, Allen C. “Economic Consequences of Population Change in the Third World.” Journal of Economic Literature 26 (1988): 1685-1728.

Winch, Donald. Malthus. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987.

Wrigley, E. A. and David Souden, editors. The Works of Thomas Robert Malthus (8 volumes). London: Pickering, 1986.