When reading pieces on sustainability you often see references to Thomas Malthus. He was an 18/19th century English economist and clergyman. Weirdly, it is often people who would class themselves as progressive who seem to cite him most. Why? It seems like a bad habit that people can’t quit despite the fact that it really is time to get past Malthus. One can certainly argue that Malthus made a contribution. Sort of like the person who came up with the Penny-Farthing. Still, his sort of thinking is practically obsolete, morally wrong, and politically a complete disaster. Those interested in sustainability have great arguments that they can use. Why anyone would choose to pay homage to Malthus is beyond me.
Not A Great Guy
Sometimes people are just wonderful characters. If so when they err you hope that this doesn’t discredit their overall contribution. There are plenty of historical figures who got a question wrong but that doesn’t mean that they don’t still have much to say about other things.
Also, we can get into trouble judging historical people by our standards. The fact that you have been more careful in your language about race doesn’t mean that you have contributed more to the world than Abraham Lincoln. Sometimes good people say bad things. The good news is that Malthus isn’t one of those. When he says bad things we might conclude that he is just not a great guy or, at least, he is nothing special morally. If we judge him by the standards of our time he looks bad. If we judge him by any other standards he isn’t perfect either.
The Trifecta: Classist, Racist, And Sexist
The Poor Laws
Reading Malthus’ work the overwhelming feeling you get is that he really didn’t like the ‘lower’ classes. That is perhaps just as well, given he shares what seems to be an extended argument against doing anything to help them. (I am citing the first edition of his essay on the population principle. To be fair I believe he may have toned down some of his language later when his friends told him he sounded awful).
He thought the Poor Laws (an early form of social assistance) were “evil”. He didn’t think that because the laws weren’t very generous. Instead, if I understand him correctly, he seemed to think that it was better to lose a few of the poor to starvation for the good of the herd.
…the quantity of provisions consumed in workhouses upon a part of the society that cannot in general be considered as the most valuable part diminishes the shares that would otherwise belong to more industrious and more worthy members.Malthus, 1798, page 31
This reads to me like we should let the very poor starve. They need the “goad of necessity” (page 53) as an incentive. Otherwise, they would just piss away their time.
The lower classes of people of Europe…..may be taught to employ the little spare time they have in many better ways than the ale-house.Malthus, 1798, page 102
Maybe the lower classes should be taught to write condescending thought pieces with their meager spare time.
Other Dodgy Examples
Just in case you worried that he was classist but surprisingly egalitarian in other ways. Don’t worry, he wasn’t.
It is said that the passion between the sexes is less ardent among the North American Indians, than among any other race of men.Malthus, 1798, page 15
There are worse quotes like this in terms of racial sensitivity but this one just struck me as the strangest. This seems to be some sort of weird 18th century stereotype. To be honest I’m not sure how people were measuring passion in the 18th century. Maybe the people in North America didn’t like talking about their ‘passion’ with reverends (priests) like Malthus who were the people often doing the science at the time.
Turning to women:
…these difficulties present us with a very natural origin of the superior disgrace which attends a breach of chastity in the woman than in the man.Malthus, 1798, page 71
I’m guessing he wasn’t a (pre-wave) feminist either.
Again, to be fair, he wasn’t a monster on every topic. I’ve read that he believed in religious tolerance of Catholics and non-conformists which was really quite progressive for an Anglican priest of his time. He might not be the worst person ever, but this isn’t a bloke whose character was so impeccable that we need to follow his moral teachings a couple of centuries on.
Still, maybe he was so brilliant intellectually, with so much still to offer in the way of ideas, that we have to forgive him for his character flaws. That isn’t the case either to my mind.
Why Is It Time To Get Past Malthus?
Historians can have a good debate about Malthus’ contribution to thinking. I believe people when they tell us that when Malthus was writing his attempts to bring mathematical logic to social/population issues was an advance. Malthus wasn’t an idiot for all his flaws.
He argued that birth rates increase exponentially and food (resources) only increase arithmetically.
- Human fertility, for example, allows families to easily double in size over a generation — two parents can have four or more healthy kids.
- Farming methods only get a little better over time.
The point; eventually the food will run out.
Population, when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio. Subsistence increases only in an arithmetical ratio.Malthus, 1798, page 5
Preventative And Positive Checks
He saw two types of constraints on the human population.
Preventative: People not having kids. He thought people would be better off limiting their sexual activity. But he didn’t think that was going to happen as ‘passion’ hadn’t shown any change in “the five or six thousand years that the world has existed” (page 75. Okay, maybe we can cut him some slack on his dating of the planet’s existence given he was writing in the 18th century. Still, it is a good illustration that he isn’t a modern thinker). He wasn’t a big fan of contraception either so he couldn’t put his faith in that.
Positive Checks: These really aren’t at all positive. We are talking starvation, early death, war, etc… Basically, the food runs out and the balance returns between population and food production because the excess number of people die.
This is not fun but we shouldn’t blame him if he is merely stating an unpleasant truth. He seemed to be enjoying it though. “..the extreme parts [great wealth and great poverty] could not be diminished beyond a certain degree without lessening that animated exertion through the middle parts” (Malthus, 1798, page 133). I think he means that, for motivation, people in the middle of society need the rich for aspiration and the starving as cautionary tales.
Humans are a little different from other animals which makes many of his assumptions too strong. Much of the logic seems debatable given what was known at the time. But even if you think he was right when he wrote at the end of the 18th century, that was then and this is now.
Agriculture has got a lot better. We currently produce enough food to feed many more people than lived at Malthus’ time. Does that invalidate his point? To be fair, not really. Even with improved technology, it is reasonable to worry that there is only so much we can produce in the long-term. A reasonable person could argue that there still are binding planetary limits, we just haven’t found them yet. Malthus wasn’t obviously wrong on the point that there probably is an overall planetary limit at some point and some time. There are certainly local challenges.
I’d say the second half of his idea is where he is completely wrong about life nowadays. He saw preventative measures as not a viable way to limit population growth. He personally thought abstinence was the way to go but, reasonably, thought that wouldn’t work. Yet, nowadays when people (especially women) have access to adequate contraception and education, and children survive at higher rates, then people seem more than capable of restraining population growth themselves without mass starvation or compulsion. A major big-picture story of the world in the last half-century is declining birth rates. Many countries are below the replacement rate. Even less-wealthy countries are often moving towards smaller families. As progress helps keep more kids alive then people generally see there is less need to have loads of children. Across the world, and across cultures, people often make sensible decisions when healthcare and education improve and they have access to contraception.
A Malthusian catastrophe isn’t inevitable. Since the 18th century things have gotten an awful lot better and they can continue to do so as long as we make sensible choices and help those who need help. (On an aside: why do people like dystopian futures so much in Sci-Fi? Can’t we have any optimistic views of the future apart from, at its best, Star Trek and, obviously, The Orville.)
The Corn Laws
He also vigorously supported the Corn Laws. These UK protectionist measures (which at the time covered all of Ireland) impoverished the working class at the expense of landowners. They were part of the background conditions to the creation of the Potato Famine in Ireland. Let us just say it was a disaster for many of the poor and led to mass starvation and emigration.
What is more, I believe Malthus was a bit of an outlier at the time amongst economists in supporting the Corn Laws. Why? Maybe it was because he seems like a dodgy person who didn’t care enough about the poor even by the harsh standards of his time. Admittedly, the worst consequences of the Corn Laws (e.g., the aforementioned starvation in Ireland) were felt after Malthus’ death but you get the impression he would have only thought it vindicated his ideas to see lots of people starving.
It Really Is Time To Get Past Malthus
If this were just a quirky argument amongst historians then who would care? But it matters. Those who follow Malthus seem to give the impression that human beings are a pestilence. If you think that people are an evolutionary mistake I guess that is your right. Still, it can lead to some nasty arguments. For example, forced population control because you don’t trust the poor to make sensible decisions.
Furthermore, how you expect to achieve anything positive in a democracy when you clearly hate the people you are attempting to appeal to is beyond me. Politics is about building coalitions. Citing Malthus is a way of blowing up your coalition before it even starts as it so obviously leads to some unpleasant thinking. A reliance on Malthus in your arguments for sustainability seems like political malpractice to me.
It is time to get past Malthus. His ideas are past their sell-by date, his writing is anachronistic, his personality isn’t going to save him, and even his dress sense looks old-fashioned in the pictures that I have seen. It is perfectly reasonable to have concerns about food supply. Indeed, we all should have such concerns. We should care about the food supply to try and ensure that there is enough, it is sustainable, and that the food is adequately distributed. Still, when they are helped, especially when healthcare is good, poor people will often make good choices for themselves. We shouldn’t be sitting around seeing mass starvation as just one of those things that happen. Instead, we should aim to make the world a better place.
It really isn’t okay to suggest that Malthus’ ideas are the ones we should be following. They really aren’t. It is time to get past Malthus.
Read: Thomas Malthus (1798) An Essay on the Principle of Population, as it Affects the Future Improvement of Society with Remarks on the Speculations of Mr. Godwin, M. Condorcet, and Other Writers. Available here and background here.