After reading this article you will learn about the theory of population by Daniel Malthus.
In the late 1790s Thomas Mathias was the Anglican Pastor of a small country church, a bachelor in his early thirties who probably spent much of his time at his parent’s home. At some point he and his father got into a friendly argument over the future course of society.
Daniel Malthus followed the French thinkers conduct and Roussean and the English Anarchist William Godwin in the conviction that society was on a path towards ‘Perfection’.
Political, social and scientific developments were opening new awareness of advancement on all sides and the further progress of mankind seemed virtually assured. This broyant prospect, however, the younger Malthus could not bring himself to accept.
Malthus began with two physiological assumptions:
1. Humans must have food, and
2. The sex drive will always be a fundamental part of our make-up.
Assuming, then, the postulate as granted, Malthus said that the power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man.
Malthus said that population, when unchecked, increased in a geometric ratio, as in the series 1, 2, 4, 8, 16 and subsistence for man in an arithmetic ratio, as in the series 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.
Malthus explained his theory in the following manner:-
Malthus thought that no state hitherto existed where the manners were so pure and simple, and the means of subsistence so abundant, that no check whatever has existed to early marriages, among the lower classes, from a fear of not providing well for their families, or among the higher classes, from a fear of lowering their condition in life.
Consequently in no state that we have yet known has the power of population been left to exert itself with perfect freedom.
Whether the law of marriage be instituted or not, the dictate of nature and virtue seems to be an early attachment to one woman. Supposing a liberty of changing in the case of an unfortunate choice, this liberty would not affect the population till it arose to height greatly vicious; and we are now supposing the existence of a society where vice is scarcely known.
In a state therefore, of great equality and virtue, where pure and simple manners prevailed, and where the means of subsistence were so abundant that no part of the society could have any fears about providing amply for a family, the power of population being left to exert unchecked, the increase of the human species would evidently be much greater than any increase that has been hitherto known.
In the United States of America, where the means of subsistence have been more ample, the manners of the people more pure, and consequently the checks to early marriages fewer than in any of the modern states of Europe, the population has been found to double itself in twenty- five years.
The ratio of increase, though short of the utmost power of population, yet as the result of actual experience, we will take as our rule; and say, That population, when unchecked, goes on doubling itself every twenty five years or increases in a geometric ratio. Let us now take any spot of earth, and see in what ratio the subsistence it affords can be supposed to increase. We will begin with it under its present state of cultivation.
In the next twenty five years, it is impossible to suppose that the produce could be quadrupled. It would be contrary to all our knowledge of the qualities of land. The very utmost that we can conceive is that the increases in the second twenty-five years might equal the present produce.
Let us then take this for our rule, though certainly far beyond the truth, and allow that by great exertion, the whole produce of this piece of land might be increased every twenty- five years, by a quantity of subsistence equal to what it at present produces. The most enthusiastic speculator cannot suppose a greater increase than this.
Yet this ratio of increase is evidently arithmetical It may be fairly said, therefore, that the means of subsistence increase is in an arithmetical ratio.
Let us now bring the efforts of these two ratios together.
The population of the piece of land is computed to be about seven millions, and we will suppose the present produce equal to the support of such a number. In the first twenty-five years the population would be fourteen millions and the food being also doubled, the means of subsistence would be equal to this increase.
In the next twenty- five years the population would be twenty-eight millions and the means of subsistence only equal to the support of twenty-one millions. In the next period, the population would be fifty six millions, and the means of subsistence just sufficient for half that number.
And at the conclusion of the first century, the population would be one hundred and twelve millions, and the means of subsistence only equal to the support of thirty-five millions, which would leave a population of seventy-seven millions totally un-provided for.
A great emigration necessarily implies unhappiness of some kind or other in the country that is deserted. For few persons will leave their families, connections, friends and native land, to seek a settlement in untried foreign climes, without some strong subsisting causes of uneasiness where they are, or the hope of some great advantages the place to which they are going.
But to make the argument more general, and less interrupted by the partial views of emigration, let us take the whole earth, instead of one spot, and suppose that the restraints to population were universally removed.
If the subsistence for man that the earth affords was to be increased every twenty-five years by a quantity equal to what the whole world at present produces, this would allow the power of production in the earth to be absolutely unlimited, and its ratio of increase much greater than we can conceive that any possible exertions of mankind could make it.
Taking the population of the world at any number a thousand millions, for instance, the human species would increase in the ratio – 1,2,4, 8,16, 32,64, 128, 256, 512 etc., and subsistence as -1,2,3,4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 et.
In two centuries and a quarter the population would be to the means of subsistence as 512 to 10, in three centuries as 4096 to 13, and in two thousand years the difference would be almost incalculable, though the produce in that time would have increased to an immense extent.
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 greatest power.
The effects of this check remain now to be considered. Impelled to the increase of his species by an equally powerful instant 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 the society, other considerations occur.
Will he not lower his rank in life? Will be not subject himself to greater difficulties than he at present feels? Will he not be obliged to labour harder? And if he has a large family, will his utmost exertions enable him to support them? May he not see his offspring in rags and misery, and clamouring for bread that he cannot give them?
These considerations are calculated to prevent, and certainly do prevent, a very great number in all civilised nations from pursuing the dictate of nature in an early attachment to one woman. And this restraint almost necessarily, though not absolutely so, produces vice.
Yet in all societies, even those that are most vicious, the tendency to a virtuous attachment is so strong that there is a constant effort towards an increase of population. This constant effort as constantly tends to subject the lower classes of the society to distress, as to prevent any great permanent amelioration of their condition.
The way in which these effects are produced seems to be this.
We will suppose the means of subsistence in any country just equals to the easy support of its inhabitants. The constant effort towards population, which is found to act even in the most vicious societies increases the number of people before the means of subsistence are increased. The food, therefore which earlier supported seven millions must now be divided among eight millions.
The poor consequently must live much worse, and many of them be reduced to severe distress. The number of labourers also being above the proportion of the work in the market, the price of labour must tend towards a decrease, while the price of provisions would at the same time tend to rise.
The labourer therefore, must work harder to earn the same as he did before. During this season of distress, the discouragements to marriage and the difficulty of rearing a family are so great that population is at a stand.
In the mean-time the cheapness of labour, the plenty of labourers, and the necessity of an increased industry amongst them encourage cultivators to employ more labour upon their land; to turn up fresh spoil; and to manure and improve more completely what is already in tillage, till ultimately the means of subsistence become in the same proportion to the population as at the period from which we set out.
The situation of the labourers being then again tolerably comfortable, the restraints to population are in some degree loosened, and the same retrograde and progressive movements with respect to happiness are repeated.
The population debate in the past has often been a question of numbers only. Too many or too few, depending on the contest. However, Malthus understood that it is more than numbers. Reviews of the population debate often start by repudiating Malthus and his original statement that ‘population, when unchecked, increases in a geometric ratio. Subsistence increase in an arithmetical ratio.
The interpretation has been that Malthus anticipated that human populations will outgrow food supplies. With a different reading frame we may say that the part of Malthus hypothesis that has been superseded over the centuries is not his conclusion that there are limits to growth of human population, but his belief of mature age that the foresight of mankind would ensure that resources would tend to balance population growth by means of a preventive check on fertility, based on marriage practices.
Inspite of the present occurrence and acceptance of more attractive regulative methods these are available to only a fraction of the world’s population. As for the ‘Positive check’ of Malthus i.e., decreased growth rate through mortality changes, it is also obvious that at present it is not a general shortage of world food and medical supplies that determines now existing starvation and untimely death, but their unequal distribution.
In Malthus static vision of human achievements, food production was, as we have seen, a limiting factor for population growth. We now know that these limits are of a much more complicated nature and intimately connected with our lifestyles and our understanding of the very basis for life on earth, the ecological framework.
Criticisms of the Malthusian Theory:
The doctrines of Malthus have been discussed threadbare by numerous thinkers and writers and more often than not have been severely criticised. Some earlier, writers even used abusive language and attributed vicious motives to him.
Some of his earlier critics were often ignorant about the simple facts of his personal life, which were easily verifiable. Those who condemned Malthus as well as those who praised him often based their arguments on misconceptions either because they had not read him thoroughly or because they had not understood him correctly.
One of the reasons for the popularity of the Malthusian doctrine was that he had based his arguments on two ratios-the geometrical and the arithmetical. In the view of many of his critics, however, this was the weakest point in this theory. Consequently, he was heavily attacked on this score.
Kenneth Smith pointed out that these ratios concerning population growth and the means of subsistence were based on a very slender foundation and were never really proved. Malthus conclusion that population would double in a period of twenty five years was based on the evidence of doubtful American statistics.
He had almost completely ignored the role of immigration in the North American population growth. His arithmetical ratio concerning the growth of the means of subsistence was also unanimously rejected, though in later years it was strongly reinforced by the law of diminishing returns.
One argument against Malthus was that he did not clearly distinguish between fecundity – the physiological capacity to reproduce and fertility the actual reproductive performance measured in terms of live births – although the phenomenon of differential fertility had stated making its impact about that time.
The classification of checks on population growth into the two categories of preventive and positive also came in for criticism and was cited as an example of poor classification, for the two do not form independent categories. Moreover, it was pointed out that Malthus had not succeeded in connecting his positive and preventive checks – vice, misery and prudence – with his theory.
In general, Malthus was criticised on the following points:
1. He placed undue emphasis the limitation of the supply of land. The agricultural revolution which brought in its wake the system of rotation of crops, chemical fertilisers, plant and animal breeding and improvements in the quality of livestock brought about a tremendous increase in agricultural production. The gloomy predictions of Malthus, therefore, did not come true.
2. Malthus under-estimated the importance of industrial development, and did not take into consideration the faster and more reliable modes of transport which helped colonial empires to provide additional raw materials, an exploitable land supply and new markets for manufactured products.
3. His religious beliefs prevented him from grasping the possibility of the widespread use of contraceptives.