Malthus and the Population Debate

From the desk of Malthus: How the population debate began

In 1798 Joseph Johnson, bookseller and printer of St Paul’s Churchyard, London, published anonymously 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. Its author was Thomas Robert Malthus (1766-1834), and its central theme was that there was an inherent tendency for human numbers to ‘outstrip the means of subsistence’.

Few books have provoked such widely divergent reactions. To Karl Marx, writing in 1867, the Essay was ‘nothing more than a schoolboyish, superficial plagiary … and does not contain a single sentence thought out by [Malthus] himself’. But to J.M. Keynes, writing in 1933, it was ‘a work of youthful genius’ which ‘can claim a place amongst those which have had great influence on the progress of thought’.

On 17-18 September the National Library of Australia, in association with the National Academies Forum, held a conference to commemorate the two hundredth anniversary of the publication of Malthus’s famous book. Demographers, historians, economists and medical scientists examined Malthus as man and scholar, and the continuing influence of his work on thought and action in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

An associated exhibition drew upon the rich store of material relating to Malthus held in the Library’s collections. The books on display included a copy of the rare first edition of the Essay and of the great second edition of 1803, praised by economist Alfred Marshall as ‘one of the most crushing answers that patient and hard-working science has ever given to the reckless assertions of its adversaries’. The four further editions which were published during Malthus’s lifetime were also displayed.

The first Essay was written, as Malthus was later to explain, ‘on the impulse of the occasion, and from the few materials which were then within my reach in a country situation’. He was, in fact, living at his parents’ home at Albury in Surrey, about 50 kilometres south-west of London. As curate of Okewood, some fifteen kilometres from Albury, Robert Malthus rode regularly on narrow bridle paths to conduct Sunday services and meet his parishioners in their wattle and daub cottages. The young parson was ‘Bob’ to his friends and, from the time that the Essay brought him fame and notoriety, ‘Population Malthus’ to the wider community.

The Library displayed all of the eleven works which are cited in the first Essay. These include, of course, the works which were the subject of Malthus’s attack: the ‘speculations of Mr Godwin [and] M. Condorcet’ identified in the sub-title.

In his Enquiry concerning Political Justice, and its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness, first published by Joseph Johnson in 1793, William Godwin painted his vision of a perfect society. There would be ‘no war, no crimes, no administration of justice … and no government’; and no ‘disease, anguish, melancholy nor resentment’. Each man need do only half an hour’s manual work a day. Property was to belong to him who most wanted it. Mind would so triumph over body that passion between the sexes would gradually become extinct. Individual earthly immortality would be assured. And ‘myriads of centuries of still increasing population [might] pass away, and the earth [would] be still found sufficient for the subsistence of its inhabitants.’

Social and human perfectibility is also the theme of Condorcet’s remarkable Esquisse … [Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind]. Written while its author was in hiding from the Jacobin terror in post-revolutionary France, and published soon after his death in prison in 1794, this book traced the development of the human race through nine past stages, and foresaw a tenth epoch of endless progress in which the human mind could ‘of the number of men surpassing their means of subsistence’, he thought that such an event ‘cannot take place but at an era when the human race will have attained improvements, of which we can at present scarcely form a conception’.

Malthus’s response to these works was measured. He affirmed that he could not doubt ‘the talents of such men as Godwin and Condorcet’, and was ‘unwilling to doubt their candour’. Condorcet’s book was ‘a sketch of the opinions of a celebrated individual’ which each reader should study: it ‘will amuse, if it does not convince him’. As for Godwin, it was ‘impossible not to be struck with the spirit and energy of his style, the force and precision of some of his reasonings, the ardent tone of his thoughts, and particularly with that impressive earnestness of manner which gives an air of truth to the whole’.

But there Malthus’s compliments ended. The young cleric, to use his own words from the preface to the Essay, ‘had not acquired that command over his understanding which would enable him to believe what he wishes, without evidence, or to refuse his assent to what might be unpleasing, when unaccompanied with evidence’. From this perspective, Condorcet’s work represented a ‘singular instance of the attachment of a man to his principles, which every day’s experience was so fatally for himself contradicting’. And Godwin’s system was ‘little better than a dream’, which must dissolve ‘when we awaken to real life and contemplate the true and genuine situation of man on earth.’

Malthus was always conscious of ‘real life’. And at the time that he was writing the Essay, his pastoral duties brought him constant reminders of ‘the true and genuine situation of man on earth’. The children whom he observed on his rides between Albury and Okewood were stunted in their growth: they were not ‘such rosy cherubs in real life, as they are described to be in romances’. Godwin was prepared to attribute all of the ills of society to human institutions, but Malthus held the contrary view: ‘human institutions, so far from aggravating, have tended considerably to mitigate, though they can never remove’ the consequences of the inexorable tendency for population to outstrip the means of subsistence.

Two books on Malthus’s desk recalled a famous debate of the 1750s. In A Dissertation on the Numbers of Mankind in Antient and Modern Times (1753), Robert Wallace had argued that the population of the ancient world was greater than in modern times. But this thesis was attacked even before the book was published by David Hume, who had seen an earlier version of Wallace’s paper. In his ‘Of the Populousness of Antient Nations’, a landmark in demographic studies published in Political Discourses (1752), Hume doubted whether antiquity had anything to compare in riches and populousness with the area bounded by a circle of two hundred miles radius from Dover or Calais.

Two other books on Malthus’s desk were the product of another debate. In 1780 Dr Richard Price, a prominent dissenter who would be ranked among those who had discovered ‘the true system of society’ in the ninth epoch of Condorcet’s Esquisse, argued in a postscript to his Observations on Reversionary Payments that the population of England and Wales had decreased by one-third since 1688 and by 1780 was only about five millions. Price believed that ‘great towns do more towards obstructing the increase of mankind than all plagues, famines and wars …’. The Reverend John Howlett countered with An Examination of Dr Price’s Essay on the Population of England (1781), in which he maintained that the population was about eight millions and rising. Although Malthus believed that ‘Dr Price’s point is nearer being proved than Mr Howlett’s’ and that England’s population was increasing slowly if at all, modern scholarship has shown that numbers were far greater than Price supposed – and were increasing rapidly.

In the course of his examination of the history of population change in England, Malthus referred in his first Essay to a statement by ‘Mr King, in 1693’ that ‘the proportion of the births to the burials throughout the Kingdom, exclusive of London, [is] 115 to 100’. The apparent source of this estimate is a table in Gregory King’s remarkable study Natural and Political Observations and Conclusions upon the State and Condition of England (1696).