Malthus Redivivus/Malthus Revisited

by guest contributor E.G. Gallwey

In the history of ideas, the rate of population growth or decline has carried strong associations with the trajectories of societies and states. The eighteenth-century writer Thomas Robert Malthus’s principle of population has set the standard for discussion of the implications of demographic change, and placed the problem of scarcity at the center of human experience. For Malthus, scarcity of food (the limits to what could be produced from the earth’s resources), coupled with the continuous desire for sexual reproduction, was the abiding condition of human existence.


Thomas Robert Malthus (1766-1834) by John Linnell (1834)

Malthus was not the first to talk about the implications of scarcity on economic life. But since his work was first published, he has been associated with a profoundly unfeeling attitude towards the fate of the poor. Thomas Carlyle branded political economy the “dismal science” on account of Malthus’s contention that human beings would always have to live within the limits of natural law, and that human attempts to alter natural law by schemes of improvement would most likely have negative long-term effects. Such views were largely a consequence of Malthus’s position relative to the social reform schemes championed by advocates of human plenty and invention who had developed their ideas in the context of the French Revolution, the pinnacle of Enlightenment optimism.

Just as scholars of the eighteenth century have done much to rehabilitate the tired and outdated picture of Adam Smith, Malthus’s reputation has been deemed ripe for re-evaluation. Coinciding with the 250th anniversary of Malthus’s birth and the publication of Joyce Chaplin and Alison Bashford’s exciting new book, The New Worlds of Thomas Robert Malthus, a conference at Malthus’s alma mater, Jesus College, Cambridge on June 20-21 engaged in a substantial and timely reassessment of Malthus’ thought. Scholars from a range of disciplines, including history, political science, demography, and economics, gathered for the two-day meeting.

A series of panels on day one explored the historical origin, intention, reception, and propagation of Malthus’s thought from the eighteenth through to the twenty-first century. The opening session provided re-readings of Malthus’s principles in the context of the eighteenth century’s relationship to enlightenment and revolution and to European powers’ imperial expansion in the “new worlds” of the Americas and Pacific.

Joyce E. Chaplin’s paper on the reception history of Malthus’s thought demonstrated how the 1803 “Essay on Population” not only drew directly from new world societies in its evidence base, but also sought directly to engage in a debate about the future of colonial settler societies. Largely forgotten as a critic of imperial schemes of territorial conquest and settlement, Malthus cast serious doubt on the settler fantasy of a terra nullius in the ideology of settler imperialism. Instead, writing in the vein of Enlightenment universal histories, Malthus aimed to demonstrate how new world societies illustrated the limits of resources and the dangers of displacing indigenous populations from the land. Timing was fundamental, however, to the reception and circulation of Malthus’s work; and when the revolutions and subsequent independence of North and South American colonies, suggested the possibility of an escape from the dynamics and limits of the old world, the ensuing optimism resulted in a highly partial reading of Malthus.

Christopher Brooke’s paper reconstructed the possibility of Malthus’s unacknowledged debt to the ideas of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a relation deriving at least in part from the influence of Malthus’s father, a devoted follower of Rousseau. Though both Rousseau and Malthus have long been recognized as expounding influential theories of property relations, the latter has often been depicted as a theologically-driven theorist, engaged in formulating a theodicy for lapsarian man. Brooke instead placed Malthus within a tradition of thought initiated by Montesquieu and carried forward by Rousseau, wherein the question of population was part of a broader debate on the role of climate, the size and scale of states, and their relationship to the moral sentiments of the poor as much as the wealthy. Such republican concerns engendered an interest in the form of economic development most conducive to the stability of political regimes and to the maintenance of constitutional liberties.

Such an alternate reading of Malthus, placing him outside the traditional stress on his combative engagement with the progressive reformist schemes of Condorcet and Godwin, was echoed by Niall O’Flaherty in his paper on Malthus’s approach to the amelioration of poverty. Situating his ideas within Enlightenment debates about the stadial progress and poverty of nations. O’Flaherty identified Malthus’ scientific arguments on the elements of European culture which had alleviated some of the worst population checks, suffered by earlier more primitive societies. Malthus was influenced by Adam Smith and William Paley in his utilitarian analysis of the conditions for the improvement of the poor, including his account of self-love and the role of decent and useful pride in encouraging prudence.

Alison Bashford provided a powerful explanation for Malthus’s curious non-engagement with the question of slavery, even as the multiple editions of the essay spanned the course of the debate on abolition. Citing archival evidence on the Malthus family’s involvement in a protracted legal dispute over the inheritance of a Jamaican plantation, Bashford helped contextualize the omission, which was particularly glaring given the economic significance of the Caribbean colonies in the British empire—a fact of which Malthus, as professor of political economy at the East India Company’s own college, could hardly have been unaware.

The afternoon session considered Malthus’s influence on the trajectory of economic thought and analysis in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Gareth Stedman Jones addressed the afterlife of Malthusian thought in the socialist circles of utopianism and early Marxism. Though Malthus’ thinking on the the poor evoked vituperative responses from radicals like William Godwin and the later Owenites, Stedman Jones pointed toward some important areas of synergy. These included the preponderance of mind over matter in Malthus and Godwin’s account of human nature and the contribution of Malthus’ theory to Marx’s own writing on the declining rate of profit.

This latter point formed a nice transition into Duncan Kelly’s assessment of John Maynard Keynes’s engagement with Malthusian thought. Keynes himself pursued a substantial reassessment of Malthus’s legacy, including an adumbration on the greater advantages to the development of nineteenth-century political economy if the science had followed Malthusian rather than Ricardian logic. Many of the key problems Keynes tackled in his formal economic work, as well as his polemical and political writing, drew on Malthus’s originality in thinking about deficiency in demand and economic cycles: the usefulness, in macro terms, of public-works projects in depression-hit economies. Kelly explained how the connection between social reform, eugenics, and human agency in Keynes’s mature thought intended to address intergenerational justice and the quality of states’ populations, over the traditional geopolitical concern to boost population numbers as an assurance of national strength.

Three final papers by Leigh Shaw-Taylor, Richard Smith, and Paul Warde tested Malthus’ claims against the evidence of centuries of economic and demographic change in England. There followed a public lecture, in which E.A. Wrigely provided a thorough recapitulation of the close link between Malthus’s observations on the laws guiding the behavior of land, labor, and capital and his theory of human nature. He concluded with an observation on the irony of Malthus’s theory governing the limits to growth of organic economies having been brought forth just as human societies began to discover new forms of energy which would revolutionize economic production.

The shifting perspectives of the past, present, and future on the question of scarcity and the morals and politics of human agency were frequently addressed on day two of the conference. The series of panels brought a more contemporary and global focus, though historical treatments of the role of Malthusian language and traditions of thought in the politics and economics of international development allowed for important critiques of the application of Malthusianism in non-western settings. Much of the discussion in the morning centered on how mid-twentieth-century anxieties over an impending food crisis drew on a neo-Malthusian revival. The role of states and of non-governmental institutions like the Rockefeller Foundation, and the revival of disciplines like demography, spurred a renewed interest in earth’s carrying capacity and the damage being done by the manipulation of new technologies in botany and human fertility.

The concluding panel offered a vivid sense of the way in which climate change has replaced food crisis as the dominating concern of the twenty-first century. Yet the origins of ecology and climate science, and even key concepts like the anthropocene, can be understood to have borrowed much from Malthusian thinking. Indeed, the application of temporal and geographic scale in understanding the direction of human and planetary history is by no means the only legacy Malthus imparted to his readers.

E.G. Gallwey is a PhD candidate in American History at Harvard University. Her dissertation research explores the intellectual history of political and economic thought in the long eighteenth century, with a focus on republican debates over public credit in the revolutionary Atlantic.

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