Thomas Malthus

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Thomas Malthus, outstripping the increases in your food supply.
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Not to be confused with the religious stance known as maltheism.

Thomas Robert Malthus (1766-1834) was a British thinker known for his works in economics, demography, and population.

An Essay on the Principle of Population[edit]

Malthus' best known work is the 1798 book-length work, Essay on the Principle of Population, which has had a far-reaching influence on not only the overpopulation debate, but much social thought of the 19th-21st centuries. The book was actually a specific response to the utopian writings of William Godwin (1756–1836) and the Marquis de Condorcet (1743–1794). It contains what is now called the "Malthusian growth model," in which food supply can grow only at a linear rate,[note 1] while population is in principle capable of growing exponentially; therefore, checks must be acting on the population which prevent it achieving its potential growth rate.[note 2] Malthus described positive checks on population growth, such as war, disease, and starvation;Wikipedia as well as preventive checks, such as delayed marriage, abortion, and birth control.

In the book, Malthus also formulated what would later be called "Malthus' Iron Law of Population," which states that growing population would lead to a greater supply of labor and thus lower wages. On this basis, Malthus argued for the repeal of poor laws and welfare because they would keep the price of food high and encourage further overpopulation and poverty. Instead, he urged "moral restraint": by voluntarily delaying marriage and remaining chaste before marriage, population could be kept within bounds, leading to ample food supplies and higher wages. He also attempted to address the problem of evil, writing that evil was necessary in the world for virtue to exist.

Both Darwin and Wallace credit the ideas of Malthus as one of the important influences leading to the theory of natural selection. He was also fiercely criticized by prominent communists.[2][3]

Malthusianism also has the minor flaw that ignores that the food supply is simply another population of organisms. The plants and animals composing the food supply can themselves multiply exponentially! At least until they, too, run out of space and resources. But humans are not unique in this regard.

How we've escaped the Malthusian trap[edit]

The global population has grown exponentially between 1800 and the second half of the twentieth century, but famines have never been so unfrequent as they are today.

Malthus lived in a time when not only people had more children but also didn't invest so much in the ones they had. In other words, Malthus was about to witness the end of the Malthusian epoch - his mistake was the fact that he believed that this phase would last. Long story short, up until around the time Malthus was born, every economic innovation was almost immediately met by a growing population, and the vast majority of people were back to abject poverty. New farming technique adds to the food supply by 10%? People eat better for a few years, but then more survive to adulthood, and you are back to where you started. Malthus looked at history and made the reasonable assumption that the economic growth of the late 18th century would have the same result. The economy was able to grow faster than the world population could keep up with it, which is why abject poverty stopped being the norm in the developed world by the end of the 19th century. In the latter half of the twentieth century, many developing countries also broke out of the Malthusian trap, and across Africa, Asia and Latin America, families started having fewer children and investing more in the ones they had, which, combined with rapid economic growth, led to a dramatic improvement in living standards all around the globe.[4]:111-16 Malthus' theories can explain to some extent much of the human history from the Neolithic revolution to the Industrial Revolution, but we need something new.[4]:27-41 How did humanity break the mold? The acceleration of technological advancement reached a tipping point that allowed an immense improvement in living standards across the planet. And what caused this technological progress? And why was it so uneven? There is still much debate on this area, with answers such as geography, culture and institutions being some of the favorite explanations of the experts on the field of development.[5]

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. While this possibly could be true when Malthus wrote the book, it isn't anymore. See the Green Revolution for a dramatic example of how the food supply can also grow faster.
  2. The conclusion is also now outdated, because population is no longer growing exponentially.[1]


  1. Ritchie, Hannah; Rodés-Guirao, Lucas; Mathieu, Edouard; Gerber, Marcel; Ortiz-Ospina, Esteban; Hasell, Joe; Roser, Max (2023-07-11). "Population Growth". Our World in Data. 
  2. Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy, Friedrich Engels - Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher, 1844
  3. The Working Class and NeoMalthusianism, Lenin - Pravda No. 137, June 16, 1913
  4. 4.0 4.1 Galor, Oded (2022). The Journey of humanity: the origins of wealth and inequality. United States: Dutton. ISBN 978-0-593-18599-5. 
  5. Koyama, Mark; Rubin, Jared (2022). How the world became rich: the historical origins of economic growth. Cambridge, UK Medford, MA, USA: Polity Press. ISBN 978-1-5095-4022-8.