Thomas Robert Malthus

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Population, when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio, Subsistence, increases only in an arithmetical ratio.

Thomas Robert Malthus (13 February 176629 December 1834) was an English demographer and political economist best known for his pessimistic but highly influential views on population growth.



An Essay on The Principle of Population (First Edition 1798, unrevised)

  • It is an acknowledged truth in philosophy that a just theory will always be confirmed by experiment.
    • Chapter I, paragraph 9, lines 1-2
  • Population, when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio, Subsistence, increases only in an arithmetical ratio.
    • Chapter I, paragraph 18, lines 1-2
  • The love of independence is a sentiment that surely none would wish to see erased from the breast of man, though the parish law of England, it must be confessed, is a system of all others the most calculated gradually to weaken this sentiment, and in the end may eradicate it completely.
    • Chapter IV, paragraph 13, lines 11-15
  • To remedy the frequent distresses of the common people, the poor laws of England have been instituted; but it is to be feared that though they may have alleviated a little the intensity of individual misfortune, they have spread the general evil over a much larger surface.
    • Chapter V, paragraph 2, lines 1-5
  • The transfer of three shillings and sixpence a day to every labourer would not increase the quantity of meat in the country. There is not at present enough for all to have a decent share. What would then be the consequence?
    • Chapter V, paragraph 3, lines 5-8
  • I feel no doubt whatever that the parish laws of England have contributed to raise the price of provisions and to lower the real price of labour.
    • Chapter V, paragraph 13, lines 1-3
  • The labouring poor, to use a vulgar expression, seem always to live from hand to mouth. Their present wants employ their whole whole attention, and they seldom think of the future. Even when they have an opportunity of saving they seldom exercise it, but all that is beyond their present neccessities goes, generally speaking, to the ale house.
    • Chapter V, paragraph 13, lines 8-13
  • Every endeavor should be used to weaken and destroy all those institutions relating to corporations, apprenticeships, &c, which cause the labours of agriculture to be worse paid than the labours of trade and manufactures.
    • Chapter V, paragraph 23, lines 3-7
  • To prevent the recurrence of misery is, alas! beyond the power of man.
    • Chapter V, paragraph 25, lines 4-5
  • It accords with the most liberal spirit of philosophy to suppose that not a stone can fall, or a plant rise, without the immediate agency of divine power.
    • Chapter VII, paragraph 10, lines 8-10
  • The power of population is so superior to the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other vist the human race.
    • Chapter VII, paragraph 20, lines 2-4
  • With regard to the duration of human life, there does not appear to have existed from the earliest ages of the world to the present moment the smallest permanent symptom or indication of increasing prolongation.
    • Chapter IX, paragraph 7, lines 1-4
  • Though I may not be able to in the present instance to mark the limit at which further improvement will stop, I can very easily mention a point at which it will not arrive.
    • Chapter IX, paragraph 8, lines 14-16
  • It cannot be true, therefore, that among animals some of the offspring will possess the desirable qualities of the parents in greater degree, or that animals are indefinitely perfectible.
    • Chapter IX, paragraph 9, lines 1-3
Man cannot live in the midst of plenty.
Chapter X, paragraph 7, line 1
  • I know of no well-directed attempts of this kind, except in the ancient family of the Bickerstaffs, who are said to have been very successful in whitening the skins and increasing the height of their race by prudent marriages, particularly by that very judicious cross with Maud, the milk- maid, by which some capital defects in the constitutions of the family were corrected.
    • Chapter IX, paragraph 14, lines 22-27 ( see also eugenics)
  • Man cannot live in the midst of plenty.
    • Chapter X, paragraph 7, line 1
  • It has appeared that from the inevitable laws of our nature, some human beings must suffer from want. These are the unhappy persons who, in the great lottery of life, have drawn a blank.
    • Chapter X, paragraph 29, lines 12-15
  • No move towards the extinction of the passion between the sexes has taken place in the five or six thousand years that the world has existed.
    • Chapter XI, paragraph 1, lines 6-8
  • I happen to have a very bad fit of the tooth-ache at the time I am writing this.
    • Chapter XII, paragraph 6, lines 8-9
  • The moon is not kept in her orbit round the earth, nor the earth in her orbit round the sun, by a force that varies merely in the inverse ratio of the squares of the distances.
    • Chapter XIII, paragraph 2, lines 19-22
  • The lower classes of people in Europe may at some future period be much better instructed then they are at present; they may be taught to employ the little spare time they have in many better ways than at the ale-house; they may live under better and more equal laws than they have hitherto done, perhaps, in any country; and I even conceive it possible, though not probable, that they may have more leisure; but it is not in the nature of things, that they can be awarded such a quantity of money or substance, as will allow them all to marry early, in the full confidence that they shall be able to provide with ease for a numerous family.
    • Chapter XIV, paragraph 9
  • Had population and food increased in the same ratio, it is probable that man might never have emerged from the savage state.
    • Chapter XVIII, paragraph 11, lines 16-17
  • The greatest talents have been frequently misapplied and have produced evil proportionate to the extent of their powers. Both reason and revelation seem to assure us that such minds will be condemned to eternal death, but while on earth, these vicious instruments performed their part in the great mass of impressions, by the disgust and abhorrence which they excited.
    • Chapter XIX, paragraph 2, lines 1-6
  • Evil exists in the world not to create despair but activity.
    • Chapter XIX, paragraph 15, line 1

Essay on the Principle of Population (1798; rev. through 1826)

  • The most successful supporters of tyranny are without doubt those general declaimers who attribute the distresses of the poor, and almost all evils to which society is subject, to human institutions and the iniquity of governments.
  • If I saw a glass of wine repeatedly presented to a man, and he took no notice of it, I should be apt to think that he was blind or uncivil. A juster philosophy might teach me rather to think that my eyes deceived me, and that the offer was not really what I conceived it to be.
  • The germs of existence contained in this spot of earth, with ample food, and ample room to expand in, would fill millions of worlds in the course of a few thousand years.
  • The perpetual tendency of the race of man to increase beyond the means of subsistence is one of the general laws of animated nature, which we can have no reason to expect to change.
  • The immediate cause of the increase of population is the excess of the births above deaths; and the rate of increase, or the period of doubling, depends upon the proportion which the excess of the births above the deaths bears to the population.
  • The main peculiarity which distinguishes man from other animals, is the means of his support, is the power which he possesses of very greatly increasing these means.
  • The finest minds seem to be formed rather by efforts at original thinking, by endeavours to form new combinations, and to discover new truths, than by passively receiving the impressions of other men's ideas.
  • we should facilitate, instead of foolishly and vainly endeavouring to impede, the operations of nature in producing this mortality; and if we dread the too frequent visitation of the horrid form of famine, we should sedulously encourage the other forms of destruction, which we compel nature to use. Instead of recommending cleanliness to the poor, we should encourage contrary habits. In our towns we should make the streets narrower, crowd more people into the houses, and court the return of the plague. In the country, we should build our villages near stagnant pools, and particularly encourage settlements in all marshy and unwholesome situations.*12 But above all, we should reprobate specific remedies for ravaging diseases; and those benevolent, but much mistaken men, who have thought they were doing a service to mankind by projecting schemes for the total extirpation of particular disorders. [Book IV, Chapter V]

Principles of Political Economy (Second Edition 1836)

With Considerable Additions From The Author's Own Manuscript And An Original Memoir
  • Not many years had elapsed after the first edition of this work, when it became known to all with whom Mr. Malthus had the opportunity of communicating on the subject, or who were acquainted with his last publications, that his opinions on the subject of value had undergone some change.
    • Advertisement to the Second Edition, p. vii
  • It has been said, and perhaps with truth, that the conclusions of Political Economy partake more of the certainty of the stricter sciences than those of most of the other branches of human knowledge.
    • Book I, Introduction, p. 1
  • To minds of a certain cast there is nothing so captivating as simplification and generalization.
    • Book I, Introduction, p. 5
  • The first business of philosophy is to account for things as they are; and till our theories will do this, they ought not to be the ground of any practical conclusion.
    • Book I, Introduction, p. 8
  • The science of political economy is essentially practical, and applicable to the common business of human life. There are few branches of human knowledge where false views may do more harm, or just views more good.
    • Book I, Introduction, p. 9
  • The question is, what is saving?
    • Book I, Chapter I, Of The Definitions of Wealth and of Productive Labour, Section II, p. 40
  • Surely then some distinction between the different kinds of labour, with reference to their different effects on national wealth, must be admitted to be not only useful, but necessary; and if so, the question is what this distinction should be, and where the line between the different kinds of labour should be drawn.
    • Book I, Chapter I, Of The Definitions of Wealth and of Productive Labour, Section II, p. 43
  • To estimate the value of Newton's discoveries, or the delight communicated by Shakespeare and Milton, by the price at which their works have sold, would be but a poor measure of the degree in which they have elevated and enchanted their country; nor would it be less grovelling and incongruous to estimate the benefit which the country has derived from the Revolution of 1688, by the pay of the soldiers, and all other payments concerned in effecting it.
    • Book I, Chapter I, Of The Definitions of Wealth and of Productive Labour, Section II, p. 49
  • The proposition of Mr. Ricardo, which states that a rise in the price of labour lowers the price of a large class of commodities, has undoubtedly a very paradoxical air; but it is, nevertheless, true, and the appearance of paradox would vanish, if it were stated more naturally and correctly.
    • Book I, Chapter II, On the Nature, Causes, and Measures of Value, Section IV, p. 88
  • If a country can only be rich by running a successful race for low wages, I should be disposed to say at once, perish such riches!
    • Book I, Chapter III, Of the Rent of Land, Section IX, p. 214
  • But, fortunately for mankind, the neat rents of the land, under a system of private property, can never be diminished by the progress of cultivation.
    • Book I, Chapter III, Of the Rent of Land, Section IX, p. 216
  • It is quite obvious therefore, that the knowledge and prudence of the poor themselves, are absolutely the only means by which any general and permanent improvement in their condition can be effected. They are really the arbiters of their own destiny; and what others can do for themselves. These truths are so important to the happiness of the great mass of society, that every opportunity should be taken of repeating them.
    • Book I, Chapter V, Of the Profits of Capital, Section III, p. 279
  • THERE is scarcely any inquiry more curious, or, from its importance, more worthy of attention, than that which traces the causes which practically check the progress of wealth in different countries, and stop it, or make it proceed very slowly, while the power of production remains comparatively undiminished, or at least would furnish the means of a great and abundant increase of produce and population.
    • Book II, Chapter I, On the Progress of Wealth, Section I, p. 309
  • In general it may be said that demand is quite as necessary to the increase of capital as the increase of capital is to demand.
    • Book II, Chapter I, On the Progress of Wealth, Section IV, p. 349 ( See also; Says Law)
  • A feather will weigh down a scale when there is nothing in the opposite one.
    • Book II, Chapter I, On the Progress of Wealth, Section V, p. 355
  • Thirty or forty proprietors, with incomes answering to between one thousand and five thousand a year, would create a much more effectual demand for the necessaries, conveniences, and luxuries of life, than a single proprietor possessing a hundred thousand a year.
    • Book II, Chapter I, On the Progress of Wealth, Section VII, p. 374
  • Every exchange which takes place in a country, effects a distribution of its produce better adapted to the wants of society....
    If two districts, one of which possessed a rich copper mine, and the other a rich tin mine, had always been separated by an impassable river or mountain, there can be no doubt that an opening of a communication, a greater demand would take place, and a greater price be given for both the tin and the copper;and this greater price of both metals, though it might be only temporary, would alone go a great way towards furnishing the additional capital wanted to supply the additional demand; and the capitals of both districts, and the products of both mines, would be increased both in quantity and value to a degree which could not have taken place without the this new distribution of the produce, or some equivalent to it.
    • Book II, Chapter I, On the Progress of Wealth, Section VIII, p. 382-383
  • It is a mere futile process to exchange one set of commodities for another, if the parties; after this new distribution of goods has taken place, are not better off than they were before.
    • Book II, Chapter I, On the Progress of Wealth, Section VIII, p. 384
  • But such consumption is not consistent with the actual habits of the generality of capitalists. The great object of their lives is to save a fortune, both because it is their duty to make a provision for their families, and because they cannot spend an income with so much comfort to themselves, while they are obliged perhaps to attend a counting house for seven or eight hours a day...
    ...There must therefore be a considerable class of persons who have both the will and power to consume more material wealth than they produce, or the mercantile classes could not continue profitably to produce so much more than they consume.
  • It is not the most pleasant employment to spend eight hours a day in a counting house.
    • Book II, Chapter I, On the Progress of Wealth, Section IX, p. 403
  • ...where are we to look for the consumption required but among the unproductive labourers of Adam Smith?...
    • Book II, Chapter I, On the Progress of Wealth, Section IX, p. 406
  • It is also very important to observe, that menial servants are absolutely necessary to make the resources of the higher and middle classes of society efficient in the demand for material products.
    • Book II, Chapter I, On the Progress of Wealth, Section IX, p. 408
  • The effect therefore on national wealth of those classes of unproductive consumers which are supported by taxation, must be very various in different countries, and must depend entirely upon the powers of production, and upon the manner in which the taxes are raised in each country.
    • Book II, Chapter I, On The Progress of Wealth, Section IX, p. 410
  • On the whole it may be observed, that the specific use of a body of unproductive consumers, is to give encouragement to wealth by maintaining such a balance between produce and consumption as will give the greatest exchangeable value to the results of the national industry.
    • Book II, Chapter I, On The Progress of Wealth, Section IX, p. 412-413
  • If one fourth of the capital of a country were suddenly destroyed, or entirely transferred to a different part of the world, without any other cause occurring of a diminished demand for commodities, this scantiness of capital would certainly occasion great inconvenience to consumers, and great distress among the working classes; but it would be attended with great advantages to the remaining capitalists.
    • Book II, Chapter I, On The Progress of Wealth, Section X, p. 414 (See also: Karl Marx, Capital Volume I, Chapter 25, Section 4(e), p. 742
  • When Hume and Adam Smith prophesied that a little increase of national debt beyond the then amount of it, would probably occasion bankruptcy; the main cause of their error was the natural one, of not being able to see the vast increase of productive power to which the nation would subsequently obtain.
    • Book II, Chapter I, On The Progress of Wealth, Section X, p. 422
  • The employment of the poor in roads and public works, and a tendency among landlords and persons of property to build, to improve and beautify their grounds, and to employ workmen and menial servants, are the means most within our power and most directly calculated to remedy the evils arising from that disturbance in the balance of produce and consumption.
    • Book II, Chapter I, On The Progress of Wealth, Section X, p. 430
  • In prosperous times the mercantile classes often realize fortunes, which go far towards securing them against the future; but unfortunately the working classes, though they share in the general prosperity, do not share in it so largely as in the general adversity.
    • Book II, Chapter I, On The Progress of Wealth, Section X, p. 437

Quotes about Malthus

The workers have taken it into their heads that they, with their busy hands, are the necessary, and the rich capitalists, who do nothing, the surplus population. ~ Friedrich Engels
  • And these riches, that are derived from this art of wealth-getting, are truly unlimited; for just as the art of medicine is without limit in respect to health, and each of the arts is without limit in respect of its end...
  • MALTHUSIAN, adj. Pertaining to Malthus and his doctrines. Malthus believed in artificially limiting population, but found that it could not be done by talking. One of the most practical exponents of the Malthusian idea was Herod of Judea, though all the famous soldiers have been of the same way of thinking.
  • Malthus was not wrong in the ways commonly supposed. From his 18th-century perspective, he simply had no basis for seeing the human ability to "overshoot" carrying capacity. It was inconceivable to Malthus that human societies could, by taking advantage of favorable conditions (new technology, abundant fossil fuels), temporarily increase human numbers and appetites above the long-term capacity of environments to provide needed resources and services. But it is inexcusable today not to recognize the way populations can sometimes overshoot sustainable carrying capacity and what happens to them after they have done it.
  • "Are there no prisons?" said the Spirit turning on him for the last time with his own words.
    "Are there no workhouses?"
    The bell struck twelve.
  • Malthus ... quotes the words of a poet, that the poor man comes to the feast of Nature and finds no cover laid for him, and adds that 'she bids him begone', for he did not before his birth ask of society whether or not he is welcome. This is now the pet theory of all genuine English bourgeois, and very naturally, since it is the most specious excuse for them.
  • If, then, the problem is not to make the 'surplus population' useful, ... but merely to let it starve to death in the least objectionable way, ... this, of course, is simple enough, provided the surplus population perceives its own superfluousness and takes kindly to starvation. There is, however, in spite of the strenuous exertions of the humane bourgeoisie, no immediate prospect of its succeeding in bringing about such a disposition among the workers. The workers have taken it into their heads that they, with their busy hands, are the necessary, and the rich capitalists, who do nothing, the surplus population.
  • Population trends have always provoked doom-fraught oracles, because their popular interpreters suppose that every new series will be infinitely sustained; yet, beyond the short term, expectations based on them are never fulfilled.
  • Anyone would expect that Malthus, who taught the future servants of the East India Company, would draw, for his pessimistic evidence, on the huge, poor and prolific population of India. There is, however, only passing reference to Hindustan in his great Essay on The Principle of Population.
  • Mr. Malthus's first octavo volume on this subject (published in the year 1798) was intended as an answer to Mr. Godwin's Enquiry concerning Political Justice. It was well got up for the purpose, and had an immediate effect. It was what in the language of the ring is called a facer. It made Mr. Godwin and the other advocates of Modern Philosophy look about them. It may be almost doubted whether Mr. Malthus was in the first instance serious in many things that he threw out, or whether he did not hazard the whole as an amusing and extreme paradox, which might puzzle the reader as it had done himself in an idle moment, but to which no practical consequence whatever could attach.
    • William Hazlitt, The Spirit of the Age; Or, Contemporary Portraits
  • Nature herself in times of great poverty or bad climatic conditions, as well as poor harvest, intervenes to restrict the increase of population of certain countries or races; this, to be sure, by a method as wise as it is ruthless.
  • In 1860, sixty-three per cent of the couples married in Great Britain had families of four or more children; in 1925 only twenty per cent had more than four.
  • The doctrine of population has been conspicuously absent, not because I doubt in the least its truth and vast importance, but because it forms no part of the direct problem of economics.
  • In short, we can say that the theory of Malthus, by shaping into a pseudo-scientific form the secret desires of the wealth-possessing classes, became the foundation of a whole system of practical philosophy, which permeates the minds of both the educated and uneducated, and reacts, (as practical philosophy always does) upon the theoretical philosophy of our century.
  • Malthus… has been the whipping boy of idealists and techno-optimists for two hundred years. His famous essay proposed that human population, if unconstrained, would grow exponentially while food supplies grew only arithmetically, and that therefore population growth faced strict and inevitable natural limits. Most commentators, however, took the math at face value and overlooked the part about constraints. These “checks’ on population come in the form of famine, pestilence, war, and ‘moral restraint,” i.e., the will to postpone marriage or forgo parenthood (from a perhaps antiquated notion that the ability to support a family might enter into anyone’s plans for forming one, or even that society could influence such choices). Malthus’s essay has been mostly misconstrued to mean that the human race was doomed at a certain arbitrary set point, and the pejorative ‘malthusian” is attached to any idea that suggests that human ingenuity cannot make accommodation for more human beings to join the party on Spaceship Earth.
    Interestingly, Malthus’s essay was aimed at the reigning Enlightenment idealists of his own youth, the period of the American and French Revolutions, in particular the seminal figures of William Godwin and the Marquis de Condorcet. Both held that mankind was infinitely improvable and that a golden age of social justice, political harmony, equality, abundance, brotherhood, happiness, and altruism loomed imminently. Although sympathetic to social improvement, Malthus deemed these claims untenable and thought it necessary to debunk them.
  • Malthus was wrong only in his optimism that population will saturate and stabilize. Thomas Malthus worried that finite land (from which all energy derived via captured sunlight prior to the exploitation of fossil fuels) would translate to a cessation of population growth once saturated. His prediction of when that would happen missed the mark by perhaps a few centuries due to the unforeseen arrival of fossil fuels onto the scene. Economists use “Malthusian” as a derogatory synonym for “wrong,” and bludgeon any similar-sounding suggestion about future limits by employing an expression of (blind) faith that something else as transformational as fossil fuels will surely always come along in time to obviate the concern. The ironic problem here is that the reason Malthus was “wrong” (fossil fuels) will also make him wrong about saturating population at some presumably steady-state peak. The connection is overshoot.
  • Population regulates itself by the funds which are to employ it, and therefore always increases or diminishes with the increase or the diminution of capital. Every reduction of capital is therefore necessarily followed by a less effective demand for corn, by a fall in price, and by a diminished cultivation.
  • It is true that the attempt made by Malthus to destroy the foundations of the Ricardian system failed and that the chief tenets of classical political economy continued to enjoy considerable authority.
    • Eric Roll, A History of Economic Thought, Chapter 4, p. 143
  • In his comfortable parsonage, he contemplated the misery of the great majority of mankind with equanimity, and pointed out the fallacies of the reformers who hoped to alleviate it.
  • The most effectual encouragement to population is, the activity of industry, and the consequent multiplication of the national products.
    • Jean-Baptiste Say, A Treatise On Political Economy (Fourth Edition), Book II, Chapter XI, Section I, p. 375
  • The liberal reward of labour, as it is to the effect of increasing wealth, so it is the cause of increasing population. To complain of it, is to lament over the necessary effect and cause of the greatest public prosperity.
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Francis Hutcheson · Bernard Mandeville · David Hume · Adam Smith · Jean-Baptiste Say · Thomas Malthus · James Mill · Francis Place · David Ricardo · Henry Thornton · John Ramsay McCulloch · James Maitland, 8th Earl of Lauderdale · Jeremy Bentham · Jean Charles Léonard de Sismondi · Johann Heinrich von Thünen · John Stuart Mill · Henry Charles Carey · Nassau William Senior · Edward Gibbon Wakefield · John Rae · Frédéric Bastiat · Thomas Tooke · Robert Torrens