Thomas Robert Malthus Essay

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The political economist Thomas Robert Malthus was born on February 13, 1766, at Wotton, Surrey, England. He was known as Robert Malthus. Taught by radical thinkers, including his father, and at the famous dissenting academy at Warrington, near Liverpool, Malthus then entered Jesus College, Cambridge (1784-88), where he studied under the radical William Frend. Malthus graduated with a B.A. degree and as ninth wrangler (ninth-best mathematician in the university) in 1788. He earned his M.A. degree in 1791 and became a fellow of his college (1793-1804). After being ordained in the Church of England (deacon 1789, priest 1791), he held various curacies and livings and was a conscientious and pious priest. In 1804, Malthus married Harriet Eckersall (1776-1864); they had three children. In 1805 he was appointed professor at the East India Company’s College at Haileybury, Hertfordshire, where he taught and lived for the rest of his life and was a well-liked teacher.

In 1798 Malthus anonymously published his An Essay on the Principle of Population. He argued that population can increase in a “geometric ratio” (1, 2, 4, 8, 16, and so on), but the food supply can increase at most only in an “arithmetic ratio” (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and so on). Population is kept in balance with the food supply by “checks,” which he characterized as “vice” or “misery,” and which included war, famine, plague, delayed marriages, and prostitution. He also characterized the checks as either “positive” (those that increase the death rate) or “preventive” (those that reduce the birth rate).

A second edition of the Essay (1803) added much empirical evidence of the population checks at work in various countries and periods. He identified moral restraint (delayed marriage preceded by sexual abstinence) as the most desirable check on population and argued that its operation would tend to increase individual happiness. The edition was thus more optimistic than the first, which had stressed misery and vice. His main idea (that unchecked population tends to outrun the food supply) became known as “the principle of population” and became a central tenet of classical political economy. Although Malthus declared that he had deduced the idea from the works of other political economists, it became firmly attached to his name.

The Essay‘s argument was highly controversial from the start and Malthus used editions of 1806, 1807, 1817, and 1826 to refute erroneous claims that he had argued in favor of war and immoral practices but also to reiterate his denial that the poor have a right to be supported. He argued that support for the poor funded by taxation tended to increase the price of food, undermine people’s independence, and encourage imprudent marriages, thus creating rather than mitigating poverty. Malthus advocated the abolition of poor relief.

Malthus’s critics included Karl Marx, who was particularly incensed at his attitude to the poor. His admirers included Charles Darwin, who acknowledged his influence in the development of his theory of natural selection, and J.M. Keynes, who admired his Principles of Political Economy (1820), which argued for the importance of distribution and effective demand as causes of economic growth. Malthus wrote on other aspects of political economy, notably on the classical theory of rent (1815). His work brought election to several learned societies and he helped to found new ones to promote the new sciences of political economy and statistics. Malthus died on December 29, 1834, at Bath.

After his death Malthus’s name was associated with movements advocating mass contraception as a way of warding off rapidly increasing population, and zero population growth. In fact he rejected both of these approaches. He opposed contraception, partly on moral grounds and partly because he believed that its use would remove the desirable stimulus to work to provide for one’s children. He thought population growth desirable, provided that it did not exceed the growth of the food supply.


  1. Patricia James, Population Malthus (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1979);
  2. John Maynard Keynes, “Robert Malthus: The First of the Cambridge Economists,” Essays in Biography (Macmillan, 1933);
  3. Ronald Meek, ed., Marx and Engels on Malthus (Lawrence and Wishart, 1953);
  4. John M. Pullen, “(Thomas) Robert Malthus,” in C.G. Matthew and Brian Harrison, eds., Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press, 2004).

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