The philosophy of Thomas Robert Malthus

ONE of the most persistently misrepresented doctrines, Malthus's central theory is nothing less moral than that young persons should postpone marriage until they have the means of supporting a family. The reading of this great essay independently suggested, first to Darwin and later to Alfred Russel Wallace, the idea of natural selection as a necessary consequence of that struggle for life so splendidly demonstrated by Malthus in the case of mankind. The treatise whose title was An Essay on the Principle of Population as it Affects the Future Improvement of Society, was first published anonymously in 1798.


SINCE population is capable of doubling itself at least once in every twenty-five years, and since the supply of food can increase in only arithmetical ratio, it naturally follows that increase of population must always be checked by lack of food. But, except in cases of famine, this check is never operative, and the chief checks to increase of population are found to be moral restraint, vice and misery.

In spite of these checks, which are always more or less in operation, there is a constant tendency for the population to increase beyond the means of subsistence. Such increase is followed by lowered wages, dearer food and thus a lowered marriage-rate and birth-rate; and the lowered wages, in turn, induce more agricultural enterprise, and thus means of subsistence become more abundant again.

More abundant and cheaper food in turn, promotes marriage and increases the population, until again there is a shortage of food: and this oscillation, though irregular, will always be found, and there will be always a tendency for the population to oscillate around the food limit.

Even among savages, where the degradation of women, infanticide, vice, famine, war and disease are active instruments of decimation, it will be found that the average population, generally speaking, presses hard against the limits of the average food.

Among modern pastoral nations the principal checks which keep the population down to the level of the means of subsistence are: restraint from inability to obtain a wife, vicious habits with respect to women, epidemics, war, famine and the diseases arising from extreme poverty.

In modern Europe we find similar preventive and positive checks, in varying proportions, to undue increase of population. In England and Scotland the preventive check to population prevails in a considerable degree.

A man of liberal education, with an income only just sufficient to enable him to associate in the rank of gentlemen, must feel absolutely certain that if he marry and have a family he shall be obliged to give up all his former connexions. The woman whom a man of education would naturally choose is one brought up in similar refined surroundings. Can a man easily consent to place the object of his affections on a lower social plane ? Two or three steps of descent in society, particularly at this round of the ladder, where education ends and ignorance begins, will not be considered by the generality of people as a chimerical, but a real evil. If society be desirable, it surely must be free, equal and reciprocal society, where benefits are conferred as well as received, and not such as the dependent finds with his patron, or the poor with the rich.

Such considerations certainly prevent many of the better classes from early marriage. Others, possessed of weaker judgement or stronger passion, disregard these considerations; and it would be hard indeed if the gratification of virtuous love did not sometimes more than counterbalance its attendant evils. But those who marry in the face of such considerations too frequently justify the forebodings of the prudent.

The sons of tradesmen and farmers are exhorted not to marry till they have a sufficient sure income to support a family, and often accordingly postpone marriage till they are far advanced in life. The labourer who earns eighteenpence or two shillings a day, as a single man, will hesitate to divide that pittance among four or five, seeing the risks such poverty involves. The servants who live in the families of the rich have yet stronger inducements to forgo matrimony. They live in comparative comfort and luxury, which as married men they could not enjoy.

The prolific power of nature is very far from being called fully into action in Great Britain. And yet, when we contemplate the insufficiency of the price of labour to maintain a large family, and the amount of mortality which arises directly and indirectly from poverty, and add to this the crowds of children prematurely cut off in large towns, we shall be compelled to acknowledge that, if the number born annually were not greatly thinned by this premature mortality, the funds for the maintenance of labour must increase with much greater rapidity than they have ever hitherto done in order to find work and food for the additional numbers that would then grow up to manhood.

Those, therefore, who live single, or marry late, do not by such conduct contribute in any degree to diminish the actual population, but merely to diminish the proportion of premature mortality, which would otherwise be excessive; and consequently, from this point of view, do not seem to deserve any very severe reprobation or punishment.

It has been usual to consider a great proportion of births as the surest sign of a vigorous and flourishing state. But this is erroneous. Only after great mortality, or under very special social conditions, is a large proportion of births a favourable symptom. In the average state of a well-peopled territory there cannot be a worse sign than a large proportion. A small proportion of births is a decided proof of a very small mortality, since the supply always equals the demand for population. In despotic, miserable, or naturally unhealthy countries, the proportion of births to the whole population will generally be found very great.

In Scotland emigration is a potent cause of depopulation; but any thinning out from this cause is quickly neutralised by an increased proportion of births.

In Ireland the details of population fluctuations are little known; but the cheapness of potatoes and the ignorance and depressed, indifferent state of the people, have encouraged marriage to such a degree that the population is pushed much beyond the resources of the country and the consequence, naturally, is that the lower classes of the people are in the most impoverished and miserable state. The checks to the population are, of course, chiefly of the positive kind, and arise from the diseases caused by squalid poverty. To these positive checks have of late years been added the vice and misery of civil war and of martial law.

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