Malthus, His Critics, and Neo-Malthusian Theory

Recently, our planet Earth celebrated a milestone. We now have six billion people living here. Unfortunately for us, Earth has a projected carrying capacity of 11-12 billion people. With such a perple problem in our midst, it is important to examine what scientists of old have to say about our growing population. It is also important to examine whether old theories are still valid today. One of the most famous population theorists was Thomas Malthus. Together, we will examine his theory, as well as why some of his critics disagreed with his hypotheses. In addition, we will delve into a new facet of Malthusian thought, aptly named Neo-Malthusian theory, as well as an authentic modern opinion about Malthusian theory.

Thomas Malthus, (1766-1834), was a political economist in England. His population theory was not created out of pure curiosity or a scientific interest. Rather, Malthus was concerned with living conditions in England. He saw them declining in the 19th century, and thought population size was a great factor in living conditions. In fact, he felt so strongly that population needed to be curbed, that he was in favor of a family size regulation plan-so that poor families would not produce more children than they could support-much like China has today. (Simison) The most famous publication of Thomas Malthus was An Essay on the Principle of Population. It was published in 1798. Malthus argued that poverty was a natural, unavoidable state, simply because population increases faster than food production does. Also, Malthus believed that the only things that could control population were war, famine, and disease. Later, though, he added moral restraint [family planning] as a population check, as mentioned above. Malthus, when writing his famous essay, did not take into account new ways technology could increase food production, nor did he think about possible birth control methods. (Landry, 1) Malthus, simply stated, believed that population would increase unbounded, in an exponential manner. He believed, contrastly, that food production would only increase in a straight line, in a linear manner. Therefore, the population would grow too much to be supported by our food supply. Mass famine, poverty, crime, and greed would ensue. Surely you can see how these gloomy predictions would cause such controversy. Malthus did think, though, that populations might stabilize eventually, but they would stabilize at a level above what their resources could support. Relief from social problems would be rare and temporary (Graber). With all these depressing predictions made by Malthus, many people found themselves at odds with his essay.

While Malthus impacted many great minds, including Charles Darwin, when it came to population theory, he had his share of detractors and critics too. Adam Smith, (1723-1790), was one of the major critics of Malthusian theory. Well known for his Wealth of Nations published in 1776, Smith disagreed with some of the basic tenets of Malthusian thought. Malthus had thought there were three main reasons for the decline in living standards. The overproduction of young, the inability of resources to keep up with rising populations, and the irresponsibility of the poor, [poor having more children than they could support](Landry,1). Adam Smith, though, saw that the great cause for social suffering in his time was taxation and the restriction of internal commerce (Landry,2).Malthus and Smith disagreed on other points as well. While Malthus drew the comparison that since plants and animals reproduce uncontrollably, we are no better, really, than animals, Smith differed. He believed that we can undoubtedly triumph above nature's primal instincts that bring us to poverty and despair. In his own words, "The propensity to truck, barter and exchange one thing for another is common to all men, and to be found in no other race of animals." (Landry, 2) In other words, Adam Smith was saying that through our unique ability to reason and trade, we could satisfy the demand for food and goods. Also, Malthus, as mentioned earlier, was in favor of government intervening to prevent uncontrollable growth of population. Smith, on the other hand, thought it best that government should stay out of private lives as much as possible, and just let free markets and capitalism work on their own, which he believed would solve many social problems. Clearly, not everyone has the same idea when it comes to population theories and solutions to social problems.

Another dissident of Malthusian Theory is Milton Friedman. Friedman, (1912-), is a conservative American economist. He is in agreement with Adam Smith on many topics. For example, he is against all forms of government poverty spending. Friedman believes that minimum wage laws, union monopoly laws, drug prohibition laws, and other welfare state laws simply exploit the poor (Landry, 3). Much like Adam Smith, he believes that social ills are prevented and cured by making the government stay away from private industry and private businesses. He does however, stress that government must stay in control of the volume of money flowing throughout a country, thereby preventing inflation and other problems. Winner of the Nobel prize in 1976, Milton Friedman has refused numerous government offers for positions, fearing that his principles may conflict with a governmental agencies objectives ( So while their philosophies on social problems may differ, Friedman and Malthus are alike in their strong belief in their convictions. They are also alike in that they both published best selling books. Malthus had his aforementioned work, and Milton Friedman wrote Free to Choose, which promoted his beliefs. Once again, we see that the main difference between these two economists is that Malthus is in favor of the hands on approach when it comes to governmental policy, and Friedman, much like Adam Smith, is in favor of the hands off approach. Despite these two prominent critics, and numerous others, Malthus continues to exert influence over people in modern times.

Neo-Malthusian thought is a branch of Malthusian theory that applies some basic facets of Malthusian theory to modern times. Neo Malthusiasts believe that birth control is the main method to control us from our desperate, overpopulated population. Neo-Malthusianism, which emerged in the late 19th century and early 20th century, stresses that birth control not only be legalized, but that poor people should have free access to birth control. There were three main groups who contributed to this movement, and each group had its own reason for wanting birth control. The first group was the women's rights activists. At that time, of course, birth control was illegal, and women believed that along with their right to vote and be equal to men, birth control should be legalized to affirm their right to control their bodies. The second group was the socialists. They were in favor of birth control because they believed that pregnancy was a hindering process which harmed the ability of women to work, which was very important to socialism. The third and least important group was the Romantics. They, much like hippies in the 1960's, thought that sex was not just for reproduction purposes, but for procreation, as well, a belief that was unheard of at that time. The Romantics wanted the right to procreate without the risk of pregnancy. The most important group to take over the birth control movement was the neo Malthusiasts. They were in favor not for their own personal gain, but for society as a whole to control population so as to limit population growth. There were differences, though, between the Malthusians and the neo Malthusians. The original theory of Malthus was in favor of governmental pressure to keep family size limited. Neo Malthusians thought it was a choice to be made based on tradition, not church or state. (Rao)If Malthus was alive to see the Neo Malthusians and their descendants, he would be pleased that at least somebody still believes him. After all, he wrote his essay in 1798, and here we are in 2000, and people are still believing his words. Also, putting the Neo Malthusians aside, Malthus would be pleased that in many developing countries, such as some in Sub Saharan Africa, as well as China, are trying actively to control their populations. Their governments have played a big role in reducing their country's growth rates, which would surely make Malthus happy.

My personal view of Malthusian theory is that it is bunk. There are a few things that Malthus forgot to take into consideration when he formulated his theory. First, he did not take into account man's ability to create new technology and machines. This definitely affects his theory because if we were to examine all the inventions helping food production, then perhaps the growth curve for food would be exponential as well as the population growth curve. Also, Malthus did not fully examine birth control as a way of reducing population. He really only felt that families planning to have less kids was the only feasible solution for restraining population growth. In addition, my own personal view contrasts greatly with Malthus when it comes to comparing man to animals or plants. In his essay, Malthus claims that because plants and animals reproduce uncontrollably, we also are doomed to produce a huge population, out of reach of the food supply. My personal beliefs, taking in my religious teachings, would lead me to believe that humans have the ability to reason and are indubitably able to find a solution to their problems. In other words, where as Malthus thinks that we are really no better than our primal urges, I know that as humans, we have the power to overcome obstacles, in this case the population superseding the food supply. In addition, Malthus was in favor of government intervention to help slow the growth of the population. I, on the other hand, have seen the effects of government programs and government spending, and believe it best to keep the government out of private affairs such as family planning. For example, let's examine why many inner city families seem to produce more children than they are able to support. Simply put, the government gives them more money for each child they have! In addition, the government gives no assistance to married couples with kids. As you can imagine, many mothers without a job and/or whom are addicted to drugs, although they cannot support another child, will inevitably have more children, because it means more welfare money. They are certainly not encouraged to marry and have a normal family. If the government did not have their dumb solution, you can bet women without jobs or who are on drugs would not have kids because they would be too much of a burden, or maybe they would get married instead of sleeping around. As it stands now, unfit mothers have kids just so they can get money they do not marry, the kids turn into potential criminals, and the taxpayer loses money. All because the government decided to intervene and potentially solve a problem. Malthus, however, thought that government was the source of our solutions. That's the final reason I feel Malthus was not right in his theory.

Related Essays on History: European