The Life and Ideologies of Thomas Malthus

Thomas Malthus was an influential English economist who began his career as a demographer, studying the ebbs and flows of the English population. Eventually, Malthus entered the field of economics in opposition to Adam Smith, another economist who developed the idea of the “invisible hand” and hugely supported the free market system. Smith is commonly considered the “Father of Capitalism”, and his views were incredibly popular, most likely due to their portrayal of economics in a predominantly optimistic light. The reactionary ideas of Malthus and other more pessimistic economists were not nearly as well received by the Victorian public. Indeed, Malthus’ views on economics and the world’s population, as expressed in “The Principles of Population,” were extremely dismal. Malthus claimed that population growth was not an “unmitigated blessing” that would lead to further prosperity for all, as many utopian utilitarians believed. Instead, he argued that the population was growing too rapidly, at a geometric rate that far exceeded the arithmetic production rate of the food supply. In order to counteract the issue of overpopulation and lack of food supply, Malthus posited two ways to “check” populations: “primary checks”, which decreased birth rates, and “positive checks”, which increased death rates. Examples of primary checks include moral restraint, late marriages, birth control, and population caps. Positive checks include certain forces, such as famine, war, and disease, and would be encouraged when primary checks proved ineffective. 

Notably, Malthus had a lack of faith that primary checks could work on the impoverished population of Victorian England as they were morally inept and therefore impenetrable to the idea of moral restraints. Here, Malthus’ views begin to align with those of Herbert Spencer’s idea of “survival of the fittest”. Malthus believed that withholding resources like medicine, food, and education from the poor would eliminate them, thereby solving the resources crises. Malthus held that to redistribute money from the cultural elite to the poor, i.e. the socio-economic group that Malthus viewed as “less fit”, would thereby deprive the world of culture. Malthus believed that this would be best for all members of society, even the poor themselves, as he believed that their existence under the poverty line caused both themselves and the members of the upper-class misery. Additionally, many writers have commented upon the manner in which Malthus’ ideas impacted those of Charles Darwin. The author of “Henry George on Thomas Robert Malthus: Abundance vs. Scarcity,” Jim Horner, claims that Darwin “applied the Malthusian struggle between population and subsistence to the entire plant and animal kingdom.” (600)

Malthus did not hesitate to apply his own theories to events that occurred in England during his lifetime. For example, Malthus engaged in an intense debate with another British economist, David Ricardo, over the Corn Laws that increased the grain tariff in England. Malthus, in his Observations on the Corn Laws, considered the pros and cons of the tariff and ultimately decided that they protected the health of England’s agriculture. However, these Corn Laws produced a great deal of unrest in England for many working-class individuals since the Corn Laws primarily supported the landed gentry of England and effectively increased their otherwise dwindling political powers.

Malthus’ own life and bias should be addressed in order to fully understand his ideology. Malthus was born into the landed aristocracy of England, though, it is interesting to note that he was the second son in his family, therefore making him unable to inherit his father’s land. Indeed, some scholars argue that this facet of Malthus’ life spawned his attitude towards the poor and that many of Malthus’ theories were designed to preserve the power of the landed gentry that was itself gained from the socio-economic inequalities of the time. 

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