Malthus Theory of Population Growth

Thomas Malthus (1766-1834) was an English clergyman and economic thinker writing in the early nineteenth century. He is best known for his highly influential and controversial "An Essay on the Principle of Population," which argued that population growth would hinder the continuing improvement of society.

  1. The Theory

    • Malthus' theory of population growth was that it was exponential--he used the term "geometric"--while the growth of the food supply was necessarily linear. Hence, an unchecked population would eventually contribute to poverty and unrest as the labor supply went up and wages were driven down. Attempts to improve the life of the poor would ultimately fail, as any increase in agricultural productivity would drive the population up at an unsustainable rate.


    • Malthus argued that there were two kinds of checks on population: "positive" checks, such as disease, starvation and the like, which act to keep the population down, and "preventive" checks, such as the postponement of having children. He argued that "moral restraint" be promoted among the poor, along with social reforms, so that population growth might be brought under control.


    • Malthus's theory became highly influential, particularly among economists and evolutionary thinkers, and fueled pessimism about the rapidly rising population in nineteenth-century Britain. He was reviled by many who saw his theory as cold and heartless, but many scholars have argued that this is a misunderstanding of it.

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