Commentary: The Specter Of Robert Malthus, Part 1

Malthus was a cleric/economist/sociologist around the time of 1800. I taught university economics from 1993 to 2005 and Malthus is mentioned in the text books, if ever, as a side note – never as a main topic of study. Nevertheless, I cannot help but feel that his outlook on humans and society is very prevalent in the thinking of governments worldwide.

Thomas Robert Malthus Wellcome L0069037 -crop.jpg

He was actually an ordained minister in the Anglican Church; yet, he came up with some social theories that are down right abominable. His ideas are crystallized in a book that he wrote in 1798: An Essay on the Principle of Population – A View of Its Past and Present Effects on Human Happiness. Happiness? This title sounds good but as this series progresses you will find that the book is, in my opinion, diabolical.

One of the reasons that economics is called “The Dismal Science” is because of people like Malthus. One of the pillars of Malthusian thought is that the rate at which food is produced is slower than the rate at which humans reproduce. The net effect is that humans will always live at the minimal subsistence level.

For instance, assume there are several years of good harvest in a particular country. He states that, naturally, the human population will grow to eat up all the excess food. This is analogous to the way the wolf population grows when there is a good season for rabbits and deer in the area. Excess food will be gobbled up so that the population is reduced back to the minimal subsistence level. Then during years of bad harvest, the shortage of food will naturally reduce the population due to starvation, and couples just not wanting to have children during a time of famine. The population is reduced until the minimal subsistence level is again reached.

The Malthusian view of population is “dismal” because he advocates letting the forces of nature run their course. He does not believe in helping people during times of famine because he sees famine as a natural event. This is analogous to a hurricane bringing fresh water and oxygen to swamps along the Gulf Coast, or a baby chick being kicked out of the nest because it is not strong enough to compete for food.

Anyone who has a soul can not see famine as a good thing. As we go through this series of articles, let us try to do it with current events as a backdrop. The specter of Robert Malthus is alive and well.


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