The hope and optimism of Thomas Malthus

My graduate research seminar today focused on how to review what other scholars have written. I took the opportunity to discuss with my students the writings of Thomas Malthus.

Malthus was a 19th century British scholar. Although trained as a minister, he spent most of his career as an academic. His most famous treatise is An Essay on the Principle of Population, which he published in 1798. In the essay, Malthus explained that because food production increases arithmetically while population grows geometrically, if left unchecked population growth would exceed available food supplies, resulting in famines, riots and other forms of human misery. “Famine seems to be the last, the most dreadful resource of nature,” he wrote.

It is tempting to think of Malthus as a pessimist, since commentators (called “neo-Malthusians”) often invoke him when describing a situation of potential doom and disaster, especially when referring to the environment, population growth and our ability to feed ourselves.

Prominent economists ride this bandwagon. For example, in a speech delivered to agricultural economists a few years ago, Thomas Hertel, a Purdue University economist, said this: “[The] degradation of existing crop land, when combined with the seemingly inexorable growth in demand for food, fiber and fuel has led many observers to suggest that the world may run out of land. Malthus (1888) is perhaps the best known champion of this position.” Other notable examples of economists promoting the pessimistic view of Malthus include Amartya Sen, who frequently used the term “Malthusian pessimism” (e.g., here) and Paul Samuelson, who referred to “the pessimism of Malthus” (here). Both of these scholars won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences. Robert Heilbroner, in his influential classic, The Worldly Philosophers, described Malthus as “the first professional economist” and his ideas as “profoundly disturbing” and “gloomy”. Malthus’s name is also used as an adjective, as in “Malthusian stagnation” and “Malthusian trap.” Sen’s reference to “Malthusian pessimism” would thus seem redundant.

Not all scholars share the prevailing view of Malthus, however. Some have argued that it is wrong to conceive of Malthus as a pessimist (e.g., Laurence Moss). I agree with this assessment, because I’ve read his essay.

In the final two chapters of the essay, Malthus provides an explanation for why it is “natural” for population to grow faster than food supplies. Because Malthus was a trained theologian, he sought a religious explanation for his observations about population and food. According to Malthus, the world is this way because that is how God made it, and God had a good reason for doing so. As Malthus claimed:

The necessity of food for the support of life gives rise, probably, to a greater quantity of exertion than any other want, bodily or mental. The Supreme Being has ordained that the earth shall not produce food in great quantities till much preparatory labour and ingenuity has been exercised upon its surface. … The processes of ploughing and clearing the ground, of collecting and sowing seeds, are not surely for the assistance of God in his creation, but are made previously necessary to the enjoyment of the blessings of life, in order to rouse man into action, and form his mind to reason.

In other words, God created a world that would not “naturally” grow food in abundance, because if He did, humans would become lazy, and laziness will not impel humans to better themselves. In order to acquire food, humans would have to work for it, and this struggle is one of the “blessings of life.” Malthus used the word “ordained” to emphasize the idea that it could have been otherwise, but God wanted it the way it is. In the paragraph following the statement quoted above, Malthus said that although there is “much partial evil” in a world where famines are possible and actually occur, a system where humans had to exert themselves in order to eat produces an “overbalance of good.” To drive this point further, Malthus said that we should

consider man as he really is, inert, sluggish, and averse from labour, unless compelled by necessity …; we may pronounce, with certainty, that the world would not have been peopled, but for the superiority of the power of population to the means of subsistence. Strong and constantly operative as this stimulus is on man to urge him to the cultivation of the earth, if we still see that cultivation proceeds very slowly, we may fairly conclude that a less stimulus would have been insufficient. Even under the operation of this constant excitement, savages will inhabit countries of the greatest natural fertility for a long period before they betake themselves to pasturage or agriculture. Had population and food increased in the same ratio, it is probable that man might never have emerged from the savage state.

So humans need to work the land to acquire their food and to feed their growing populations. In saying this, Malthus was not suggesting that we should expect life to be one of drudgery. Rather, he believed that it is entirely possible for humans to overcome want and necessity. Far from thinking that food shortages, famine, and human misery were inevitable, as a pessimist does, Malthus offered an alternative vision. The key is this phrase, taken from the first of the two major quotes given above: “till much preparatory labour and ingenuity has been exercised upon [the earth’s] surface.” When people labor and use their minds and hands intelligently, they can produce enough food to feed themselves and others. It seems to me that this also suggests that we give some consideration to agricultural practices that are long-term sustainable. We need to feed people in the future as well as today, and that requires that we think carefully and work diligently to do so.

I hope to see fewer references to the “pessimism” of Malthus. But our misunderstanding of Malthus reflects a more serious problem. The reason people misunderstand Malthus is because they don’t read what he said but rather accept without question what others have said about him. Doomsdayers, pessimists and others with an agenda have misrepresented Malthus for their own ends. Because people generally don’t read the classics anymore, the misperceptions of Malthus have evolved so far and lasted for so long that the name “Malthus” has become synonymous with pessimism. How unfortunate this is. If people read Malthus, then they might come to the conclusion, as I did, that Malthus was not a pessimist and that his observation about the relationship between population growth and the “natural” growth of food supplies was offered so that he could encourage people and governments to be thoughtful and innovative in their governing of resources and societies.

We have a lot of misperceptions and misunderstandings about things—the world, societies, science, technology, religion and the environment. This needs to change. Misperception and misunderstanding will persist until two things occur. The first is for people to think, work, study and labor with a genuine desire to seek out truth wherever it resides. The second is for people to be courageous enough to accept that truth, even when it means that they might have to change what they believe and do.

I’ll end this post with a bit of Malthusian hopefulness and optimism, using the final words of Malthus’s essay. He begins with a quote from the poet Alexander Pope and then gives words of encouragement.

“Hope springs eternal in the Human breast, Man never is, but always to be blest.”

Evil exists in the world not to create despair but activity. We are not patiently to submit to it, but to exert ourselves to avoid it. It is not only the interest but the duty of every individual to use his utmost efforts to remove evil from himself and from as large a circle as he can influence, and the more he exercises himself in this duty, the more wisely he directs his efforts, and the more successful these efforts are; the more he will probably improve and exalt his own mind, and the more completely does he appear to fulfil the will of his Creator.

So let’s get to work, folks. We have a lot of good to do in the world.


Author: Harvey James

Professor, Agricultural and Applied Economics, University of Missouri Editor-in-chief, Agriculture and Human Values

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