Critical Analysis of the Essay on the Principles of Population by Thomas Malthus

The Wisdom Behind the Principles of Population

This critical essay will summarize Thomas Robert Malthus’ intriguing ‘’Principles of Population,’’ a book that dates back to 1798. Malthus was an English scholar and economist who had quite controversial ideas for his era. The purpose of this essay is to thoroughly analyze Malthus’ ideas and talk about the cultural significance it has had since the day it was published. Although Thomas Robert Malthus’ book was published way back in 1798, it continues to be an important work in economics. This article will look into the insights of the work by Malthus. It will also provide a summary and analysis of the essay.

One of the main ideas in Malthus’ work is that population, if unmonitored, will double in size every twenty-five years, and because of that, the quality of life will gradually decrease. He states that human nature is unalterable and that it is in human nature to be passionate towards the opposite sex. Malthus wasn’t the first one to notice that production and reproduction levels are unequal. However, he was the first one to publicly share his thoughts about preventing overpopulation and how overpopulation has a negative impact on the socio-economic dynamics of society.

What the Essay Was All About

Malthus wrote extensively on the issue of population, joining the ranks of other prominent enlightenment philosophers of the time. In the first two chapters of his work, Malthus gives the most important assertions that he will be making. He emphasizes the importance of the human population. He says that the increase in the human population can always catch up with the increase in the supply of food. He believes that no matter how rich human society becomes advanced collectively, there will still be portions of the population that will remain poor.

He believes that even if human society becomes opulent, a section of it will almost have no food. This belief stems from the fact that the population can grow exponentially, where the food supply can only grow at a steady rate.

The growth of the food supply will depend on a lot of factors and resources. The population, on the other hand, can grow even if the conditions are not so good, but when there are stability and growth in the food supply, there is even more growth in the population.

Malthus ideas simply explained

The Savage and the Civilized Nations

To illustrate his point, Malthus used examples of different types of civilizations in history. First, he went through the history of what he called the savage civilizations. The savage civilizations would include the nomadic people, those who have not developed proper agriculture.

He then goes on to discuss the histories of the civilized nations, the ones that have come to develop well. But whether he was looking into a nomadic nation or at a civilized one, he saw a quick rise in the population when there was an improvement in the food supply. That increase meant there are more humans to feed.

When the increase in the population happens, different “vices” and “misery” take place to keep a large population at a sustenance level. He talks about two types of hindrances to the growth of the population. He terms these hindrances as “checks”. The first one is “Preventive Check”. In modern society, for example, it may become fashionable not to raise a family. Having a family can be seen as a hindrance and so people might not opt to have family or have children. That is seen as a “Preventive Check”.

The second type of check is the “Positive Check” in which the population growth is hindered after it has started already.  A pandemic, for example, can cause the growth of the population to suddenly stop or slow down.

Americas and the Old Countries

Malthus utilizes Chapters 6 to 9 to discuss the examples of the old European countries and the Americas. Keep in mind that at the time that the essay was written, most of the European countries still have colonies. He used its example where the abundance of resources has led to the rapid growth of the population.

Malthus also used the “old” European countries at that period, to show how the Positive Checks can hinder the growth of the population as political turmoil and wars cause a decline in the European population. Although it must be pointed out that there a major conflict and political turmoil in the Americas was concluded at the time that he wrote the essay. The American Revolution ended in 1783 resulting in the separation of the colonies from the old world.

Responding to Godwin

In 1793, William Godwin published his “Enquiry Concerning Political Justice” which became a rather popular work. In it, Godwin asserts that certain trends that would happen to the human population in the future. He says that humanity would soon attain a level of equality during which the resources will become stabilized.

Godwin contends that through the improvement of humanity, the passion between the opposite sexes would die down, resulting in a lower birth rate. Additionally, the average life span would greatly improve due to advances in knowledge.

Malthus spends Chapters 10 to 15 of his work in debunking the claims made by Godwin. He asserts that the claims are not proven or are unrealistic. It does not take much for him to disprove most of Godwin’s ideas because those are mere speculation. It is not surprising that Godwin’s work is now largely forgotten, whereas Malthus remains relevant.

The Definition of Wealth

In Chapters 16-17 of the Principles of Population, Malthus meditates on wealth and the normal definition used for it. He asserts that wealth, as it is normally defined does not help with the well-being of the population in general. This means that a nation becoming “wealthy” in the terms defined by a leading economist like Adam Smith would not do anything for the masses.

His argument on this chapter echoes many modern thinkers who are calling out modern world economies since they are not producing real “wealth”.

The Principles of Population

The final two chapters of Malthus’ work was dedicated to reconciling the idea of a Christian God with that of the harsh realities being pointed out by his “Principles of Population”. He asserts that God created the principle to benefit mankind. He believes that the tension between food supply and population helps humans by cultivating their minds and improving their spirit.

He argues that even the evils of poverty and hunger exist for humans to develop their virtue and to spur them into action. Hunger, for example, allows for humans to become virtuous by encouraging charity and compassion.

Analysis of the Poem

His work was publicly criticized over the years, and one argument has stood out. Namely, Malthus was using a mathematical illustration to exemplify the unequal relationship between production and reproduction. He concluded that if the world’s population doubled every twenty-five years, agricultural production would not be able to keep up with the demand. Although he was most likely aware of the fact that the population cannot continuously grow if there aren’t enough resources to support the growth, he merely wanted to explain how population checks are necessary to keep the quality of life from decreasing.

Malthus is often accused of predicting a future where the population would collapse by outpacing the food supply. Moreover, many critics argue that he was wrong because he didn’t consider the possibility of significant increases in food production. However, Malthus already had an argument that would defend his ideas. 

Namely, he makes it clear that, regardless of how much production increases in the future, it would still be unable to keep up with unchecked growth in population. He concludes that certain checks are necessary to keep everything in order – positive and preventive checks. Positive checks refer to raising the death rate, while preventive checks lower the birth rate. Positive checks are “actual distresses of some of the lower classes, by which they are disabled from giving the proper food and attention to their children,” and they include wars, disease, and hunger, while preventive checks occur among the upper class, and include celibacy and birth control.

We can safely compare his ideas to the vicious circle of supply and demand. Growing food production leads to lower prices, which consequently leads to an increase in the birth rate. An increase in birth rate is followed up with an increase in demand, which then leads to an increase in food prices. That demand causes an increase in the production of the land itself. So, it is safe to assume that the relationship between the fertility of land and people is reciprocal. One has a significant impact on the other and vice-versa.

Although Thomas Robert Malthus was very direct and intense with the wording of Principles of Population, there is still some truth when it comes to the essence of his work. It is a proven fact that the increase in production capabilities was always met with a growth in population. It is also true that people can reproduce more rapidly than they can increase food production. If we remove all the controversies that surround his work, we can strip down the whole essay to a single point – the population is, and must be, controlled through a series of positive or preventive means. Whether we like it or not, such checks are nearly always out of our control.

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