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Malthus on population, with contempt

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Message Julian Edney
Justice is the highest value of civil society. It is also an unlikely one. It is like a cultivated garden in a stony desert, a fragile claim which needs constant attention and protection against wide, corrupting forces.

So some of history's sharpest minds have placed their bets on the larger forces of the other side. They have found beauty in the destructive, making a crazy virtue of the drama of survival and extinction, of the fierce working of the elements, weaving injustice and suffering into a grand divine tapestry.

These theories are well known; they describe nature on a grand scale, claiming to be realistic and self-evident. They turn bad into good. In the process, they soak us in paradox. In their cosmic scale they tell us that we are powerless bits in the flow of nature.

And they are strangely satisfying writings. We embrace them, because the big design seems to provide explanations for the things that terrify. The cosmic design gives force, pain, death, disease and conflict a place.

Actually, since science and technology have made our natural environment less dangerous, the human component of this struggle becomes clearer. People are also free to choose. Sometimes they choose against each other. Sometimes it appears one of the most destructive of these forces is man against man. These theories sometimes neglect to mention that. If they do, it is woven into the same picture with the same colors: suffering and unfairness at the hands of other humans is in the nature of things and the human condition is always an unequal struggle. Since inequality and injustice are in the nature of things, it must be alright.

Nothing of this promotes democracy. Two fundamental virtues in democracy are freedom and equality, and both are required. Justice is close to equality (as fairness, or equity) and it is fragile against corrupting forces. But these theories usually show the heroic survival of the strong next to the expiring weak, a glaring inequality. "Justice is right" is replaced by "might is right".

We should watch these writers vigilantly. Glorifying the dimensions of corrupting elements has an inhibiting effect on us. We are urged that it is futile to try to make any improvements.

One of these writers was Rev. Thomas Malthus. His work is a landmark in the history of Western thought . It followed Adam Smith's conservative theory Wealth of Nations and creates a bridge with the later genius of Charles Darwin. Malthus's Essay on Population is the keystone of an intellectual arch under which free market economics and population biology meet. The theories on both sides of the arch are grand descriptions. Both are politically conservative. Without Malthus, there could be no Origin of Species (as Darwin related), and therefore no Social Darwinism (the idea that natural selection applies to humans, and that it has a proper place in laissez-faire economics.) Today, Malthus' work is unquestioned.

His Essay was published in 1798 [1]. At that time, an idealist named Godwin was touring England. Godwin was inspired by the French Revolution and he was a popular, rabble-rousing speaker. Britain's predicament seemed similar to that of France - it had a teeming, hungry peasant class, and Godwin's oratory was inspiring: the suffering of the poor was due to oppressive treatment by the ruling classes. He agitated for equality and justice in the British political order.

Malthus, a Cambridge-educated member of the religious elite, saw an opportunity to pull Godwin off his horse.

Malthus's main point: why do the poor always suffer? It is not from mistreatment. It is from overpopulation. They breed so fast they outrun their own food supplies, and now they starve. So they bring it on themselves.

Malthus used two points he said were self-evident truths (not only applying to humans, but to all forms of life). First, populations, if unchecked, naturally reproduce so as to double themselves every generation – a geometric expansion. But their food supply reproduces at a slower rate – at best, arithmetic expansion. Soon, a population finds itself in want – starvation.

Animal and human populations always press the limits of their food. This is a constant source of misery, and it is an evil. It is a struggle for existence in which death is the punishment for defeat, life the prize of victory and in this process the weakest fall first, leaving the strongest. The remaining people are also goaded to extra effort to avoid misery, and this extra effort promotes the general good. So pain and suffering is for the general good.

But the pain is always spread around unequally. Why do some members of society do well, while others perish? Malthus said, some people are more prudent, productive and self-restraining than others. There may very well be a surplus of wealth at the top and want at the bottom, but that is better than feeding all who are hungry, equally, because the want of the poor is endless and their demands would drain the community. In practice, inequality of distribution preserves the whole. All of this is natural, said Malthus. It is divinely ordained. And if we support the poor it would interfere with nature, encourage the weak, and promote dependency. Rather than protecting indigents, we should protect property rights, and the people with real estate and wealth.

Malthus's writings crawl with moralisms, and all the moralizing is conservative: "Poverty ought to be held disgraceful" [2].

Upon publication Malthus's essay was widely rejected, and for many reasons [3]. Its fatal flaw is his two mathematical ratios. They are a figure of speech. They are fantasy. While Malthus drew his evidence for his 'geometrical' increase from the rate at which human population in the new America was spreading, he fails to mention that a large part of that was due not to reproduction but to immigration. And his 'arithmetical' increase of food is nowhere explained or justified, nor supported by any data. It was a fireside dream.

The fact is that in the world of living things many species are both the consumers and the consumed at the same time; they are part of food chains. Insects are a bird's food, at the same time the bird is food for larger predators. So the bird is both population and food – how can it increase at two different mathematical ratios?

But a hundred years after its appearance, the essay was universally accepted. The critical part was that his essay took the heat off the ruling class and put it on the Creator. Malthus wove the terrors of starvation, wars and disease into a system, and gave them each a predictable place. Pain is not what it seems; it goads the poor to industry, it is actually the larger good. And we don't have to change anything.

Malthus's position was not just paradoxical, it was contemptible. Not only because he passed off a mathematical metaphor as fact, and because he spun evil into good, but also because he was using his religious authority to excuse inequity and social injustice.

His arguments are treated as fundamental today. They have created both an intellectual and a moral tragedy. They sanctify the contradiction that an advanced, humane, technological society can breed hunger and homelessness and suffering next to overflowing wealth. From them flow economic policies that produce pain.

If Malthus is false and the keystone knocked out, it would threaten an intellectual dislocation in two disciplines. We would have to start again, building new theories in economics and biology. And that would be the easier part. We would not have satisfying explanations for human suffering. Our terrors would return. The heat would be back on our policy-makers. We would have to try to change things.

Any governing policy that promotes liberty at the expense of equality is no friend of democracy. Any economic theory that promotes growth at the expense of equality is no friend of social justice.

Any practice that produces social inequality, as the free market system does, is also provoking health hazards and shortening lives – as plenty of new scientific evidence shows [4,5,6].

We should not honor paradoxes. They should not guide policy.

And if inequality and injustice are in the nature of things, then we must ceaselessly strive for a higher standard for ourselves that is beyond the primitive destructiveness of nature.

The common good is not served by suffering.

However scientific, however widely accepted, we understand that theories like Malthus's erode justice and put force in its place. They make democracy less likely.

We still aim for the equal combination of liberty and equality.

Justice will always require our constant vigilance and devotion.


1. Malthus, T. (1789/1988) An essay on the
principle of population. New York: Penguin

2. Ibid. p. 12.

3. Bonar, J. (1885/2004). Malthus and his work.
Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing Corp.

4. Sapolsy, R. (2005). Sick of poverty. Scientific
American, 293, 92-99. (December).

5. Wilkinson, R.G. (2005) The impact of inequality.
New York: The New Press.

6. Kawachi, I., Kennedy, B.P. and Wilkinson, R. G.
(Eds) (1999) The society and population health
reader. New York: the New Press.
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