Malthus’s Early Life and Education
Thomas Robert Malthus (1766–1834) was born in the small town of Westcott, near Dorking, southwest of London, in Surrey County, UK.
His father was a gentleman of independent means. The young Thomas was educated at home and at local private schools.
In 1784, Malthus entered Cambridge University’s Jesus College. While at Cambridge, he won prizes for English declamation, Latin, and Greek, in addition to graduating with honors in mathematics.
In 1789, Malthus was ordained a priest of the Church of England and received a living in Wotton, Surrey, quite near his family home in Westcott. However, he continued his higher studies, receiving his master’s degree from Cambridge in 1791, and two years later becoming a Fellow of Jesus College.
Malthus’s first intellectual efforts were directed towards what we would now call demographics. In his first book, An Essay on the Principle of Population, published in 1798, he presented an argument leading to a pessimistic vision of humanity’s future, in conscious opposition to the optimism of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the Marquis de Condorcet, William Godwin, and other Enlightenment thinkers.
Malthus’s ideas on population were enormously influential, but also highly controversial, both in the early nineteenth century, and in later decades. In fact, “neo-Malthusianism” remains a controversial topic to this day. (For details of Malthus’s argument in the Essay, see the section, “Malthus’s Ideas,” below.)
Gradually, Malthus turned his attention from demographics to mainstream political economy as it had been developed up to his time, publishing a series of pamphlets and short books on a variety of economic topics.
His first substantial effort in this regard was an 1814 book on the topic of Britain’s protectionist “Corn Laws” (laws regulating the importation of wheat) and the nature of their impact on foreign trade. The following year, he published a book examining the theoretical concept of “rent” (see “Malthus’s Principal Works,” below).
In 1820, Malthus published his masterpiece, Principles of Political Economy).
Three years earlier, in 1817, the prominent English economist David Ricardo had published a similarly titled book, On the Principles of Political Economy and Taxation. In this work, the principle of comparative advantage among international trading partners was first clearly articulated.
Ricardo and Malthus were personally acquainted, although Ricardo had a more eminent social standing, having become a Member of Parliament in 1818. In contrast, Malthus was one of the founders in 1821 of the intellectually prestigious Political Economy Club, which Ricardo joined only afterwards.
After Malthus published his Principles, a widely followed public debate broke out between the two friends and rivals, which began with their different analyses of the concept of rent, but soon broadened into a wide-ranging discussion of the first principles of economic analysis.
This “Malthus-Ricardo debate”—as it came to be known to historians—went on for several years during the early 1820s. While it was taken seriously at the time, later observers have tended to see the differences between Malthus and Ricardo as relatively minor, and mostly based on confusion over the differing ways in which they defined some of their basic terms.
The chronicler of the Victorian scene, Leslie Stephen, once wrote that:
If Malthus and Ricardo differed, it was a difference of men who accepted the same first principles. They both professed to interpret Adam Smith as the true prophet, and represented different shades of opinion rather than diverging sects.
The last few years of Malthus’s life were blemished by another bruising public dispute with a prominent economist—this time, one which did his reputation lasting harm.
In 1827, Malthus published one of his last important works, Definitions in Political Economy. In the form of sort of dictionary of economics, this book had as one of its main objectives of this book the defense of his earlier Principles from the various criticisms that had been leveled against it for some time, in part as a result of the Malthus-Ricardo debate.
From his perch as editor of the Edinburgh magazine, The Scotsman, John Ramsay McCulloch—who was best known as a disciple of Ricardo’s—leveled heavy criticism against Malthus’s Definitions. McCulloch complained that “carping at definitions, and quibbling about the meaning to be attached to [words]” were pointless activities.
This intemperate attack led to a series of equally acrimonious rejoinders by Malthus. While some economists were willing to come to Malthus’s public defense, the majority view seems to have been that McCulloch won the battle of words.
Malthus’s reputation as an economist suffered irreparable harm from the exchange, which was put to an end only by his sudden death from a heart attack in 1834.
In his Essay, Malthus put forward a simple empirical observation: food production increases arithmetically, while population increases geometrically.
From this principle Malthus concludes that any increase in food production will always lag behind population increase, leading sooner or later to a population crash causing widespread human suffering, whether in the form of famine, of warfare, or of what Malthus called “vice” (meaning contraception, abortion, prostitution, and so forth).
According to Malthus, even if food could be produced at a greater rate—say, through increases in investment or technological innovation—nevertheless, population would still inevitably increase at an even faster rate until the food surplus was eventually eliminated.
From this principle, Malthus extrapolated a vision of the far future in which mass starvation would be unavoidable and a general “war of all against all” would inevitably ensue. He also makes the proto-Darwinian point that only the strongest (the educated and virtuous upper classes) would survive this future struggle.
Charles Darwin later claimed that reading Malthus was indispensable to his formulation of the theory of natural selection.
With respect to his views on political economy proper, Malthus departed from classical-liberal orthodoxy in several ways.
For example, while Malthus condemned Britain’s “Poor Laws” (public relief for the indigent) as counterproductive and inflationary—more or less in line with the economic mainstream of his day—at the same time he supported the “Corn Laws” (duties levied on imported grain to provide price support for British producers).
By adopting this position in the midst of the recession following the Napoleonic Wars, Malthus effectively distanced himself from one of the foundational teachings of classical economic liberalism: namely, that free trade is always and everywhere a good thing.
Another maverick view championed by Malthus was the possibility, under certain circumstances, of the failure of Say’s Law (that supply creates its own demand) and of the emergence of a “general glut.”
In spite of his heterodox views on these and other topics, however, it would not be fair to characterize Malthus’s overall economic philosophy as inconsistent or—to put it more charitably—eclectic.
Rather, Mathus argued vigorously for the need to take a wider view of political economy—one that would make room for moral and political factors—which he felt were of fundamental importance for the formulation of wise economic policy.
Malthus’s Principal Works
Principles of Political Economy (1820).
Definitions in Political Economy (1827).
Pamphlets of Thomas Robert Malthus, edited by Arthur Monroe (1970).
T.R. Malthus: The Unpublished Papers in the Collection of Kanto Gakuen University, two volumes, edited by J.M. Pullen and Trevor Hughes Parry (1998).
The Works of Thomas Robert Malthus, edited by E.A. Wrigley and David Souden (2010).
Selected Works on Malthus
Avery, John, Progress, Poverty and Population: Re-reading Condorcet, Godwin and Malthus (1997).
Bashford, Alison and Joyce E. Chaplin, The New Worlds of Thomas Robert Malthus: Rereading the Principle of Population (2016).
Bonar, James, Malthus and His Work (1885).
Brown, Lester R., Gary Gardner, and Brian Halweil, Beyond Malthus: Nineteen Dimensions of the Population Challenge (1999).
Dolan, Brian, ed., Malthus, Medicine, and Morality: “Malthusianism” After 1798 (2000).
Elwell, Frank W., A Commentary on Malthus’ 1798 Essay on Population As Social Theory (2000).
Hollander, Samuel, The Economics of Thomas Robert Malthus (1997).
James, Patricia, Population Malthus: His Life and Times (2006).
Kallis, Giorgos, Limits: Why Malthus Was Wrong and Why Environmentalists Should Care (2019).
Macfarlane, Alan, Secrets of the Modern World: Thomas Malthus (2011).
Macfarlane, Alan, Thomas Malthus and the Making of the Modern World (2013).
Mayhew, Robert J., Malthus: The Life and Legacies of an Untimely Prophet (2014).
Petersen, William, Malthus: Founder of Modern Demography (2018).
Pullen, John, The Macroeconomics of Malthus (2021).
Reisman, David, Thomas Robert Malthus (2018).
Rohe, John F., A Bicentennial Malthusian Essay: Conservation, Population and the Indifference to Limits (1997).
Winch, Donald, Malthus (1987).
Winch, Donald, Malthus: A Very Short Introduction (2013).