Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Economist of The Week - Thomas Malthus

Merely two decades after the appearance of Adam Smith and his Wealth of Nations, the public discussion was already being turned upside down. Economists like David Ricardo expanded and explained his then-utopian concepts of free markets and unrestricted capitalism, while others like Jean-Babtiste Say spread it abroad – and with the French Revolution starting it 1789 – aiming at achieving human and governmental perfection –, it looked as if the atmosphere of the earliest 19th century was one of utter optimism.
Not everyone shared this optimism, however. This week's economist was an 'outcast' – and while being severely criticised by both his contemporaries and successors, his ideas are one of the most influential ones of classical economics – his name is Thomas Malthus.

Thomas Malthus, father of sustainability, and population theory
Source: Wikimedia

Early life

Thomas Robert Malthus was born in 1766 – a year before Say – to a wealthy British family, as the sixth child and second son of David Malthus. His father was the living example of the age's general optimism – he was a Jacobin, and he exchanged letters with people like David Hume (friend of Adam Smith, remember?) and Rousseau, the French Enlightenment thinker, who even visited the family house called The Rookery. Hence young Malthus was brought up in a very liberal, almost revolutionary environment, educated at home until the age of 18, when he went to university to study to be a clergyman.

At university

In 1784, young Thomas went to study at the University of Cambridge, in Jesus College. Burdened by a 'strong speech impediment' – he had a cleft lip – he was a a shy man, mostly learning mathematics at the college simultaneously with theology. He was fascinated by both – and he continued his educational years for as long as possible. He took a postgraduate MA degree in 1791, and after finishing it, he became a Fellow of Jesus College in 1793. Disillusioned by the events of the French Revolution – evolving into the Jacobin Terror and later the rule of Napoleon –, he was made a priest in 1798 and became a parish priest in the County of Surrey.

Major work

The magnum opuses of previously mentioned economists were succeeded by decades of academic preparation – well, not Thomas Malthus's. Imagine the situation – the freshly consecrated priest, disillusioned by his father's and contemporaries revolutionary ideals, choosing a form of rebellion himself by writing a book of completely opposing theme.
An Essay on the Principle of Population, published in 1798 – anonymously, but then the second edition in 1803 under his own name, was not much more than a booklet at the time of it's first edition. It's only 50,000 words long – not much longer than 100 pages. Yet the issues it addressed immediately became an object of fierce debate and brought Malthus nationwide fame and infamy. The length of the book's further editions rose to approximately 250,000 words – but the main message was already included in the first one. You rightfully ask – what were they?


Malthus's principal idea was very simple. He said, that given an unrestricted rate of population growth, population would grow exponentially (1→4→9→16) while the production capacity of food would only grow arithmetically(1→2→3→4). This meant that the rate of population would sooner or later reach the point what later was dubbed the Malthusian catastrophe, where total human population would shrunk drastically back to sustainable levels – through war or famine.
He also noticed and popularised the concept of (the also later-named) Malthusian trap – that despite technological advances, people's wages did not increase significantly over time – the daily wages of Ancient Babylonia in 1800 BC were enough to buy 15 pounds of wheat, while those of 1800 AD England were enough to buy only 13 pounds. According to his predictions, humankind was destined to a gruesome future if it couldn't control it's population growth.

Proposed solutions

Malthus also proposed solutions to the problems he presented – he claimed that there are two types of population checks, the positive checks increasing death rate – through war, famine and disease - and the negative checks decreasing birth rates – through celibacy, abortion, birth control, prostitution and the like.
Being a religious man, his proposal was moral restraint – that people should postpone marriage and adhere to Christian morals in order to keep the population in check. He said that the constant threat of poverty and starvation served to teach the virtues of hard work and virtuous behaviour.

Other ideas

His other proposals were all derived from his population theory – including his wage model, according to which due to the population growth real wages would constantly fall – due to expensive food taking away most income – to a point where these difficulties posed to raising a family would slow down population growth – then real wages would go up, and the cycle would start again.

Later life and legacy

While coming into the spotlight of economic discussion so early in his career, Malthus preferred a simple life. He married his cousin Harriet in 1804, and had five children. He also took up teaching besides his clerical duties at the East India Company College in 1805, and he became a successful lecturer, with his student's jokingly calling him "Pop" Malthus or "Population" Malthus. He constantly defended his theories and wrote a total of six editions of his book, the last published in 1826. He died in 1838 – but his ideas were carried on by Charles Darwin, John Stuart Mill, John Maynard Keynes and are the basic foundation for 'green economics', which studies the possible creation of a sustainable human society.

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