Thomas Malthus

Valentine’s Day is the anniversary of the birth of Thomas Robert Malthus. Some would view this as ironic: The day we celebrate "eros" is the birthday of the man who argued that the power of the passion between the sexes is "indefinitely greater" than our productive capacity to feed ourselves. The conclusion to be drawn — the dreaded "Malthusian trap" — is that the growth of human population will eventually outstrip the limited resources we have available.

But Malthus himself had a different view. For him, the population principle provided an impetus to think about the rules by which we choose to organize society. In Malthus’ account, the power of eros could be balanced by another human power — that of reason and foresight. People may, if circumstances are right, pause and ask themselves whether delaying marriage and having children later would be better than having them now. Of course, you’re going to say few of us are that restrained! And Malthus agreed. Our prudential reasoning needs assistance — incentives, if you will. And those incentives are provided by society’s institutions; the rules we choose to live by.

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Malthus lived in a society whose rules he thought were imperfect in this regard. Great Britain had enshrined private property rights in the Magna Carta, but they largely protected the rights of large landowners, not the average citizen. The working class had few reasons to save because they had little prospect of acquiring property. The "parish laws," remnants of feudal times, tied people to the place they were born, preventing the free operation of labor markets. And the Church forced people to marry early in order to escape those sins associated with eros "out of wedlock." The imperfections of this English "constitution" — its set of fundamental rules — could lead to population growth without sufficient economic growth in 19th century England. The resulting poverty held the potential for starvation and disease: If our rules do not restrain us, Malthus said, nature will.

Thus, Malthus could understand how, after the French Revolution, William Godwin could call for a new English constitution that placed property in the hands of "the people," prevented market transactions and eliminated the Church of England. A society of liberty, equality and communal benevolence would surely be better than what Great Britain offered. At least, that’s what Malthus’ father, Daniel, argued to his son in 1798. Daniel thought that England could move toward such a world if it followed the path Godwin proposed in "Political Justice" (1793). But his son could not quite agree. After they debated the issue, the younger Malthus wrote up his argument in a short book bearing the title "An Essay on the Principle of Population" (1798).

This essay is often misinterpreted as a defense of the existing property regime in England and an attack on members of the working class, who lack the will to restrain eros voluntarily. But such an interpretation overlooks Malthus’ concern about institutional design. Instead, Malthus argued that the occurrence of the natural consequences predicted by the population principle were the result of poorly designed societal institutions. Private property rights that extend to everyone, free labor markets and rules that ensure that both parents bear financial responsibility for their offspring are essential, he claimed, to a constitution that would find the right balance between eros and the prudential exercise of human reason.

Of course, private property rights and free markets also are essential to innovation and entrepreneurship; two things that have ensured that the worldwide growth in productive capacity since Malthus’ time has outstripped the growth of population. Even in the poorest parts of the world, where property rights still need to be strengthened and markets are often restricted, production has grown at a rate faster than population.

So maybe Malthus was on to something. He didn’t argue that population will inevitably outrun the limits of our resources; in fact, he said that we can’t know what the limits of the productive capacity of the Earth are. Rather, Malthus suggested that good institutional design — including property rights and free markets available to all — will provide incentives that ensure that the power of eros we celebrate today will be counterbalanced by our desire to be economically secure tomorrow.


Ross Emmett is Co-Director of The Michigan Center for Innovation and Economic Prosperity and an associate professor of political economy and political theory & constitutional democracy at James Madison College, Michigan State University.


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