Friday, June 19, 2009

Malthus, from the Essay on the Principle of Population

Thomas Robert Malthus was a "romantic" only by an accident of history; by temperament and thought he was anything but. Nonetheless, Malthus's ideas about population and economic distress were very much in play as writers from Charlotte Smith to William Godwin to Percy Bysshe Shelley considered the causes of the economic inequities that were themselves the causes of the political upheaval that was pervasive during the romantic period. Malthus was a fine writer and subtle thinker, but the idea for which he was most famous can be gleaned from these sentences from the opening chapter of his Essay on the Principle of Population... (1798, followed by several expansions and reprints).


1. The root cause of social and economic inequities "is the constant tendency in all animated life to increase beyond the nourishment prepared for it."

2. "[P]opulation, when unchecked, goes on doubling itself every twenty-five years, or increases in a geometrical ratio."

3. "[C]onsidering the present average state of the earth, the means of subsistence, under circumstances the most favourable to human industry, could not possibly be made to increase faster than in an arithmetical ratio."


The basic idea here is relatively simple from a 21st-century perspective already familiar with interpretations of culture and economics based on demographic and statistical data. This was news in the late 18th century:

If one thinks of economics in the broadest terms as the access to and distribution of the material means of survival (e.g. a species' access to food), then one of the driving forces of economic activity is captured in Malthus's tragic logic. The population of a species "increases in a geometrical ratio" (that is, populations increase exponentially) while the food supply increases in only "an arithmetical ratio." For example, suppose one husband and wife have four children, and, in twenty five years or so, each of these children has four children of their own who, in another twenty five years or so, have their own four children, &c. &c. Clearly this population will expand very rapidly. At the same time, however, the production of food can only increase comparatively slowly as new fields are opened, better agricultural methods are developed, and so forth. Even under "circumstances the most favourable to human industry," says Malthus, the food supply can only grow by an "arithmetical ratio"—that is, by adding a bit here and there, but not nearly so rapidly as the exponential growth in population. One might quibble about the exact numbers, but the simple fact, from Malthus's point of view, is that populations increase faster than food supplies, and, if unchecked, this leads inevitably to periodically repeated catastrophic starvation events which wipe out whole swaths of the population and thus restart the clock on the way to the next Malthusian catastrophe.

It's a simple, if tragic model for understanding the evolution and history of human societies.

But what does Malthusian theory have to do with romanticism? Well, a number of romantic writers were deeply concerned with revolutionary politics. The early Wordsworth was a great supporter of the French Revolution, William Godwin (and his son-in-law Percy Bysshe Shelley) were both advocates of the "perfectibility" of human societies, and the overwhelming political and economic question of the day had to do with the increasingly strained relationship between a small number of people with resources, power, and money and a larger number—the "lower orders"—who lived in desperate poverty and were sometimes on the brink of starvation. The reformers of the period were motivated by an idealism that dared to imagine a more perfect society of freedom and, if not universal wealth, at least more equitably distributed resources. Such idealistic thinking is everywhere in the period—from Godwin's "perfectibilitarianism" to Shelley's social idealism. One might even cite the Preamble to the new American Constitution with its emphasis on forming "a more perfect Union" which will "promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity."

Malthusian theory is a warning to such heady idealism. If Malthus is right, then the kind of "perfect Union" the reformers are imagining is simply not possible—and not because of some corrupt, greedy, and self-serving political or ecclesiastical establishment. Instead, the very expression of human passion, which Malthus identifies (for reasons obvious enough) as the root cause of the "geometrical" growth of the population, will need to be regulated or "checked." The only alternative is to spin ever closer to the destruction and despair of the next Malthusian catastrophe.

Malthusian thinking was, to say the least, controversial during the period. Conservatives tended to embrace Malthus's population logic, seeing it as a tragic explanation for the poverty of the "lower orders." In the most cynical of such appropriations, extreme poverty was portrayed as an inevitable and necessary condition since it held the overall population growth in check and thus prevented an even greater Malthusian catastrophe. (The fact that such logic also allowed persons of authority to sidestep responsibility for the misery of the "lower orders" was also useful.) Other writers saw some genuine potential in Malthus's thesis—by refraining from having children, the poor could materially improve their lot without necessarily resorting to some political revolution. Still others, saw the implications of Malthus but also saw a kind of heartlessness in treating people as so many demographic statistics and then justifying systemic cruelty based on such findings. Among these latter writers was P. B. Shelley who, in his Preface to Prometheus Unbound, says: "I had rather be damned with Plato and Lord Bacon, than go to Heaven with Paley and Malthus."

1 comment:

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