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Saturday 26 August 2017

Review: Thomas Malthus, An Essay on the Principle of Population

On my desktop I have a Word doc. titled “The Surplus Population” and it is in the context of a desire to expand on that title that I read Malthus’s 1798 essay in the original version included within this larger collection of his work. Malthus started off in Mathematics and this is no doubt the main reason why he formulates his Principle of Populaton in mathematical terms:

Population, when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio. Subsistence increases only in an arithmetical ratio

In consequence, in all human societies famine is a real and permanent possibility. There are two principal ways to try to defeat Malthus’s argument. First, you can claim that population can readily be checked by preventive measures,  of which contraception is the one that Malthus refuses even to contemplate since it is a severe violation of Christian morality. Second, you can argue that Malthus underestimates the real possibility of raising agricultural productivity.

These counter-claims are not as convincing as on first read they may appear. Leave aside the baleful influence of the Roman Catholic church, and it is still the case that human beings, given the chance, do seem inclined to breed at a level which in many cases they must know is prejudicial to their ability to feed the children they are begetting. Those who have no such material worries are often happy to preen themselves on their own fertility, as if we should look up to them as a model to emulate. As I write, Jacob Rees-Mogg is the most prominent in England among the ranks of those inviting our admiration for the prowess of his sperm. He has outperformed both Prince Philip and Tony Blair. But if he was not a wealthy man, he would be considered as simply feckless.

Second, there are major examples of political leaders vastly overestimating their ability to increase agricultural production and productivity. Stalin did it and gave the world the Ukrainian famine which cost several million lives; Mao Tse Tung did it and caused deaths in the tens of millions before he was stopped; the dynasty which rules North Korea has done it repeatedly and now has so many soldiers and so few peasants that it will never be able to feed its population (which in the past few decades has meant that the USA has repeatedly stepped in to feed them).

So Malthus may be on to something after all. But the Essay is interesting also because of many side thoughts, notably on topics such as the relation between national wealth and general happiness and the likely absence of trickle down effects from very unequal distributions of wealth and income. He was one of the first, if not the first, to point out that demand does not always generate supply and that measures to fund demand still do not do the trick. In his day, poor relief did not turn into more food produced only into higher food prices . In our own day, Help to Buy does not turn into more houses built only into higher house prices – which, of course, every British government must deliver at peril of losing its voting base.

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