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Thomas Malthus (1766-1834)

Thomas Robert Malthus was born into a wealthy family on 13 February 1766 at The Rookery near Wotton, Surrey. He was baptised at his parents' home on the following day. His father was a disciple of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose book émile may have been the source of the elder Malthus' liberal ideas about educating his son. In formal situations Robert Malthus used his full name, but in less formal correspondence referred to himself as T. Robert Malthus or Robert Malthus, and among family and close friends was always called Robert or Bob.

Malthus was educated at home until he went to Jesus College Cambridge, in 1784. He studied a wide range of subjects and took prizes in Latin and Greek, graduating in 1788. He took his MA in 1791, was elected a Fellow of Jesus College in 1793 and was ordained as an Anglican minister in 1797. He became curate of the parish of Albury in Surrey in 1798, a post which he held only for a short time. In 1804 Malthus married Harriet Eckersall; from 1805 until his death, he was Professor of Political Economy and Modern History at the college of the East India Company at Haileybury except for a visit to Ireland in 1817, and a trip to the Continent in 1825 for health reasons. Malthus' appointment was the first time in Great Britain that the words "political economy" had been used to designate an academic office. In 1811 he met and became a close friend of the economist David Ricardo.

In 1819 Malthus was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society; in 1821 he became a member of the Political Economy Club, whose members included Ricardo and James Mill; in 1824 he was elected as one of the ten royal associates of the Royal Society of Literature. Malthus was one of the co-founders of the Statistical Society of London in 1834. In 1833 he was elected to the French Académie des Sciences Morales et Politiques and to the Royal Academy of Berlin. Although he wrote various papers, he never added substantially to what he had gathered in Essay on Population (text here)and Principles of Political Economy.

He wrote an unpublished pamphlet in 1796 called The Crisis which, among other things, took a favourable view of newly proposed poor laws, which were to set up workhouses for the poor. The opinions and teachings that Malthus developed reflect largely a reaction to his father's views and to the doctrines of the French Revolution and its supporters. Malthus' major contribution to economics was his theory of population, published in An Essay on the Principle of Population in 1798. The book was published anonymously and became an important and integral part of classical liberal economic and social doctrines and was influential in the thinking behind the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act.

The so-called Malthusian theory of population was incorporated into contemporary systems of economics. It

The immediate influence of the Malthusian theory of population on social policy was great. It had been believed that fertility itself added to national wealth; the poor laws perhaps encouraged large families by their doles. Malthus said that if the poor laws had never existed,

though there might have been a few more instances of severe distress the aggregate mass of happiness among the common people would have been much greater than it is at present.

He said that the poor laws limited the mobility of labour and encouraged large families and should be abolished. For the most unfortunate it might be possible to establish workhouses, not "comfortable asylums," but places in which "fare should be hard" and "severe distress . . . find some alleviation."

The writings of Malthus encouraged the first systematic demographic studies, starting with the 1801 Census. They also influenced subsequent economists, particularly David Ricardo, whose "iron law of wages" and theory of distribution of wealth contain some elements of Malthus' theory.

Malthus' other works include An Inquiry into the Nature and Progress of Rent (1815) and Principles of Political Economy (1820). He continued publishing a variety of pamphlets and tracts on economics. In them he approached the problem of what determines price with a less rigorous analysis than Ricardo and in terms of an institutionally determined "effective demand," a phrase that he invented. In 1820 in his summary Principles of Political Economy Considered with a View to Their Practical Application, he proposed public works and private luxury investment as palliatives for economic distress, that would increase effective demand and prosperity. He went further and criticised thrift as a virtue knowing no limit; to the contrary, he argued, "the principles of saving, pushed to excess, would destroy the motive to production." To maximise wealth, a nation had to balance "the power to produce and the will to consume." Malthus, 150 years before his time, was concerned with what he called the problem of "gluts" or, as they would be called today, the problems of slump and depression.

Malthus appears to have been a benevolent, kindly man who suffered a great deal of misrepresentation from revolutionaries and conservatives alike. Other writers, such as Franklin and Hume, had also written about the problems of overpopulation but Malthus presented the arguments systematically and with proofs from history. Charles Darwin saw that natural selection was highly likely to be the result of rapid growth in the population of all organic beings, thus adding support for his own theories. Malthus died at St Catherine, near Bath, on 23 December 1834.

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Last modified 11 November, 2013

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