The Fruits of Civilization – Thomas Malthus

Thomas Malthus

The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man. ~ Thomas Malthus

English cleric and scholar Thomas Malthus (1766–1834) became well known and influential for his worries over demography and its effects, even as his prescience was rejected by most. The optimism that sprang from the Age of Enlightenment included the pleasing notion that society was progressing, and, if prudently guided, was perfectible. Malthus rained on that parade with An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798), which argued that sooner or later unchecked population growth would be checked by famine and disease. For Malthus, there were inevitable limits to growth.

That Malthus appears prescient is all the more remarkable given the paucity of data he had to go on: there were no genuine statistics at his disposal. Nonetheless, Malthus made the most of the information available to him.

One notably important influence was a published travel diary by English agriculturist Arthur Young, who traveled extensively throughout France on the eve of the French Revolution (1789). Young noted the widespread poverty in the French countryside.

With 20 million people in 1700 (compared to 5 million in England), France was by far the most populous country in Europe. The French population grew steadily through the 18th century, reaching 30 million by 1780.

There is every reason to believe that this rapid population growth led to stagnation in agrarian wages and rising land rents, fomenting the discontent that led to the Revolution.

Malthus, like many other Englishmen in secure positions, was greatly disturbed by the radical political ideas emanating from revolutionary France. To ensure that Britain did not suffer a similar fate, Malthus argued that all welfare assistance to the poor be stopped, and that breeding by the poor be checked by whatever measures feasible.

Adam Smith anticipated Malthus’s concern, as did Aristotle. Both rejected the worry of there being any limits to growth.

These riches that are derived from this art of wealth-getting are truly unlimited. ~ Aristotle

The liberal reward of labour, as it is to the effect of increasing wealth, so it is the cause of increasing population. To complain of it is to lament over the necessary effect and cause of the greatest public prosperity. ~ Adam Smith

Though Malthus found support in some corners, optimism remained the majority opinion for centuries after Malthus’ warning, and even to the present day, especially for those sycophantically bound to business.

Technology is most often proffered as the presumed savior for a burgeoning world population, and for other ills created by the chaos of capitalism. On this Malthus was also insightful.

In prosperous times the mercantile classes often realize fortunes, which go far toward securing them against the future; but unfortunately the working classes, though they share in the general prosperity, do not share in it so largely as in the general adversity. ~ Thomas Malthus