Thomas Malthus’s Economic Law of Population Growth and Food Supply
Thomas Robert Malthus was born on 14 February 1766in Surrey. Up to date, he remains a widely acclaimed figure in political economy and demographics, much so because of his theories on population. The English scholar, who died in December 1834, postulated that contrary to popular belief that human society was perfectible and would continue improving;the population would sooner or later be curtailed by hunger and disease (Dunn, Para, 1). It is for such theories as this that Malthus resonates with the world today with his message two centuries ago becoming evident even in todays world. The recurrent epidemics affecting populations of humans, animals and crops and hunger due to lower food production in comparison to population growth remains a threat to the very existence of man kind.
Malthus’s Economic Law of Population Growth and Food Supply
Malthus published a well thought essay in 1798 titled “An Essay on the Principle of Population as it Affects the Future Improvement of Society”. Through his discussion, he aroused interest in perception about population growth when he showed the link between it and the resources available to sustain it. He argued that with a slow increase in food supply, the population growth would eventually be regulated. When opponents to his theory discredited his work by claiming that population growth would lead to an increased agricultural production, he pointed out that other factors such as war and disease would alternatively curtail the population growth. The controversy surrounding his work propelled him to write a more convincing scholarly work based on statistical evidence.For this he organized a data collection tour with friends that took him across the continent. The statistics he focused on included social history of communities inhabiting different parts of the continent and their local customs. To add to credibility of his work across the board, he also focused on North American population trends. With this data, he published his second book in 1803 based on sociological concepts. This approach was a paradigm shift of analysis from his conventional political philosophy based method to a political- economic one. The book was widely read and critiquedgoing through several editions as more relevant data emerged. The publication of his third book in 1830, “A Summary View of the Principle of Population” only served to confirm what Malthus believed in as his philosophical stand on matters population (Dunn, Para, 2).
The Malthus’ postulates were based on two ideas; that for man to continue existing, he needed food and that the sexual passion between males and females would continue as long as man existed. As such he postulated that based on these two concepts, the prospect of population growth would definitely surpass the ability of planet earth to sustainably produce enough food for man. Mathematically he supported this by showing that population growth occurred in a geometric version if it remained unchecked as opposed to subsistence which increased in arithmeticratio. The disparity between the two ratios is outrageously wide. As such,the law of nature demands that the two ratios balance if man is to continue living comfortably.With the two powers unequal in terms and measure, then there must be a constant check to the ratios to ensure that population does not overly exceed the confines of subsistence (Edwards-Jones, Davies &Hussain, pg. 78). According to Malthus, factors such as disease epidemics and hunger would be some of the factors to put the population in check. Their effect on large portions of human population would be necessary to ensure continued sustainability of mankind by the available resources on the planet(James, pg. 62). With his religious background as a cleric, Malthus argued that “This natural inequality of the two powers, of population, and of production in the earth, and that great law of our nature which must constantly keep their efforts equal, form the great difficulty that appears to me insurmountable in the way to the perfectibility of society” (Dunn, Para, 4). To him the checks to uncontrolled human population growth against the restricted increase in subsistence,are exhibited inform of moral restraint, societal vices and misery inflicting mankind. He continued to support his arguments from the biblical perspectives to show that since creation of mankind, to present, mankind would continue self destructing unless some form of miraculous change took place to change the cognitive and physical makeup of mankind. He pointed to examples of slavery and forced labor, climatic changes and other vagaries of nature such as drought, earthquakes and floods as some of the factors that the supernatural powers that be would employ to maintain constant levels of population. Other human acts including greed would see proliferation of poverty, increased child mortality due to poor nursing of children, poor living conditions buoyed by uncontrolled rural-urban migration as well as break out of epidemics. Incurable diseases in addition to unending wars as populations scramble for the inadequate resources would all act in combination to ensure the population growth would remain in check (Dunn, Para, 5).
The forces against Malthus postulates were based on long held view in the human society that the size of a nation’s population is what determined that nation’s resources. Furthermore, it was generally agreeable even among scholars of the time that fertility contributed to national wealth. The societal laws in use at the time, he observed, would only encourage immorality and an upsurge in population growth. He advocated for moral restraint bywhich he called on the people not to rush into engaging in sexual activities or enter into marriage unless they were absolutely sure that their economic power could sustain a family. This was not to mean that he supported the use of contraceptives which would have in any way contradicted his stand as an Anglican cleric. His supporters however interpreted his message as such and the popularization of this view by a renowned sociologist, Francis Page signified the birth of birth control. Page observed that if the number of children one would have was regulated, then marriage would not be perceived as a barrier and many would be encouraged to marry at young age and establish families in an acceptable and moral environment (Dunn, Para, 6).
The controversy aroused by Malthus’descriptions touching on population has never died down to date and continues to be a point of reference for today’s economists. Over time the discussion has matured from general debate over sustainability of population and other similar questions to more specific queries concerning such concepts as ‘optimum population’. Population economics has tried to analyze the effect of rapid population growth on factors such as productivity, health, wages and other elements that gauge standard of living. From these interests, surveys have been carried out and numerous studies done with an aim to ascertain the interrelationship among the different components of population including fertility, environmental impact, social amenities and other changes in demographics. International organizations such as the international monetary fund (IMF) have conducted studies on demographic economics to determine the impact of population changes impact social welfare. The Malthus’ law has once again been brought to the fore in light of the wanton destruction of ecosystem that has exposed life on planet earth to the biggest danger of extinction yet (Barrows, pg.1).
Analytical critics of the Malthus law have made numerous attempts to critique his law by formulating their own hypotheses. Several socioeconomists have tried to link high fertility rates with increased economic growth while others support his law. In reference to the Malthus law, analyses by majority modern scholars focus on understanding the relationship between the decline in population growth andthe economic situation in some countries. As evidenced in developed nations in Europe where birth rates have been dropping continually, there is fear that future prospects of such economies could be negatively affected (Barrows, pg.1).Aclass of Austrian economists has developed theories on population that assume their basis on Malthus population law. The renowned 19th century economist, Jean-Baptiste Say wrote ‘ A Treatise On Political Economy’ and ‘Letter To Malthus’ in 1821 in which he concurred with Malthus postulates declaring that Malthus work was accurate and indisputable. In support of Malthus works, Say commented that it is human reasoning and interaction that impacted on population and also that agricultural productivity is among the many factors that influence population growth but not the sole factor (Barrows, pg.1).This is to say that man by his cognitive ability could mitigate any probable threat emanating from the ecosystem. Unfortunately, he observed some negative factors would still remain out man’s control such as plagues.
Other economists from Austria including Carl Menger, Eugen von Bohm-Bawerk and Friendrich Wieser also showed interest in analysis of Malthus law of population. Their views on population data however differed to some extent from the Malthus view point. Menger for instance discussed little on population while Bohm-Bawerk theory of wages funds doctrine related in one way to the concept of subsistence and population. Weiser’s concepts were more inclined toward Malthus law on population as he evidently supported the assertion that population could be limited by external factors if agricultural productivity stalled (Barrows, pg.4).Another Austrian economist, Mises attempted to relate division of labor and specialization to the law of population. According to him, man population would continue growing until such a time that other factors curtail its further advancement. As such he believed in the concept of optimum population (Barrows, pg.7).
Robert Malthus made his mark in history through his essay on population. His economic law of population growth and food supply though described controversial continues to be referred to date. For over two centuries many field such as economics, philosophy and sociology have continually linked emerging phenomena with his law. His critics have tried to disapprove of his theory but it is undeniably clear that his concept is factual to an extent. Observable changes affecting the globe two centuries after his demise reawaken memories of his rather prophetic theory.