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Malthusian Theory of Population | Thomas Malthus

Thomas Robert Malthus was a well-known economist who developed population growth theories and mentioned them in his book, ‘An Essay on the Principle of Population.’ He developed the Malthusian theory of population. This theory is based on the idea that the population is becoming more and more rapid, but there are not enough resources to satisfy this exponential population.

malthusian theory of population

Malthus believed that the population will continue to outrun the growth of resources. He looked at the economy in a pessimistic manner and viewed poverty as unavoidable. His opinions were coloured by the increased population growth in England. He assumed that the growth would be disastrous and he should warn the fellow-countrymen about the state of the economy due to the population growth.

Population and Food Supply

Malthus stated that the population grows through geometric progression. The geometric progression is an order of numbers (excluding zero) wherein each number after the first is multiplied by the previous one by a fixed number (excluding zero) called the common ratio. For example, 2,4,8,16 is a geometric progression with 2 being the common ratio.

According to him, resource production increases by arithmetic progression. An arithmetic progression is an order of numbers in which the difference between the consecutive numbers is the same. For example, 3,6,9 is an arithmetic progression with the common difference being 3.

From this, Malthus concluded that population growth will be faster than resource production. The growth can lead to a reduction in the food supply.

Population Controls

Malthus gave two types of ‘checks’ that prevent population growth based on resource supply.

  1. Preventive check: This check involves consciously postponing marriage and reproduction because of a shortage of resources. This could be done by moral restriction or legal action. For example, an individual can postpone getting married until his financial debt is clear.
  2. Positive check: This check involves situations that reduce the human lifespan. For example, famines, deadly communicable viruses, wars. Health conditions and poverty can also be considered under this check. When these situations lead to deaths, they are called ‘Malthusian catastrophe.’ When the population exceeds resource supply, positive checks are bound to happen to regain balance.

Malthusian Trap

Malthusian trap refers to the idea that increased food production due to modern agricultural techniques lead to higher population levels, which could lead to a lack of food supply because the increased population will require to live on land that would have previously been used to grow crops.

Malthus’ Belief on Charity

Malthus was against the idea of money transfers from rich to poor people. He believed that increasing the living standards of the poor through charity from the rich would eventually lead to worsening their living conditions, as they could be unintentionally led to assume that they can procreate more, which would lead to a reduction in the preventive check and create higher population growth.

Lastly, the same amount of resources have to be divided among a growing population, triggering positive checks on populations. Additionally, after such a transition, people will be likely to buy more food, leading to an increase in resource costs and a decrease in real wages, which leads to problems for poor people who have to do labour to earn money. The poor people would have to work extra hard to buy resources and food. They would have to adjust to an increased price for buying the resources. Some of them might not even be able to buy essential resources, due to the increased cost.

The English poor laws were a set of laws and policies that provided benefits to the poor and unemployed people. It was established after the Second World War for the relief and welfare of the poor in England and Wales.

Malthus did not support the poor laws and eventually worked to abolish them. He believed that when these disadvantaged people get money or resources, they feel confident enough to get married and start families. This increases population growth and depletes resources. He also believed that the poor cannot continually support children and it could lead to future diseases and infant mortality. He believed that preventive checks (controlling birth) are better than positive checks (population reduction through mortality). The poor laws are connected with Malthusianism because Malthus rejected and opposed them.

Neo-Malthusian Approach

The neo-Malthusian approach refers to the idea that population control is essential for human survival and it can be done by the use of contraceptives. The basis of this concept is the belief that resources are scarce and population growth is rapid. The rapid population creates pressure on resources, which could lead to famine, plague or war. Hence, population growth can end up in the major depletion of resources.

Criticism of Malthusian Theory

  • The population can rise at a bigger rate and technological developments can ensure appropriate resource supply. This aspect is ignored in the Malthusian theory.
  • There has been evidence of food supply increasing faster than the population rate.
  • The Malthusian theory states that the lack of food supply is due to a lack of agricultural land. However, it was found that the food supply has been increasing due to globalization.
  • The use of contraceptives was not validated in this theory. Contraceptives brought a huge decline in population.
  • The theory was based on a strong foundation but had weak applicability.
  • It was found that population growth did not happen as rapidly as Malthus predicted. In fact, resource production increased a lot and living standards became better for people due to that.
  • Malthus did not take into account the possibility of technological advancements and the ability of humans to adapt.
  • Malthus believed that population increased faster than the production of food. This progression ratio was questioned as humans can keep the food supply steady for the population. The population growth is also not as much as Malthus assumed it to be.

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