Malthus Essay On Population Sparknotes

homas Malthus believed that natural rates of human reproduction, when unchecked, would lead to geometric increases in population: population would grow in a ratio of 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64 and so on. However, he believed that food production increased only in arithmetic progression: 2, 4, 6, 8, 10. It seemed obvious to him that something had to keep the population in check to prevent wholesale starvation. He said that there were two general kinds of checks that limited population growth: preventative checks and positive checks. Preventative checks reduced the birth rate; positive checks increased the death rate.

Moral restraint, vice and birth control were the primary preventative checks. Moral restraint was the means by which the higher ranks of humans limited their family size in order not to dissipate their wealth among larger numbers of heirs. For the lower ranks of humans, vice and birth control were the means by which their numbers could be limited - but Malthus believed that these were insufficient to limit the vast numbers of the poor.

The positive checks were famine, misery, plague and war; because preventative checks had not limited the numbers of the poor, Malthus thought that positive checks were essential to do that job. If positive checks were unsuccessful, then inevitably (he said), famine would be the resulting way of keeping the population down. Before starvation set in, Malthus advised that steps be taken to help the positive checks to do their work.  He wrote:

It is an evident truth that, whatever may be the rate of increase in the means of subsistence, the increase in population must be limited by it, at least after the food has been divided into the smallest shares that will support life. All the children born, beyond what would be required to keep up the population to this level, must necessarily perish, unless room be made for them by the deaths of grown persons. ... To act consistently, therefore, we should facilitate, instead of foolishly and vainly endeavouring to impede, the operation of nature in producing this mortality, and if we dread the too frequent visitation of the horrid form of famine, we should sedulously encourage the other forms of destruction, which we compel nature to use.

Instead of recommending cleanliness to the poor, we should encourage contrary habits. In our towns we should make the streets narrower, crowd more people into the houses, and court the return of the plague. In the country we should build our villages near stagnant pools, and particularly encourage settlements in all marshy and unwholesome situations. But above all, we should reprobate specific remedies for ravaging diseases: and those benevolent, but much mistaken men, who have thought they were doing a service to mankind by projecting schemes for the total extirpation of particular disorders. If by these and similar means the annual mortality were increased ... we might probably every one of us marry at the age of puberty and yet few be absolutely starved. [Is this passage ironic?]

In Malthus' opinion, the masses were incapable of exercising moral restraint, which was the only real remedy for the population problem. They were therefore doomed to live always at bare subsistence level. If all income and wealth were distributed among them, it would be totally wasted within one generation because of profligate behaviour and population growth, and they would be as poor and destitute as ever. Paternalistic attempts to help the poor were therefore highly likely to fail. Also, they were a positive evil because they drained wealth and income from the higher (and therefore more moral) ranks of society. These people were responsible - either in person or through patronage - for all the great achievements of society: art, music, philosophy, literature and so on owed their existence to the good taste and generosity of these people. Taking money from them to help the poor would deprive the world of culture.

Related Materials

Some recent writings on Malthus

Macfarlane, Alan. Thomas Malthus and the Making of the Modern World. Amazon Create Space, 2014.

Mayhew, Robert J. Malthus: The Life and Legacies of an Untimely Prophet. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press, 2014.

In his admirably rounded Malthus . .. . Mayhew draws our attention to the actual writings of this pioneer of demography and political economy, and to his historical context. . . . [A later phase of Malthusian thought] began in the later twentieth century with a new Malthusianism aligned with ecology” (Jonnathan Benthall, “At Trondheim,” TLS [13 June 2014]: 28.)




Created 2003

Last modified 11 September 2015


Malthus’s Population Principle Explained

By Frank W. Elwell

This essay is a faithful summary of Malthus’s original 1798 “Principle of Population.” While nothing will substitute for reading the original essay with an open mind, I hope this summary will go some way toward rehabilitating this man’s reputation.

Malthus first points out that human nature being what it is, the passion between the sexes appears to be fairly constant and, if unchecked population will double itself every twenty-five years. "Population, when unchecked, increases at a geometrical ratio. Subsistence increases only in an arithmetical ratio. A slight acquaintance with numbers will show the immensity of the first power in comparison with the second." And this leads to Malthus’s principle of population. Because of this unequal power between production and reproduction, "population must always be kept down to the level of the means of subsistence.” While Malthus was not the first one to notice this, he was the first to inquire into the means by which this leveling of population is achieved. The key word in the principle is “always.” Why then do people insist that Malthus predicts a future of population overshoot and collapse?

Here is the key to that riddle: Malthus made the mistake of illustrating the unequal powers of production and reproduction with a mathematical illustration. He supposes that when unchecked, the earth’s human population would double every twenty-five years (a good estimate consistent with current knowledge). Agricultural production at best, he argues, could not possibly keep pace.

But to make the argument more general and less interrupted by the partial views of emigration, let us take the whole earth, instead of one spot, and suppose that the restraints to population were universally removed. If the subsistence for man that the earth affords was to be increased every twenty-five years by a quantity equal to what the whole world at present produces, this would allow the power of production in the earth to be absolutely unlimited, and its ratio of increase much greater than we can conceive that any possible exertions of mankind could make it. Taking the population of the world at any number, a thousand millions, for instance, the human species would increase in the ratio of—1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512, etc. and subsistence as—1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, etc. In two centuries and a quarter, the population would be to the means of subsistence as 512 to 10: in three centuries as 4096 to 13, and in two thousand years the difference would be almost incalculable, though the produce in that time would have increased to an immense extent (8-9, emphasis added).

He knows full well that population cannot grow long beyond the means of subsistence (“population must always be kept down to the means of subsistence”), he is simply trying to illustrate to his readers the unequal powers of growth in population and food production and therefore the necessity of checks on population. At one point in the Essay he even states: “I am sufficiently aware that the redundant twenty-eight millions, or seventy-seven millions, that I have mentioned, could never have existed” (63). But for various reasons many critics have taken this mental experiment as the theory of population itself and delight in writing that Malthus was wrong, that overshoot and collapse did not occur. Contrary to popular belief (and the belief of many who should know better), Malthus did not predict a future in which population would outrun food supply and eventually collapse.

Other critics write that Malthus was wrong because he did not take into account the possibility of dramatic increases in the production of food. Many criticize him for not taking into account the revolution in agriculture. But he anticipated this argument as well:

No limits whatever are placed to the productions of the earth; they may increase for ever and be greater than any assignable quantity, yet still the power of population being a power of a superior order, the increase of the human species can only be kept commensurate to the increase of the means of subsistence by the constant operation of the strong law of necessity acting as a check upon the greater power (9-10).

It makes no difference how much productivity increases, Malthus writes, it could not long keep up with unrestrained reproduction. Population must be constantly checked to keep it in line with what the earth can produce. While it has become a commonplace in the literature to claim that increased productivity has disproved Malthus’s main contention of the need for population checks this is simply not the case. Assuming 700 million people at the time of the Essay (an estimate widely reported in the literature, and a 25-year doubling time for unchecked population (what modern demographers call “fecundity”), today’s population would now be close to 48 billion. It is not nearly so high (7 billion as of this writing) because there have been constant checks on population in the last 200 years. While food productivity has increased substantially, it has not (nor could it) increase at the same rate as unchecked population growth. Rather, in accordance with Malthus’s theory, the rise in productivity in the last 200 years has been met by a substantial rise in population a rise that has been truly exponential though far less than potential unchecked growth.

What are these checks that Malthus writes about? They are of two types: “Preventive checks” come into play through the “foresight of the difficulties attending the rearing of a family” (22). They include celibacy, contraception, and various forms of non-procreative sex. “Positive checks,” are the “actual distresses of some of the lower classes, by which they are disabled from giving the proper food and attention to their children” (22). Under this heading Malthus includes extreme poverty, diseases, plague, malnutrition, wars, infanticide, and famine. Positive checks are far more likely to operate within poor populations; preventive checks among the upper classes. In Malthus’s view, both positive and preventive checks—or the ways a people go about controlling their fertility—will greatly impact the rest of the sociocultural system.

Malthus’s principle of population is basically the law of supply and demand applied to the relationships between food production and population growth, which he makes clear time and again throughout the Essay. As the food supply increases, food becomes cheaper, and more children are brought into the world. As there are more mouths to feed, food becomes more expensive, thus causing stress on families, more children dying or steps taken to prevent conception itself. As food prices rise, more land is put under the plow, or greater efforts made in intensifying the production of the land itself.

While Malthus recognized that the relationships among the fertility of people and land are a good deal more complex than this simplified assertion, he maintained there is a recurrent reciprocal relationship between the two. Because of this reciprocal relationship between population and production, over the course of sociocultural evolution, both population and food production have grown in tandem. Periods of increase in food productivity, whether because of the application of technology or the expansion of cultivated land, have been met with expansions of population. Periods of stability in food production, or contraction in productivity, have been marked by the same phenomena in population level.

Because people can reproduce faster than they can increase the production of food, population must always be checked through positive or preventive means. This and nothing more, is Malthus’s “Principle of Population.” Over the course of sociocultural evolution, however, the long-term tendency has been for both productivity and population to intensify. This reciprocal growth, of course, has great effect on other parts of the sociocultural system.

For a more extensive discussion of Malthus’s theories refer to Macro Social Theory by Frank W. Elwell.  Also see Sociocultural Systems: Principles of Structure and Change to learn how his insights contribute to a more complete understanding of modern societies.


Elwell, F. (2009), Macrosociology: The Study of Sociocultural Systems. Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press.

Elwell, F. (2013), Sociocultural Systems: Principles of Structure and Change. Alberta: Athabasca University Press.

Malthus, T. R. (Thomas Robert) (2012-05-12). An Essay on the Principle of Population.  Kindle Edition.

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