Malthus: A Harsh and Unkind Genius?

Malthus: Poor Man's Enemy

Malthus: A Brilliant, Yet Flawed Mind.

The Reverent Thomas Robert Malthus (1766-1834) was one of the most influential men of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Many books have been written about him and his ideas, some of which are as modern as if they were written yesterday.

Malthus maintained world population would not increase indefinitely, sustained by mankind's ability to invent technology and expertise to feed their millions - soon to become billions - as was the popularly held view, especially by the French. (Rousseau and Goodwin, et al).

Malthus said populations would soon outgrow man's capacity to provide resources and human numbers would be curtailed by famine and disease, wars and pollution.

His great early work, "Essay on the Principle of Population, as it Affects the Future Improvement of Society" was immediately influential. Many of his views predated the Evolutionists like Darwin and Russell; avidly read by them as they saw his ideas on population and its "automatic" control as agreeing with what they saw happening around them as man and other creatures evolved; were made extinct, to be replaced by other forms.

But although evidence shows Malthus understood many facets of world society and the often chameleon-like behaviour of his fellows, he seemed to show little love or compassion for them, especially the poor, who he stated "deserved and were responsible for their miserable fate." A view cherished then as it is now in the 21st century as Cameron and the British government tell the underprivileged to "get a job; any job," although there are few jobs actually available of any stripe.

But to be born "on the wrong side of the tracks" in Malthus' time was to suffer degradation and desperation indeed. Malthus and his many adherents opposed the idea of financial help for the poor on the grounds it "just increased their idle behaviour." He accused them of intemperance and drunkenness saying "they cannot save a penny because their money belongs to the nearest pub." All this we hear today in perhaps language better suited to the times and the colourful, unkind bombastic rhetoric learned in our top universities by career delegates. (One of the reason these poor kids riot today is they really can't express their outrage and needs: they lack the education, as many have had no schooling and cannot read nor write, much less hold forth with the eloquence of politicians) We have, indeed "Come a short way, baby!"

The Irish today have little respect for Malthus as he told that nation, "a great part of (your) population should be swept from the soil!" A man of the church he may have been, but hardly a man of Christ.

Malthus was an articulate opponent of the "Poor Laws," instituted to improve the lot of the most marginalized, and a supporter of the "Corn Laws" which sought to raise taxes on grain imports.

Then, as now, currying favour with the ruling classes led to fame, fortune and social advantage; championing the weak and oppressed led nowhere, except perhaps you slept better at night!

When I look at the pasty, lined and haggard faces lining the House of Commons benches in the British Parliament, all I see is the often price of power: early ageing, facile smiles, the twitches from constant lying, hurried "talking over" any questioners (the latter must be taught in Surviving in Parliament 101...if the MP is speaking, he can‘t be interrogated!). In fact, the fittest looking one of the lot is the PM, David Cameron, how long he will stay that way is anyone’s guess (He is developing a bald spot!).

Marx, Engels and Lenin were scornful of Malthus' doctrine, saying (in my words) that is was the typical reactionary nonsense of the bourgeois and designed to keep the poor in deprived situations in order to better the lot of his contemporaries.

Henry Charles Carey, the American economist, strongly disagreed with Malthus, saying, more or less, that good, forward-thinking government will encourage the technology and provide adequate education to its people to control their own birth-rates. He said that enlightened generations will provide the necessary technology to keep up with normal population growth.

My own opinion, for what it is worth, is that Malthus was right in that events will stabilize population growth, not altruistic, far-seeing government. (One, for example, that doesn’t spend half its waking hours helping bankers, or trying to fiddle its expenses!).

But disaster and disease will not do the job before there are far too many of us on the planet for all to enjoy a decent quality of life. And those of the edge in the Malthusian equation: those getting the diseases, suffering the famines and all the rest (mainly the poor) won’t be at all impressed with the Reverend’s ideas at all. Not a little bit.

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Comments 19 comments

klanguedoc profile image

klanguedoc 5 years ago from Canada

Fascinating Hub. I never heard of the guy before, but maybe his hangup with poverty would suggest some he came from poverty or suffer from poverty in some way as a child.


PETER LUMETTA profile image

PETER LUMETTA 5 years ago from KENAI, ALAKSA

Not a friendly sort and surely not a humaniterian. His deductions were sound but his attitude leaves one cold. Also a good insight into the British problem and soon to be American problem. War and famine will be the equalizer it seems, whether we like it or not. Good article diogenes, thanks, Peter


kimh039 profile image

kimh039 5 years ago

"Let them eat cake."

Interesting read, Diogenes. Thank you. It's deja vu all over again. I understand in China the expression was, "Let them eat meat" when it was discovered that the poor had no rice.


diogenes profile image

diogenes 5 years ago from UK and Mexico Author

Hi klanguedoc: He was born into a comfortable family and went on to Cambridge. No poverty ever in his life that I can see...Bob


diogenes profile image

diogenes 5 years ago from UK and Mexico Author

Hi Peter. No one born into priviledge ever stood up for the poor. He would not have even thought he was doing any wrong in condemming the "lower classes" (don't you just love the British class system!). Even Marx lived the life of a wealthy intellectual. Bob


diogenes profile image

diogenes 5 years ago from UK and Mexico Author

KIm. Exactly. Yes, and do you know the servant class was "forced" to eat lobster in medieval and later England because meat was considered too good for them. So they hated lobster and tried to have a clause (claws!?) put in their work contracts to say they were to have it no more than twice per week. Funny old world isn't it? Bob


Rebecca E. profile image

Rebecca E. 5 years ago from Canada

Once again an interesting topic. I actually have not heard of him, but this means of course, it is my failing, and of your benefit I found this. (why? becaus ehtis means you have proven that I have to read and learn more...)


cathylynn99 profile image

cathylynn99 5 years ago from northeastern US

bertrand russell was born a noble and gave his inheritance to the poor.

as i see it, all US dwellers are born into priviledge and rich. for a brief time, i had to survive on $300 US per month and the benificence of my parents (allowing me to live in their house rent-free). though i was below US poverty level, i considered myself rich by world standards.


diogenes 5 years ago

Hi Rebecca: He was well known in the UK and the States, which is why I wrote this brief bio. There is so much and so ittle time!

Hi Cathylynn: POverty in the US is somewhat eased by the resources, the beauty and size of the country

Bob


QudsiaP1 profile image

QudsiaP1 5 years ago

Funny how it is always a 'track' 'bridge' or 'river' that separates people.


diogenes profile image

diogenes 5 years ago from UK and Mexico Author

Hi Qudsia. As you know, the expression is "Born on the other (or wrong) side of the tracks" This dates to when trains and their tracks arrived in the US, tending to seperate communities into the haves and have-nots. I have never heard bridge or river used in this context...although it is often true a river seperates wealthy and humble communities...Bob


diogenes profile image

diogenes 5 years ago from UK and Mexico Author

Hi Qudsia. As you know, the expression is "Born on the other (or wrong) side of the tracks" This dates to when trains and their tracks arrived in the US, tending to seperate communities into the haves and have-nots. I have never heard bridge or river used in this context...although it is often true a river seperates wealthy and humble communities...Bob


QudsiaP1 profile image

QudsiaP1 5 years ago

i know of the expression Bob. :)

Still I was talking about you know how in reality it is very very true.


diogenes profile image

diogenes 5 years ago from UK and Mexico Author

Sorry, lovely lady; didn't mean to talk down to ya x


Hello, hello, profile image

Hello, hello, 5 years ago from London, UK

I have never heard of this 'lovely' guy and therefore it was twice as interesting. Thankhyou. Bob. Did you know that the head of the Stagecoach received a £50million and the shareholders £340million and yet they increase the fare by 13 per cent. It is that sort of thing which brings the economy down and yet those ............................................................... do nothing. Same as the bankers and stock-marketeers. Yet Cameron sits calmly at the cricket ground drinking beer. Take care and all the best wishes.


diogenes profile image

diogenes 5 years ago from UK and Mexico Author

Those at the top think they are entitled to the lion's share of the spoils of civilization. And they will hang on to this right like dogs. Their minions, the police and forces, help protect them in return for a small share in the goodies. It has ever been this way and is only cured by revolution. Bob


kripkrip420 profile image

kripkrip420 4 years ago from In relation to what?

I can honestly say that I have never heard of this man...Until now. Thank you for sharing. Fantastic hub! Voted up!


diogenes profile image

diogenes 4 years ago from UK and Mexico Author

Hi kripkrip Thanks for visit...Bob


Wajdi 2 years ago

I was curious if you ever thhuogt of changing the structure of your site? Its very well written; I love what youve got to say. But maybe you could a little more in the way of content so people could connect with it better. Youve got an awful lot of text for only having 1 or 2 pictures. Maybe you could space it out better?

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