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Malthusian Theory of Population

Updated on June 24, 2014


Malthus is the father of population studies. The rapidly increasing population and misguided ‘poor law’ during the industrial revolution in England worried Malthus to a great extent. The reason for his distress was that increasing population coupled with poor law resulted in social problems such as unemployment, exploitation of workers, poverty, low standard of living and increasing slums. Malthus feared that all these socio-economic problems might lead England to face a great disaster. Hence, he wanted to find out what was happening exactly and to warn his country about the problems ahead.

Malthus visited many places for an extensive research. Finally, he came up with a conclusion that population has a tendency to double itself in every twenty-five years.

Theme of Malthusian Theory of Population

Malthusian theory of population tries to establish the relationship between population and food supply. According to Malthus,

(i) Human food increases in a slow arithmetical ratio.

(ii) Population itself increases in a quick geometrical ratio.

(iii) Increase in population is limited by the food supply. If supply of food reduces, the rate of increase in population tends to slow down.

(iv) However, when supply of food is sufficient, population starts increasing in a quick geometrical ratio if there are no powerful checks like natural disasters.

Interesting Information from the Theory

According to economists like Cantillan who carried out research on this concept,

  1. Men multiply like mice in a barn.
  2. Human beings double every 25 years.
  3. A couple can increase to the size of present population in 1,750 years.

Summary of Malthusian Theory of Population

  1. The theory states that the population of a country increases in a geometrical progression and doubles itself every 25 years. The increasing ratio may be 1:2:4:8:16:32….and so on. Natural attraction between sexes has a tremendous power of reproduction.
  2. At the same time, because of law of diminishing returns in agriculture, food supply increases in every 25 years in a slow arithmetical progression. The increasing ratio shall be 1, 2, 3, 4… and so on.
  3. From the above two points, it is obvious that population tends to overrun food supply at some point of time, as population increases in geometrical progression and the food supply in arithmetical progression. This over-population leads to social evils such as poverty, unemployment and civil war.

Having said this, Malthus insisted to correct the imbalance between the population and food supply. In order to rectify the imbalance between the two, Malthus suggested two kinds of checks, namely positive checks and preventive checks.

Preventive Checks

Preventive checks are man-made checks to control population such as late marriages and chastity. At the same time, Malthus was against modern methods for controlling population such as family planning, contraceptives, and unnatural and unethical relationships.

Positive Checks

Positive checks are imposed by the nature. Examples for positive checks are famines, civil war and poverty. Positive checks have the ability to kill large number of human beings within a small span of time. Hence, the imbalance between population and food supply starts vanishing. According to Malthus, positive checks are crude. Hence, he suggests civilized preventive checks to correct the imbalance before nature takes its own action.

Poor Laws and Malthus Theory of Population

As per ‘poor law’ in England, aid was given to the poor people. Malthus suggested that the aid could induce the poor people to have more children. This may result in further increase in population. Hence, he suggested abolishing the ‘poor law’ gradually. Malthus’ ideas were incorporated in the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834.

Criticisms of Malthusian Theory of Population

The Malthusian theory of population has been a controversial subject till now and has been facing many sharp criticism. They are:

Failed to visualize the importance of foreign trade and inventions

According to Malthus, population tends to overrun food supply because of law of diminishing returns of agriculture. However, the theory failed to explore the possibilities of inventions and new techniques. New techniques have increased the food supply tremendously in many countries. Hence, law of diminishing returns in agriculture is never a point to be considered. Furthermore, countries that cannot produce large quantity of food can always go for foreign trade. For instance, England has been importing food products from other countries.

Geometrical and arithmetical progression

Malthus’s theory claims that food supply increases in arithmetical progression and population increases in geometrical progression. However, there is no historical evidence to prove this claim. Some countries have seen negative growth rate in population.

Pessimistic approach

According to economists like Cannan and Seligman, the theory is pessimistic in approaching the increase in population. According to them, the population can be a useful labor force to develop the nation. The qualified labor force can handle the production and distribution aspects of the economy efficiently. Hence, there is no question of poor standard of living.

Desire for sex versus desire for children

Malthus failed to distinguish between desire for sex and desire for children. Human beings can have desire for sex without having desire for children. There are many modern contraceptives to prevent childbirth. However, Malthus insisted more on moral restraint, which certainly does not work in a modern society.

Over-population and natural calamities

According to Malthusian theory of population, over-population is the sole reason for positive checks such as famine, earthquake and so on. However, this is not true. Even underpopulated countries experience all sorts or natural calamities now and then.

Civilization and excess population

Recent Researches show that improvement in civilization leads to great amount of awareness among people about small family norms. Hence, the fear of excess population is baseless.

Modern socio-economic factors

Modern socio-economic factors do not allow anyone to think about big family or having more children. Malthusian theory of population failed to look these modern socio-economic factors as prevent checks.

Marx and Malthusian theory of population

Malthusian theory of population states that the poor are responsible for their poverty. By his recommendation to abolish the ‘poor law’ in England, Malthus wanted the poor people to live without enjoyment such as marriage. Socialists, especially Marx, vehemently criticized the theory for this reason.

Even though there are many criticisms against the Malthusian theory of population, we cannot completely ignore the theory. The Malthusian theory of population is applicable even today in many third world countries or developing nations.

© 2013 Sundaram Ponnusamy


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