Was Malthus Right?


I ran across this very interesting PBS article recently (link above). It is an excellent summary of Malthusian philosophy that got me musing about Malthusianism and public policy.

Reverend Thomas Malthus first published his theories in the late 18th century, a time of dramatic social upheaval. The might of England had fallen short against the rebellious colonies, while the Ancien Régime had lost its head to the rebellious Jacobins. The only thing certain in this era was uncertainty.

Against this backdrop, Malthus proclaimed that there were a finite quantity of resources on Earth, and that the human population will always proliferate until those resources are consumed. Once the resources are exhausted, the world is doomed either to widespread famine or violence. If the overall resource level is increased by social or technological developments, humans will simply proliferate to a larger population and our overall misery will remain unchanged.

Malthus wrote that the median income of the common folk, expressed in the amount of food (pounds of wheat) they could afford, had remained constant from prehistoric times to the end of the 18th century – and this number was barely enough food to survive. The central dogma of Malthusian belief was that increasing living standards led to higher populations which led to decreasing living standards, causing a long-term equilibrium of famine and poverty.

Malthus believed that this negative feedback cycle could only be broken if the whole world decided to have fewer children. In an era where reliable contraception was nonexistent and many children died at a young age, this must have sounded as loony as putting a man on the moon.

Malthus also suggested that any large-scale charity (such as social welfare programs) would prove useless or harmful in the long run. According to Malthusian dynamics, the only thing keeping poverty in check is the death rate of poor people. Therefore, anything you did to help poor people would only cause more people to become poor. This part of his philosophy was attractive to an aristocracy terrified of the proletariat mob at their gates. As such, 19th century Malthusianism was staunchly conservative.


By the time of World War II, every civilized country had major social welfare programs in place. Thus, the “charity is harmful” portion of Malthusian philosophy was largely ignored (as it remains to this day). Instead, 20th century Malthusians focused the importance of population control. In the pre-WWII era this often meant eugenics and forced sterilization – the Malthusian Belt of Brave New World. Again, this placed Malthusianism firmly on the conservative end of the political spectrum.

Adolf Hitler proceeded to Godwin the eugenics movement, taking it to its most horrific extreme and making it unmentionable in polite society. However, a pharmaceutical innovation revived interest in Malthus – The Pill. Oral contraceptives allowed a new generation to have kids only when they wanted to. Birth control was immediately opposed by the religious right, so Malthusian philosophy was suddenly liberal. This right-to-left shift was completed when many early environmentalists started preaching Malthusian population control as a way to decrease environmental impact.

Malthus believed that food production was the crucial limiting factor for population growth. The Earth had a “carrying capacity”, a maximum number of mouths that the planet could feed. Back in the 1950s and 1960s, food was a central dogma in Malthusian environmentalism. In The Population Bomb(1968), Paul Ehrlich stated that hundreds of millions of people would starve to death by the end of the 1970s. He suggested putting contraceptives in the water supply or in staple foods, while noting the sociopolitical impossibility of doing so.

Instead, a social and technological revolution occurred. Basic farming techniques such as irrigation, fertilizers and pesticides spread from the First World to the Third. New crop cultivars, developed first by conventional breeding and later by genetic modification, massively increased farm yields. Food prices dropped so low that many industrialized countries had to pay farmers not to farm. Even as the human population of Earth increased from a few hundred million to over 7 billion, Malthus’s prediction of widespread food shortages never came true.


A funny thing happened between the 1970s and now. Populations leveled off and started to decline in Europe, Russia, Japan, and among non-Hispanic whites in the USA. This happened despite the fact that an increasing world population had not triggered any horrific famines, wars or plagues. It also happened in the absence of any draconian measures such as Ehrlich’s hypothetical contraceptive water supply. Economists coined the phrase “demographic-economic paradox” to describe the decreasing fertility among wealthy socioeconomic groups. What public policy triumph allowed population control to finally happen? Widespread access to affordable contraception, a remedy far easier to swallow than forced sterilization.

The success of birth control could be seen as the ultimate confirmation of Malthus’s thesis that limiting the population would improve quality of life. It has undoubtedly broken the Malthusian cycle of “increased living standards -> increased birth rate -> decreased living standards”. Recent predictions suggest that human population will peak in the mid-21st century and then decline. This predicted peak doesn’t happen due to food shortages, but because humans are choosing to have fewer children. Those children will not be limited to Malthus’s “14 pounds of wheat”, they will have much greater access to food and material goods.

Reverend Malthus’ ultimate objective was to decrease the worldwide fertility rate, and by that measure he has been wildly successful. What he could not have forseen was the method of this success. Malthusian doctrine gave birth to numerous population-limiting schemes over the centuries, many of which were impractical or inhumane. In the end, the global fertility decline occurred thanks to affordable contraception. Billions of human beings chose to have fewer children. No one forced them to do so. (except in China).

I wish that more policy thinkers would draw a lesson from this part of history. You can craft onerous laws to change people’s behavior, and they will fight you every step of the way. Or you could give people the freedom to choose. If the change in behavior is truly beneficial, people will gravitate toward it over time – as has happened in every high-income country over the past several decades.


One thought on “Was Malthus Right?

  1. John Milligan says:

    Malthus’s population crash predictions were correct but agriculture productivity, food storage techniques, and the global economy help increase the population capacity. Birth control has played a huge role in stabilizing the population of the developed world but that is not the only deciding factor dictating the number of children couples. In the developing world the following play a significant role: child mortality rates, need for child agrarian labor, women education level, and women job market options. Middle class families in america pour a great deal of resources into each of their kids. I wonder if the cost of education play a role in the US. However, countries like Norway with free college education have a declining population. Even with the existence of contraceptives the population of the world is projected to increase to 9.6 Billion by 2050. http://www.economist.com/news/international/21579817-lot-more-people-faces-future

    Up until the Bush administration, contraception was apart of the international ad we provided to the developing world. Although temporary aid to a community in poverty will likely not solve the poverty cycle. Successful government programs aim at getting families and communities out of the poverty and empowering women. Thankfully helping families out of poverty does help also prevent the world population spiraling out of control. However poverty programs need to be more than just food aid.

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