Conventional Wisdom
Milton Friedman

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Malthusianism in Economic Thought

Malthusianism supposes that food supply and production in general must forever lag behind population growth unless severe limits are put upon that growth. The idea is named for Thomas Malthus. He was from a well-to-do family and educated at Cambridge in England. His father was a close friend of the philosopher David Hume. He wrote a pamphlet in 1798 with the rather cumbersome title called "An Essay on the Principle of Population as it affects the Future Improvement of Society, with Remarks on the Speculations of Mr. Godwin, M. Condorcet, and other Writers".1

The prediction that production would always lag population growth gave Malthus the reputation as a prophet of doom and gloom. So much so, that he is often given credit for earning Economics the sobriquet, "The Dismal Science".2 His argument was that population growth increased exponentially (multiplied), while production, specifically agricultural production, increased only arithmetically (in added increments). He believed that the increase in population would lead to an abundance of labor, and that all of this labor could not be employed productively. The fierce demand for jobs then would drive the cost of labor down. At the same time the cost of food would be driven skyward because there would be so many people to feed. This would tend to drive the standard of living to the subsistence level, with famine (from food shortages), war, and plagues being the natural checks on population growth.

Malthus was a demographer and kept stats on many aspects of population and agricultural production. He was quite fascinated with how societies actually did survive in spite of the economic forces he thought were at work. He felt that societies might "choose" to curtail population growth by various means including contraception, late marriage, and infanticide (including abortion). According the Library of Economics and Liberty his actual conclusion was: "because humans have not all starved, economic choices must be at work, and it is the job of an economist to study those choices."3 Yet the gist of his arguments is that suffering and subsistence living would be the norm.

The theories of Malthus were developed just as the industrial revolution was beginning; so he could be forgiven for not understanding that the dynamic of economic forces was changing4. Prior to 1800 food production did increase arithmetically, and population growth always seemed to strain at the edge of food production. Nevertheless, industrialism, which came into play after 1800, introduced such high levels of productivity that prosperity and improved health and living conditions rapidly became available to all levels of society. The birth rate plunged in industrialized nations to the point that current population growth has gone negative in much of Europe. Meanwhile agricultural production grew so quickly that in many countries, including the United States, farmers were (and are) paid to NOT grow crops.

It has been over two-hundred years since Malthus formulated his theories. Human ingenuity has far outstripped population growth, creating a huge increase in the standard of living, and agricultural capacity (especially in industrialized countries where technological advancement has even reduced pollution). Was Malthus wrong? As long as technological advancement is not stifled and free markets are not unduly restricted there should be plenty of food to feed world's populations.


  1. University of Oregon on Thomas Malthus
  2. Reference article once found at: - Victorian Web
  3. Library of Economics and Liberty
  4. Malthus, the False Prophet

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