The Development of T.R. Malthus's Institutionalist Approach to the Cure of Poverty: From Punishment of the Poor to Investment in Their Human Capital

Article excerpt

Abstract William Godwin had a dual influence on Thomas Robert Malthus. First, Malthus wrote the premier (1798) edition of his Essay on the Principle of Population to refute Godwin's thesis that institutional reforms could halt the growth of population and thereby pave the way toward universal affluence. There were only two checks on population, said Malthus in 1798: vice and misery. Second, pursuant to his discovery of virtuous checks on population in Scandinavia, Maithus reread Godwin's principal works. He now accepted Godwin's dual proposition that population growth could be stopped, even reversed, by the virtuous check of moral restraint and that this check could be made operational through institutional realignment. In the second (1803) edition of his Essay, Malthus argued, therefore, that poverty could be replaced by prosperity through institutional changes in the form of the introduction of universal education and gradual abolition of the poor law.

Keywords: institutional reforms, Godwin, Malthus, misery, moral restraint, vice


The title of this paper and the development of the argument in it were inspired by James P. Henderson's proposed session title, "Punishment of the Poor," in his "Call for Papers" for the 1999 annual meeting of the Association for Social Economics.

Thomas Robert Malthus (1766-1834) has been portrayed as a "cold and heartless" person who denounced "parish allowances" and "defended small-pox, slavery, and child murder" as means of population control (Otter 1951: xvii and Bonar 1885: 1). I decided, therefore, to investigate the extent to which Henderson's suggested title might be descriptive of the policies that "Population Malthus" [1] proposed in some of his publications.

In the course of my scrutiny of some of his literary outputs, I discovered, however, that Malthus held very complex views on the causes, consequences and control of the growth of population and that these views changed evolutionarily over a short period of time. This evolution is reflected in the different subtitles of the first two editions of his principal work on population. Whereas this work's first edition of 1798 and second edition of 1803 carried the same main title of An Essay on the Principle of Population, the subtitle was changed from As It Affects the Future Improvement of Society, With Remarks on The Speculations of Mr. Godwin, M. Condorcet, and Other Writers (Malthus 1798) to Or A View on Its Past and Present Effects on Human Happiness With An Inquiry Into Our Prospects Respecting The Future Removal Or Mitigation of The Evils Which It Occasions (Malthus 1826a and 1826b).

As indicated in these subtitles, Malthus's approach and methods differed in the two editions. The first edition is a deductively argued polemic tract2 that was intended as a refutation of some of the central propositions advanced by William Godwin, a contemporary political philosopher. The second edition is to a large extent constructed in conformity with the precepts that govern the conduct of empirically based and inductively reasoned inquiries into live socioeconomic problems.

In an effort to shed some light on the nature and causes of Malthus's evolving thoughts, I proceed as follows. In part two, I discuss those aspects of Godwin's work that stimulated Malthus to write the first edition of his Essay. Part three is devoted to an exposition of Malthus's theoretical propositions and policy recommendations in the very same edition. In part four, I endeavor to identify those events and intellectual antecedents that caused a sea change in Malthus's thinking. In part five, as in part three, I deal with two aspects of Malthus' evolving thinking. First, I discuss the principal aspects of that new Malthusian theory of population which the said sea change wrought in the mind of its author and which is embodied in the text of the second edition of the Essay on the Principle of Population. …


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