Academic journal article Population

Malthus and Three Approaches to Solving the Population Problem

Academic journal article Population

Malthus and Three Approaches to Solving the Population Problem

Article excerpt

In the first edition of his Essay on Population in 1798 (afterwards Essay 1798) the Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus stated his population principle:

"Population, when unchecked increases in geometrical ratio. Subsistence only in an arithmetical ratio" (Malthus 1966 [1798], p. 14),

thus inaugurating a debate on population questions. Was there a fundamental divergence between the growth of population and the subsistence needed to sustain it? Was there a way of averting the disaster of widespread starvation?

In this re-examination of Malthus, a hunt in the primary and secondary literature is conducted to provide a new conceptual framework which will both show the possible solutions to the population problem and determine whether he accepted them. The original texts and commentaries over two hundred years explain this difference in growth rates largely in terms of a shortfall in subsistence through land scarcity and diminishing returns in agriculture. They then note that the introduction of "moral restraint" from the second edition, Essay 1803, as a voluntary check to population growth, provided an apparent solution to this population problem. However these analyses need heavy qualification, and may have to be abandoned.

His expression of the population principle immediately gives rise to two possible solutions. There can be a change in human behaviour to affect the birth rate, and hence population growth, or there can be a change in the production of subsistence. A further, more fundamental, solution can be sought by regarding such a divergence in growth paths as a consequence of the nature of the economy as a whole. For this third option, national income accounting relationships, of which a population function is only a part, have to be described.

These three approaches are not necessarily different possibilities realizable in the same time period. In the case of changing human behaviour, new habits can be adopted in a short time and persist for a long period, even for the foreseeable future, as is the case for new styles of life or new methods of contraception for example. The second approach, i.e. increasing the rate of production of subsistence, is difficult to assign to periods, but an increase in agricultural productivity and food supplies can be introduced in the short run and sustained for long periods. Finally, the balance achieved can be temporary, no more than a transient equilibrium. In the case of Malthus' description of the economy, the balances recommended are perhaps too numerous to be maintained for more than short periods.

Given the interest Malthus arouses in so many different academic fields, summarizing the parallels between this article and contemporary writings is an unending task. Also, the agenda used in this article, taken from Malthus himself, departs from many modern concerns. The first approach, concerning human behaviour, receives less attention today. As there is now little condemnation of unmarried couples having children, Malthus' advocacy of moral restraint in the form of late marriages has little force, though another aspect of conduct, that of consumption, is still investigated. Winch laments (1996, p. 379):

"... it would have been better if Malthus had spoken of "voluntary restraint" based on foresight and the desire to achieve the comforts and luxuries that make up man's indefinitely and expanding 'secondary' or 'artificial' wants",

but Fiaschi and Signorino (2003, p. 17) find in Malthus' Principles an awareness of the significance of consumption.

The second approach presented here features in modern literature in the continued debate about diminishing returns in agriculture. In a review of about 160 books and articles on Malthus published after 1933, Waterman (1998, pp. 314-315) records the names of both the supporters of the idea of diminishing returns in agriculture and the dissenters, who range from Cannan and Schumpeter to Hollander. …

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