The Rebirth of Malthusian Gloom
Wallace, Paul, New Statesman (1996)
Although long disproved, population-based doctrines are enjoying a new vogue among welfare reformers and environmentalists
With two years to go to the big one, pre-millennial angst is predictably surfacing, not least in the blood-curdling warnings of environmentalists. Spare a thought, then, for the architect of social pessimism, whose dismal manifesto was launched 200 years ago. "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" was published anonymously in 1798, but wasn't long before Thomas Malthus became a household name, vilified by one camp, extolled by another. His gloomy vision of a world doomed to subsistence through unstoppable population pressure was proved in time to be precisely wrong, and he himself recanted the hard core of this doctrine. Yet to this day, bastardised Malthusian ideas exert enormous influence, a tribute not to their validity but to our appetite for doom and gloom. Indeed, plans for welfare reform on either side of the Atlantic are rooted in renewed Malthusian social pessimism.
Malthus set out to demolish the optimistic social visions spawned by the French Revolution, such as the blueprint for a scheme of social insurance sketched out by the Marquis de Condorcet. In place of such upbeat "speculations" the Cambridge political economist set out a scenario of such breathtaking pessimism that economics was henceforth dubbed "the dismal science". Only vice and misery, he argued, stopped the constant pressure of population as it hit the limit of food resources: vice such as abortion or infanticide; misery in the form of malnutrition and the resulting susceptibility to illness.
Malthus, a parson as well as an economist, made his pitch in a purple passage that owed more to the Bible than to economics or demography. "The vices of mankind are active and able ministers of depopulation. But should they fail in this war of extermination, sickly seasons, epidemics, pestilence, and plague advance in terrific array, and sweep off their thousands and ten thousands. Should success be still incomplete, gigantic inevitable famine stalks in the rear, and with one mighty blow levels the population with the food of the world."
The polemic bore immediate fruit. The prime minister, Pitt the Younger, abandoned a plan to encourage large families by more generous provision of poor relief. Malthus' ideas paved the way for the Victorian workhouse. "Hard as it may appear in individual instances, dependent poverty ought to be held disgraceful," he wrote. "A labourer who marries without being able to support a family may in some respects be considered as an enemy to his fellow-labourers."
Yet five years later Malthus in effect retracted his uncompromising message in a second edition based on extensive new research. To the unholy twin checks of vice and misery, he added a third potential "prudential check" of "moral restraint" - by which he meant delayed marriage or celibacy. "Impelled to the increase of his species by an equally powerful instinct," he wrote in 1803, "reason interrupts his career, and asks him whether he may not bring beings into the world, for whom he cannot provide the means of support."
As the economist Joseph Schumpeter later commented of this crucial amendment, "all the theory gains thereby is orderly retreat with the artillery lost." In this attenuated form Malthusian theory works as a description of the interaction between population and the economy in lore-industrial society. Social controls against illegitimacy meant that delayed marriage was highly effective in reducing the birthrate in England even in the absence of modern contraception. In the rest of Europe the classic Malthusian "positive check" of high mortality in economic hard times seems to have played an important role. …