23rd December 1834. The Dismal Science.
Ebeneezer Scrooge in Dickens’ ‘Christmas Carol’ reflected ideas of the Rev. Malthus who died Today in 1834: ‘If they would rather die they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population’. No wonder economics, in its early days, was known as the ‘dismal science’.
The major work of Malthus, his ‘Essay on the Principle of Population’, was written in response to Godwin‘s ‘Perfectibility of Society’, and propounded the view that the Divine imposed population control to teach virtue and proposed the gradual abolition of the Poor Law leaving charity to make up shortfall.(1)
Malthus elaborated theories from Plato, Aristotle and David Hume where the general thesis was that Mankind was more in thrall to Desire rather than Reason.
He was also influenced by Richard Price who had written an essay on the Population of England (1780).
William Hazlett’s response was his, ‘Malthus and the Liberties of the Poor (1807) which inveighed against his implied callousness saying, ‘It is ironical that he who inveighed against population control should have been the sixth of seven children.
Conditions in the early 19thc might have seemed to confirm Malthus with a rising population and hunger among the poor. However matters weren’t helped by the Corn Laws which had forced bread prices higher, resulting in widespread riots in 1815.
The result was the founding of the anti-Corn Law League by John Bright and Richard Cobden and other businessmen inspired by Adam Smith’s ‘Wealth of Nations’.
Malthus’ prognostication today? He couldn’t have foreseen technological advance in food production, or means to control population, which hasn’t increased geometrically (see diagram above), as forecast by Malthus.
The main problem is the indifferent distribution of both population and food resources, where Malthus’ laws obtain, but as in the rest of the animal kingdom natural checks have a habit of coming into effect.
(1) First Essay 1798 Second Essay 1803 and foreshadowed Keynes. Malthus (14.2.1766- 23.12.1834).
Maynard Smith, John 1998 Evolutionary Genetics 2nd Ed. Oxford. p.17.
Malthus. Theory of Population.
The Great Philosophical letter to JD Hooker 5th June 1860.