Book Review: Malthus: The Life and Legacies of an Untimely Prophet

  • Date: 03/05/14
  • Philip Longman, The Wall Street Journal

Robert Mayhew does a good job showing how, right from the beginning, Malthus’s idea was both revolutionary and reactionary.

Malthus: The Life and Legacies of an Untimely Prophet - By Robert J. Mayhew  - Harvard, 284 pages, $29.95

John Maynard Keynes once observed that “practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.” One reason to read Robert J. Mayhew’s intellectual biography of Thomas Robert Malthus (1766-1834) is the very strong chance that you are under the influence of this particular defunct economist whether you know it or not.

This is true whether you are a radical environmentalist or a pro-growth conservative, a pro-lifer or pro-choicer, a believer in big government or small. Even Keynes himself eventually discovered that Malthus had anticipated in his writing the central tenet of what we today call Keynesianism.

The single big theme with which Malthus is most commonly associated is, of course, the threat of overpopulation. This derives from Malthus’s famous formulation, which he set down in 1798, that human population is prone to grow at geometric rates while available food supply increases at a much slower, arithmetic rate. The resulting specter of overpopulation, Malthus argued in his early and best-remembered work, could only be kept in check by two broad means. The first was what he characterized as the “positive” check of famine, war, pestilence, vice and other causes of premature death. The other was the “preventive” check achieved by abstinence, late marriage, birth control, abortion, infanticide and other means by which some humans have always intentionally limited their own reproduction.

Mr. Mayhew does a good job showing how, right from the beginning, Malthus’s idea was both revolutionary and reactionary. It was revolutionary because few people in the Western world at the time had contemplated even the concept of overpopulation. Most of humanity had always been poor and hungry, and most of the planet remained wild and waiting to be cultivated. It seemed to Malthus’s contemporaries that poverty came from a lack of individual enterprise or from corrupt and ineffective government, not from a surplus of people or any limits to earth’s abundance.

Malthus’s principle of population directly challenged that received idea. It thus launched, as Mr. Mayhew puts it, a “revolution in how people thought about the relationship between population, resources, the economic well-being of societies.” This “meme” today finds its most virulent expression in the widespread belief that overpopulation is a root cause of most of humanity’s problems, from genocide in Africa and terrorism in the Middle East to environmental degradation, resource depletion, traffic congestion and global warming.

But as Mr. Mayhew points out, Malthus did not intend his principle of population to serve any revolutionary purpose, and indeed, both in his own time and throughout subsequent generations, it has often served reactionary causes. Malthus was alarmed by the excesses of the French Revolution and intent on refuting what he took to be the facile pretensions of its English defenders, such as William Godwin and Richard Price. The law of population, Malthus argued, contradicted the utopian idea that human progress could be advanced by redistributing benefits to the poor.

Specifically, Malthus said that poor relief, or what we today call welfare, simply caused poor people to have more children than the earth had room for, thereby breeding up another generation of miserable dependents. In one notorious passage, which he struck from later editions, Malthus proclaimed that if a man “cannot get subsistence from his parents . . . and if society do not want his labour, [he] has no claim of right to the smallest portion of food, and, in fact, he has no business to be where he is. At nature’s mighty feast there is no vacant cover for him.” It is this Malthus that Charles Dickens evoked when he had Ebenezer Scrooge fulminate in “A Christmas Carol” (1843) about how the death of poor people served to “decrease the surplus population.”

And it is this Malthus who, for the most part, contemporary writers and policy makers are thinking of when they invoke his name. Mr. Mayhew, however, gives us something more, tracing the career of Malthus’s ideas in both conservative and progressive thought. In doing so, he reveals many ironies and underscores just how contingent political categories and polarities are.

One example comes from the abuse heaped upon Malthus by poets and essayists of the Romantic movement during early decades of the 19th century. The Romantics celebrated nature and what we would today call “self-liberation.” As such, it was predictable that the young Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley would attack Malthus for insisting that the poor forgo what Shelley described as “the soothing, elevating, and harmonious gentleness of . . . sexual intercourse.”

Malthus’s influence on the politics of reproduction flipped in the later part of the 19th century, a process Mr. Mayhew documents. Early advocates of birth control and other eugenic measures formed the so-called Malthusian League. In the 1880s and 1890s, if you said you were a “Malthusian” you meant you were an advocate for either voluntary or involuntary population control, even though Malthus himself was emphatically opposed to abortion and all forms of contraception. Proto-feminists such as Annie Besant argued that, through the use of birth control, it would be possible to bring about a socialist utopia without setting off a population explosion.

Another line of Malthusianism ran through Charles Darwin, who acknowledged that Malthus had provided him with “a theory with which to work”—specifically, the notion that all organisms were caught in a ceaseless “struggle for existence” due to their tendency to breed up to the limits of their available resources. Indeed, some commentators have noted that the inherently conservative doctrine that came to be known as “social Darwinism” would better be called “scientific Malthusianism.” This aspect of his legacy is why Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels condemned Malthus as a lackey of the rich.

Yet while defenders of laissez-faire capitalism evoked Malthus as an ally during the 19th century and much of the 20th, over the past generation it is capitalism’s detractors who have embraced him. Mr. Mayhew recounts how books like Paul Ehrlich’s “The Population Bomb” (1968) put Malthus’s principle of population into the service of a newly powerful environment movement that often attacked economic development. In response, free-market conservatives such as Julian Simon developed withering attacks on the idea that overpopulation threatened the supply of natural resources. This, ironically enough, brought conservative thinking in line with the notion (embraced by the communists and socialists of Malthus’s time and long after) that poverty is caused by the failures of human institutions rather than the limits of nature.

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