Thomas Robert Malthus

Thomas Robert Malthus

Thomas Robert Malthus Wellcome L0069037 -crop.jpg
Portrait by John Linnell
Born13/14 February 1766
Died23 December 1834(1834-12-23) (aged 68)
FieldDemography, macroeconomics
School or
Classical economics
Alma materJesus College, Cambridge
InfluencesDavid Ricardo, Jean Charles Léonard de Sismondi
ContributionsMalthusian growth model

Thomas Robert Malthus FRS (s/; 13 February 1766 – 23 December 1834)[1] was an English cleric and scholar, influential in the fields of political economy and demography.[2]

In his 1798 book An Essay on the Principle of Population, Malthus observed that an increase in a nation's food production improved the well-being of the populace, but the improvement was temporary because it led to population growth, which in turn restored the original per capita production level. In other words, humans had a propensity to utilize abundance for population growth rather than for maintaining a high standard of living, a view that has become known as the "Malthusian trap" or the "Malthusian spectre". Populations had a tendency to grow until the lower class suffered hardship, want and greater susceptibility to famine and disease, a view that is sometimes referred to as a Malthusian catastrophe. Malthus wrote in opposition to the popular view in 18th-century Europe that saw society as improving and in principle as perfectible.[3] He saw population growth as being inevitable whenever conditions improved, thereby precluding real progress towards a utopian society: "The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man".[4] As an Anglican cleric, Malthus saw this situation as divinely imposed to teach virtuous behaviour.[5] Malthus wrote:

That the increase of population is necessarily limited by the means of subsistence,
That population does invariably increase when the means of subsistence increase, and,
That the superior power of population is repressed by moral restraint, vice and misery.[6]

Malthus criticized the Poor Laws for leading to inflation rather than improving the well-being of the poor.[7] He supported taxes on grain imports (the Corn Laws), because food security was more important than maximizing wealth.[8] His views became influential, and controversial, across economic, political, social and scientific thought. Pioneers of evolutionary biology read him, notably Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace.[9][10] He remains a much-debated writer.

Malthus himself used only his middle name, Robert.[11]

Early life and education

The sixth[12] child of Henrietta Catherine (Graham) and Daniel Malthus,[13][14] Robert Malthus grew up in The Rookery, a country house in Westcott, near Dorking in Surrey. Thomas was bullied from an early age because of his syndactyly, or webbed feet. This sparked his controversial ideas about eugenics. Petersen describes Daniel Malthus as "a gentleman of good family and independent means... [and] a friend of David Hume and Jean-Jacques Rousseau".[15] The young Malthus received his education at home in Bramcote, Nottinghamshire, and then at the Warrington Academy from 1782. Warrington was a dissenting academy, which closed in 1783; Malthus continued for a period to be tutored by Gilbert Wakefield who had taught him there.[16]

Malthus entered Jesus College, Cambridge in 1784. While there he took prizes in English declamation, Latin and Greek, and graduated with honours, Ninth Wrangler in mathematics. His tutor was William Frend.[16][17] He took the MA degree in 1791, and was elected a Fellow of Jesus College two years later.[11] In 1789, he took orders in the Church of England, and became a curate at Oakwood Chapel (also Okewood) in the parish of Wotton, Surrey.[18]

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