“An Essay on the Principle of Population” came as answer to the utopian ideals expressed by the social perfectionists William Godwin in England and Condorcet in France. It was published anonymously in 1798, complementing Adam Smith’s “Wealth of Nations.” with its searching analysis of the nature and causes of poverty.
The theme of the essay was not altogether new but no one before him had presented it so forcefully and with so much fervor as Malthus did. He built his theory on two basic postulates viz.,
Food is necessary for the existence of man and
Passion between sexes will not abate and will remain in its present state.
Assuming these two postulates to be axiomatic, he laid down his famous principle that the growth of population outpaces the growth of food production creating shortage of food and triggering automatic checks like famine, pestilence and misery. The former runs with geometric sequence while the later lingers with arithmetic ratios. Expressed numerically the sequence for subsistence runs like: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and so on; while the sequence for population runs like: 1, 2, 4, 8, 16… and so on.
Some inevitable conclusions followed this pattern of relative growths of subsistence and population. In course of time, serious shortages of food would lead to starvation, disease, poverty and pestilence that would result in struggle for survival. In such a struggle, the fittest would survive while the rest perish leveling down the excess population.
Malthus suggested that, instead of allowing such automatic checks to come into operation and causing a lot of misery, and upheavals, we should adopt preventive checks like celibacy and late marriages to prevent such misery. He advocated celibacy for people who do not contribute to food production, and late marriage for others.
This theory suggested logically that in order to reduce the pressure of population, certain policy decisions like discouraging charity, poor laws, and higher wages were necessary.
These policy suggestions, though they followed a logically sound theory, infuriated religious conservatives and social radicals and they let lose a storm of protest, and vituperation against Malthus. He was accused of producing an irreligious book and corrupting moral life. Malthus was the most misunderstood and abused man of his age though his intentions were noble. He envisaged a society in which
1. ’There was lower death rate
2. Better standard of life for all sections of society and
3. Wastage of young human lives was avoided..
Malthus exerted tremendous influence not only on social sciences but also on natural sciences. Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace imported the principal ideas of Malthus’s essay on population into their Theory of Evolution and freely acknowledged their indebtedness to him.
The fires stirred up by Malthus never died down. Controversies, pro and con, still continue to rage but the great economist John Maynard Keynes gave a discerning appraisal of the value of Malthus and his great book. He placed this book among those, which have had great influence on the progress of thought, marked by disinterestedness and love of truth. Malthus belonged to the company of Locke, Hume, Adam Smith, and Bentham.