Correction: Malthus and overpopulation

There has always been some confusion about what Malthus thought about the possibility of over-population, even in his lifetime. It arose partly because he used ambiguous phrases and partly because after the first edition of his book on population, he shifted his ground. By the time he reached the third edition his considered view was that overpopulation could never happen because it is always prevented. He wrote:

“For undoubtedly, as long as this continues to be the law of his (man’s) nature, what are here called the natural checks cannot possibly fail of being effectual.” (Appendix to Third Edition and page 488 in Eighth Edition).

In his view there was in an average year never any appreciable surplus of food and as population, if unchecked, always increases faster than food supply the checks on population operate immediately. So there never could be “too many people on the earth” as we misleadingly suggested he held in the August Socialist Standard.

When he wrote his first Essay on the Principle of Population his aim was to show that the ideas of Condorcet, Godwin and others about the perfectibility of society were unsound because population is and must always be held in check by means which produce vice and misery (war, poverty, pestilence, etc.) Faced with the argument that population could also be held in check by abstention from marriage or postponement of marriage he had to contend that this too leads to vice and constitutes misery.

In his second edition he abandoned the latter argument and admitted that “moral restraint” does not lead to vice and misery. Having to find another case against Condorcet and Godwin he now maintained that such “moral restraint” is possible only in a society based on private property and the incentive of “individual interest”. Therefore it could not operate in an anarchist or communist society.

By this time he had largely lost his interest in Godwin and was more interested in population laws themselves. He was forced to admit that food supply could never increase as fast as unchecked population but in face of all the evidence he continued to maintain his general proposition that population is held in check.


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