Malthusian Theory

Malthusian Theory

Malthusian Theory of Population, the theory adumbrated by Thomas Malthus to explain the relationship between the growth in food and other means of subsistence and in population. Subsistence grew in arithmetical progression (1, 2, 3, 4), but population in geometrical progression (i, 2, 4, 8 ), so that population tended to outrun subsistence. In the absence of 'moral restraints', the resulting overpopulation was held in check by war, famine, vice and misery. Ti wages rose above the subsistence level, population would increase and force them down: hence the theory that in the long run wages would tend to fall to a minimum subsistence level.

The rapidly rising population and the misery and .unemploymentof the early nineteenth century seemed to support the Maithusian theory, and the dangers of over-population were widely discussed in the following decades. Events, however, upset the theory. The increase in population was brought about not so much by a rising birth-rate as by a falling death-rate. The social distress was largely the legacy of the long Napoleonic wars. The means of subsistence later increased much faster than in arithmetical progression because of the unprecedented fertility of scientific knowledge and invention. The ultimate effect of increasing wealth was not to increase population even more but to slow down the rate of growth: large families were replaced by smaller families. The problem of over-population now plagues not the industrialized western societies but the agrarian eastern communities. Moreover, increasing population in the eighteenth and nineteenth century in Britain stimulated agricultural and later industrial improvement, and raised productivity by facilitating specialization (Adam Smith's 'division of labour').

The fundamental fallacy of the Maithusian Theory was that it applied a static economic 'law' to a period of time. At any one the, i.e. when no other change is possible, the more labourers are applied to a piece of land the smaller the return per head tends to become. This is essentially the Law of Diminishing Returns. But over a period of time, when knowledge, skill, capital equipment and other elements in production can expand and improve, the number of people who can live off a given amount of land can increase without reducing returns per head. In the event, for the last two hundred years Britain has supported more and more people at a gradually rising living standard.

The classical economists did not overlook improvements in science and technique, but they thought that it delayed the operation of the Law of Diminishing Returns. Improvements in technique, knowledge, etc., go further than that: they may make an increase in population desirable; and an increase in population may be necessary in order to exploit such massive capital investments as the railways.

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