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An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798)

by Thomas Malthus

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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Showing 5 of 5
Only volume 3 of three volumes.

"The fifth edition, with important additions."
  CharteredBanker | Jul 18, 2014 |
A fundamental book in Economics. We considered it to be completely invalidated by contemporary economic theory, but now Malthus is being revisited. Was he right? Pray that he wasn't or soon our food supply will cause a population calamity and prove the issue once and for all. ( )
  JVioland | Jul 14, 2014 |
I read this because it's listed in Good Reading's "100 Significant Books" and I found reading through that list a valuable education in itself. I found this surprisingly readable. Works on this list such as works by Kant, Spinoza, Adam Smith, can be heavy going--that's not the case here. This is very accessible, and it's short--about a hundred pages. What's more, many of its arguments are still important, still relevant. I can hear echoes of these arguments in both conservative and environmentalist circles. This essay was a major influence on Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species, and asks questions at the root of Sociology. Malthus very much presents a conservative worldview, and I don't mean that in a political/ideological sense--indeed I'd say it presents a rather liberal sensibility given its time. I mean that it's the opposite of radical--it's very skeptical about pliability of humans and their ability to change, and insists we ground our attempts to improve the human condition on reality--not impractical ideals.

Basically, the central premise is that while increase of production of food, which "is necessary to the existence of man" is arithmetical, increase in population is geometrical--with an ability to double within decades. And that "the passion between the sexes is necessary and will remain nearly in its present state." A simple premise, but it's fascinating what mileage Mathus gets out of it--critiquing Adam Smith, the socialist schemes of Condorcet and Godwin, the welfare state of Pitt--even speculating on what nature can tell us about the nature of God. Malthus has a reputation of being one of those notorious thinkers that lend their names to sinister notions--like a Machiavelli or Nietzsche, and this is one of those treatises that gave economics the title the "dismal science." It's said that Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol to refute the thrust of Malthus' argument. But believe it or not, the personality that came through to me was benevolent and warm and commonsensical and truly concerned about the condition of women and the poor. This is how he closes the essay:

Evil exists in the world not to create despair but activity. We are not patiently to submit to it, but to exert ourselves to avoid it. It is not only the interest but the duty of every individual to use his utmost effort to remove evil from himself and from as large a circle as he can influence, and the more he exercises himself in this duty, the more wisely he directs his efforts, and the more successful these efforts are; the more he will probably improve and exalt his own mind, and the more completely does he appear to fulfill the will of his Creator.

Well, worth the read--and lucid and lively in how it's written. I found it a fast and thought-provoking read--and still relevant even in an age where modern agriculture and the feminist movement and personal controls on reproduction may have changed the equation somewhat. ( )
  LisaMaria_C | Oct 22, 2013 |
The basic idea of Malthus' essay is simple: humans tend to grow faster than they can create food, so at a certain point they will be unable to support themselves. There are two ways to control this: decrease birth rate (preventive checks) or increase death rate (positive checks); if the first one doesn't happen, the second inevitably will.

That general idea is so obvious that it seems hard to believe someone would have to come up with it; and, indeed, Malthus is just the guy who laid it out most clearly. People have known that since the dawn of time. But he's also been consistently misinterpreted and vilified since day one by people who, for example, think he's advocating policies to kill off poor people. That's sortof the same as using Darwin to justify eugenics; there's a logical leap in the middle that makes no sense.

There's a third way, first pointed out by Engels (the other dude who wrote [b:The Communist Manifesto|699878|The Communist Manifesto|Karl Marx|http://photo.goodreads.com/books/1177386844s/699878.jpg|2205479]). It seems possible, he said, through science, to increase the amount of food we can produce in order to keep up with our population. And that's precisely what's happened so far: the "Green Revolution" of the 20th century greatly increased farm yield, preventing a calamitous population collapse in the nick of time.

Unfortunately, we now suspect that rather than preventing a calamitous collapse, the Green Revolution may just have forestalled a catastrophic collapse; the new farming techniques are destroying our soil. The world is becoming exhausted. (See Charles Mann's cover story in National Geographic, September 2008 for more.) We need a new silver bullet. Or else birth control. Either way.

Genetically modified crops could be that bullet; just like the Green Revolution, they offer to greatly increase farm yield, bringing along a number of dire-sounding, poorly understood side effects. (See the "Potato" section of Michael Pollan's [b:The Botany of Desire|13839|The Botany of Desire A Plant's-Eye View of the World|Michael Pollan|http://photo.goodreads.com/books/1320488029s/13839.jpg|908398] for a thoroughly pessimistic take on that.)

My own take is that the human urge for expansion and invention will always be much greater than our capacity for sober reflection; to ask us to slow down would be like asking a 13-year-old to quit masturbating. You might explain that it'll only result in decreased sensitivity and a shortage of socks, but he is going to keep at it with endless industry and innovation. In the end, this either will or won't work out. We'll either be able to innovate fast enough to barely stay ahead of our own unforeseen consequences, or something else will happen. He'll either get a girlfriend or die of autoerotic asphyxiation in his parents' basement. (I'm not flogging this metaphor too much, am I?) But it's human nature: show us a piece of land, and we will put stuff on it; give us an idea, and we will pursue it. We damn the torpedoes. We Frankensteins will always have our monsters. ( )
1 vote AlCracka | Apr 2, 2013 |
... Have you seen the new work of Malthus on population? It is one of the ablest I have ever seen. Altho' his main object is to delineate the effects of redundancy of population, and to test the poor laws of England & other palliations for that evil, several important questions in political economy, allied to his subject incidentally, are treated with a masterly hand. It is a single 4to volume, and I have been only able to read a borrow'd copy, the only one I have yet heard of. Probably your friends in England will think of you & give you an opportunity of reading it ... (TJ to Joseph Priestley, 29 January 1804)

... A review of Malthus' anonymous tract had given me great prejudices against his principles. But he has greatly mended their appearance in his last work. He has certainly furnished some sound corrections of former errors, and given excellent views of some questions in political economy. But I think with you he is particularly defective in developing the resource of emigration. Were half the money employed under the poor laws in England, laid out in colonising their able bodied poor both the emigrants and those who remained would be the happier. From the singular circumstance of the immense extent of rich & uncultivated lands in this country, furnishing an increase of food in the same ratio with that of population, the greater part of his book is inapplicable to us, but as a matter of speculation ... (TJ to Thomas Cooper, 24 February 1804)

http://lcweb2.loc.gov/cgi-bin/ampage?collId=rbc3&fileName=rbc0001_2007jeffca...
2 vote ThomasJefferson | Oct 10, 2007 |
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Thomas Malthusprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Winch, DonaldEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 014043206X, Paperback)

English economist and professor Thomas R Malthus (1766-1834) caused great public controversy among the optimistic positivists of his day when his "Essay on the Principle of Population" (1798) showed incontrovertibly that population, when unchecked, tends to increase faster than the availability of subsistence therefore preventive checks on population increase are necessary. Malthus, whose work influenced the research of Charles Darwin, admitted he was pessimistic about the future of humankind. He argued, through mathematical proofs and scientific documentation, that without population control the societal result is overcrowding, disease, war, poverty, and vice.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:45:57 -0400)

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