Thomas Robert Malthus, 1766-1834.

Portrait of Malthus

Robert Malthus (he went by his middle name) was born in "the Rookery", a country estate in Dorking, Surrey (south of London).  He was the second son of Daniel Malthus, a country gentleman and avid disciple of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and David Hume (both of whom he knew personally).  Accordingly, Malthus was educated according to Rousseauvian precepts by his father and a series of tutors.  Malthus entered Jesus College, Cambridge, in 1784 and was ordained a minister of the Church of England in 1788.  He earned his M.A. in 1791.

Around 1796, Malthus became a curate in the sleepy town of Albury, a few miles from his father's house.  Having been elected Fellow of Jesus College in 1793, he divided his time between Cambridge and Albury.  It was in the course of his interminable intellectual debates with his father over the "perfectibility of society" thesis then being advanced by William Godwin and the Marquis de Condorcet, that Malthus's decided to set his ideas down on paper.  It was eventually published as a pamphlet known as the Essay on Population (1798). 

In this famous work, Malthus posited his hypothesis that (unchecked) population growth always exceeds the growth of means of subsistence.  Actual (checked) population growth is kept in line with food supply growth by "positive checks" (starvation, disease and the like, elevating the death rate) and "preventive checks" (i.e. postponement of marriage, etc. that keep down the birthrate), both of which are characterized by "misery and vice".  Malthus's hypothesis implied that actual population always has a tendency to push above the food supply.  Because of this tendency, any attempt to ameliorate the condition of the lower classes by increasing their incomes or improving agricultural productivity would be fruitless, as the extra means of subsistence would be completely absorbed by an induced boost in population.  As long as this tendency remains, Malthus argued, the "perfectibility" of society will always be out of reach.  

In his much-expanded and revised 1803 edition of the Essay, Malthus concentrated on bringing empirical evidence to bear (much of it acquired on his extensive travels to Germany, Russia and Scandinavia).  He also introduced the possibility of "moral restraint" (voluntary abstinence which leads to neither misery nor vice) bringing the unchecked population growth rate down to a point where the tendency is gone.  In practical policy terms, this meant inculcating the lower classes with middle-class virtues.  He believed this could be done with the introduction of universal suffrage, state-run education for the poor and, more controversially, the elimination of the Poor Laws and the establishment of an unfettered nation-wide labor market.  He also argued that once the poor had a taste for luxury, then they would demand a higher standard of living for themselves before starting a family.  Thus, although seemingly contradictory, Malthus is suggesting the possibility of  "demographic transition", i.e. that sufficiently high incomes may be enough by themselves to reduce fertility.

The Essay transformed Malthus into an intellectual celebrity.  He was reviled by many as a hard-hearted monster, a prophet of doom, an enemy of the working class, etc.  The ridicule and invective rained down on Malthus by the chattering and pamphleteering classes was relentless. But a sufficient number of people recognized his Essay for what it was: the first serious economic study of the welfare of the lower classes.  Even Karl Marx, who deplored his conservative policy conclusions, grudgingly granted him this. 

In 1804, Malthus got married and thereby forfeited his fellowship at Cambridge.  In 1805, Malthus was appointed Professor of Modern History and Political Economy at the East India College in Haileybury, thereby becoming the England's first academic economist. 

Malthus got interested in monetary in 1800, when he published a pamphlet (much praised by Keynes), expounding an endogenous theory of money.  Contrary to the Quantity Theory, Malthus argued that rising prices are followed by increases in the quantity supplied of money.  Around 1810, Malthus came across a series of tracts by a stockbroker, David Ricardo, on monetary questions.  He immediately wrote to Ricardo and the two men initiated a correspondence (and a friendship) that would last for over a decade.  The Malthus-Ricardo relationship was warm in all respects but one -- economics.  They found themselves on opposites sides of the fence on practically every issue. 

In 1814, Malthus launched himself into the Corn Laws debate then raging in parliament.  After a first pamphlet, Observations, outlining the pros and cons of the proposed protectionist laws, Malthus tentatively supported the free traders, arguing that as cultivation as British corn was increasingly expensive to raise, it was best if Britain at least in part on cheaper foreign sources for its food supply.  He changed his mind the next year, in his 1815 Grounds of an Opinion pamphlet, siding now with the protectionists.  Foreign laws, he noted, often prohibit or raise taxes on the export of corn in lean times, which meant that the British food supply was captive to foreign politics.  By encouraging domestic production, Malthus argued, the Corn Laws would guarantee British self-sufficiency in food.  

In his 1815 Inquiry, Malthus came up with the differential theory of rent.   Although it was simultaneously discovered by Torrens, West and Ricardo, Malthus's pamphlet was the first of the four to be published. Refuting older contentions that rent was a cost of production, Malthus argued that it was merely a deduction from the surplus.  Rent, Malthus argued, is enabled by three facts: (1) that agricultural production yields a surplus; (2) that the wage-fertility dynamics guarantee that the price of corn would remains steadily above its cost of production; (3) that fertile land is scarce.  Ricardo own 1815 essay was actually a response to Malthus.  Ricardo dismissed Malthus's arguments, arguing that Malthus's "third" cause -- that land differs in quality and is limited in quantity -- is sufficient to explain the phenomenon of rent.  He incorporated Malthus's theory of rent with his own theory of profits to provide the "Classical" statement of the theory of distribution.  He also dismissed Malthus's feeble attempts to defend parasitical landlords and the Corn Laws.

Malthus's own criticism of Ricardo's 1815 essay led them into a debate on the question of "value".  Malthus supported Smith's old "labor-commanded" theory of value, whereas Ricardo favored the "labor-embodied" version.  The outcome of the discussion was Ricardo's Principles in 1817, which set down the doctrine of the Classical School on value, distribution and production, incorporating at least two of Malthus's own contributions: the "natural wage" version of Malthus's population theory and an expanded version of Malthus's theory of rent.  

Malthus was never comfortable as a member of the Classical school.  Nowhere is this more evident than in Malthus's own treatise, Principles of Economics (1820). He differs from the Classical Ricardians at several points.  For instance, Malthus introduced the idea of a demand schedule in the modern sense, i.e. as the conceptual relationship between prices and the quantity sought by buyers rather than the empirical relationship between prices and quantities sold.  He also paid much attention to the short-run stability of prices.   insisting on a labor-commanded theory of value and,

Thirdly, and most famously, Malthus denied the validity of Say's Law and argued that there could be a "general glut" of goods. Malthus believed that economic crises were characterized by a general excess supply caused by insufficient consumption.  His defense of the Corn Laws rested partly on the need for landlord consumption to "make up" for shortfalls in demand and thus avert crisis.  See our more extensive discussion of the General Glut Controversy.

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