- Series: Norton Critical Edition
- Paperback: 260 pages
- Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; 1st edition (March 1976)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 039309202X
- ISBN-13: 978-0393092028
- Product Dimensions: 8.3 x 5.2 x 0.7 inches
- Shipping Weight: 9.6 ounces
- Average Customer Review: 12 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #4,312,940 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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An Essay on the Principle of Population: Text, Sources and Background, Criticism (Norton Critical Edition) 1st Edition
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Published in two volumes, these books provide a student audience with an excellent scholarly edition of Malthus' Essay on Population. Written in 1798 as a polite attack on post-French revolutionary speculations on the theme of social and human perfectibility, it remains one of the most powerful statements of the limits to human hopes set by the tension between population growth and natural resources. --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.
From the Back Cover
Malthus's simple yet powerful argument was highly controversial in its day. Literary England despised him for dashing its hopes of social progress. today his name remains a byword for active concern about man's demographic and ecological prospects. --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.
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So why do I call this a "flawed gem"? I believe that Malthus presented an important argument on populations periodically overrunning resources but with issues with two of the basic premises regarding the arithmetic (or linear) growth of food supply supply and the geometric (or exponential) growth of population.
Logically, food always grows in populations and so food must also grow exponentially. Others (e.g. Engels) have also pointed this out. Malthus himself provides two examples (in A Summary View, available in this Penguin edition of Malthus' work) of the exponential growth of food populations, namely for sheep and grain. Secondly, the Malthusian Growth Model (as it is now known) for exponential growth at a constant rate does not occur in Nature (the closest we get is an occasional "exponential phase", but not literally a constant rate...forever). Again though, to be fair to Malthus, he used constant rate exponential growth (as characterised by his famous 25 year doubling period for the population of the USA) only as an example of exponential growth and in fact stated "Practically, it would sometimes be slower, and sometimes faster." In other words, even though this is virtually never acknowledged, he was arguing for variable rate exponential growth or - in modern financial terms - variable rate compound interest.
So my revised Exponentialist version of Malthus' argument is that all populations of all species grow via variable rate compound interest which is comparable in power to Malthus' classic exponential growth at a constant rate. To me, famine then is the result of imbalances in the "exponential growth" (based on variable rate compound interest) of food supply and population. Balancing exponential forces is tricky.
As Antony Flew noted in his preface, Malthus was the best abused man of his age (and ever since). Malthus is often demonised as cruel and heartless but I believe that on balance Malthus argued from a position of sincere compassion on a difficult and very personal topic (human reproduction leading periodically to famine). Nobody wants to hear that sort of bad news...even if it's true.
I would also recommend reading the 6th edition of Malthus' essay, as it is virtually a second volume on the Principle of Population rather than a minor edit.
In addition, Malthus tells us that poverty builds character, although he does not seem to have felt the need for such enhancement in his personal life.
The reason for these grim results of helping the poor, Malthus explains, is that the human population can always increase faster than the supply of food. If food supply increases at all, it increases incrementally. The human populations, if left unchecked, can double every generation, as it was doubling in the United States when Malthus wrote.
If population growth is not curbed by moral restraint or vice, it will result in misery. By moral restraint Malthus means celibacy. By vice he means birth control. By misery he means famine, epidemics, and war.
Most people allow their likes and dislikes to influence their judgment of what is true and false. For many, inclinations determine judgments of truth and falsity. I am confident that when An Essay on the Principle of Population was published many employers found it easy to agree that the best way they could help their employees was to pay them as little as possible, while recommending to them that they practice strict celibacy throughout their lives.
In economics we frequently encounter theories that seem plausible to those who want to believe them, but the theories do not explain what is happening economically, or what has happened in the past.
The European population is many times what it was in 1798. Nevertheless, despite two world wars, the Great Depression, and the Great Recession, the standard of living of the vast majority of Europeans is far higher now than when Malthus wrote his book. What happened?
Well, to begin with, most Europeans have not shared Malthus’ aversion to “vice” (although he may have indulged in it with his wife; they only had three children.) As birth control and abortion became more practiced, birth rates declined, even though there may have been no increase in moral restraint.
The second thing that happened was the industrial revolution. Like many educated and affluent English Malthus seemed hardly aware of the spread of factories. The industrial revolution was transforming England as Malthus wrote. It would soon transform Europe and North America.
Malthus maintained that industry did not increase the standard of living of the majority of a population, because he claimed that it was devoted to producing luxuries for the rich. Factories produced inexpensive consumer goods that enhanced the life styles of those who were not rich.
An Essay on the Principle of Population inspired Charles Darwin. After reading it Darwin could see that in every generation many more animals and plants were created than could live to maturity and reproduce. He reasoned that the fittest reproduced, that the rest did not, and that characteristics that enabled the fittest to be fit would eventually become widespread in their species. Darwin still did not know about the genes that made some organisms fitter than others. The expansion of science, like the expansion of food, is an incremental process.
An Essay on the Principle of Population infuriated Karl Marx and Fredrick Engels for reasons I have indicated in the beginning of this review. It is mildly ironic that when Marxists took power in Russia they legalized birth control and abortion, and the Russian birth rate declined.
An Essay on the Principle of Population is longer than it needed to be. Malthus repeats the same arguments without actually demonstrating that the working poor were worse off when he wrote the book than they were when the English population was lower.
Malthus spent more time than he needed to refuting the arguments of William Godwin. Godwin was an English journalist and novelist who was inspired by the French Revolution. Godwin lost his mind to the French Revolution, although fortunately, not his head. He argued that government was the source of all evil and unnecessary, that benevolence could replace self love as the motive of society, that for everyone intellectual enjoyments could replace sexual pleasure, so that passion between the sexes, and the resulting population growth would no longer present problems. Godwin also maintained that physical immortality would become possible, so no one would die any more.
Seven chapters were devoted to refuting this nonsense. Nevertheless, Godwin was a popular writer during the time, so Malthus may have felt a prolonged refutation was necessary.
Malthus does agree with Godwin that farm laborers would benefit if the large land holdings were broken up into family owned farms. This would require a government with the will and power to overcome the resistance of land owing aristocrats.
Malthus also agrees with Godwin that the working poor would benefit if together they agreed to work fewer hours a day. This would again require a powerful government that agreed to shorten the work day without allowing employers to reduce weekly wages.
Malthus also attempted to refute the arguments of Caritat Marquis de Condorcet. Condorcet agreed that prosperity would lead to population growth, but he thought that technological advances would still cause a continuing advance in the average standard of living. This, as I have pointed out, is what did happen.
Nevertheless, we should not assume that this will always happen. Technological advances benefit those who are able to learn them. Since our ancestors learned how to make stone weapons there has been a tendency for scarcity to inspire technological advances that led to greater prosperity, which led to more people, and consequently more scarcity. We find it easy to understand the working of bows and arrows. That is because our ancestors were able to learn how to make and use these. Those who were not able to do this did not survive and reproduce. The same can be said of agriculture and the skills one needs to prevail in an urban civilization.
Factory work was unpleasant, and inspired the writing of Karl Marx, Fredrick Engels, and of socialists not in the Marxian tradition. Nevertheless, factory jobs became plentiful, and they were easy to learn.
Computer technology makes it possible for someone like Mark Zuckerberg to become a billionaire by the time he is thirty year old. It also reduces the kind of work most people are able to learn. ATM machines reduce the need for bank tellers. Bar codes reduce the need for cashiers. Increasingly complex websites can perform tasks previously performed by semi professionals.
Computer technology is not directly the result of population growth. It does suggest that we should not expect technology to forever counter the harmful effects of population growth.
Also, while birth rates have declined in Europe, North America, and the Far East, they have not declined significantly in the poor countries. For them modern science has increased death control without popularizing birth control. The result has been an influx of third world peoples into countries which, while comparatively affluent, are still suffering the results of the Great Recession.
A political thinker should be read for insight, rather than doctrine. The fact that the living standards of most Europeans have improved since the writing of An Essay on the Principle of Population should not prevent us from acknowledging that population growth has a depressing effect on standard of living. If the European population was still what it was in 1798 I am confident that the Europeans would be even more affluent, possibly much more.
The relationship between population and standard of living can be expressed with an equation:
(natural resources x level of technology) / human population = standard of living
In addition, population growth contributes to the growing income gap. More people mean more consumers and more job applicants. This means higher prices, lower wages, and higher profits.
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