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Malthus Essay Sixth

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This is the 6th expanded edition of the work. There are two versions of Thomas Robert Malthus’s Essay on the Principle of Population. The first, published anonymously in 1798, was so successful that Malthus soon elaborated on it under his real name. The rewrite, culminating in the sixth edition of 1826, was a scholarly expansion and generalization of the first. In this work Malthus argues that there is a disparity between the rate of growth of population (which increases geometrically) and the rate of growth of agriculture (which increases only arithmetically). He then explores how populations have historically been kept in check.

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Throughout classical economic writing, the notion of subsistence is seen to be complex. Even Ricardo had to acknowledge this: in chapter V of his Principles he recognizes that subsistence varies according to time and place. For Malthus, this crucial half of his population principle is even more multi-faceted. The concept needs to be torn apart and the relationship between subsistence and economic development unravelled.

As he develops his population theory, his notion of subsistence becomes more intricate. For reasons of stylistic variety, or theoretical repositioning, he uses different expressions for this constraint. When considering these different terms it is salutary to recall the warning of Adam Smith:

In the first chapter of Essay 1798, Malthus states that “…food is necessary to the existence of man” (1966 [1798], p. 11) but in the second chapter “… population cannot increase without the means of subsistence….” (p. 37)

As the essay continues, population is related to a multitude of expressions for the limit to its growth. These include food, power in the earth to produce subsistence, subsistence, means of subsistence, produce, nourishment, means to/of support, necessaries of life and spontaneous produce. The most repeated terms are, in descending order of occurrence, food, produce, means of subsistence, subsistence and provisions. These concepts are taken to be different in usual discourse. Travel and the means of travel, for example, in the form of a voyage and a ship, are very different. Was Malthus carelessly substituting one expression for another to vary his text, or making a transition from one idea to another? There is an obvious case for distinguishing the factor inputs for producing food from the output itself. His expressions power in the earth to produce subsistence, means of subsistence, fertility of the soil, funds necessary for the maintenance of labour and, possibly, support and resources sound like factor inputs. Food and produce are obviously descriptions of output. Perhaps it could be argued that Malthus cared little about distinguishing means of subsistence from subsistence itself. In Essay 1798 he both loosely refers to “the means of subsistence being scattered over a large extent of territory” (1966 [1798], p. 39), a description of output, and to China as being “… so populous in proportion to the means of subsistence, that the average produce of it is but barely sufficient to support the lives of the inhabitants….” (pp. 130-31), an input expression. Not surprisingly, a contemporary such as Purves thought “means of subsistence” to be “indistinct, vague and improper” (1818, p. 104).

In a survey of diverse countries for Essay 1803, Malthus was able to examine differences in basic subsistence. In some countries such as China, India, and Bedouin Arab countries, the subsistence consisted of a very minimal diet. The other extreme would be southern England and America where food was sufficiently plentiful to provide a rich diet which, in times of scarcity, could be reduced to avoid starvation. When writing about Ireland, Malthus ascribes the choice of a staple food to soil, climate, the political state and periods of prosperity and adversity affecting the wage fund (1986 [1808], p. 40).

Making the issue even more complex, Malthus broadens the idea of subsistence to “quantity of food, and of the materials of clothing and lodging” (Malthus 1989a II, p. 30) as his precursor Wallace had done in an extended notion of necessaries as “food and cloathes, houses and a little furniture are necessary for all” (1753, p. 24). Malthus is aware that there are three categories of a good – a necessary, a comfort [or convenience] and a luxury. Interestingly, as subsistence takes these different forms it assumes new roles. It can be a stimulus, such as food or housing, or a restraint in the case of inessentials which are so strongly desired that family size is restricted in order to obtain them.

Edmonds remarks that the terminology for the constraint on population growth varies according to the stage of development. This perceptive comment points to the fact that as population grows, subsistence has a dynamic of its own which makes it hard to detect whether the population problem is worsening. In the earlier stages of economic development, “population has a tendency to increase faster than food”, while in advanced civilized states “the population has a tendency to increase faster than the funds devoted to the support of industry” (Edmonds 1832, p. 25). He needs to explain in greater detail what has happened. As an economy progresses from the simplest to the most sophisticated state of technology, products and patterns of consumption all change. Subsistence changes from the fruits of nature to a mixture of agricultural and manufactured products serving as “funds” to support labour.

Stages of economic development


Malthus began his writing career in the eighteenth century and followed its tradition of using a stages theory to describe economic development. Wallace (1753, p. 15) defines the three stages as “rude and barbarous” (including hunting, fishing and pasturage), agriculture, and industry and commerce. Kames, describing the different stages of improvement, mentions hunters, shepherds and agriculture (Home, 1776, pp. 98-103). This progress is extended by Smith, in the fifth book of the Wealth of Nations, to a fourth stage of commerce and manufactures (1976 [1776], pp. 691-92). More immediately for Malthus, Condorcet (1795, pp. 5-8) has an elaborate progression from a primitive stage of hunting, fishing and spontaneous fruits to pastoral and finally agriculture, with some simple manufacturing and trade. When there is a surplus over subsistence from a harvest, the arts and occupations can multiply (Condorcet 1795, p. 43). In Essay 1798, Malthus uses a four-stage account. He refers to hunting over large areas, nations of shepherds, a mixture of pasture and tillage (his description of agriculture) and finally industry and trade (1966 [1798], pp. 39, 44, 53, 55). In the second edition, Essay 1803 (1989a I), he uses twenty-five chapters to examine population and subsistence in different countries, starting with those which are primitive, then pastoral and finally agricultural or manufacturing.


This stadial framework was important to Malthus. He refers to it often throughout his writing life. For example, late in his life, in a letter to Nassau Senior he admitted:


“… in every stage of society, there have been some nations, where, from ignorance and want of foresight, the labouring classes have lived very miserably, and both the food and population have been nearly stationary long before the resources of the soil had approached towards exhaustion. Of these nations, it might safely have been predicted, that in the progress of civilization and improvement, a period would occur when food would increase faster than population.”

(Senior 1829, p. 67)


Despite Malthus repeatedly referring to stages, there is little attempt in the secondary literature to grant them prominence. This could be because in Essay 1798 he states in the very chapter headings, especially chapter III, that he is using this methodology; in the subsequent editions the chapters have different titles.


In the first and second stages, the savage and the pastoral, subsistence consists of food in the form of largely unprocessed vegetables and meat. In the third, agricultural, stage, the food is to some extent processed as milling and baking are needed to produce bread. Smith writes in The Wealth of Nations about what appears to be an early industrial society with simple crafts when he mentions obtaining food from different kinds of supplier: the butcher, the brewer and the baker (1976 [1776] I, p. 27). Everything on this simple menu needs processing. In the most advanced stage, subsistence will include both food and non-food items produced at home or abroad and requiring much more manufacturing.


When using a stadial approach to Malthus’ population theory, it is essential to ask if his theory applies to a particular country or to the world as a whole. Perhaps much of the complexity of Malthus’ population theory has been ignored because his use of two models has been overlooked. In modern experience, we are aware that large surpluses in some American and European countries co-exist with famine elsewhere in the world. Wallace (1753, p. 22) considered a case where the world as whole could be losing population, while a single country could be gaining. In Essay 1798 Malthus looks at the population-subsistence relation for an island or one spot, then for the whole earth (1966 [1798], p. 35). In his Encyclopedia Britannica article (1986 [1824], p. 181) he refers to “the surface of the earth” and to “the full cultivation and peopling of the globe”. However, he usually applies the population principle to one country at a time. The second edition Essay 1803 asserts that:


“In the actual circumstances of every country, the principle of population seems to be always ready to exert nearly its full force…”

(1989a I, p. 362)


In Essay 1817 he writes that the principle of population was confirmed by experience “in every age and in every part of the world” (1989a I, p. 336). In Essay 1826 he extends the reference to “the proportion between the natural increase of population and food…” by adding “in a limited territory” (1989a I, p. 309 footnote 8). In Principles of Political Economy he says he is confident in the theory of population as it is confirmed “by the state of society as it actually exists in every country with which we are acquainted” (1989b I, p. 11).


Having largely applied his theory to single countries Malthus can investigate whether the theory is affected by the state of a country’s economic development. Cocks sees a connection, arguing that Malthus had a number of population theories referring to societies which were variously primitive, classical, modern agricultural and emerging industrial (1986, p. 233). One wonders what shape these theories would take. At least we know that in every stage of development, the resource required to maintain a population changes.

Subsistence in the different stages


In this first stage of development, the savage or hunter stage, animals, vegetables and fruit are there for the killing and the picking to provide subsistence. Initially it would appear to be hard to justify a faster growth rate for a human population than for food, as such subsistence is provided by animals and plants which are remarkably prolific in their reproduction. Rabbits, for example, an acceptable food for humans, have an average gestation period of 31 days compared with 267 for humans. Although Malthus concedes that non-human life can multiply at high rates, he still sticks to his population principle. His disciple Charles Darwin avoided the sharp contrast between human and other populations by stating that the expansion of the animal and vegetable kingdoms is also geometric (Darwin 1859, chapter III). In Essay 1798 Malthus recognises that animals and vegetables have profuse seed but are limited by “room and nourishment” (1966 [1798], p. 15). There is thus a two part subsistence constraint at this stage for human populations in that they are limited by the supply of raw produce, which in turn is limited by space. The ultimate constraint is land scarcity.


At the beginning of his research into population, Malthus raises a priori the idea of land scarcity; in subsequent editions of the Essay he gathers information on virtually all the countries of the then-known world to discover the state of their land. He found that an area such as Arabia had an abundance of spontaneously produced fruits (1989a I, p. 92), while many other primitive societies had little subsistence at all. In Essay 1798 he states that where hunting is the chief means of obtaining food, subsistence is meagre as animals are spread over a wide area (1966 [1798], p. 39). In Essay 1803 he discovers many examples of sparse food supplies in primitive societies. In New Zealand where fish is an important source of food, subsistence is inadequate as it is only available to coastal populations, and at certain times (1989a I, p. 48). Tierra del Fuego, Van Diemen’s land and the Andaman Islands with savage populations have such bare provisions that a natural disaster would wipe them out (1989a I, p. 29).


Whether land scarcity is considered in crude quantity or in quality terms, a question remains unanswered: is the fixed nature of land the central key to understanding the population principle? These countries are so diverse that the relative importance of land and other factors of production as inputs varies greatly.


The next stage is the shepherd stage. Condorcet explains the transition from hunting to the pastoral as the consequence of docile animals taken in hunting being domesticated and fed (1795, p. 29). Malthus calls this stage “the nation of shepherds” in which families benefit from staying together as they move in search of new pasture (1966 [1798], p. 46). Possession of cattle provided immediately available food in greater quantities but, as in the primitive stage, land scarcity impelled frequent movement in search of new grazing. The population was never large because of the unproductive nature of the land (1966 [1798], p. 50). The struggle for room and nourishment led to wars and, presumably, to a further reduction in subsistence for those who lost territory. But in this stage there would be a saving of labour as the keeping of herds avoids time-consuming, and often unsuccessful, hunting expeditions.


In addition to nomadic societies, there can be pastoral parts of countries, such as in Norway, and Switzerland, where some cantons are microcosms of the great nomadic areas found on vast plains. In Switzerland:


“there are no grounds less susceptible of improvement than mountainous pastures. They must necessarily be left chiefly to nature; and when they have been adequately stocked with cattle, little more can be done.”

(1989a I, p. 225)


This is a reminder that a country can have different regions at different stages of development, and that its success in tackling the population problem depends on which stage is predominant.


The theoretical implications of the first and second stages are similar, as the shortage of good land is the ultimate limit to human population growth.


If Malthus’ theory is principally a story about diminishing returns, then the agricultural stage is the most important. It is argued that agricultural activity has an inherent tendency which inhibits fast growth rates of subsistence.


Unlike hunting and shepherding, agriculture is a form of production. It is important therefore to search for traces of a production function in Malthus’ works. He chooses a wages fund notion. Investment in the fund makes employment possible and the resulting labour force produces the subsistence to increase the population. In Essay 1798 he complains:


“… the demand for a greater population is made without preparing the funds necessary to support it. Increase the demand for agricultural labour by promoting cultivation, and with it consequently increase the produce of the country, and ameliorate the condition of the labourer, and no apprehensions whatever need be entertained of the proportional increase of population”

(1966 [1798], p. 133)


and neatly defines “the fund appropriated to the maintenance of labour” as “the aggregate quantity of food possessed by the owners of land beyond their own consumption” (1966, p. 205). In Essay 1817, he succinctly states “…the progress of population is mainly regulated by the effective demand for labour…” (1989a I, p. 346) and in Essay 1826 states that population growth is regulated by “the quantity and value of the food which in the actual state of things is awarded to the labourer, and the rate at which these funds appropriated increase” (1989a II, p. 28, footnote 10).


Scattered throughout his work are hints of other determinants of agricultural production. In Essay 1798:


“…the increase of the produce of any country will always very greatly depend on the spirit of industry that prevails, and the way in which it is directed. The knowledge and habits of the people, and other temporary causes, particularly the degree of civil liberty and equality existing at the time, must always have great influence in exciting and directing this spirit.”

(1966 [1798], p. 123 footnote)


and in Essay 1803 he writes that in America, produce resulting from “the knowledge and industry of an old state operate on the fertile unappropriated land of a new one.” (1989a I, p. 303). In the Principles he refers to “… the fertility of the soil, the powers of man to apply machinery as a substitute for labour, and in the motives to exertion under a system of private property…” (1989a I, p. 463) providing enough subsistence to sustain even a leisure class. In the case of middling land, he saw the greatest impediment to be “the difficulty, the expense, and sometimes the impossibility, of procuring a sufficient quantity of dressing” (1989a I, p. 443). There is also the effect of engaging in one type of agriculture rather than another. In Essay 1798 he laments the reduction in food production caused by using land to produce high quality meat and to maintain a great number of horses for pleasure purposes (1966 [1798], p. 319).


Despite the numerous determinants of agricultural output, much attention has concentrated on the nature of returns. Given the quality of land, he argued that it is inconceivable for its produce to more than double in twenty five years and in fifty to quadruple, despite great encouragements to agriculture (p. 531). The existence of passages in Malthus’ works asserting that agriculture is subject to diminishing returns cannot be doubted. Firmly from Essay 1798 he asserts:


“When acre has been added to acre, till all the fertile land is occupied, the yearly increase of food will depend upon the amelioration of the land already in possession; and even this moderate stream will be diminishing.”

(1966 [1798], p. 107 footnote)


Eltis (1984, p. 107) observes that this is different from any of his predecessors’ writings. Although the description of diminishing returns might be new, an inherent productivity problem in agriculture had been noted, for example, by Adam Smith who attributed it to the absence of a division of labour.


Other writings of Malthus continue to mention diminishing returns. In his Principles of Political Economy he notes that:


“… the quantity of labour and capital necessary to procure the last addition which has been made to the raw produce of a rich and advancing country, has a constant tendency to increase.”

(1989b I, p.197)


In his late Encyclopaedia Britannica article he insists:


“… specifically with this diminishing and limited power of increasing the produce of the soil, that we must compare the natural power of mankind to increase.”

(1986 [1824], p. 187)


Given such passages, it is not surprising that modern writers on Malthus’ population principle have emphasized diminishing returns as central to explaining his views on population and subsistence. Examples include Robbins (1967, p.258), Lloyd (1969, p. 25), Eltis (1984, pp. 107-8), and Waterman (1991, p. 255), who derived from the geometrical and arithmetical ratios an aggregate production function with diminishing returns. Hollander discusses at length this theme of diminishing returns and tentatively suggests that productivity may diminish in the short term but that constant returns can be achieved after measures such as the dressing of land (1997, p. 26).


Even if it were conceded that agricultural production is blighted by diminishing returns, the question of its overall effect on subsistence remains unanswered. Consumer expenditure includes non-food necessaries such as clothing and housing, as well as comforts and luxuries, which are substantially manufactured. Even food itself is largely processed: the product consumed is bread, not grains of corn.


Finally there is the commercial and manufacturing stage. In Essay 1803, Malthus simply states:


“We have now, however, stepped out of the agricultural system into a state in which the commercial system clearly predominates…”

(1989a I, p. 400)


The chief advantage of this stage is that manufacturing is subject to increasing returns. As Young explains in a celebrated article:


“… the securing of increasing returns depends upon the progressive division of labour, and the principal economies of the division of labour, in its modern forms, are the economies which are to be had by using labour in roundabout or indirect ways.”

(1928, p. 539)


Smith in The Wealth of Nations argues that the division of labour is applicable to manufacturing but not to agriculture which consequently has diminishing or, at best constant, returns:


“How many different trades are employed in each branch of the linen and woollen manufactures, from the growers of the flax, and the wool, to the bleachers and smoothers of the linen, or to the dyers and dressers of the cloth! The nature of agriculture, indeed, does not admit of so many subdivisions of labour; nor of the separation of one business from another, as manufactures. It is impossible to separate so entirely, the business of grazier from that of the corn farmer, as the trade of carpenter is commonly separated from that of the smith…. This impossibility of making so complete and entire a separation of all the different branches of labour employed in agriculture, is perhaps the reason why the improvement of the productive powers of labour in this art, does not always keep pace with their improvement of manufactures.”

(1976 [1776], pp. 15-16)


Malthus, too, in his Principles of Political Economy firmly asserts this contrast:


“The cost of manufactures, or the quantity of labour and capital necessary to produce a given quantity of them, has a constant tendency to diminish; while the quantity of labour and capital necessary to procure the last addition which has been made to the raw produce of a rich and advancing country, has a constant tendency to increase…”

(1989b I, p. 197)


making it perfectly clear that manufacturing was regarded as a case of increasing returns. There is a neatness in associating increasing returns with the final stage of economic development and in regarding agriculture, the previous, as the centre of the population problem. But do increasing returns occur only in the fourth stage of economic development? Edmunds identified the division of labour as early as the primitive stage of hunting where “one prepares the bows and arrows, another hunts, another prepares the food and a fourth provides the clothing” (1832, p. 29).


Likewise, Everett comments:


“I ….. take for granted, that an increase of population on a given territory necessarily and naturally produces a division of labor, and a consequent increase of skill in its application.”

(1826, p. 28)


This is consistent with a central point of Smith that division of labour requires a large market which an increased population itself will create. Ogilvy (1891, pp. 292-93) asserts that it is wrong to describe the process of procuring subsistence as one of cultivating the soil in isolation, since the process, for example, of obtaining bread involves a network of actions by innumerable persons, including the lumberman and miner who produced the agricultural tools and even the judges and the police who create the peaceful society necessary for the conduct of production. This means that the influence of diminishing returns is only slight and that Smith was wrong to assert that the division of labour was not practised in the agricultural stage. The notion of increasing returns begins to exercise its powerful effects even in less advanced societies.


This fourth stage is not identified with increased domestic production of raw agricultural produce or of food in all its variety but with increased resources. This means that “the inhabitants of the manufacturing nation enjoy a greater quantity of subsistence than what their own land, in the actual state of their cultivation, could afford” (1989b I, p. 406). The broad notion of subsistence as resources, rather than food or provisions, can be used. The implications for Malthus of an economy developing into this stage of commerce and manufacturing are considerable. This provides a chance to shake off any effects of diminishing returns in agriculture and to cast aside the central problem of subsistence rising more slowly than the human population. Spengler wrote:


“He [Malthus] found in that industrialization … and in the associated development of…. “tertiary” employments, the means of providing an effective and expanding demand for labour, and, consequently, for population.”

(1945, p. 264)

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