Malthusianism: What Is This Political And Economic Theory?

Population growth does not have to go hand in hand with the availability of resources.


Malthusianism is a political and economic theory that proposes that the population is growing at a rate that is incompatible with the food resources that we have available. Although it is a theory that emerged more than two centuries ago, its concepts are still being discussed and are still valid.

Below we explain what Malthusianism is, what its main concepts are and how it has been transformed to this day.

What is Malthusianism?

Malthusianism is based on the proposition that the world’s population tends to increase faster than the food supply, which means that scarce resources will have to be shared among more and more individuals.

It was developed by Thomas Malthus in a 1798 text called An essay on the population principle , in which he studies the dynamics of the population, its exacerbated growth, and its relationship with the availability of resources that would have to satisfy basic needs.

Malthus was skeptical of the positivist theories that were very popular in his time, and that sought the perfectibility of the human being, praising the advances and the diffusion of knowledge as a source of well-being and freedom for the future.

Faced with this trend, Malthus argued that the development of humanity was limited by the pressures exerted by accelerated population growth as opposed to little food availability.

Therefore, according to Malthus, it is necessary to create consistent controls over population growth, which offer an alternative to the demographic explosion and counteract the lack of resources. For Malthus, these controls can be of two types, preventive or positive.

Malthusianism is a perspective that significantly impacted the policies of England in the early nineteenth century, especially from a legislative debate where protectionist policies towards agriculture were generated; sector that had been affected after the Napoleonic wars.

Preventive control and positive control

Preventive control, according to Malthus, consists of deciding individually in favor of stopping population growth. That is, it is about voluntarily limiting yourself and making rational decisions, for example, before creating a family.

Said decisions should be based on the monthly income received and the real possibilities of ensuring a good quality of life for the new members of a family.

On the other hand, exercising a positive control of the population is about acting before the direct consequences of the lack of preventive control. In other words, once society has not voluntarily limited its population growth, the balance is inevitably established through disease, war, and famine.

According to Mathus, the positive control acts more intensely towards lower income population groups, where the percentage of infant death is higher, as well as unhealthy living conditions.

Preventive control and positive control eventually close the imbalance between the high population level and the limited availability of resources, but this is at the cost of creating conditions of marginalization and poverty that according to Malthus are inevitable.

Technology and population in poverty

Other alternatives related to this are technological development that can increase, for example, agricultural development, and also migration understood as the distribution of the population in different cities.

However, according to Malthus, the technology provides only momentary relief and a temporary improvement in living standards. For its part, migration would not end up redistributing the population, since the general conditions of the places of destination were very severe.

In the same vein, Malthus was against the idea that the rich have to distribute their wealth to poor people, because this could keep poor people in a passive position.

It could also make people in poverty have the feeling that they actually have the real possibility of financially supporting a family, with which families could grow even more.

Neo-Malthusianism: changes in population control

Malthusianism has evolved as population needs change. Thus has emerged a new perspective called neo-Malthusianism, which has focused especially on the economic policy and population history of England.

Demographic historian EA Wrigley is considered one of the intellectuals who has taken up Malthusianism with the greatest force. He has proposed that before the industrial revolution, England had an “organic economic system” characterized by diminishing returns where subsistence levels were characterized by the use of wood and other organic materials as a source of energy.

In modern England, the cost of living and population were related, but as the population began to increase, price indices increased as well.

Likewise, it proposes that fertility was the main determinant for population growth, families were very large until the first half of the 19th century and although the fertility rate began to decline, exacerbated growth is still expected.

To study this relationship between fertility, the neo-Malthusian literature involves comparative studies, especially between the English and French experiences. At least until the French Revolution, the latter was characterized by a high pressure system, while England adjusted through nuptiality and preventive control.

Thus, in neo-Malthusianism and other issues of economic policy, positive and preventive control measures and how they have been transformed over time continue to be discussed.

Bibliographic references:

  • Abramitzky, R. and Braggion, F. (S / A). Malthusian and Neo-Malthusian Theories. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved May 25, 2018.Available at

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