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  • Malthus, Population, and the Generational Bargain
  • David Collard

Thomas Malthus, in his famous Essay on Population (1798), put forward a simple yet powerful "model" of economic and social policy. The prize was great, since his preventive check to population seemed to offer the possibility of a "free lunch" to all generations, including the current generation.1 The analysis offered in this article puts a rather greater emphasis than usual on Malthus the welfare economist. It also stresses Malthus the Smithian rather than Malthus the Ricardian. Less weight than usual is therefore put on the assumption of diminishing returns and on the wage-profit trade-off, and little attention is paid to Malthus's later busy jobbing between the Population and the Principles.2 [End Page 697]

Given the objective of a high and rising real wage, Malthus followed through the implications of his welfare model ruthlessly, even recklessly. The "model" itself may be set out in a few simple propositions, numbered as in the following sections:

  1. 1. Economic welfare is higher the higher the daily real wage.

  2. 2. The population principle of the First Essay forces the real wage down to the subsistence level.

  3. 3. However, the preventive check holds out the prospect of a high and rising real wage.

  4. 4. Population policy may safely be decentralized to families if they follow the fundamental rule that no children should be fathered unless the family itself can expect to support them.

  5. 5. The fundamental rule will be observed, however, only if poor relief is zero.3

  6. 6. Adoption of the rule would also probably reduce real wage oscillations.

  7. 7. Under "systems of equality" (i.e., socialism) the rule would break down.

1. Economic Welfare Depends on a High and Rising Daily Real Wage

Malthus ([1798] 1958, 1:172) refers to a "high actual population" as one of his two grand desiderata, along with a high real wage or "a state of society in which abject poverty and dependence are comparatively but little known."4 Achieving a high population is easy, as many previous writers had pointed out. Benjamin Franklin, for example, stated in 1779 that "a nation . . . is like a polypus; take away a limb, its place is soon supplied" (quoted in James 1979, 107). Or, as Malthus put it, in one of his lapses into apparent callousness (when writing of illegitimate children), "the infant is, comparatively speaking, of little value to the society, as others will immediately supply its place" (2:203). [End Page 698]

The difficult question for political economy is not how to achieve a high population but how to achieve a high real wage for the great mass of the people5 (the laboring classes). This, it is argued here, has to be taken as Malthus's main criterion of economic welfare or "happiness." Thus:

Other circumstances being the same, it may be affirmed that countries are populous according to the quantity of human food which they produce or can acquire; and happy according to the liberality with which this food is divided, or the quantity which a day's labour will purchase. Corn countries are more populous than pasture countries, and rice countries are more populous than corn countries. But their happiness does not depend either upon their being thinly or fully inhabited, upon their poverty or their riches, their youth or their age; but on the proportion which the population and food bear to each other.


Explicitly comparing his approach with Smith's, Malthus distinguishes between the nature and causes of the wealth of nations on the one hand and, on the other, "the causes which affect the happiness and comfort of the lower orders of society, which in every nation form the most numerous class" (2:126). This "happiness and comfort" has only partly to do with subsistence. It has also to do with the consumption of "conveniences and necessities," with good health and with mitigation of the effects of economic fluctuations (vol. 2, chap. 12). The question of fluctuations is dealt with below. As far as health is concerned, the secondary literature has concentrated rather too much on disease simply as one of the positive checks. Seen in the context of...


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pp. 697-716
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Archived 2005
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