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Malthusianism: what is this political and economic theory?

Malthusianism: what is this political and economic theory?

May 1, 2024

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

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

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What is Malthusianism?

Malthusianism is based on the proposal that the world population tends to increase faster than the food supply , with which, 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 it studies the dynamics of the population, its exacerbated growth, and its relationship with the availability of resources that they would have to satisfy basic needs.

Malthus was skeptical towards positivist theories 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 wellbeing and freedom for the future.

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

For the above, According to Malthus it is necessary to create consistent controls on population growth , that offer an alternative to the population 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 influenced the policies of England at the beginning of the 19th century, especially from a legislative debate where protectionist policies towards agriculture were generated; sector that had been affected after the Napoleonic wars.

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Preventive control and positive control

Preventive control, according to Malthus, consists in deciding individually in favor of stopping population growth. I mean, it's about limit yourself voluntarily and make rational decisions, for example, before creating a family .

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

On the other hand, exercising positive control of the population is about acting in face of the direct consequences of the lack of preventive control. That is, once society has not limited its population growth voluntarily, the balance is inevitably established through diseases, wars and famine.

According to Mathus, the positive control act more intensively towards the 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 unavoidable.

Technology and population in poverty

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

However, according to Malthus, the technology only provides a momentary relief and an improvement in the levels of life also transient. On the other hand, migration would not end up redistributing the population, since the general conditions of the places of destination were very severe.

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

It could also make people in poverty feel 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 populations' needs change. Thus a new perspective called neo-Malthusianism has emerged, which has focused especially on the economic policy and population history of England .

The demographic historian E. A.Wrigley is considered one of the intellectuals who has retaken Malthusianism with greater 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, the price indexes also increased.

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

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

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

Bibliographic references:

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

Population, Sustainability, and Malthus: Crash Course World History 215 (May 2024).

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