This article provides an overview on Malthusian Theory of Population:- 1. Explanation to Malthusian Theory of Population 2. Criticisms of Malthusian Theory of Population 3. Applicability.
Explanation to Malthusian Theory of Population:
Malthus’s theory of population is based on the following three postulates:
1. Food is essential for man’s existence.
2. The passion between the sexes is essential and it will nearly remain in its present state.
3. The law of diminishing returns operates in agriculture.
From these postulates, he deduced that “the power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in earth to produce subsistence (food) for men”, and if the increase in population is unchecked by preventive checks, it leads to vice or misery.
The Malthusian theory is stated as follows:
(1) There is a natural sex instinct in human beings to increase at a fast rate.As a result, population increases in geometrical progression and if unchecked doubles itself every 25 years. Thus starting from 1, population in successive periods of 25 years will be 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256 (after 200 years).
(2) On the other hand, the food supply increases in a slow arithmetical progression due to the operation of the law of diminishing returns based on the supposition that the supply of land is constant. Thus the food supply in successive similar periods, will be 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 (after 200 years).
It may be noted that Malthus never stated the law of diminishing returns as such. He simply implied it when he wrote – “in proportion as cultivation is extended, the additions that could yearly be made (to the former average produce) must be gradually and regularly diminishing.”
(3) Since population increases in geometrical progression and the food supply g- in arithmetical progression, population tends to outrun food supply.
In Malthus’s words:
“It is the constant tendency in all animated life to increase beyond the nourishment prepared for it.”
Thus an imbalance is created which leads to over-population. This is depicted in Figure 1.
The food supply in arithmetical progression is measured on the horizontal axis and the population in geometrical progression on the vertical axis. The curve M is the Malthusian population curve which shows the relation between population growth and increase in food supply. It rises upward swiftly.
(4) To control over-population resulting from the imbalance between population and food supply, Malthus suggested preventive checks and positive checks
The preventive checks are applied by a man to control the birth rate.They are foresight, late marriage, celibacy, moral restraint, etc. Malthus was against the artificial methods of population control and considered them as “conjugal fraud.”
If people fail to check growth of population by the adoption of preventive checks, positive checks operate in the form of vice, misery, famine, war, disease, pestilence, floods and other natural calamities which tend to reduce population and thereby bring a balance with food supply.
According to Malthus, preventive checks are always in operation in a civilized society, for positive checks are crude. Malthus wrote – “In proportion as mankind rises above the conditions of the beasts, population is restrained by the fear of want, rather than by want itself.” Malthus appealed to his countrymen to adopt preventive checks in order to avoid vice or misery resulting from positive checks. Malthus’ doctrine is illustrated in Table 1.
Criticisms of Malthusian Theory of Population:
The Malthusian theory of population has been widely discussed and criticised during the 19th and early 20th century.
Some of the criticisms are as follows:
(1) Mathematical Form of the Theory Wrong:
The mathematical formulation of Malthus’ doctrine that food supply increases in arithmetical progression and population increases in geometrical progression in 25 years has not been proved empirically. Rather, the food supply has increased more than in the arithmetical progression while population growth has not been in geometrical progression so as to double the population in 25 years.
But this criticism is beside the point because Malthus used his mathematical formulation to make his principle clear in the first edition of his Essay and deleted it in its second edition.
(2) Failed to Foresee the Opening up of New Areas:
Malthus had a narrow vision and was particularly influenced by local conditions in England. He failed to foresee the opening up of new areas of Australia, the United States and Argentina where extensive farming of virgin lands led to increased production of food.
As a result, countries like England on the continent of Europe have been provided with abundant supplies of cheap food. This has been made possible with rapid improvements in the means of transport, a factor almost overlooked by Malthus. No country need fear starvation and misery if it produces sufficient food for its increasing population these days.
(3) Applied a Static Economic Law to a Period of Time:
The Malthusian notion that the food supply increases in arithmetical progression is based on a static economic law at any one time, i.e. the law of diminishing returns. Malthus could not foresee the unprecedented increase in scientific knowledge and agricultural inventions over a period of time which have stayed the law of diminishing returns.
Consequently, the food supply has increased much faster than in arithmetical progression. Malthus has been proved wrong not only in the advanced countries but also in developing countries like India with the ‘green revolution.’
(4) Neglected the Manpower Aspect in Population:
One of the principal weaknesses of Malthus’ thought has been that he neglected the manpower aspect in population growth. He was a pessimist and dreaded every increase in population. He forgot, according to Cannan, that “a baby comes to the world not only with a mouth and a stomach, but also with a pair of hands.”
This implies that an increase in population means an increase in manpower which may tend to increase not only agricultural but also industrial production and thus make the country rich by an equitable distribution of wealth and income.
As rightly pointed out by Seligman, “The problem of population is not merely one of mere size but of efficient production and equitable distribution.” Thus the increase in population may be necessary.
(5) Population not Related to Food Supply but to Total Wealth:
The Malthusian theory rests on a weak relationship between population and food supply. In fact, the right relationship is between population and total wealth of the country. If a country is rich materially and even if it does not produce enough food for its population, it can feed the people well by importing food stuffs in exchange for its products or money.
The classic example is of Great Britain which imports almost all its food requirements from Holland, Denmark, Belgium and Argentina because it concentrates more on the production of wealth rather than on food products. Thus the very basis of the Malthusian doctrine has been proved wrong.
(6) Importance given to only Food Grains for Livelihood:
Malthus gave importance to only foodgrains for livelihood. But for livelihood, foodgrains alone are not enough. Fruits, meat, fish, milk, eggs, etc. can also be used as food. They have high growth rate in comparison to the population growth. For instance, a good breed of hen lays 240 eggs in a year.
Similarly, one fish in a year multiplies manifold. Thus, Malthus took an unrealistic view in comparing the production of foodgrains which increases in arithmetical progression with the population growth which increases in geometrical progression.
(7) Increase in Population the Result of declining Death Rate:
The Malthusian theory is one sided. It takes the increase in population as the result of a rising birth rate, whereas population has grown considerably the world over due to decline in death rate. Malthus could not foresee the marvellous advancements in the field of medical sciences which have controlled fatal diseases and made human life longer. This has been particularly so in underdeveloped countries like India where the Malthusian theory is said to operate.
(8) Empirical Evidence proves this Theory Wrong:
Empirically, it has been proved by demographists that population growth is a function of the level of per capita income. When per capita income increases rapidly, it lowers the fertility rate and the rate of population growth declines.
Dumont’s “social capillarity thesis” has proved that with the increase in per capita incomes, the desire to have more children to supplement parental incomes declines. When people are accustomed to a high standard of living, it becomes a costly affair to rear a large family.
Population tends to become stationary because people refuse to lower their standard of living. This has actually happened in the case of Japan, France and other western countries.
(9) Preventive Checks do not Pertain to Moral Restraint:
Malthus was essentially a religious man who laid emphasis on moral restraint to control population. But he could not visualise that human beings would invent contraceptives and other family planning devices for birth control. Moral restraint alone cannot help to control the increase in population. Family Planning is essential as a preventive check.
(10) Difference between Sexual Desire and Desire for Children:
Malthus could not make any distinction between sexual desire and desire to have children. People have sexual desire but desire to have children depends on social, religious and cultural factors.
(11) Sexual Desire not the same:
Malthus assumed that the sexual desire is the same in human beings. In fact, it differs from person to person and depends on age, health and psychological and environmental factors.
(12) Positive Checks not due to Over-Population:
Malthus’ pessimism and religious education led him to believe that over-population was a heavy burden on the earth which was automatically lessened by God in the form of misery, wars, famines, floods, diseases, pestilence, etc. But all these are natural calamities which are not peculiar to over-populated countries. They visit even those countries where the population is on the decline or stationary, such as France and Japan.
(13) Malthus a False Prophet:
The Malthusian theory is not applicable to countries for which it was propounded. In the West European countries, the bogey and pessimism of Malthus has been overcome. His prophecy that misery will stalk these countries if they fail to check the growth of population through preventive checks has been proved wrong by a decline in birth rate, adequacy of food supply, and increase in agricultural and industrial production. Thus Malthus has proved to be a false prophet.
(14) Not Relevant to Modern Population Problems:
The Malthusian theory of population is not of much relevance to modern population problems because it does not explain the reasons for declining birth rate in developing countries, the relationship between birth rate and death rate, the effects of migration and urbanisation, etc. Thus, as pointed out by Blaug, the Malthusian theory is “silent on the crucial question of the determinants of population growth.”
Applicability of Malthusian Theory of Population:
Despite these weaknesses, the Malthusian theory contains much truth. The Malthusian doctrine may not be applicable to the Western Europe and England but its principal tools have become the part and parcel of the people of these countries.
If these lands do not face the problems of over-population and misery, it is all due to the bogey and pessimism of Malthusianism. In fact, the people of Europe were made wiser by Malthus who forewarned them of the evils of overpopulation and they started adopting measures to ward it off.
The very fact that people use preventive checks, like late marriage and various contraceptives and birth control measures on an extensive scale, proves the vitality of the Malthusian law.
Even famous economists like Marshall and Pigou and sociologists like Darwin were influenced by this principle when they incorporated it in their theories. And Keynes, initially overawed by the Malthusian fears of overpopulation, later wrote about “Some Economic Consequences of Declining Population.” Is it not the fear of Malthusianism that has created the problem of declining population in France?
The Malthusian doctrine may not be applicable now to its place of origin, but its influence spreads over two-third of this universe inhabited by underdeveloped countries.
As Mrs. Joan Robinson wrote – “Of all economic doctrines, the one most relevant to the under-developed countries is that associated with Malthus.”
Excluding Japan, the whole of Asia, Africa and South America come under its purview. In the least developed countries of Africa, population is growing faster than the food supply. There are deaths by starvation. Positive checks like floods, wars, droughts, earthquakes, epidemics, etc. operate in all the under-developed countries.
“The poor are themselves the cause of their poverty.”
This is very true because it is the poor people who are responsible for the rapid growth of population in these countries. Thus the Malthusian theory is fully applicable to under-developed countries.
Walker was right when he wrote:
“The Malthusian theory is applicable to all communities without any consideration of colour and place. Malthusianism has stood unshattered, impregnable amid all the controversy that has raged around it.”
So far as India is concerned, it is not an exception. Certain aspects of the Malthusian theory are applicable even though we have overcome the problem of food supply. The birth rate is high, but the death is on the decline.
As a result, the growth rate of population is high at 1.9 per cent per annum. The country is trying to control the phenomenon of over-population by preventive checks by family planning devices like late marriages, by raising the age of marriage for males and females, and the use of contraceptives, etc.
Positive checks like war, droughts, floods, earthquakes, famines, pestilences, etc. are in operation. One- third of the population is below the poverty line and unemployment and disguised unemployment are widespread due to over-population.
The high growth rate of population keeps the per capita income at a low level. This has kept India among the low income countries despite its stupendous progress in agricultural, industrial and services sectors. Haunted by the Malthusian fear, India has adopted the population policy of family welfare which aims at reducing poverty and unemployment so as to raise per capita income through population control.