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In Defense of Malthus: Morgan Rose
11 paragraphs found.
Early Misconceptions about Malthus' Theory

Soon after Malthus' Essay was first published, many responses appeared to attack his work. One of the most vociferous critics was William Godwin, the English philosopher and writer whose discourse on population in his book, On Population (1793), first prompted Malthus to write his Essay. In 1820, Godwin published Of Population, subtitled Being an Answer to Mr. Malthus's Essay on That Subject, which was the source of the earlier quotes about "inexpressible abhorrence" and Malthus' creed being diametrically opposed to the Bible. In his On Population, Godwin founded his objections to Malthus' theory on two connected points.


First, Godwin claimed that Malthus' position was that people everywhere do in fact have enough babies such that if they all survived to adulthood, population would double in size every twenty-five years. Godwin then estimated how many births per marriage would be necessary for this doubling to occur, taking into account the number of babies that do not survive and the number of people who never marry. On page 29 of his On Population, he concluded that "When Mr. Malthus therefore requires us to believe in the geometrical ratio, or that the human species has a natural tendency to double itself every twenty-five years, he does nothing less in other words, than require us to believe that every marriage among human creatures produces on average... eight children." He then chastised Malthus for not examining the registers of marriages and births of different countries and realizing that so many children are not really born.


The French economist Frederic Bastiat defended Malthus from Godwin and other critics in Chapter 16 of Economic Harmonies (1996, first pub. 1850). On this question of the geometric ratio, Bastiat wrote in paragraph 52 that "Malthus never advanced the fatuous premise that 'mankind, in actual fact, multiplies in geometrical ratio.' He says, on the contrary, that this is not in fact the case, since he is investigating the obstacles that prevent it from being so, and he offers this ratio merely as a formula to show the physiological potential of reproduction." That Godwin and others did not see this, particularly after Malthus' clarifications in the second edition, betrays at least a case of willful blindness.


Godwin's second point began with his noting that in most European countries, population was more or less stable. He then claimed that Malthus' theory could not be true unless huge numbers of all of those children being born in the light of Godwin's first assertion were dying before they reached maturity, a fact not borne out by birth and death registers. Further, Godwin states that Malthus himself argues implicitly that population is not checked by fewer children being born, but by early deaths. On page 32, Godwin wrote that:

Mr. Malthus has added in his subsequent editions, to the two checks upon population, viz. vice and misery, as they stood in the first, a third which he calls moral restraint. But then he expressly qualifies this by saying, "the principle of moral restraint has undoubtedly in past ages operated with very inconsiderable force;" subjoining at the same time his protest against "any opinion respecting the probable improvement of society, in which we are not borne out by the experience of the past."

It is clearly therefore Mr. Malthus's doctrine, that population is kept down in the Old World, not by a smaller number of children being born among us, but by the excessive number of children that perish in their nonage through the instrumentality of vice and misery.


According to Godwin's indictment of Malthus, then, Malthus believed that moral restraint, or to use the terminology introduced in a previous section, the use of preventive checks, was insignificant in past ages. Further, Godwin maintained that Malthus believed that experience provides no reason to believe that society has improved in this regard since that time. Therefore, Godwin claimed, Malthus must not believe that moral restraint, or preventive checks, were of any significance during the men's own time.


Let's take a closer look at Godwin's argument, and see where it goes wrong. First, with his phrase "subjoining at the same time," Godwin gives the impression that the two quotes from Malthus are connected. However, an examination of Godwin's footnotes reveals that these quotes appear nearly four hundred pages apart, the first quote being on page 384 of the second edition of Essay, while the second quote is found in paragraph 8 of the Preface to the second edition.3 Therefore, Malthus can hardly be thought to have intended the two quotes to be part of a continuous argument.


Godwin did something even sneakier. Godwin claimed that Malthus protested against "any opinion respecting the probable improvement of society, in which we are not borne out by the experience of the past," (my italics). If we check this against what Malthus actually wrote, we find that Godwin cropped a phrase out of the Preface and subtly altered the words, creating a crucial difference in meaning. A fuller and more accurate quote from Malthus is "I hope that I have not violated the principles of just reasoning; nor expressed any opinion respecting the probable improvement of society, in which I am not borne out by the experience of the past," (again, my italics). Malthus was not protesting against the idea that society may have improved, as Godwin portrayed by changing Malthus' use of the first person to the third person. Instead, Malthus was claiming that any assertion he actually did make about society's improvement was based on the experience of the past. Malthus did not deny that society had improved in terms of moral restraint, he believed that it did and that the evidence confirmed it!


On Malthus' part, the "past ages" to which he referred in the second edition of Essay could be interpreted as meaning any time from the centuries immediately prior to his writing to the furthest reaches of human history. This phrase, taken alone, leaves open ambiguity about whether Malthus thought that moral restraint, or the preventive check, was active in his day. Unfortunately for Godwin, Malthus made unambiguous remarks about his belief in the presence of a preventive check working to cause fewer births. In paragraph 9 of Chapter 4 of the first edition, he wrote that "The preventive check appears to operate in some degree through all the ranks of society in England." In the first paragraph of Book II, Chapter 8 of the sixth edition, Malthus is even more forceful: "The most cursory view of society in this country must convince us, that throughout all ranks the preventive check to population prevails in a considerable degree." It strains credulity that one could read with good faith even Malthus' earliest edition and not recognize that he thought a preventive check was at work.


Godwin wrote dramatically on this theme. On pages 111-112 of On Population, he wrote that "The great tendency and effect of Mr. Malthus's book were to warn us against making mankind happy. Such an event must necessarily lead, according to him, to the most pernicious consequences. A due portion of vice and misery was held out to us as the indispensible preservative of society." More disheartening, on page 144 he described Malthus as "fully convinced that he has shewn in 'the laws of nature and the passions of mankind' an evil, for which all remedies are feeble, and before which courage must sink into despair."


William Godwin, Of Population, London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme and Brown, 1820, page xii and page 623, respectively.


The first quote provided here by Godwin does not appear in the text of either the first or sixth edition, the two editions available on Econlib. The Preface to the second edition, which contains the second quote Godwin provided, was reprinted in Malthus' sixth edition, and so is available.