Thomas Robert Malthus
The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics

Thomas Robert Malthus

Thomas Robert Malthus studied philosophy and mathematics at St. John's College, Cambridge. Although he is known for his dire warnings against overpopulation, Malthus did not oppose population growth per se. Rather, he opposed growth that would outstrip the food supply. He predicted that population would grow geometrically, while the food supply would increase only arithmetically, resulting in mass starvation. His apocalyptic vision and his widely accepted subsistence theory of wages (wages will drop to the minimum required to sustain a worker because high wages induce population growth) helped stigmatize economics as the "dismal science."

Writing before the industrial revolution, Malthus could not fully appreciate the impact of technology (i.e., pesticides, refrigeration, mechanized farm equipment, and increased crop yields) on food production. Further discrediting his claims is the fact that life expectancy has nearly doubled, from forty years during his time to over seventy years today. Although starvation persists, it is more often political upheaval, not population growth, that keeps people hungry.

Although Malthus predicted disastrous undersupply of commodities in the long run, he believed there could be a general oversupply in the short run. These oversupplies, which he called "gluts," are now called recessions or depressions.

Selected Works

An Essay on the Principle of Population, 1st edition. 1798.

"Pamphlets on the Bullion Question." Edinburgh Review 18 (August 1811): 448-70.

Principles of Political Economy. 1820.

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