An Essay on the Principle of Population
By Thomas Robert Malthus
There are two versions of Thomas Robert Malthus’s
Essay on the Principle of Population. The first, published anonymously in 1798, was so successful that Malthus soon elaborated on it under his real name.
* The rewrite, culminating in the sixth edition of 1826, was a scholarly expansion and generalization of the first.Following his success with his work on population, Malthus published often from his economics position on the faculty at the East India College at Haileybury. He was not only respected in his time by contemporaneous intellectuals for his clarity of thought and willingness to focus on the evidence at hand, but he was also an engaging writer capable of presenting logical and mathematical concepts succinctly and clearly. In addition to writing principles texts and articles on timely topics such as the corn laws, he wrote in many venues summarizing his initial works on population, including a summary essay in the
Encyclopædia Britannica on population.The first and sixth editions are presented on Econlib in full. Minor corrections of punctuation, obvious spelling errors, and some footnote clarifications are the only substantive changes.* Malthus’s “real name” may have been Thomas Robert Malthus, but a descendent, Nigel Malthus, reports that his family says he did not use the name Thomas and was known to friends and colleagues as Bob. See
The Malthus Homepage, a site maintained by Nigel Malthus, a descendent.For more information on Malthus’s life and works, see
New School Profiles: Thomas Robert Malthus and
The International Society of Malthus.Lauren Landsburg
Editor, Library of Economics and Liberty
First Pub. Date
London: John Murray
The text of this edition is in the public domain. Picture of Malthus courtesy of The Warren J. Samuels Portrait Collection at Duke University.
- Chapter I
- Chapter II
- Chapter III
- Chapter IV
- Chapter V
- Chapter VI
- Chapter VII
- Chapter VIII
- Chapter IX
- Chapter X
- Chapter XI
- Chapter XII
- Chapter XIII
- Chapter XIV
- Bk.II,Ch.XI, On the Fruitfulness of Marriages
- Appendix I
- Appendix II
Of the Checks to Population in Siberia, Northern and Southern.
Book I, Chapter IX
The inhabitants of the most northern parts of Asia subsist chiefly by hunting and fishing; and we may suppose therefore that the checks to their increase are of the same nature as those which prevail among the American Indians; except that the check from war is considerably less, and the check from famine perhaps greater, than in the temperate regions of America. M. de Lesseps, who travelled from Kamtschatka to Petersburgh with the papers of the unfortunate Pérouse, draws a melancholy picture of the misery sometimes suffered in this part of the world from a scarcity of food. He observes, while at Bolcheretsk, a village of Kamtschatka; “Very heavy rains are injurious in this country, because they occasion floods which drive the fish from the rivers. A famine, the most distressing to the poor Kamtschadales, is the result; as happened last year in all the villages along the western coast of the peninsula. This dreadful calamity occurs so frequently in this quarter, that the inhabitants are obliged to abandon their dwellings, and repair with their families to the border of the Kamtschatka river where they hope to find better resources, fish being more plentiful in this river. Mr. Kasloff (the Russian officer who conducted M. de Lesseps) had intended to proceed along the western coast; but the news of this famine determined him, contrary to his wishes, to return rather than be driven to the necessity of stopping half way or perishing with hunger.”
*1 Though a different route was pursued, yet in the course of the journey almost all the dogs, which drew the sledges, died for want of food; and every dog, as soon as he failed, was immediately devoured by the others.
Even at Okotsk, a town of considerable trade, the inhabitants wait with hungry impatience for the breaking up of the river Okhota in the spring. When M. de Lesseps was there, the stock of dried fish was nearly exhausted. Meal was so dear that the common people were unable to purchase it. On drawing the river prodigious numbers of small fish were caught, and the joy and clamour redoubled at the sight. The most famished were first served. M. de Lesseps feelingly says, “I could not refrain from tears on perceiving the ravenousness, of these poor creatures;****whole families contended for the fish, which were devoured raw before my eyes.”
Throughout all the northern parts of Siberia, the small-pox is very fatal. In Kamtschatka, according to M. de Lesseps, it has carried off three fourths
*4 of the native inhabitants.
Pallas confirms this account; and, in describing the Ostiacks on the Obi, who live nearly in the same manner, observes that this disorder makes dreadful ravages among them, and may be considered as the principal check to their increase.
*5 The extraordinary mortality of the small-pox among these people is very naturally accounted for by the extreme heat, filth and putrid air of their underground habitations. Three or four Ostiack families are crowded together in one hut; and nothing can be so disgusting as their mode of living. They never wash their hands, and the putrid remains of the fish, and the excrements of the children, are never cleared away. From this description, says Pallas, one may easily form an idea of the stench, the fœtid vapours and humidity of their Yourts.
*6 They have seldom many children. It is a rare thing to see three or four in one family; and the reason given by Pallas is that so many die young on account of their bad nourishment.
*7 To this, perhaps, should be added the state of miserable and laborious servitude to which the women are condemned,
*8 which certainly prevents them from being prolific.
The Samoyedes, Pallas thinks, are not quite so dirty as the Ostiacks, because they are more in motion during the winter in hunting; but he describes the state of the women amongst them as a still more wretched and laborious servitude;
*9 and consequently the check to population from this cause must be greater.
Most of the natives of these inhospitable regions live nearly in the same miserable manner, which it would be therefore mere repetition to describe. From what has been said, we may form a sufficient idea of the principal checks that keep the actual population down to the level of the scanty means of subsistence which these dreary countries afford.
In some of the southern parts of Siberia, and in the districts adjoining the Wolga, the Russian travellers describe the soil to be of extraordinary fertility. It consists in general of a fine black mould of so rich a nature as not to require or even to bear dressing. Manure only makes the corn grow too luxuriantly, and subjects it to fall to the ground and be spoiled. The only mode of recruiting this kind of land which is practised is, by leaving it one year out of three in fallow; and proceeding in this way, there are some grounds, the vigour of which is said to be inexhaustible.
*10 Yet, notwithstanding the facility with which, as it would appear, the most plentiful subsistence might be procured, many of these districts are thinly peopled, and in none of them, perhaps, does population increase in the proportion that might be expected from the nature of the soil.
Such countries seem to be under that moral impossibility of increasing, which is well described by Sir James Steuart.
*11 If either from the nature of the government, or the habits of the people, obstacles exist to the settlement of fresh farms or the subdivision of the old ones, a part of the society may suffer want, even in the midst of apparent plenty. It is not enough that a country should have the power of producing food in abundance, but the state of society must be such as to afford the means of its proper distribution; and the reason why population goes on slowly in these countries is, that the small demand for labour prevents that distribution of the produce of the soil, which, while the divisions of land remain the same, can alone make the lower classes of society partakers of the plenty which it affords. The mode of agriculture is described to be extremely simple, and to require very few labourers. In some places the seed is merely thrown on the fallow.
*12 The buck-wheat is a common culture; and though it is sown very thin, yet one sowing will last five or six years, and produce every year twelve or fifteen times the original quantity. The seed which falls during the time of the harvest is sufficient for the next year, and it is only necessary to pass a harrow once over it in the spring. And this is continued till the fertility of the soil begins to diminish. It is observed, very justly, that the cultivation of no kind of grain can so exactly suit the indolent inhabitants of the plains of Siberia.
With such a system of agriculture, and with few or no manufactures, the demand for labour must very easily be satisfied. Corn will undoubtedly be very cheap; but labour will in proportion be still cheaper. Though the farmer may be able to provide an ample quantity of food for his own children, yet the wages of his labourer may not be sufficient to enable him to rear up a family with ease.
If, from observing the deficiency of population compared with the fertility of the soil, we were to endeavour to remedy it by giving a bounty upon children, and thus enabling the labourer to rear up a greater number, what would be the consequence? Nobody would want the work of the supernumerary labourers that were thus brought into the market. Though the ample subsistence of a man for a day might be purchased for a penny, yet nobody would give these people a farthing for their labour. The farmer is able to do all that he wishes, all that he thinks necessary in the cultivation of the soil, by means of his own family and the one or two labourers that he might have before. As these people therefore can give him nothing that he wants, it is not to be expected that he should overcome his natural indolence, and undertake a larger and more troublesome concern, merely to provide them gratuitously with food. In such a state of things, when the very small demand for manufacturing labour is satisfied, what are the rest to do? They are, in fact, as completely without the means of subsistence as if they were living upon a barren sand. They must either emigrate to some place where their work is wanted, or perish miserably of poverty. Should they be prevented from suffering this last extremity by a scanty subsistence given to them, in consequence of a scanty and only occasional use of their labour, it is evident that, though they might exist themselves, they would not be in a capacity to marry and continue to increase the population.
If in the best cultivated and most populous countries of Europe the present divisions of land and farms had taken place, and had not been followed by the introduction of commerce and manufactures, population would long since have come to a stand from the total want of motive to further cultivation, and the consequent want of demand for labour; and it is obvious that the excessive fertility of the country now under consideration would rather aggravate than diminish the difficulty.
It will probably be said that, if there were much good land unused; new settlements and divisions would of course take place, and that the redundant population would raise its own food, and generate the demand for it, as in America.
This would, no doubt, be the case under favourable circumstances; if, for instance, in the first place, the land were of such a nature as to afford all the other materials of capital as well as corn; secondly, if such land were to be purchased in small lots, and the property well secured under a free government; and, thirdly, if habits of industry and accumulation generally prevailed among the mass of the people. But the failure of any of these conditions would essentially check; or might altogether stop, the progress of population. Land that would bear the most abundant crops of corn might be totally unfit for extensive and general settlements from a want either of wood or of water. The accumulations of individuals would go most reluctantly and slowly to the land, if the tenures on which farms were held were either insecure or degrading; and no facility of production could effect a permanent increase and proper distribution of the necessaries of life under inveterate habits of indolence and want of foresight.
It is obvious that the favourable circumstances here alluded to have not been combined in Siberia; and even on the supposition of there being no physical defects in the nature of the soil to be overcome, the political and moral difficulties in the way of a rapid increase of population could yield but slowly to the best-directed efforts. In America the rapid increase of agricultural capital is occasioned in a great degree by the savings from the high wages of common labour. The command of thirty or forty pounds at the least, is considered as necessary to enable an active young man to begin a plantation of his own in the back settlements. Such a sum may be saved in a few years without much difficulty in America, where labour is in great demand and paid at a high rate; but the redundant labourer of Siberia would find it extremely difficult to collect such funds as would enable him to build a house, to purchase stock and utensils, and to subsist till he could bring his new land into proper order and obtain an adequate return. Even the children of the farmer, when grown up, would not easily provide these necessary funds. In a state of society where the market for corn is extremely narrow, and the price very low, the cultivators are always poor; and though they may be able amply to provide for their family in the simple article of food, yet they cannot realize a capital to divide among their children, and enable them to undertake the cultivation of fresh land. Though this necessary capital might be very small, yet even this small sum the farmer perhaps cannot acquire; for when he grows a greater quantity of corn than usual, he finds no purchaser for it,
*14 and cannot convert it into any permanent article which will enable any of his children to command an equivalent portion of subsistence or labour in future.
*15 He often, therefore, contents himself with growing only what is sufficient for the immediate demands of his family, and the narrow market to which he is accustomed. And if he has a large family, many of his children probably fall into the rank of labourers, and their further increase is checked, as in the case of the labourer before described, by a want of the means of subsistence.
It is not therefore a direct encouragement to the procreation and rearing of children that is wanted in these countries, in order to increase their population; but the creation of an effectual demand for the produce of the soil, by promoting the means of its distribution. This can only be effected by the introduction of manufactures, and by inspiring the cultivator with a taste for them, and thus enlarging the internal market.
The late empress of Russia encouraged both manufacturers and cultivators; and furnished to foreigners of either description capital free of all interest for a certain term of years.
*16 These well directed efforts, added to what had been done by Peter I., had, as might be expected, a considerable effect; and the Russian territories, particularly the Asiatic part of them, which had slumbered for centuries with a population nearly stationary, or at most increasing very languidly, seem to have made a sudden start of late years. Though the population of the more fertile provinces of Siberia be still very inadequate to the richness of the soil; yet in some of them agriculture flourishes in no inconsiderable degree, and great quantities of corn are grown. In a general dearth which happened in 1769, the province of Isetsk was able, notwithstanding a scanty harvest, to supply in the usual manner the founderies and forges of the Ural, besides preserving from the horrors of famine all the neighbouring provinces.
*17 And in the territory of Krasnoyarsk, on the shores of the Yenissey, in spite of the indolence and drunkenness of the inhabitants, the abundance of corn is so great that no instance has ever been known of a general failure.
*18 Pallas justly observes that, if we consider that Siberia not two hundred years ago was a wilderness utterly unknown, and in point of population even far behind the almost desert tracts of North America, we may reasonably be astonished at the present state of this part of the world, and at the multitude of its Russian inhabitants, who in numbers greatly exceed the natives.
When Pallas was in Siberia, provisions in these fertile districts, particularly in the environs of Krasnoyarsk, were most extraordinarily cheap. A pood, or forty pounds, of wheaten flour, was sold for about two-pence halfpenny, an ox for five or six shillings, and a cow for three or four.
*20 This unnatural cheapness, owing to a want of vent for the products of the soil, was perhaps the principal check to industry. In the period which has since elapsed, the prices have risen considerably;
*21 and we may conclude therefore that the object wanted has been in a great measure attained, and that the population proceeds with rapid strides.
Pallas, however, complains that the intentions of the empress respecting the peopling of Siberia were not always well fulfilled by her subordinate agents, and that the proprietors to whose care this was left, often sent off colonists, in every respect unfit for the purpose in regard to age, disease and want of industrious habits.
*22 Even the German settlers in the districts near the Wolga are, according to Pallas, deficient in this last point,
*23 and this is certainly a most essential one. It may indeed be safely asserted that the importation of industry is of infinitely more consequence to the population of a country, than the importation of men and women considered only with regard to numbers. Were it possible at once to change the habits of a whole people, and to direct its industry at pleasure, no government would ever be reduced to the necessity of encouraging foreign settlers. But to change long existing habits is of all enterprises the most difficult. Many years must elapse under the most favourable circumstances, before the Siberian boor will possess the industry and activity of an English labourer. And though the Russian government has been incessant in its endeavours to convert the pastoral tribes of Siberia to agriculture, yet many obstinately persist in bidding defiance to any attempts that can be made to wean them from their injurious sloth.
Many other obstacles concur to prevent that rapid growth of the Russian colonies, which the procreative power would permit. Some of the low countries of Siberia are unhealthy from the number of marshes which they contain;
*25 and great and wasting epizooties are frequent among the cattle.
*26 In the districts near the Wolga, though the soil is naturally rich, yet droughts are so frequent, that there is seldom more than one good harvest out of three.
*27 The colonists of Saratof, after they had been settled for some years, were obliged to remove on this account to other districts; and the whole expense of building their houses, amounting to above a million of rubles, was remitted to them by the empress.
*28 For purposes either of safety or convenience, the houses of each colony are all built contiguous or nearly so, and not scattered about upon the different farms. A want of room is in consequence soon felt in the immediate neighbourhood of the village; while the distant grounds remain in a state of very imperfect cultivation. On observing this in the colony of Kotschesnaia, Pallas proposed that a certain part should be removed by the empress to other districts, that the remainder might be left more at their ease.
*29 This proposal seems to prove that spontaneous divisions of this kind did not often take place, and that the children of the colonists might not always find an easy mode of settling themselves, and rearing up fresh families. In the flourishing colony of the Moravian brethren in Sarepta, it is said that the young people cannot marry without the consent of their priests; and that their consent is not in general granted till late.
*30 It would appear, therefore, that among the obstacles to the increase of population, even in these new colonies, the preventive check has its share. Population can never increase with great rapidity but when the real price of common labour is very high, as in America; and from the state of society in this part of the Russian territories, and the consequent want of a proper vent for the produce of industry, this effect, which usually accompanies new colonies and is essential to their rapid growth, does not take place in any considerable degree.
Considerations générales sur l’Agriculture de l’Egypte, par L. Reynier. (Mémoires sur l’ Egypte, tom. iv. p. 1.)
à priori. The prevailing checks in two different nations may appear to be exactly the same as to kind, yet if they are different in degree, the rate of increase in each will, of course, be as different as possible. All that can be done, therefore, is to proceed as in physical inquiries; that is, first to observe the facts, and then account for them from the best lights that can be collected. .