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: J. Johnson, in St. Paul's Church-yard
The text of this edition is in the public domain. Picture of Malthus courtesy of The Warren J. Samuels Portrait Collection at Duke University.
The savage or hunter state shortly reviewed—The shepherd state, or the tribes of barbarians that overran the Roman Empire—The superiority of the power of population to the means of subsistence—the cause of the great tide of Northern Emigration.
In the rudest state of mankind, in which hunting is the principal Occupation, and the only mode of acquiring food; the means of subsistence being scattered over a large extent of territory, the comparative population must necessarily be thin. It is said, that the passion between the sexes is less ardent among the North American Indians, than among any other race of men. Yet notwithstanding this apathy, the effort towards population, even in this people, seems to be always greater than the means to support it. This appears from the comparatively rapid population that takes place whenever any of the tribes happen to settle in some fertile spot, and to draw nourishment from more fruitful sources than that of hunting; and it has been frequently remarked, that when an Indian family has taken up its abode near any European settlement, and adopted a more easy and civilized mode of life, that one woman has reared five, or six, or more children; though in the savage state, it rarely happens that above one or two in a family grow up to maturity. The same observation has been made with regard to the Hottentots near the Cape. These facts prove the superior power of population to the means of subsistence in nations of hunters; and that this power always shews itself the moment it is left to act with freedom.
It remains to inquire, whether this power can be checked, and its effects kept equal to the means of subsistence, without vice, or misery.
The North American Indians, considered as a people, cannot justly be called free and equal. In all the accounts we have of them, and, indeed, of most other savage nations, the women are represented as much more completely in a state of slavery to the men, than the poor are to the rich in civilized countries. One half the nation appears to act as Helots to the other half: and the misery that checks population falls chiefly, as it always must do, upon that part whose condition is lowest in the scale of society. The infancy of man in the simplest state requires considerable attention; but this necessary attention the women cannot give, condemned as they are to the inconveniences and hardships of frequent change of place and to the constant and unremitting drudgery of preparing every thing for the reception of their tyrannic lords. These exertions, sometimes, during pregnancy, or with children at their backs, must occasion frequent miscarriages, and prevent any but the most robust infants from growing to maturity. Add to these hardships of the women the constant war that prevails among savages, and the necessity which they frequently labour under of exposing their aged and helpless parents, and of thus violating the first feelings of nature; and the picture will not appear very free from the blot of misery. In estimating the happiness of a savage nation, we must not fix our eyes only on the warrior in the prime of life: he is one of a hundred: he is the gentleman, the man of fortune, the chances have been in his favour; and many efforts have failed ere this fortunate being was produced, whose guardian genius should preserve him through the numberless dangers with which he would be surrounded from infancy to manhood. The true points of comparison between two nations, seem to be, the ranks in each which appear nearest to answer to each other. And in this view, I should compare the warriors in the prime of life with the gentlemen; and the women, children, and aged, with the lower classes of the community in civilized states.
May we not then fairly infer from this short review, or rather, from the accounts that may be referred to of nations of hunters; that their population is thin from the scarcity of food; that it would immediately increase if food was in greater plenty; and that, putting vice out of the question among savages, misery is the check that represses the superior power of population, and keeps its effects equal to the means of subsistence. Actual observation and experience, tell us that this check, with a few local and temporary exceptions, is constantly acting now upon all savage nations; and the theory indicates that it probably acted with nearly equal strength a thousand years ago, and it may not be much greater a thousand years hence.
Of the manners and habits that prevail among nations of shepherds, the next state of mankind, we are even more ignorant than of the savage state. But that these nations could not escape the general lot of misery arising from the want of subsistence, Europe, and all the fairest countries in the world, bear ample testimony. Want was the goad that drove the Scythian shepherds from their native haunts, like so many famished wolves in search of prey. Set in motion by this all powerful cause, clouds of Barbarians seemed to collect, from all points of the northern hemisphere. Gathering fresh darkness, and terror, as they rolled on, the congregated bodies at length obscured the sun of Italy, and sunk the whole world in universal night. These tremendous effects, so long and so deeply felt throughout the fairest portions of the earth, may be traced to the simple cause of the superior power of population, to the means of subsistence.
It is well known, that a country in pasture cannot support so many inhabitants as a country in tillage; but what renders nations of shepherds so formidable, is, the power which they possess of moving all together, and the necessity they frequently feel of exerting this power in search of fresh pasture for their herds. A tribe that was rich in cattle, had an immediate plenty of food. Even the parent stock might be devoured in a case of absolute necessity. The women lived in greater ease than among nations of hunters. The men bold in their united strength and confiding in their power of procuring pasture for their cattle by change of place, felt, probably, but few fears about providing for a family. These combined causes soon produced their natural and invariable effect, an extended population. A more frequent and rapid change of place became then necessary. A wider and more extensive territory was successively occupied. A broader desolation extended all around them. Want pinched the less fortunate members of the society: and, at length, the impossibility of supporting such a number together became too evident to be resisted. Young scions were then pushed out from the parent-stock, and instructed to explore fresh regions, and to gain happier seats for themselves by their swords. “The world was all before them where to chuse.” Restless from present distress; flushed with the hope of fairer prospects; and animated with the spirit of hardy enterprize, these daring adventurers were likely to become formidable adversaries to all who opposed them. The peaceful inhabitants of the countries on which they rushed, could not long withstand the energy of men acting under such powerful motives of exertion. And when they fell in with any tribes like their own, the contest was a struggle for existence; and they fought with a desperate courage, inspired by the reflection that death was the punishment of defeat, and life the prize of victory.
In these savage contests many tribes must have been utterly exterminated. Some, probably, perished by hardship and famine. Others, whose leading star had given them a happier direction, became great and powerful tribes; and, in their turns, sent off fresh adventurers in search of still more fertile seats. The prodigious waste of human life occasioned by this perpetual struggle for room and food, was more than supplied by the mighty power of population, acting, in some degree, unshackled, from the consent habit of emigration. The tribes that migrated towards the South, though they won these more fruitful regions by continual battles, rapidly increased in number and power, from the increased means of subsistence. Till, at length the whole territory, from the confines of China to the shores of the Baltic, was peopled by a various race of Barbarians, brave, robust, and enterprising; inured to hardship, and delighting in war. Some tribes maintained their independence. Others ranged themselves under the standard of some barbaric chieftain, who led them to victory after victory; and what was of more importance, to regions abounding in corn, wine, and oil, the long wished for consummation, and great reward of their labours. An Alaric, an Attila, or a Zingis Khan, and the chiefs around them, might fight for glory, for the fame of extensive conquests; but the true cause that set in motion the great tide of northern emigration, and that continued to propel it till it rolled at different periods against China, Persia, Italy, and even Egypt, was a scarcity of food, a population extended beyond the means of supporting it.
The absolute population at any one period, in proportion to the extent of territory, could never be great, on account of the unproductive nature of some of the regions occupied: but there appears to have been a most rapid succession of human beings; and as fast as some were mowed down by the scythe of war, or of famine, others rose in increased numbers to supply their place. Among these bold and improvident Barbarians, population was probably but little checked, as in modern states, from a fear of future difficulties. A prevailing hope of bettering their condition by change of place; a constant expectation of plunder; a power even, if distressed, of selling their children as slaves, added to the natural carelessness of the barbaric character, all conspired to raise a population which remained to be repressed afterwards by famine or war.
Where there is any inequality of conditions, and among nations of shepherds this soon takes place, the distress arising from a scarcity of provisions, must fall hardest upon the least fortunate members of the society. This distress also must frequently have been felt by the women, exposed to casual plunder in the absence of their husbands, and subject to continual disappointments in their expected return.
But without knowing enough of the minute and intimate history of these people, to point out precisely on what part the distress for want of food chiefly fell; and to what extent it was generally felt; I think we may fairly say, from all the accounts that we have of nations of shepherds, that population invariably increased among them, whenever, by emigration, or any other cause, the means of subsistence were increased; and that a further population was checked, and the actual population kept equal to the means of subsistence, by misery and vice.
For, independently of any vicious customs that might have prevailed amongst them with regard to women, which always operate as checks to population, it must be acknowledged, I think, that the commission of war is vice, and the effect of it misery, and none can doubt the misery of want of food.