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Thomas Robert Malthus

Thomas Robert Malthus (1768-1834) was the founder of population studies and one of the greatest English economists of the 19th century.

Robert Malthus profoundly influenced legislation governing the state’s approach to poverty and unemployment and was the first professor of economics at any English higher education institution. 

Early life

The son of a country gentleman, Malthus was educated privately at home and by tutors, except for the year he spent at the Dissenting Academy at Warrington. The last of the tutors was Gilbert Wakefield, a former Fellow of Jesus and the finest classical scholar to emerge from the College before the 20th century.

At Jesus College

It was on Wakefield’s recommendation that Robert Malthus came to the College. His Tutor at Jesus was William Frend, another radical, who was soon to declare himself a Unitarian. Having been a precocious and mischievous teenager, at Cambridge Malthus became a serious student.

He began his career at Jesus College as a pensioner (an ordinary fee-paying student) in 1784. He graduated in 1788 with a first class degree in Mathematics, and was a Fellow from 1793 until his marriage in 1804. 

As with most of his contemporaries, graduation was followed by ordination and his appointment as curate of a chapel in his home parish in Surrey. He lived there with his family and visited Cambridge only occasionally, even after his election to a fellowship; he never held a teaching post in the College.

Essay on the Principle of Population

Malthus published his Essay on the Principle of Population as it Affects the Future Improvement of Society anonymously in 1798 when he was 31. The inspiration appears to have been his own reading and the animated discussions that he had with his father, his father’s friends and, perhaps, his sisters. On the title page of the copy he gave his father one of them added the words “especially addressed to young clergymen”.

In the following year he travelled with three friends to Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia, and began to accumulate material illustrating, supporting, and qualifying his theory. This he used in the second edition of his Essay which was published in 1803. In that year he became the rector of a Lincolnshire parish, which gave him the income that allowed him to resign his fellowship and marry.

The essence of his theory on population was that its size was determined by two factors: humankind's reproductive instinct and our need for food. But since, as he argued, the rate of reproduction was geometric (1, 2, 4, 8, 16) while any increase in the food supply could only be arithmetic (1, 2, 3, 4, 5), reproductive growth would rapidly outdistance any increase in food supply.

The inevitable and sobering consequence was that the two could only be brought back into balance by famine, disease, and natural disasters, unless humankind showed “natural restraint” in reproducing itself.

Malthus believed that the only moral means of doing this was to marry late and practice strict sexual abstinence before marriage. Contraception, like abortion and prostitution, he considered immoral.

This theory met with a hostile reception, and more than 200 years later arguments continue about its validity and the assumptions underlying it.

Teaching at Haileybury

In 1805 Malthus was appointed professor of history and political economy at the newly founded East India College established to train the officials who would administer the expanding territories controlled by the East India Company. He was a popular teacher, and remained at the College at Haileybury in Hertfordshire for the rest of his life.

Further publications

During these years he published on a wide range of subjects in economics and its methodology, including food prices, the Irish economy, currency and bullion, the theory of rent, the corn laws, and the measure of value, summarising his conclusions in Principles of Political Economy (1820) in which his admiration for Adam Smith was clearly revealed. 

He intended the book to be an answer to The Principles of Political Economy and Taxation (1817) by his eminent contemporary and friend, David Ricardo.