Thomas Robert Malthus (1766-1834) was an English economist (and Anglican pastor). He was the first formal professor of economics, which was then called Political Economy, in 1805.
Malthus’ major contribution to economic discourse is his “Essay on the Principle of Population” (1798). He wrote this book to counteract the progressives’ optimism that through reason all the problems that beset mankind would be solved. Progressives like Jean Jacque Rousseau believed that through reason (French enlightenment) man and his society would become heaven like. (Rousseau was actually an idealist, a romantic rather than a realistic thinker.)
Malthus set out to show that our efforts to improve mankind, including producing more food, would lead to people producing more children. As he sees it, population would eventually outpace our capacity to feed people.
As he sees it, food production increases in arithmetic progression (1, 2, 3, 4 5 etc) whereas population increases in geometric progression, that is, doubles (1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32 etc)
Malthus expected population to grow so fast that we would not be able to feed mankind. With all the improvements in nutrition, medicine etc human beings are now living longer. In the past folk died young, diseases killed most children before they reached adulthood. Now most children are surviving into adulthood, so how are we going to feed them, Malthus worried. He visualized a dreadful future for mankind, such as starvation, wars (for access to food etc).
Clearly, Malthus had a bit of a pessimistic streak in him. Nevertheless, the point he raised is real.
It seems that Malthus predictions have not come to pass because so far science and technology are finding more efficient ways to produce more food from the same piece of land. But in doing so the land is increasingly exhausted. It is therefore still possible for the dreadful future that Malthus saw coming to pass?
On the other hand, it may well be that human populations have built in regulating mechanisms. Consider that as the West has reached certain levels of development folk are not interested in having many children. Western population is not rising very fast and in some cases is declining (immigration from third world countries seem the way some European nations now replenishing their work force).
In the West there is rise in homosexuality. This may be nature’s way of eliminating surplus population for if men and women live to stimulate their bodies in pursuit of sexual paroxysm and do not produce children they die off and population is reduced.
The point is that may be as human beings reach a certain critical point in their population something is triggered that makes them stop producing more children? At the moment Russian women literally have to be bribed to have more than a child per woman. Russia is not producing enough people to replace its already population (to maintain zero population growth), her population is declining (from 150 to 147 million persons). Additionally, her life span is the lowest in Europe, something like 62 years for men and slightly more for women. All that alcoholism apparently is taking its toll on these Euro-Asian people.
There has been a deluge of criticisms of Malthus. It would not serve us to focus on these criticisms in a short review of the man’s contribution to economic science.
Thomas Robert Malthus. Essay on the Principle of Population. (1826)