Thomas Robert Malthus is one of the most controversial figures in the history of economics. He achieved fame chiefly from the population doctrine that is now closely linked with his name. Contrary to the late-eighteenth-century views that it was possible to improve peoples living standards, Malthus held that any such improvements would cause the population to grow and thereby reverse these gains. Malthus also sparked controversy with his contemporaries on issues of methodology (by arguing that economics should be an empirical rather than a deductive science), over questions of theory (by holding that economies can experience prolonged bouts of high unemployment), and on policy issues (by arguing against free trade and against government assistance to the poor).Order now
Malthus was born in 1766 in the town of Wotton, in Surrey. His father was a well-to-do country squire, who made sure that Malthus received a good education. At first, Malthus was instructed by his father and private tutors in his home. Then he was sent off to excellent private schools. At the age of 18 he enrolled at Jesus College, Cambridge where he studied mathematics and natural philosophy. Although his father wanted him to become a surveyor, Malthus decided to enter the church.
He was ordained in 1788, thus becoming Reverend Malthus. In 1793 he became a fellow of Jesus College and curate of Okewood, a little chapel in Wotton. While he was working at Wotton, Malthus got into a heated argument with his father about the ability to improve the economic well-being of the average person. His father thought this was possible; Malthus remained skeptical.
The dispute prompted Malthus to do some reading, and then some writing, on the topic. The outcome was his Essay on Population, which was first published in 1798. The population essay brought Malthus instant fame, and then (in 1805) a job as Professor of History, Politics, Commerce, and Finance at the New East India Company near London. The college was primarily a training school for employees of the East India Company who were about to take administrative posts in India. The teaching position made Malthus one of the first academic economists. And, as is true of many teaching jobs, it required little time and effort.
This left Malthus much free time to socialize, to correspond with his many friends (especially David Ricardo), and to stir up controversies regarding economic principles and policies. In addition to the controversies surrounding his principle of population, Malthus became embroiled in important debates with Ricardo over British Poor Laws and Corn Laws, the benefits of free trade, and the possibility of gluts or insufficient demand for goods. In mid-eighteenth-century England the industrial revolution was in full swing. However, workers lived near the level of physical subsistence, and their condition worsened in latter half of the eighteenth century. Monotony and repetition characterized factory work; the tyranny of the factory clock and the pace of the assembly line were beyond the control of all workers. The division of labor, praised by Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations as the means to productivity growth and rising living standards, made work so routine that women and children could perform jobs just as easily as men.
Business owners logically preferred such workers because they could be hired for less. These circumstances gave rise to numerous champions of the working class. Among the best known were the Marquis de Condorcet, Robert Owen and William Godwin. Condorcet (1795) argued that greater economic equality and more security for workers would improve their material well-being. Toward this end he advocated two reforms a welfare system to provide security for the working poor, and government regulation of credit to keep down interest rates so that needy families could borrow money at lower cost. Owen attempted to develop utopian communities in industrial towns that would improve both the economic and social conditions of working class families.
Godwin (1793) was even more radical in his analysis and his policy proposals. He blamed the capitalist system for the poverty of workers. He then demanded that property should be taken from its owners and given to those whom it would benefit the most. This, Godwin claimed, would end all poverty, injustice, and human suffering in the world. The Essay on