Malthusian Poverty

In 1798, the Reverend Thomas Malthus published his Essay on the Principle of Population1. In this essay, Malthus made a catastrophic prediction that the world’s population would outgrow the resources needed to support it. Fortunately, after more than 200 years, we know that this prediction turned out to be wrong. Although his work was largely flawed, the lessons we have learned from Malthus’s great miscalculation have been some of the most important ones in modern history. What we have learned over the last 200 years is that human ingenuity has the incredible ability to change the course of history. Despite our understanding of Malthus’s failures, we continue to replicate many of these same mistakes when we think about poverty.

The Malthusian prediction was ultimately wrong, but certainly not absurd. Based largely on the observations of a growing population and increasing poverty in the French countryside, Malthus was simply extending the trends of human history outward. By the 1790’s, human productivity and the standard of living had gone largely unchanged since the beginning of time (see figure 1). Throughout his life, however, Malthus was observing unprecedented population growth. By 1780, France had a population of nearly 30 million, while Great Britain’s population hovered around 8 million.2 Given the trends of human productivity and population growth throughout history, it seemed inevitable that these trends would lead to poverty, famine, and starvation (figure 2).

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