Malthusianism is a political and economic theory that proposes that the population is growing at a rate that is incompatible with the food resources we have available. Although it is a theory that emerged more than two centuries ago, its concepts are still discussed and have a certain validity.

Below we explain what Malthusianism is, what its main concepts are and how it has been transformed up to the present day.

What is Malthusianism?

Malthusianism is based on the proposal that the world’s population tends to increase faster than the food supply , so that scarce resources will have to be shared among more and more individuals.

It was developed by Thomas Malthus in a text from 1798 called An essay on the population principle , in which studies the dynamics of population, its exacerbated growth, and its relationship with the availability of the resources that would have to satisfy basic needs.

Malthus was sceptical about the positivist theories that were very popular in his time, and which sought the perfectibility of the human being, praising the advances and dissemination of knowledge as a source of well-being and freedom for the future.

In the face of this trend, Malthus argued that the development of humanity was limited by the pressures exerted by rapid population growth as opposed to little food availability.

Therefore, according to Malthus it is necessary to create consistent controls on population growth , which offer an alternative to the population explosion and counteract the lack of resources. For Malthus, these controls can be of two types, preventive or positive.

Malthusianism is a perspective that had a major impact on the policies of England in the early nineteenth century, especially from a legislative debate that generated protectionist policies towards agriculture, a sector that had been affected after the Napoleonic wars.

Preventive control and positive control

Preventive control, according to Malthus, consists of individual decisions in favor of stopping population growth. In other words, it involves voluntarily limiting oneself and making rational decisions, for example, before creating a family .

Such decisions should be based on the monthly income received and the real possibilities of ensuring a good quality of life for the new members of a family.

On the other hand, exercising positive control over the population is a matter of acting on the direct consequences of the lack of preventive control. That is, once society has not voluntarily limited its population growth, the balance is inevitably established through disease, war and famine.

According to Mathus, the positive control acts more intensively towards the lower income population groups , where the percentage of child death is higher, as well as the unhealthy living conditions.

Preventive control and positive control eventually close the gap between the high population level and the low availability of resources, but this is at the cost of creating conditions of marginalization and poverty that Malthus believes are inevitable.

Technology and people in poverty

Other related alternatives are technological development that can increase, for example, agricultural development, and also migration understood as population distribution in different cities .

However, according to Malthus, the technology only provides momentary relief and a temporary improvement in living standards. Migration, on the other hand, would not end up redistributing the population, since the general conditions in the places of destination were very severe.

In the same sense, Malthus was against the idea that rich people have to distribute their wealth to poor people , because this could make poor people stay in a passive position.

It could also make people in poverty feel that they do indeed have a real chance of supporting a family financially, thus enabling families to grow even bigger.

Neo-malthusianism: Changes in population control

Malthusianism has evolved as the needs of populations change. Thus a new perspective called neo-Malthusianism has emerged, which has focused especially on economic policy and the population history of England .

The demographic historian E. A. Wrigley is considered one of the intellectuals who has taken up Malthusianism with the greatest force. He has proposed that before the industrial revolution, England had an “organic economic system”, characterized by decreasing yields where subsistence levels were characterized by the use of wood and other organic materials as a source of energy.

In modern England, the cost of living and population were linked, but as the population began to increase, price indices rose as well.

It also proposes that fertility was the main determinant of population growth, families were very large until the first half of the nineteenth century and although the fertility rate began to fall, an exacerbated growth is still expected .

To study this relationship between fertility, neo-Malthusian literature involves comparative studies, especially between the English and French experiences. At least until the French revolution, the latter was characterized by a high-pressure system, while England adjusted through nuptiality and preventive control.

Thus, in neo-Malthusianism and other economic policy issues, positive and preventive control measures and how they have been transformed over time are still being discussed.

Bibliographic references:

  • Abramitzky, R. and Braggion, F. (S/A). Malthusian and Neo-Malthusian Theories. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved May 25, 2018. Available at