In this article we will discuss about the Malthusian theory of population. Also learn about the criticisms of the theory.

Malthusian Theory of Population:

One of the earliest discussions of population size was by T.R. Malthus in his essay. The Principle of Population as it Affects the Future Improve­ment of Society (1798), which was refined in his second essay in 1803. Malthus mainly examined the relation between population size and the measures of subsistence, in particular the production of food.

He postulated that any increase in living standards would result in an increase in population size. But, food production could not be increased at the same rate due to the operation of the Law of Diminishing Returns. Population growth would, therefore, always exceed the growth of the means of subsistence and man­kind was doomed to remain in poverty, i.e., live at the subsistence level.

Malthus predicted that population, if left unchecked, increases in geo­metrical progression (1, 2, 4, 16, etc.). But, food production (or means of subsistence) increases only in an arithmetical progression (1, 2, 3, 4, etc.). So sooner or later there will be imbalance between the two and this is a symptom of overpopulation.


Malthus’ argument goes as follows:

Since the land area of the world is fixed, growth of population would mean that there would be less and less food to feed each person. This would continue until population growth was halted by the misery (called ‘positive checks’) of war, pestilence, disease and famine.

This would raise output (food supply) per head and thus encourage population growth, thus caus­ing positive checks to operate once again. Thus, the gloomy forecast of Malthus was that country’s population would forever fluctuate around the point at which most of it is on the verge of starving to death. This is termed as subsistence equilibrium.

In short, Malthus predicted that population growth would outrun the available food supply, leading to periods of starvation. In the long run, he predicted only a minimum subsistence level of consumption.


In other words, according to Malthus, the population of a country was kept within its means of subsistence by the misery of positive checks. The only escape for civilisation from this vicious circle of poverty was through what Malthus referred to as moral restraint (or preventive checks) by which he meant late marriage and therefore fewer children — a solution which Malthus himself thought was unlikely.

As is clear from Fig. 3 Malthus’ predictions produce a dismal forecast for the future. (Indeed, it was this forecast that led to economics being labeled the dismal science).

Malthus enunciated a theory re­garding the population growth.

His theory can be discussed in de­tail as follows:

(a) Basis of Study:


Malthus studied the growth of population in a country against the food sup- ply.

(b) Rapid Growth Rate of Popu­lation:

Population in a country tends to increase very rapidly as nature has endowed human be­ings with a great capacity to repro­duce. It tends to double itself in a country every twenty-five years. Increase in population occurs more or less in geometrical progression (by multipli­cation, like the series 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, etc.).


(c) Slow Growth Rate of Food Supply:

But the production of food-grains increases very slowly owing to the operation of the Law of Diminishing Marginal Returns in agriculture. The food supply in a country increases more or less in arithmetical progression (by addition, like the series 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, etc.). It is generally found that the rate of increase in population far exceeds the rate of increase in food supply.

(d) Overpopulation and its Tests:

The consequence of the above two features creates, sooner or later, the serious problem of over-population. A stage comes when food production of a country becomes insufficient for supporting its total population. This is the stage of overpopulation. Accord­ing to Malthus, the persistent food shortage in a country, famine, starvation, high birth rate, high death rate, etc. are the symptoms of overpopulation.

(e) The Malthusian Cycle of Population Growth:

When a country reaches the stage of over-population, grave consequences would follow. Shortage of food causes starvation, famine, epidemic diseases, wars, invasions, etc. These will increase the death rate, and will check the growth of population.

These are called positive checks. As a result of these positive checks on the growth of population, a short-lived balance between population and food supply is restored. Because of higher capacity of reproduction, population would again increase very fast overtaking the food supply, and the country will again plunge into over-population.

(f) Checks on Population Growth:

According to Malthus, the increase of population is necessarily limited by the means of subsistence (i.e., food supply). Population invariably increases where the means of subsistence increase, unless prevented by some powerful and obvious checks. These checks are all resolvable into moral restraint, vice and misery. In his opinion, the food shortage, followed by famine, starvation, invasion, war, etc. put an automatic check on the growth of population; these checks are called positive checks.

But positive checks are not always too strong enough to break the dreadful Malthusian cycle. So, to escape from such a constant and dreadful sequence of events, Malthus suggested methods like late marriage and celibacy for reducing birth rate.


He called these preventive checks. Unless population is controlled through preventive checks, vice and misery would again appear to push the standard of living to the level of subsistence and act as a break on population growth.

Criticisms of the Theory:

The Malthusian theory created a great contro­versy among the later economists. Although many subsequent writers recognised some truth in it, the theory has been criticised by many on a large number of grounds.

For various reasons Malthus’ gloomy predictions proved to be incorrect — the population during the 19th century grew rapidly and so, too, did living standards.

The weaknesses in Malthus’ argument are as follows:

1. Technological Change:


Firstly, Malthus was unable to foresee increase in food production in a dynamic economy. Clearly, technological change in agriculture has increased the rate of growth of food production and enabled living standards to rise alongside population growth. The existing trends, which Malthus observed, at the time simply did not hold true in the future. Through technological improvements, industry and agriculture became more productive and the new world provided sufficient room for expan­sion.

2. Changed Social Attitudes:

Moreover, towards the end of the 19th century, parents in the advanced countries began to limit the size of their families. In fact, improvements in methods of birth control and their general acceptance within society and changed social attitudes towards family size slowed down the rate of population growth.

3. Two-Way Causation:

Thirdly, there is a debate in economic theory as to whether population growth stimulated economic growth and vice versa.

4. Imports:

Fourthly, the Malthusian argument is essentially one of diminishing returns with land as a fixed factor. In fact, land was not a fixed factor as new food growing areas were developed overseas and food was imported, e.g., wheat from American Prairies.

5. People as Producers:


Malthus considered people only as consumers but generally each consumer is also a producer. Therefore, a larger popula­tion creates a greater output.

6. Historical Validity:

The Malthusian theory has been found to be historically untrue. Population history has shown that in many Western nations the rate of population growth had been declining since the later part of the 19th century.

7. False Prophecies:

Malthus’ predictions regarding the future state of mankind have proved to be false. Malthus could not foresee the tremendous technological innovations which had brought revolutionary changes in farming techniques and which had caused a rapid increase in food supply and a substantial improvement in the standard of living of the Western people in the last as well as in the present century.

8. Wrong Analysis of Human Psychology:

Malthus gave a wrong analysis of human psychology. It is not always true that the people are inherently fond of big families. In fact, the educated people in advanced countries voluntarily check the number of children in order to enjoy a higher and better standard of living. For this reason, the actual growth rate of popula­tion in many advanced countries tends to fall short of human fecundity (i.e., reproductive capacity).

9. Implication of Growing Population not Fully Realised:

Malthus failed to realise the proper implication of growing population. He thought that every increase of population would harmful as it would create food short­ages, poverty and misery. But, this is not wholly true, because an increase in population causes an increase in labour supply, and that may lead to an increased production and a greater prosperity. For this reason, Seligman observes, “the problem of population is not one of mere size but of efficient production and equitable distribution”.

10. Narrow Perspective of the Study:

It is also pointed out that Malthus has studied the problem of population against the narrow perspective of food supply only. A country may be poor in food production, yet it would not face population problem if it is rich in the production of manufacturing goods.


It can solve its food problem through food imports in exchange of its industrial products. Great Britain is the best example of this. For this reason, economists suggest to study the population growth in relation to the total wealth of a country as against its food production.

11. Excessiveness:

Furthermore, Malthus has undermined the preventive checks and has given too much emphasis on positive checks. With the economic development preventive checks have been more and more impor­tance than the positive checks. The Malthusian theory of population also did not explain fully all the determinants of the growth of population.

This theory has emphasised the demand side of population growth and has not taken into consideration the cost aspect of child bearing. As the society becomes more and more civilised, people prefer not to live in misery but in reasonable comfort as is found in affluent society. Facts also confirm it. In developed countries of the west, the birth rate is actually falling. These countries are now more worried about the Keynesian specter of under consumption.

12. Tautology:

Finally, Malthusian theory of population is nothing but a tautology. He has given more emphasis on moral restraint than as positive checks. This renders the theory scientifically unverifiable and empirically meaningless. In every situation, the theory remains valid.

For instance, if a country experiences a rising living standard, according to this theory it is due to application of moral restraint. If a country experiences falling living standards, the theory tells that it is due to non-application of moral restraint. Therefore, the theory says what is true by definition or what is obvious.



The Malthusian doctrine can therefore be considered as a special case of the Law of Diminishing Returns, the effects of which were offset in developed countries by changes in technology and other factors. Despite these defects we can now totally ignore some elements of truth found in the Malthusian Theory. In fact, this theory has not lost all its validity in the modern age.

Even at the end of World War I, people all over the world feared the Malthusian curse of overpopulation. But, in course of time, the Western countries have got rid of that fear, but “the germs of truth in his doctrines are still important for understanding population behaviour of India, China and other parts of the globe where the balance of numbers and food supply is a vital factor”.

The lessons of Malthus cannot, however, be ignored as it will always be necessary to relate finite resources to the demands of society. The fact is that the law of diminishing returns cannot be repealed, only offset.

When one looks at many Third World countries where population is growing more rapidly than the means of subsistence and where there is an enormous spread of poverty, especially in Africa in recent years, the principles advocated by Malthus are still relevant today. In fact, India’s population doubled between 1950-51 and 1985-86 (from 361 million to 761 million) which proves that Malthus is right even today.