Malthus: bad, but not quite that bad

Steve Mosher and the folks at the Population Research Institute run a site called

Remember that Steven Mosher is the man who in 1983 was booted from his doctoral program in anthropology at Stanford after exposing the horrors of the forced abortions in China due to its then-new one-child policy. This guy has put himself on the line for the truth before, and he deserves a hearing.

PRI’s is a good resource for quickly getting up to speed on untruths that are propagated about the purported overpopulation of the earth, and for getting a foundation of understanding about what really causes poverty. The site has four one-and-a-half minute videos, which together lay this foundation. There are FAQs below each video that help you dig a little deeper.

We know that children are a blessing from the Lord, not a curse, that the man is blessed whose quiver is full of them, and that we have a command to be fruitful and multiply. So we already know that the current worldly view of children as a curse on the earth is false. is a great resource to help us understand how it’s false.

The issue

The issue is that at, PRI has been either sloppy or untruthful in a couple of claims they make about Thomas Malthus, the man who first popularized the idea of overpopulation.

The first video, Overpopulation: The making of a myth, starts out with these words:

The myth of overpopulation originated in England in 1798, when a vicar named Thomas Malthus, who fancied himself something of a mathematician, saw that food production increased incrementally, but people reproduced exponentially. He sat down and did some simple math, and summarily decided that the world would be out of food by 1890. He blamed reduced mortality rates, and recommended killing off the have-nots of society, lest the haves starve to death.

(Emphasis mine.)

These are two of the FAQs at the bottom of the page:

Did Malthus really say to kill off the poor?

Yep. In his Essay on the Principle of Population, Malthus calls for increased mortality among the poor:

All the children born, beyond what would be required to keep up the population to this level, must necessarily perish, unless room be made for them by the deaths of grown persons… To act consistently therefore, we should facilitate, instead of foolishly and vainly endeavoring to impede, the operations of nature in producing this mortality; and if we dread the too frequent visitation of the horrid form of famine, we should sedulously encourage the other forms of destruction, which we compel nature to use. Instead of recommending cleanliness to the poor, we should encourage contrary habits. In our towns we should make the streets narrower, crowd more people into the houses, and court the return of the plague. In the country, we should build our villages near stagnant pools, and particularly encourage settlements in all marshy and unwholesome situations. (Book IV, Chap. V) — Read it online.


Malthus thought doctors shouldn’t cure diseases?

“But above all, we should reprobate specific remedies for ravaging diseases; and those benevolent, but much mistaken men, who have thought they were doing a service to mankind by projecting schemes for the total extirpation of particular disorders.” (Book IV, Chap. V) — Read it online.

Malthus was one of the first in history to recommend against trusting God with your family size. Reading his work makes your soul shrivel. Despite having been a pastor at one time, he assumes that the greatest good in the world is happiness in this life, and that suffering is God’s way of telling us we’re not obeying Him. The whole weight of Malthus’ work is to drive us to walk by sight and not by faith. He was a bad guy. But I don’t think* he “recommended killing off the have-nots of society, lest the haves starve to death.”

I ordered Malthus’ Essays on the Principle of Population and read from the start of his argument in Book IV Chapter 1 through chapter 5 to confirm this, and sent the following letter to PRI. It’s been three weeks and I haven’t heard back from them yet. I hope that they will very soon correct their error, or show me where I am mistaken.

*”I don’t think” – how could it not be clear? Malthus writes in a dull, dry, passionless, lifeless style that makes it difficult to catch potential irony or where he may be setting up hypothetical arguments against himself. I found Malthus’ dull style to be a cousin to Charles Darwin’s in the latter’s On the Origin of Species (or perhaps they only share a common ancestor).

Here is the letter I sent.


On, I think that the first two shocking facts about Malthus are an extreme misrepresentation of what Malthus was proposing. The quotes under the sections “Did Malthus really say to kill off the poor?” and “Malthus thought doctors shouldn’t cure diseases?” are both from The Principle of Population Book IV Chapter V, which is titled “Of the consequences of pursing the opposite mode”. Opposite of what?

Book IV Chapter III is titled, “Of the only effectual mode of improving the condition of the poor”. In this chapter Malthus argues that the only “effectual mode” is by the workers controlling the size of the labor pool by the number of children that they have, which by supply and demand would drive labor cost up and get them out of poverty. From the end of Chapter III:

“If we be really serious in what appears to be the object of such general research, the mode of essentially and permanently bettering the condition of the poor, we must explain to them the true nature of their situation, and shew them, that ***the withholding of the supplies of labour*** is the only possible way of really raising its price, and that they themselves, being the possessors of this commodity, have alone the power to do this.
“I cannot but consider this mode of diminishing poverty as so perfectly clear in theory, and so invariably confirmed by the analogy of every other commodity which is brought to market, that nothing but its being shewn to be calculated to produce greater evils than it proposes to remedy, can justify us in not making the attempt to put it into execution. ”

Then in Chapter IV (“Objections to this mode considered) Malthus considers objections to his “only effectual mode”.
In the last section of the chapter, he says, look, if you don’t think the mode I propose is good enough, I’ll show you the horrible alternative:

“If after all, however, these arguments should appear insufficient; ***if we reprobate the idea of endeavouring to encourage the virtue of moral restraint among the poor*** [his “only effectual mode”], from a fear of producing vice; and if we think, that to facilitate marriage by all possible means is a point of the first consequence to the morality and happiness of the people; let us act consistently, and before we proceed, endeavour to make ourselves acquainted with the mode by which alone we can effect our object.”

Chapter V’s title is “Of the consequences of pursuing the opposite mode”, and it has all those horrible things about killing off the poor by courting the return of the plague and not treating illness and encouraging them to live near marshy areas. I think he is saying, “See how much better my plan is than this?”

Malthus also clarifies this in Appendix I, section 14:

“In many parts of the Essay I have dwelt much on the advantage of rearing the requisite population of any country from the smallest number of births. I have stated expressly, that a decrease of mortality at all ages is what we ought chiefly to aim at; and as the best criterion of happiness and good government, instead of the largeness of the proportion of births, which was the usual mode of judging, I have proposed the smallness of the proportion dying under the age of puberty. Conscious that I had never intentionally deviated from these principles, I might well be rather surprised to hear that I had been considered by some as an enemy to the introduction of the vaccine inoculation, which is calculated to attain the very end which I have uniformly considered as so desirable. I have indeed intimated what I still continue most firmly to believe, that if the resources of the country would not permanently admit of a greatly accelerated rate of increase in the population (and whether they would or not must certainly depend upon other causes besides the number of lives saved by the vaccine inoculation,)*6 one of two things would happen, either an increased mortality of some other diseases, or a diminution in the proportion of births. But I have expressed my conviction that the latter effect would take place; and therefore consistently with the opinions which I have always maintained, I ought to be, and am, one of the warmest friends to the introduction of the cow-pox. In making every exertion which I think likely to be effectual, to increase the comforts and diminish the mortality among the poor, I act in the most exact conformity to my principles. Whether those are equally consistent who profess to have the same object in view, and yet measure the happiness of nations by the large proportion of marriages and births, is a point which they would do well to consider.”

I believe in God’s continuing command to be fruitful and multiply, that children are a blessing, that walking by faith is not folly, but wisdom, and that those who hate God love death. I think you believe in these things too. Let us be careful then to deal in truth and not falsehood.

God bless,
Daniel Meyer

Update 8/30/2011: I spoke with Colin Mason, the Director of Media Production at PRI, yesterday and he expressed a desire to get to the bottom of this. He’ll be discussing it with the writer.

This entry was posted in blessed are the poor, children are a blessing, faith, fruitfulness, ninth commandment, science, suffering. Bookmark the permalink.

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