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 people’s 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).
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 frien...
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...d less income and landowners received more income. Malthus believed that landowners spent almost all their income; if they received more income they would consume it by hiring more servants and engaging in luxury consumption. For this reason Malthus supported the British Corn Laws (which were passed in 1815 and then repealed in 1846). This legislation prohibited the import of grain into Britain until certain price levels were reached. With fewer grain imports, Malthus reasoned, more land would be used in Britain for growing food. This would increase (differential) rents due to diminishing returns in agriculture and provide more money to landowners. In addition, Malthus believed that wages would rise in proportion to the increased price of corn due to the trade restrictions. The losers would be capitalists, whose savings would fall as their income declined.
Despite his many theoretical contributions, and despite being an important forerunner of Keynesian economics, Malthus remains an important figure in economics primarily because of his population doctrine. The term “Malthusian” will always connote pessimism about the ability of mankind to improve its economic well-being.
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