When Marx was writing The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, he was fond of quoting or closely paraphrasing mainstream political economists who were influential in his day. Ricardo, Smith, and Jean-Baptite Say were obvious choices, and so was Thomas Malthus. Marx's objective was to show that his understanding of capitalism was invariably quite similar to that of the influential main-streamers. It's as if he'd point to a particularly egregious, but ostensibly inescapable characteristic of capitalism and say, "They said it, I didn't." One huge difference between Marx and the main-streamers was that Marx thought a different, much more humane system was possible.
One of Marx's favorite targets was Thomas Malthus, a protestant clergyman as well as a political economist. Here is a typical passage from the first version of Malthus' Essay on Population: "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 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. But above all we should [reject] specific remedies for various diseases ..."
This is an extremely ugly statement even by 19th century Dickensian standards, but Malthus enjoyed the admiration of many learned men of his time, including Thomas Jefferson. Malthus' claim that food production naturally and inevitably increases additively or arithmetically, while population naturally and inevitably increases geometrically, was and is without foundation. Malthus acknowledges as much in the thoroughly revised edition of this volume published later. Furthermore, if one were looking for an 18th century variant on victim blaming, this would be it: famine and attendant horrors are due entirely to the unbridled, undisciplined, unrestrained recklessness with which members of the working class and peasantry indulge their sexual appetites. Were they prudent, workers and peasants would restrain themselves to conform to the claims and constraints of nascent capitalism.
A thoughtful and well-written comment from a reader who has a favorable view of Malthus prompted me to remember why I found his book so objectionable when I read it for a course in demography forty years ago. As a protestant clergyman, a New Testament Christian, it's disconcerting to realize that Malthus, without substantiation, would attribute to his God such gratuitous cruelty in the way he made the world. Today, however, I'm an atheist and the parallels between Malthus' assertions-without-analyses bring to mind the unequivocal proclamations of right-wing talk show hosts and neo-conservative ideologues.
The same reader made the point that Malthus was not a malicious, splenetic ogre. His portraits invariably display a cheerful smile. Having read Malthus, one has to wonder just what this man was smiling about -- God is in his heaven and the world is rife with misery ... ?
Rejecting Malthus' ill-conceived notions as to the consequences of population growth does not imply endorsement of the idea that growth can continue unabated forever without adverse consequences. Rejecting Malthus means that he failed to acknowledge that the consequences of growth may vary markedly depending on the way that a specific social system is organized. This is a crucial issue that Malthus, an intellectual prisoner of the status quo, did not see.
Why read this horrible book today? Well, we do have folks in policy making positions who are called Neo-Malthusians. What can they be up to?