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The Long Shadow Of Malthus
January/February 2016

Thomas Malthus: His ideas have inspired countless inhumane acts

For more than 200 years, a disturbingly vicious thread has run through Western history, based on biology and justifying cruelty on an almost unimaginable scale. It centres on the question of how to control human population growth and it answers that question by saying we must be cruel to be kind, that ends justify means. It is still around today; and it could not be more wrong. It is the continuing misuse of Malthus.

According to his epitaph in Bath Abbey, the Rev Thomas Robert Malthus, author of An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798), was noted for “his sweetness of temper, urbanity of manners and tenderness of heart, his benevolence and his piety”. Yet his ideas have justified some of the greatest crimes in  history. By saying that, if people could not be persuaded to delay marriage, we would have to encourage famine and “reprobate specific remedies for ravaging diseases”, he inadvertently gave birth to a series of heartless policies — the poor laws, the British government’s approach to famine in Ireland and India, social Darwinism, eugenics, the Holocaust, India’s forced sterilisations and China’s one-child policy. All derived their logic more or less directly from a partial reading of Malthus.

To this day if you write or speak about falling child mortality in Africa, you can be sure of getting the following Malthusian response: but surely it’s a bad thing if you stop poor people’s babies dying? Better to be cruel to be kind. Yet actually we now know, this argument is wrong. The way to get population growth to slow, it turns out, is to keep babies alive so people plan smaller families: to bring health, prosperity and education to all.

Britain’s Poor Law of 1834, which attempted to ensure that the very poor were not helped except in workhouses, and that conditions in workhouses were not better than the worst in the outside world, was based explicitly on Malthusian ideas — that too much charity only encouraged breeding, especially illegitimacy, or “bastardy”. The Irish potato famine of the 1840s was made infinitely worse by Malthusian prejudice shared by the British politicians in positions of power. The Prime Minister, Lord John Russell, was motivated by “a Malthusian fear about the long-term effect of relief”, according to a biographer.  The Assistant Secretary to the Treasury, Charles Trevelyan, had been a pupil of Malthus at the East India Company College: famine, he thought, was an “effective mechanism for reducing surplus population” and a “direct stroke of an all-wise and all-merciful Providence” sent to teach the “selfish, perverse and turbulent” Irish a lesson. Trevelyan added: “Supreme Wisdom has educed permanent good out of transient evil.”

In India in 1877, a famine killed ten million people. The viceroy, Lord Lytton, quoted almost directly from Malthus in explaining why he had halted several private attempts to bring relief to the starving: “The Indian population has a tendency to increase more rapidly than the food it raises from the soil.” His policy was to herd the hungry into camps where they were fed on — literally — starvation rations. Lytton thought he was being cruel to be kind.

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Billy Corr
February 20th, 2016
4:02 PM
Do readers remember Bono, Geldof and their chums howling and whining about the Great Ethiopian Famine? The population of that wretched and impoverished country has DOUBLED since then and - guess what - the BBC tells us that five million children face starvation (give or take a million or two either way.) Oh, and the Sahel country of Mali has a food crisis looming. Coincidentally, wretched Mali has the world's highest population growth. Can we please switch on our brains and, gritting our teeth heroically, harden our hearts. I write as a father of two well-nourished and well-educated young adults, not as the father of a dozen emaciated wretches,

January 16th, 2016
7:01 PM
As videos show world population increases have slowed greatly since the 1970's and it might be linked to the expansion of capitalism to the bulk of the world's poorest nations. The fruit of the PRC's One Child Policy will make it almost impossible for that nation to become wealthy before it becomes old.

January 12th, 2016
6:01 PM
A blinkered article that fails even to mention the productive capacity of the Earth. Perhaps when too many people are warring over too few resources and killing one another wholesale in order to grab what they can, the author might revise these opinions, and reflect on the fact that war and starvation have often gone arm in arm.

January 12th, 2016
6:01 PM
Christmas - It's not a question of giving up rationality. It's a question of how far we should trust it when it tells us (or appears to) that we must put aside the moral law that we are to help our fellow human beings? It's a matter of judgement, and views may vary. But, in the light of the record, it is not irrational to hold that catastrophists do not generally recognise how heavy is their burden of proof.

January 3rd, 2016
10:01 AM
What an excellent essay. Anyone who disputes the last sentence: "The right thing to do about poor, hungry and fecund people always was, and still is, to give them hope, opportunity, freedom, education, food and medicine, including of course voluntary contraception, for not only will that make them happier, it will enable them to have smaller families." should familiarise themselves with the work of Prof Hans Rosling - e.g. his brilliant (and entertaining) 'Don't Panic' documentary/presentation broadcast on the BBC a few years ago. Here's the link:

December 31st, 2015
4:12 PM
Malthusians are alive and well - they now foment wars in other countries, own armament factories and pollute the environment for personal gain.

December 29th, 2015
8:12 PM
". . . surely it’s a bad thing if you stop poor people’s babies dying? Better to be cruel to be kind. Yet actually we now know, this argument is wrong. . . ." We may well know that now, but the people you condemn did not know it. It seems unfair and even ahistorical to judge them in the light of current knowledge that they did not and could not possess. This is an instance where rationality has ridden over moral intuitions, and rationality has turned out to be wrong (from today's perspective). This does not make it wrong on its own terms then. Are you arguing that we should give up the attempt at rationality, and rely instead on our intuitions? Or perhaps you are arguing that we should be able to know now what has yet to be discovered, which obviously might well be nice if we could only find out how?

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