Malthusian and Ricardian Population Theory


In 1798 an anonymous and bleak essay appeared in England. Entitled An Essay on the Principle of Population as It Affects the Future Improvement of Society, the document brought a new level of pessimism to the optimistic sentiments that had brought the author to write his own form of truth. Thomas Robert Malthus, the son of Daniel Malthus, did not find the hopeful and cheerful ideas of his father’s friend, William Goodwin, to be a plausible outlook for the future of the nation. Therefore, he took to writing his own idea of what the coming times had in store. Malthus’ thoughts upon the subject of population were the starting point for which both Malthus and his friend and fellow economic philosopher, David Ricardo, were to develop the ideas that stood as the consensus for quite a time (Heilbroner, 1953 ). It was not until recently that the population theory brought up by Malthus and developed further by Ricardo became obsolete because of extrinsic variables that they never considered.

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Malthus' Population Theory:

There was a long-running sentiment in 18th Century Europe that society as a whole was improving and that eventually perfection and efficiency could be reached. There were some philosophers, such as before-mentioned William Goodwin, who believed that the possibilities of improvement for society were limitless. The lives of people could always be better; more money, more food, more stuff. Malthus’ thoughts deviated from these widely-accepted ideologies and brought about a period in Europe in which scholars and various governments became concerned with the eventual lack of provisions for the exponentially growing population.

Malthus’ theory of population growth took into account the past histories of civilizations known at that time. Throughout the ages various nations suffered from cyclical periods of rise and decline. The Roman Empire is an example of this concept, with the ascent and descent of the economic and societal values of the culture. With this and other examples of the cycles of society, Malthus proposed that the population of a country could be related to these maximums and minimums. For example, if an epidemic was to strike an society, there would eventually be a lower population which would therefore lead to a lower working-force, lower productivity level, and lower amount of food, which would lead to lower levels of available subsistence. This downfall would continue until the amount of people being supported would be less than or equal to the amount of limited resources available to preserve their livelihood. After the decline, the population would begin to rise because the amount of resources available would be able to support the amount of people present (more subsistence for everyone and more free time for procreation, etc.) and the cycle would begin again. Below are graphical representations of this cycle: To the left is a depiction of the point of crisis that Malthus refers to in his theory. It is at this point when population levels outstrip the levels of resources readily available for consumption. To the right shows the cycle that Malthus says happens when population becomes to high. The population growth curve grows sinusoidally while the food production grows arithmetically. When population finally reaches the level of resources available, the population curve drops back down (due to positive of negative checks) finally reaching a level that society can sustain and begins to rise again until the next crisis point.



Malthus was fervently against the idea of limitless improvement, as he so states in Chapter 9 of An Essay On The Principle of Population: “...there is a limit to improvement, though we do not exactly know where it is” (Malthus, 1798). Because of these limits, outlined by his view upon the idea that population grows exponentially (or sinusoidally) and food production grows arithmetically (as outlined in the above graph) (Landreth, 2002 ).

For Malthus, the obvious answer to this problem was to deter the exponential growth of the population. This was to be done by employing two types of checks which would hold the population within the resource constraints; The first, which was referred to as a positive check, was to somehow raise the death rate. The second, a negative check, was to control or lower the birth rate. Positive checks consisted of famine, diseases or epidemics, and war whereas negative checks consisted of birth control, abortion, celibacy, abstinence, and other creative ways of delaying the creation of children (Gilbert, 1798). Therefore, Malthus came to the conclusion that if humans were to continue to consume without bound, then the limited resources that are available would lead to a large number of deaths and possible destruction of an entire state (if hit with enough positive and negative checks). If not enough people are left after this prolonged event of famine and scarce food, then there will not be enough able-bodied and trained people to work the land and rebuild the population to a level of balance equal to the amount of resources available.


Malthus’ theory was not initially popular. In a time where the church was a major factor in the lives of the citizens of England, and the way in which “premature” human death could be considered a benefit to society was hard for many to digest. In addition, the church was vehemently against the idea of contraception and some of the other ways of controlling birth rates. Therefore, Malthus’ ideas were not popularly declared as an option for the country at that time, both on humanist or religious grounds (Ashraf, 2008). Most likely because of this reception, re-printings of Malthus’ work laid a heavier reliance upon human self-control or “individual moral restraint” (Heilbroner, 1953 ). Malthus suggested that individuals should wait to be married and produce children until they are able to support their families, strict sexual abstinence before that time or celibacy. These options gave the church and those tied to the strict social and religious expectations of the times leeway to take Malthus’ ideas of the effects of rapid growth into consideration.


Enter Ricardo:

After reading Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nation's and a visit to Bath, England, David Ricardo became an interested and successful influence on the theories and practices of economics. Among his notable friends were Robert Malthus and the two had an interesting correspondence developing each others ideas on various subjects (Heilbroner, 1953). After reading Robert Malthus' theory of population growth, Ricardo began to add other factors that Malthus had failed to include in his original theory upon the subject. Most importantly, Ricardo brought forth the idea of diminishing returns to Malthus’ theory. Ricardo explained that as more land was cultivated, farmers would have to start using less productive land. This led to his formation of Ricardian Rent, showing that individuals holding more productive land would receive higher “rents paid” for the use of that space compared to less productive land. This idea was not taken into account when Malthus developed his population growth theory based upon the restrictions of food available.

Ricardo was known for his gloomy outlook upon the results of growing population. Shown through his theory of rents, As the population rose, the more land would be required to be cultivated, the higher the price of cultivation would cost through diminishing returns of the land used, the higher prices of the agricultural products because of less efficiency, leading to more and more people getting less and less sustinence (Heilbroner, 1953). Of course, this was under the assumption that under a capitalistic society, the employers of these workers would pay the least amount they had to.


Not only was Ricardo’s understanding of what he referred to as “laws of behavior” depressing and quite true to the outlook of human action in this age in Europe, but he was able to apply more variables to Malthus’ population growth theory model. Malthus was interested in population, but he failed to review the importance of food production. In his assumption, food was to grown arithmetically, which could be understood since during that age in England, the Industrial Revolution and the benefits of faster transportation and agricultural machinery had not fully developed on a mass scale. Ricardo was able to take into account the idea that farmers will want to use more productive land to make their effort in production more efficient. Therefore, they would be able to hopefully make more of a profit since they would have more product to sell. It was the fault of both Malthus and Ricardo, however, to take in to account the true results of technology when applied to food production, not to mention medicine and other later determents of what Malthus first called positive checks on population. While Malthus and Ricardo were able to separate themselves from the emotion and look supremely at data and behavior around them, general sentiments for the public at that time still held human life on a pedestal. The ideas of these gentlemen, when not viewed from a humanist point of view, were a little ahead of their time. However, as many non-scholars and non-philosophers made up the majority of the population at that time, having the attitude that humans could be essentially used in Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection, not published until a few decades after Malthus’ and Ricardo’s theories had emerged, and that death could be viewed as a natural benefit to control mass scale chaos was a little too radical for 19th century England (Darwin, 1859).

Figure Sources:

Figure 1: Portrait of Thomas Robert Malthus: Source:

Figure 2: Malthusian Crisis Point Graph: Source:

Figure 3: Graphical Portrayal of Population Rise and Decline with Food Production:

Figure 4: Cornucopia of Babies: Source:

Figure 5: Portrait of David Ricardo: Source:

Works Cited

Ashraf, Q. (2008). Malthusian population dynamics: Theory and evidence. Informally published manuscript, Economics, Brown University, Providence, RI. Retrieved from

Darwin, C. (1859). On the origin of species by means of natural selection, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life. London.

Geoffrey Gilbert, introduction to Malthus T.R. 1798. An essay on the principle of population. Oxford World's Classics reprint. vii

Landreth, H. (2002). History of economic thought. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Malthus, T. R. (1798). An essay on the principle of population. London: Oxford World.

Richerson, P. (1996). Homage to malthus, ricardo, and boserup: Toward a general theory of population, economic growth, environmental deterioration, wealth, and poverty. (Master's thesis, University of California Davis)Retrieved from