The Political Economy of Malthus

, Bethany Stotts, Leave a comment

Those unfamiliar with the happenings at Modern Language Association (MLA) annual conventions might wonder why it is that Sarah Palin’s stance on sex education received mention during a panel on “Major Romantic Writers.” However, New York University Professor Maureen McLane considered the connection relevant enough to also reference Palin in her speech title.

“[Thomas R. Malthus] envisions a feedback loop so nearly immediate that, unless checks intervene, desire moves to sex moves to children in a figurative instant,” said the English professor during her lecture on “Malthus Our Contemporary? Parsons, Palins, and the Political Economy of Sex.” Prof. McLane continued,

“Foresight is the great mental condom, and here Malthus anticipates some aspects of the theological pedagogical complex known as abstinence-education—[and] here’s my actual nod to Sarah Palin—for certainly Malthus, like all good utilitarians, calls for a pedagogy of ‘true love waits’ for the 18th and early 19th century.”

That was about all she had to say on Alaska’s most famous governor, who apparently is such a draw that her name draws crowds even in nests of her critics.

As an Anglican clergyman, East India College professor Malthus was not likely to condone the use of contraception in his era, especially since the Anglican church didn’t issue a statement in favor of contraception until the 1930 Lambeth Conference—nearly a century after Malthus’ death. “Where there is clearly felt moral obligation to limit or avoid parenthood, the method must be decided on Christian principles,” states the 1930 resolution.

Professor McLane also suggested that Malthus, like Sigmund Freud, can be “debiologized” and read as proposing “a theory of information rather than or in addition to one of bodies.” So much for authorial intent.

“What an organism wants, according to Malthus, is not so much to increase its numbers as to have sex,” said Prof. McClane. “Here one encounters the crucial allusion between individual desire and the species condition. In what sense can a population desire anything?”

Given that Prof. McLane herself admitted that she was pursuing an “experimental” interpretation of Malthus, it is useful to cover what the economist actually argued. Prof. McLane quoted Malthus’ two postula,

  • “First, That food is necessary to the existence of man” and
  • “Secondly, That the passion between the sexes is necessary and will remain nearly in its present state.”

Charles Dickens’ Malthusian references can be seen in A Christmas Carol, particularly in his characterization of Ebenezer Scrooge. “Dickens was convinced that a line of thought which elevated self-interest as the mainspring of human action was, though it paraded in the upbeat slogan of ’the greatest happiness for the greatest number,’ bound to cause suffering at some level, as in the operation of the adjusted Poor Law, or….the inflicting of psychological and moral damage on individuals and communities,” writes Vincent Newey in The Scriptures of Charles Dickens. Consider, for example, when gentlemen visit asking for Christmas donations for the poor; Scrooge responds, “Are there no prisons…And the Union workhouses…Are they still in operation…The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour then?”

When one gentleman says that “Many can’t go there; and many would rather die,” Scrooge famously quips, “If they would rather die…they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population…”

In An Essay on the Principle of Population, Malthus actually argues that an increasing wage hurts workers by either allowing that laborer to steal more of the proverbial resource ‘pie’ or by simply inflating the cost of goods. “A collection from the rich of eighteen shillings in the pound, if distributed in the most judicious manner, would have a little the same effect as that resulting from the supposition I have just made,” he writes, “and no possible contributions or sacrifices of the rich, particularly in money, could for any time prevent the recurrence of distress among the lower members of society, whoever they were.”

Malthus also maintains in his Essay that

“Hard as it may appear in individual instances, dependent poverty ought to be held disgraceful. Such a stimulus seems to be absolutely necessary to promote the happiness of the great mass of mankind, and every general attempt to weaken this stimulus, however benevolent its apparent intention, will always defeat its own purpose. If men are induced to marry from a prospect of a parish provision, with little or no chance of maintaining their families in independence, they are not only unjustly tempted to bring unhappiness and dependence upon themselves and children, but they are tempted, without knowing it, to injure all in the same class with themselves. A labourer who marries without being able to support a family may in some respects be considered as an enemy to all his fellow-labourers” (emphasis added).

The parallel between Scrooge and Malthusianism becomes more clear when one considers that Bob Cratchit has a large family, is paid very little by Scrooge, and at the end of the book receives both higher wages and a gift of food—a large Christmas turkey. This additional sustenance, Malthus would argue, is encouragement for Cratchit to beget an even larger family.

Yet, Professor Frank Elwell of Rogers State University maintains that—despite the invention of birth control and technological advances increasing food availability—Malthus’ theories remain valid today.

“Malthus’ image also suffers among a wider audience,” states Prof. Ellwell in a 2001 keynote address. “Dickens, for example, clearly based his Scrooge character on his misreading of Malthus’ characterization of the poor.”

In his lecture, called “Reclaiming Malthus,” Prof. Elwell refers to Malthus’ two postula as “ideas that many people simply cannot or will not acknowledge.”

Bethany Stotts is a staff writer at Accuracy in Academia.