NL 2011/02

‘God’s Blessing’ in Figures:
British economist Robert Malthus was born 245 years ago

While the general fact that children need to be fed and clothed was common knowledge in the 18th century, Robert Malthus presented detailed figures and compared them to the available resources. His conclusion was frightening: “Assuming then, my postulates as granted, I say that the power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man. Population, when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio. Subsistence increases only in an arithmetical ratio. A slight acquaintance with numbers will show the immensity of the first power in comparison of the second.”


His 1798 book Essay on the Principle of Population unleashed a great deal of shock among the general public. While the problem of overpopulation had already been pondered in antiquity, and by prominent thinkers in later years, in Malthus’ day there were many loud declarations that having the largest number of children possible was in line with God’s will. That represented a significant advantage for the powers that be: the state wanted soldiers and taxpayers, and the church wanted to be ‘strong’, which required a large number of followers. Malthus wrote that, “There is a constant effort towards an increase of population.”


Interestingly enough, Malthus (1766-1834) was at the time of his book’s publication an Anglican curate and was expected to represent his church’s views. However, his small parish offered sufficient evidence for the following observation: “It cannot fail to be remarked by those who live much in the country that the sons of labourers are very apt to be stunted in their growth, and are a long while arriving at maturity. Boys that you would guess to be fourteen or fifteen are, upon inquiry, frequently found to be eighteen or nineteen.” Malthus saw how many children starved, froze to death, or died of neglect or treatable diseases as a result of their family’s disastrous financial situation.



Birth Control through Abstinence

In his sensational book Essay on the Principle of Population, Malthus suggested that the birth rate be reduced by means of sexual abstinence and late marriage. Rather than limit the number of children through poverty and destitution after the birth had taken place, the idea was to prevent pregnancies from happening. Malthus himself first married at the age of 38 and had (just) three children, one of whom died as a teenager; the other two had no children of their own.


Malthus’ ideas influenced a number of movements and schools of thought. The most famous are Darwinism (survival of the fittest) and neo-Malthusianism, with its call to prevent unwanted pregnancies by means of contraception.

A number of 19th and early 20th century advertisements for contraceptives referred to Malthus or neo-Malthusianism, employing scientific quotes to undermine the ban on their use.



Come and learn about Robert Malthus and more pioneers of family planning in Vienna's Museum of Contraception and Abortion. Wednesday through Sunday 14 -18 h. Mariahilfer Guertel 37, A-1150 Wien (Austria)