Population Malthus: His life and times

Population Malthus: His life and times

BOOK REVIEWS Population Malthus: His Life and Times, Patricia Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1979), xv + 521 pp. James (London, Boston, Henley: This ...

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Population Malthus: His Life and Times, Patricia Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1979), xv + 521 pp.





This is a thoroughly researched and documented study of the life and works of Thomas Malthus. Patricia James has spent close to two decades working through the Malthus materials at Jesus College, Cambridge, tracing the relevant materials in other locations, tracing the life histories of practically all persons whose lives interacted with Malthus and staying in close contact with Malthus’s collateral descendants. She has also digested and summarised the numerous writings of her subject and discusses issues raised in their own political and social context, as well as the main critical reactions. It is unlikely that much additional light will be thrown on anything connected with Malthus; this book will certainly be the standard reference in the field for the foreseeable future. There is some danger that the multitude of facts may overwhelm the unwary reader. Patricia James must have lived vicariously in Haleybury, Cambridge, London, and the other important places in Malthus’s life, and she sometimes requires an equal devotion from the reader. Details, sometimes not very significant, are served with great abandon; it might have helped to have, in addition to the excellent index, a short glossary of names to identify all the familiars of the Malthus circle. A greater danger of the detailed exposition than inconvenience to the reader is the loss of perspective in Malthus’s life. James makes many important points and shows new insights into the early days of demography and political economy, but they tend to get lost in the welter of facts. She does stress some very important themes which deserve to be extracted and expanded for their value in the history of the ideas in this field from Malthus to the present day. Like other people whose names have become a common noun or adjective. Malthus’s personality is eclipsed by his image. This biography shows Malthus as a person, as a product of his time and circumstances, trying to express his concerns as derived from his experiences. During the - admittedly short - time in which he was an active incumbent at Okewood he saw the effects of poverty and observed the conditions of the large families of the poor. Apparently it was this experience with overpopulation which led him to his work and activity in economics and demography. A basic theme of Malthus’s life which one can derive from this rich biography is the contrast of his humanitarian views and the reputation of a cruelty which his proposals acquired. This tension is expressed in two ways, which are in part peculiar to its own time and in part generally valid. First, there is the conflict between short-range and long-range solutions. In the long range Malthus’s demographic conclusions may well be right, even now, and the human race may still exceed the means for its subsistence. But in the short range the conclusions may be wrong; the amount of food per person can increase because of improved farming practices. Eventually the population can reach its limit but this condition may be quite far in the future. Radical means of limiting population, such as the elimination of Poor Laws, look quite drastic and cruel when the need for them could be several generations away. Malthus lived in a time of important but little-



Book Reviews

understood changes: his basic principles described an agricultural and household economy, while cities and industrial employment were assuming major importance. Added to this major change was the condition during most of Mahhus’s adult life of the English economy suffering from the effects of the Napoleonic wars and their aftermath, which necessitated again temporary adjustments; some of these necessary actions were contrary to a general economic theory. Malthus might have escaped this dilemma by retiring to a safe theoretical position and ignoring temporary problems. On the contrary, he was in the midst of the legislative fights on current problems. Here he sometimes had to compromise his long-term theories for short-range solutions, such as in varying positions on the intractable question of his time, the Corn Law. But frequently he stuck to his long-range theories, even at the cost of advocating immediate hardships. Some of his theoretical writings may seem to us today misplaced: James shows how they can only be understood in their own framework, given the knowledge of contemporary social and economic conditions and inadequate insight in variables which have been proved to be important. Malthus’s fate shows the irony of this conflict. For his own time he was branded as insensitive for looking for the ultimate good and disregarding current hardships. This hardship was attacked directly by his opponents and detractors who for a while seemed to have found workable programmes. Now. however, we are back at Malthus’s problem, this time on a worldwide instead of a national scale, and his insights become relevant ones. Malthus would have readily grasped the ‘tragedy of the common’; other metaphors current today seem almost paraphrases of his own most notorious quotes. Another aspect of this tension is the contrast between the kindly, convivial character and the image of the gloomy parson. In shattering many stereotypes. James points out that Malthus was not really a parson with the connotation given to the title in this context. Holy Orders and acceptance of livings were the conventional ways of supporting scholars at this time; as James says. calling Malthus constantly ‘a parson’ makes as much sense as calling current steady incumbents of Ford Foundation grants ‘car dealers’. Just because Malthus enjoyed the good life and wished everyone could. he advocated policies which may seem cruel in immediate application. Many details in this biography build up a different picture of the man, his family and his friends, from the character which has been built up from his writings. Again. the book gives a good unpopular and picture of the character of the man, and his trials in defending seemingly unfeeling positions, but it also shows a recurrent contrast of the private and public lives of the great figure. Dickens may have shown his horror at the workings of Mahhus’s reforms of the Poor Laws in Oliver Twist and Marx and Engels pilloried him as the devil of capitalism incarnate, but Malthus was the better husband and family man and - at close range - a better humanitarian than they. Thus, this biography tells us all about Malthus’s life and works which we will know and probably want to know; it places Malthus squarely in his time and thus makes us understand his works better; and it leads us to contemplate general problems which Malthus separated in his efforts. Kurt W. Back Duke University Durham, North Carolina