Book Book

The Malthus Factor

BMJ 1999; 319 doi: (Published 24 July 1999) Cite this as: BMJ 1999;319:264
  1. Fred Paccaud, director
  1. Institut Universitaire de Médecine Sociale et Préventive, Lausanne, Switzerland

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    Eric B Ross

    ZED Books, £14.95, pp 270

    ISBN 1 85649 564 7

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    Malthus's ideas are still popular today, and this book tries to explain why and how Malthus offers a political theory of poverty that rests on two principles: firstly, that poverty is originated by the poor themselves (that is, via their reproductive behaviour) and, secondly, that only external pressures on the poor can correct any imbalance between population and resources, namely moral pressure (sexual restraint) or violent circumstances (famine or war). According to Ross, the decades after Malthus's essay, first published in 1798, largely contradicted most of his observations (partly because he underestimated the productivity of agriculture). Nevertheless, Malthusianism developed largely as a political tool for the ruling elite: it had the appearance of a formal scientific theory, and it blamed the poor for their condition, thus avoiding any alternative explanation of poverty

    Ross also analyses why Malthus's principles are still used today in discussions of policies related to population growth (by international agencies, for example) or policies related to immigration (by administration in the developed world, for example). Perhaps the most interesting current application of these principles is environmentalism This usually promotes the idea that there is some fixed mechanical link between population and resources. Furthermore, there is also a strong moral component in environmentalism, a mixture of blaming every citizen and a sort of scientific paternalism. Both are characteristic of Malthus. His memorial tablet in Bath Abbey interestingly reads: “One of the best men … raised by native dignity of mind above the misinterpretations of the ignorant and the neglect of the great.”

    Malthus was neither the first nor the best theoretician of population growth and resources. His observations were second hand, and both Goldwin and Condorcet had more thoughtful and complex ideas However, the simplicity and the brutality of the model he proposed have caused his principles to be used largely as political tools. In fact, one of the first explicit applications was the suppression of the poor laws in the United Kingdom, providing one of the first modern examples of “evidence based policy.”

    Ross obviously has a fixed opinion on how to deal with poverty, one that is clearly different from Malthusianism, but he has written a well documented book that addresses key issues in population health and social medicine. Thus, even those readers who may have diverging views or some reserve about particular topics (such as eugenics) will find refreshing ideas that are relevant to contemporary issues Indeed, Malthus has helped many people elaborate their own theories, from Darwin (who mentioned the influence of Malthus in the early phase of his work) to Marx (who strongly criticised Malthus).


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