Malthus's argument on population - Test 1, Q14, by Mark Shepherd



I took a practice test for a law exam and am having difficulty with understanding the logic behind a question. Apologies for the length, but I included the whole question and details for completeness.

Until the middle of the eighteenth century, the population of Britain grew slowly. But, from then on, growth became more rapid, and in 1798 Thomas Malthus’s first essay on ‘The Principle of Population as it affects the future improvement of society’ made it a major subject of discussion.

Malthus began from two postulates:

  1. the passion between the sexes is necessary and will remain nearly in ‘its present state’
  2. food is necessary to the existence of man.

Given these postulates, his arguments forced him to conclude that:

  1. the population will, if unchecked, double itself every twenty- fi ve years;
  2. the means of subsistence can, at a maximum, increase by only the same amount every twenty-five years. In other words, while the population multiplies in a geometric progression, food supplies increase in an arithmetic progression.

Since man cannot live without food, what, Malthus asked, kept population within its means of subsistence? The answer he found in certain ‘checks’. First, there were ‘positive checks’ involving misery – famine, war, disease. Second, there were ‘preventive checks’ – which, with one exception, all involved ‘vice’, including contraception. The exception was ‘moral restraint’, by which was meant deliberately refraining from marrying at an early age. Since this was a remote possibility, the outlook for civilization was gloomy: in the long run mankind could only expect a subsistence level of existence. Moreover, social policies to alleviate poverty would be self- defeating.

Although at the beginning of the nineteenth century Malthus’s views were widely accepted, the final tragedy of starvation, the logical outcome of his two conclusions, has not occurred.

Where, therefore, did Malthus go wrong?

First, we must note that to some extent his argument was illogical, for he did not deal with the fact, well known at the time, that, in spite of the rapid increase in the population over the previous fifty years, people on average were no worse off. This showed that the means of subsistence must at least have increased in proportion. Had Malthus possessed a precisely formulated law of diminishing returns, he could have based his argument on a fixed total supply of land which would sooner or later make itself felt as the population increased.

Second, Malthus was preoccupied with people as consumers. He failed to see that, by and large, a consumer is also a producer, for ‘with every mouth God sends a pair of hands’. Here again a fixed supply of land with consequent diminishing returns could have overcome this objection.

Third, Malthus did not foresee change. On the one hand the geometric increase in Britain’s population did not come about, because of emigration and above all because of the reduction in the size of the family with rising living standards. On the other hand, improved agricultural techniques and the vast increase in imports meant that Britain’s food supplies were not limited to increasing in an arithmetic progression.

Thus Malthus’s arguments have validity only when there are fixed resources, such as land or energy reserves. It is, for instance, the limited supply of land which brings about a Malthusian situation in the Far East today.

Which of the following assumptions does the author suggest was being made by Malthus?

  1. The size of the population and the amount of food capable of being produced are not linked
  2. There is an absolute limit to the possible increase in available food
  3. The experience of previous population growth was irrelevant
  4. Methods of farming were likely to change
  5. Not all land is capable of yielding the same amount of food

I answered (2) and (3), but they were marked as incorrect with the following reasons:

(2) INCORRECT. It is said that the absolute limit on food production comes from the amount of available land, and that Malthus should have considered this. This suggests that it was not an assumption that he was making.

(3) INCORRECT. Although Malthus appears to have ignored some of the evidence arising from previous population growth, the fact that he based his theory largely on past experience of growth suggests that he cannot have regarded it as irrelevant.

Would someone please explain and enlarge on the given reasons for being incorrect?

Why are (2) and (3) are wrong? For (2) and (3), where does the passage state the bolded part?

Source: p 77, Mastering the National Admissions Test for Law, Mark Shepherd


Posted 2014-09-07T07:36:42.397

Reputation: 1

Sorry about the length, but please see

– NNOX Apps – 2014-09-07T07:47:43.870

1I updated the post in a way I think will make it most readable and get the least downvotes. 1st, state clearly what you need from readers in the first sentence. 2nd, you should make sure to quote what is actually being quoted (not your own words but the passage). You received a downvote, it might have been because it seemed like a homework question (wasn't clear until the end) but it could also be because it seemed like unnecessarily long rambling. By using the quote correctly you indicate it is not you who are rambling, but rather you chose to provide ample context. 3rd, formatting galore! :) – stoicfury – 2014-09-07T19:08:16.117

By the way, I re-bolded the part you unbolded again not to slight you but because a break is sorely needed in there visually and that's a good place. Also, bolding the question shouldn't unfairly bias the reading, it is not highlighting pertinent information or anything. It just makes it easier to understand and follow along. Anyways, while the question is still a bit long with the quote I think it's a good question, and worthy of a +1 from me. :) – stoicfury – 2014-09-07T19:11:13.663

@stoicfury Many thanks! Don't worry; I was never slighted by your gracious help and feedback! – NNOX Apps – 2014-09-15T13:52:35.123



Assumption 2 is incorrect because the passage never suggests that Malthus said anything about an absolute maximum amount of food. Malthus's argument is that population will increase much faster than food production. As for the bolded part, "Here again a fixed supply of land with consequent diminishing returns could have overcome this objection." There's several other places in the passage that also comment on the fixed supply of land.

Assumption 3 is incorrect because Malthus's conclusion "the population will, if unchecked, double itself every twenty- five years" is based on past results.

Correct answer is likely A.


Posted 2014-09-07T07:36:42.397

Reputation: 114

+1. Thanks. Would you please explain how "Here again a fixed supply of land with consequent diminishing returns could have overcome this objection." = the absolute limit on food production comes from the amount of available land, purely based on the passage? – NNOX Apps – 2014-09-15T13:56:40.077

Will you please to respond in your answer, and not as a comment? – NNOX Apps – 2014-09-15T13:57:33.180