MALTHUS FOR OUR TIME by William Petersen


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There is more to Malthus than the dictum that population expands geometrically while food supply grows arithmetically, social demographer Petersen argues in this long, leisurely excursion. He takes pains to show change and development in Malthus' theories over the seven editions of the celebrated essay on population and in other writings. Far from embodying the gloom and doom that the adjective ""Malthusian"" has come to signify, the elder Malthus, says Petersen, veered toward optimism and a belief in progress that he had earlier deplored in the writings of utopians like Godwin. To the extent that Malthus was opposed to child labor in factories and favored universal schooling, free medical care for the poor, state assistance to emigrants, and ""even direct relief to casual laborers or families with more than six children,"" he could be characterized by Petersen as an ""honest and beneficent reformer."" Yet these positions must be seen in the cultural context of the Worthy English Gentleman and Reverend who wrote ""Hard as it may appear. . . dependent poverty ought to be held disgraceful""; and whose comments on the baleful conditions of Ireland were premised on the idea that the lower classes were content with too little. Malthus' beliefs that with education would come moral restraint to curb fertility and his opposition to ""unnatural"" checks such as contraception will hardly endear him to liberals today, nor will his dream that the betterment of society would come with the elevation of the poor into the ranks of the bourgeoisie. Certainly we can be grateful to Petersen for presenting a much fuller portrait of the man, not only in his careful analyses of Malthus' writings on the Poor Laws, migration, religion, fertility, free trade, and other basic issues, but also in relation to Adam Smith, Ricardo, Darwin, and other eminent thinkers, including Marx (for whom Petersen reserves his most venomous epithets). Rather than convincing us that Malthus is the liberal reformer for our times, however, Petersen emerges as a conservative of Malthus' time.

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1979
Publisher: Harvard Univ. Press