Malthus: A Man of His Time

20 June 2016, 17:00 - 18:00

SG1/2, CRASSH, Alison Richard Building, 7 West Road, Cambridge CB3 9DT

Free to attend and open to all. No registration required.

A Public Lecture by Professor E. A. Wrigley (Cambridge).

According to the classical economists, sustained economic growth was impossible.  The nature of the growth process necessarily produced negative feedback such that each increase in output made further increase more difficult.  This was an accurate description of the nature of what are now often termed organic economies.  Malthus, by drawing attention to the difference between a geometric progression (population growth) and what must at best be an arithmetic progression (production increase), made a particularly telling contribution to this analysis.  He was also a Mandevillian, believing that the unremitting pursuit of self-interest was necessary, beneficial, and divinely sanctioned.

However, the ‘model’ which the classical economists described, and which captured the essence of an organic economy, became less and less valid as the transformation brought about by the industrial revolution in England changed the nature of economic life fundamentally.  As a ‘man of his time’, Malthus was torn between a conviction that his original stance was valid and a recognition that it was at odds with current events.  His difficulties are illustrated by considering his attitude to the old poor law and his attempts to come to terms with the exceptionally rapid population growth in England revealed by the early censuses.