Ferguson on Malthus


Jason Collins


June 14, 2011

Last week I came across a 2007 article by Niall Ferguson on increasing food prices and the potential for future shortages.  Leaving aside Ferguson’s predictions of the return of Malthusian misery, he makes an important and often forgotten point about what Malthus described in his An Essay on the Principle of Population. Ferguson writes:

Malthus concluded from this inexorable divergence between population and food supply that there must be “a strong and constantly operating check on population”.

This would take two forms: “misery” (famines and epidemics) and “vice”, by which he meant not only alcohol abuse but also contraception and abortion (he was, after all, an ordained Anglican minister).

“The vices of mankind are active and able ministers of depopulation,” wrote Malthus in an especially doleful passage of the first edition of his Essay. “They are the precursors in the great army of destruction; and often finish the dreadful work themselves.

“But should they fail in this war of extermination, sickly seasons, epidemics, pestilence, and plague advance in terrific array, and sweep off their thousands and tens of thousands. Should success be still incomplete, gigantic inevitable famine stalks in the rear, and with one mighty blow levels the population with the food of the world.”


[V]ice and misery have been operating just as Malthus foresaw to prevent the human population from exploding geometrically.

On the one hand, contraception and abortion have been employed to reduce family sizes. On the other hand, wars, epidemics, disasters and famines have significantly increased mortality.

Together, vice and misery have ensured that the global population has grown at an arithmetic rather than a geometric rate. Indeed, they’ve managed to reduce the rate of population growth from 2.2 per cent per annum in the early Sixties to around 1.1 per cent today.

While I am not sure that Ferguson’s statement on increased mortality is correct, developed countries have experienced a preventative fertility check in the form of active birth control. What would the developed world look like without that check? I expect population advocates such as Julian Simon would argue that we’d be richer, Malthusians the opposite.

In A Farewell to Alms, Gregory Clark made a similar point where he noted that higher living standards in many Pacific islands (relative to pre-Industrial Revolution England) was due to practices such as infanticide. When considering the Malthusian model, we should note both preventative and positive fertility checks.

The question that always interests me about preventative checks is how long the “vice” restrictions on population can operate. As the parents of the next generation are those immune to the vices, will the vices provide only a temporary check?