Malthus and the feast


Jason Collins


November 11, 2011

I have been trying to find an electronic version of Thomas Malthus’s second edition of his An Essay on the Principle of Population. The second edition is significantly expanded and revised from the first, while later editions through to the sixth in 1826 are essentially minor revisions of the second (the sixth part one and part two are here). While I have, to now, been unable to find the text of the second edition, the Wikipedia page for the book notes an interesting paragraph that was included in the second edition, but was omitted from later editions:

A man who is born into a world already possessed, if he cannot get subsistence from his parents on whom he has a just demand, and if the society do not want his labour, has no claim of right to the smallest portion of food, and, in fact, has no business to be where he is. At nature’s mighty feast there is no vacant cover for him. She tells him to be gone, and will quickly execute her own orders, if he does not work upon the compassion of some of her guests. If these guests get up and make room for him, other intruders immediately appear demanding the same favour. The report of a provision for all that come, fills the hall with numerous claimants. The order and harmony of the feast is disturbed, the plenty that before reigned is changed into scarcity; and the happiness of the guests is destroyed by the spectacle of misery and dependence in every part of the hall, and by the clamorous importunity of those, who are justly enraged at not finding the provision which they had been taught to expect. The guests learn too late their error, in counter-acting those strict orders to all intruders, issued by the great mistress of the feast, who, wishing that all guests should have plenty, and knowing she could not provide for unlimited numbers, humanely refused to admit fresh comers when her table was already full.

Garrett Hardin, who I have posted about previously, wrote an essay which blames the general rejection of Malthus’s writings on this single paragraph:

The shocking Feast was spread before the public in 1803, in the second edition of the Essay. Malthus could hardly have chosen a worse time a sort of “compassion revolution” was then well under way. During the 19th century the English-speaking world made great progress in the humane treatment of animals, in getting rid of slavery, in curtailing child labor, and in (reluctantly) giving a modicum of freedom to women. Bonar has said that ‘for thirty years it rained refutations of Malthus.’ Before Malthus died in 1834, four more editions of the Essay had been published, the last in 1826; but in none of them did the Feast appear for a second time.

The remainder of Hardin’s essay is typical of many of his later writings on population, but one other passage in particular caught my eye:

Conscience, like other individual characteristics, varies. One woman may be satisfied with one child, while another craves four. Intended or not, with no community control of reproduction, a competition in breeding will develop. In all other species of animals there is a genetic component to fertility; but anyone who suggests that genes also influence fertility in the human animal kindles the ire of genophobes - individuals who are intellectually repelled by the idea of genetic differences in humans. Fortunately, in the dispute over population control, it is not necessary to raise the genetic issue. It is enough to assume that there may be a sort of cultural heredity - that the advice and examples set by parents have some influence on the behavior of their children. (Understandably, of course, parents usually crave more than merely ‘some’.) With either genetic heredity or cultural heredity, a variant of Gresham’s Law is set in play since high fertility tends to diminish the monetary wealth of a family, then (focusing only on economics) we must say that, over time, with uninhibited fertility, low living standards drive out high.

And if anyone knows where to find an electronic version of the second edition of An Essay on the Principle of Population, please let me know.