Paul Foot

Ever since Malthus

(10 September 1994)

From Socialist Worker, 10 September 1994.
Reprinted in Paul Foot, Articles of Resistance, London 2000, pp. 277–278.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Once there lived a man called Malthus who was worried that so many people in the world didn’t have enough to eat. He came up with a very simple answer. There were too many people in the world.

The whole calculation could be reduced to the level of a New Testament parable. There were two loaves of bread and there were 5,000 people. If you were Jesus Christ you could divide up the loaves between the 5,000.

But if you weren’t Jesus Christ all you could do was ensure that somehow 4,994 people weren’t there any more – leaving six people for two loaves, which is about right.

Ever since Malthus had this brilliant idea he has been followed by all sorts of earnest people who want to solve the problems of world poverty.

The same argument keeps cropping up in different guises. For instance, you often hear, ‘There are too many people in this country for the jobs available.’

Formula works

Get rid of some of the people, or stop allowing so many in, and then we can share out the jobs. If the formula works for jobs, what’s more, it can work for hospital beds and houses and every social facility.

These are the ‘rational arguments’ with which racists spread their prejudices. And isn’t it funny how often ‘too many people’ means too many black people?

This week – 200 years of so after Malthus – there’s a big conference in Cairo. Various governments are gathering with United Nations experts to discuss ways of keeping the population down.

Some of the governments have had a good shot at population control already. For instance, the government of Indonesia, which is heavily represented at Cairo, tried out a fascinating new method population control in East Timor. It wiped out a third of the population by shooting and burning them to death.

But why, if starvation and poverty are the result of too many people are people starving even more horrifically in East Timor than they were before President Suharto engaged in his own special brand of the Final Solution?

In the industrial countries of the West the most prosperous years in all history were the years when large numbers of people flooded in from other countries.

Malthusian monstrosity

Mass immigration coincided with a better standard of living not just for the people previously living in the country but for the immigrants as well. Mass immigration coincided with full employment. There were more people and more jobs. The whole Malthusian monstrosity was turned on its head.

People are not just consumers, empty vessels waiting to be filled from finite quantities of food and drink. They produce food. The more they come together and pool their resources, the more they can produce.

Five thousand can make many more loaves per head than six.

The problem is not too many people. If people could decide what they produce, there would be more than enough food and accommodation for three times the world’s population.

The problem is that only a minority decide – a minority who want to organise production for their own benefit and for no one else’s.

That’s why they promote people like Malthus – to prove that hunger and poverty are not the fault of the rich for deciding not to produce what people need, but the fault of the poor and hungry for being too many.

Last updated on 30 June 2014