Is mankind no more than a part of nature, subject to her laws like every other species? Or has the human race transcended natural limits and set itself apart as master of creation?

Since the dawn of the 19th century, the debate in the West on these questions bas been heavily influenced by the proposition put forward by the Rev. Thomas Robert Malthus: that it is the “constant tendency in all animated life to increase beyond the nourishment prepared for it”; that mankind, too, is bound to the iron law of population.

Today, the controversy sparked by this proposition re­mains bitter, and surprisingly influential. Indeed, in an unexpected evolution of ideas, it now appears that it is through common opposition to this thesis that the “populist” and “supply-side” strands of modern American conservatism might find the unity that has otherwise eluded them.

The components of the historic debate ought first to be sorted out. Over the decades, the Malthusian thesis was several times rephrased. Before his death, Malthus shed some of the pessimism characterizing his first Essay on Population and placed hope in late marriage and other forms of “moral restraint.” The “nee-Malthusians” emerging in the latter half of the I9th century argued that the population trap could be escaped through artificial means: the universal use of contraceptives. The environmentalists of our own era have stressed the limits-to-growth and the fragile attributes of the human ecology.

Anti-Malthusians, in contrast, have viewed the human race as unique in its ability to think, plan, transform, even co-create with God. The simple Malthusian calculations (food supplies grow arithmetically; populations geometrical­ ly) may apply to rabbits on an island or worms in a bucket, these writers say. Yet they do not apply to the human mind, which can invent new technologies defying any natural limits affecting the lower species.

In the past, it has also been true that the Malthusian controversy has usually cut across ideological lines, dividing rather than unifying political movements. On the left, orthodox Marxists adhered to the arguments of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, who blasted Malthus for ignoring science, “the progress of which is just as limitless and at least as rapid as that of population.” Socialist revisionists, however, followed the lead of Karl Kautsky, who insisted that the proletariat need not be the victim of overpopulation. Its use of artificial means of birth control, he said, would reduce the workers’ immediate suffering and would also serve as a class weapon by reducing the “surplus labor” pool.

Division over the Malthusian proposition was no less bitter on the right. Orthodox Christians viewed men as made in the image of God, given dominion over the natural world. Moreover, the command “be fruitful and multiply” was seen-in Martin Luther’s words-as “a divine ordinance which it is not our prerogative to hinder or ignore.” Other conservatives feared that the logical end point of the Malthusian argument would be the denial of children and the decomposition of the family. Still others, the friends of capitalism, understood population growth to be an essential companion to economic expansion, creating new consumers, new producers, new markets.

Opposed to this anti-Malthusian right, though, was another array of conservative thinkers. They rioted that the Parson Malthus penned his essay on population as an attack on those partisans of the French Revolution who believed in human perfectibility. Malthusian conservatives added that Malthus himself abhorred the use of artificial birth control and abortion. In recent years, Russell Kirk has praised the good Reverend for recognizing “the social and material evils” of industrializing civilization. Global overpopulation in the late 20th century threatens to drain away American energies into the support of teeming millions in “underdeveloped” lands and so “poison ourselves by wastes and pollution.”

There is more than a little truth in this perception, yet since 1900, these debates have proved increasingly to be mere academic exercises, setting the stage for a new formulation of the Malthusian controversy. The raw reality lo be faced in our century is the overwhelming triumph of “neo-Malthusianism” as practice, rather than as idea. This victory came, in part, through alliance with the women’s movement, whose agenda emphasized the achievement of voluntary parenthood. As the early German feminist leader Marie Stitt phrased the matter, practical Malthusianism was “the real innermost core of the woman- question,” the means whereby woman would “again come to be the mistress of her own body and of her own fate.”

Indeed, this ascendancy of practical neo-Malthusianism was evident many decades ago. The· Marxist anti­Malthusians, for example, were in full retreat even before World War I. Orthodox socialists like Rosa Luxemburg and Clara Zetkin, preaching at mass meetings against the artificial limitation of births, found themselves regularly hissed off the stage. Many Christian anti-Malthusians, moreover, began to evidence divergence between theory and practice. During England’s famed 1874 Knowlton trial, involving the prosecution of several Malthusian leafleteers, it was noted that the clergy had families that were as large as the average of the whole community.  By 1917. though, neo-Malthusian propagandist C. V. Drysdale could point to dramatically smaller families among the clerics, showing that artificial contraception had been widely accepted by this class. The conservative Malthusians had also been routed, in practice, as Drysdale cited figures showing “that limitation of families is practically universal among educated married persons in England at the present day, and that this is due to ‘artificial restrictions’ rather than to ‘moral restraint.”‘ Even the leftish neo-Malthusians, in achieving their goal, found their ideological foci on “limits” and “birth control as a means of reducing poverty” giving way to an emphasis on personal pleasure, choice, and “rights.” The private, individual benefits of contraceptive practice simply overwhelmed the ideological arguments of all sides.

Yet a critical question remained unanswered. Would people continue to bear sufficient children in the contraceptive society, where most offspring would be conceived by decision and where those social controls which channeled women toward childbearing were gone? Both the neo­ Malthusians and feminists believed that the answer was “yes,” that populations shaped by choice would move naturally toward a stable level.

Yet others of varied political persuasions began to sense that the answer would be negative. In France by 1907, deaths actually outnumbered births and Catholic theorists began to push for a countervailing family policy. German thinkers of the same era began to fret that a new view of life was gaining ground, one which cast children as an intolerable burden. Social Democrats, led by Alva and Gunnar Myrdal, warned the Scandinavian peoples that their nations’ declining birthrates threatened them with depopulation and economic and social stagnation.

This “pro-natalist” reaction to the triumph of practical neo-Malthusianism subsided during the 1940’s and 50’s, though, as the unexpectedly sustained post-World War II “baby boom” seemed to confirm the optimistic projection.

Indeed, dominant attention soon refocused on the dramatic population growth rates found in the “developing” nations. With this turn, intellectual Malthusianism emerged reinvigorated. During the, 1960’s, panic over the “population bomb” extended to the Western nations, where even moderate growth rates were recast as a threat to all planetary life. Modern neo-Malthusian propagandists such as Paul Ehrlich had rediscovered the natural “limits” to human potential. In this new wave of panic, abortion-on-demand, the “child-free life-style,” and widespread voluntary sterilization won the imprimatur of progressive opinion.

Predictably, Western birthrates began tumbling again. Today, the West German rate is two-thirds of what is needed to sustain even a zero-population-growth level. In Sweden, the birthrate is only 59 of that “replacement” figure. The United States, Great Britain, and France have also fallen below the no-growth level. The peoples of the West appear to be losing the will to renew themselves.

An irony lies in the fact that ideological neo­Malthusianism has been recently and thoroughly discredited as science. The “limits” of the Earth are proving to be far more elastic than the doomsayers have charged. The frantic predictions of the late 1960’s seem laughable today, as both India and China are poised to emerge as food-exporting nations. The famines in Africa have clear political-rather than demographic-causes. Moreover, serious economists studying the relationship between population and economy, including Julian Simon and Nobel Laureate Simon Kuznets, have shown that moderate population growth actually seems to make a valuable contribution to social progress and economic growth. Yet the Malthusian specter remains, and the nations of the West exhibit a death wish. However, a counterreaction appears to be emerging in the United States. Practical Malthusianism-the contraceptive society and parenthood by choice-is no longer at issue, with the large exception of the abortion question. Yet ideological neo-Malthusianism-the notions of “no growth,” “limits,” and “children as a danger”- does face a mounting challenge. In fact, “supply-side” conservatives interested in sustaining economic expansion and social conservatives interested in restoring a cultural and political climate friendly to families and children are finding the nee-Malthusian. “no-growth” specter to be a common enemy; indeed, a useful one. The most dramatic expression of this new vision came in the August 1984 position paper drawn up by the White House for the U.N. International Conference on Population, held in Mexico City. Breaking with three decades of official policy, this document blasted the “no-growth” objectives of international population control programs. In fact, the document argued, high population density actually seemed to make new jobs and economic growth more feasible, provided that governments gave proper incentives to those who worked, saved, and invested.

Pro-family advocates, pro-lifers, deregulators, and supply-siders all found themselves cheering the same compelling, intellectually vigorous document. The final irony of the great Malthusian debate may be that it is contemporary anti-Malthusianism which welds together these disparate groups into a lasting American conservative coalition.


-Allan C. Carlson