“Parson,” wrote the Tory radical William Cobbett in an open letter to Thomas Malthus in 1819, “1 have, during my life, detested many men; but never any one so much as you.” Cobbett’s hatred of Malthus, the founder of modern population science, is comparable to the dislike that most conservatives feel toward him today, though they probably would not care for Cobbett, an unsparing critic of the ravenous industrial capitalism of the early 19th century, any more than for the author of the Essay on the Principle of Population, first published exactly 200 years ago in 1798.

It is not surprising that most conservatives have not exactly waxed exuberant about the anniversary. They regard Malthus as the father of “population planning” and of the idea that too many people can be a bad thing, and in addition, growtho-maniacs like the late Julian Simon hold the harelipped demographer and English clergyman responsible for the even more wicked idea that infinite and unrestricted economic growth is not necessarily a good thing. Thus, Malthus takes it on the lip from both wings of the “conservative movement,” from the religious right and the anti-abortion, anti-birth control faction as well as from the libertarians, who like to insist that there is no environmental or population problem that cannot be solved satisfactorily by building a few more strip malls.

As usual, both sides of the “conservative movement” are wrong, not least because they have completely lost contact with the conservative intellectual tradition and are not able to recognize it when it slaps them in the face. It is no small irony that a few years ago demographer Michael Teitelbaum pointed out that Karl Marx and his heirs hated Malthus at least as much as modern conservatives do and that “right-wing thinking in the United States was moving dramatically toward the old-line Marxist tradition.”

New right and libertarian think tanks, such as the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute, began to argue that rapid population growth was, at worst, a neutral factor in economic development—and indeed might be a positive force so long as the “correct” economic system were in place. These arguments were energetically promoted in “backgrounders” aimed at a receptive Reagan White House.

The convergence of contemporary conservatism and communism on the issue of Malthusian ideas is simply part of the convergence of right and left that has been fairly obvious for a couple of decades now, a convergence represented by such major minds as those of Jack Kemp and Newt Gingrich. You need not worry that you missed the gala sponsored by Heritage and Cato celebrating the 200th anniversary of Malthus’s essay. There was no such gala, and even if there had been, those who did observe the anniversary would not have been welcome.

The anniversary was in fact celebrated in a special issue of the Social Contract, a quarterly journal devoted mainly to immigration and the demographic, environmental, and cultural problems it causes, and also in a short book by John F. Rohe, A Bicentennial Malthusian Essay: Conservation, Population, and the Indifference to Limits, published by Rhodes & Easton in Traverse City, Michigan. Neither the Social Contract nor Mr. Rohe, a lawyer, mechanical engineer, and environmental activist, is conservative, at least not part of the “movement,” but through their sympathy for Malthus, they have independently rediscovered some of the fundamental concepts of the conservative tradition that the conservative movement has long since dispatched to the toxic waste dump.

The most famous principle articulated by Malthus was that while population increases geometrically, the food supply on which population depends increases only arithmetically. The implication is obvious enough: Sooner or later, there will be far more people than there is food to sustain them, and the result will be mass starvation. Malthus, as Mr. Rohe and other Malthusians today acknowledge, did not anticipate such goodies as the “Green Revolution,” by which it is possible to make unproductive land yield food and to crank out, through chemicals and artificial breeding, far more crops than could be produced in early 19th-century England. Nor did he anticipate that the cultivation of vast new territories in North America, Latin America, and Asia would increase the supply of food far beyond what could be produced in his day. These omissions offer immense comfort to the anti-Malthusians, who never cease to whoop about how Malthus did not know what he was talking about and how, if he had only lived to see modern Hong Kong, he could not possibly have voiced any objection to such a Utopia.

But the point is larger than Malthus’s specific predictions. Malthus’s essential point was that there are limits to what human beings can do and be, and that if we exceed those limits, we will have a problem. I will spare the reader the statistics on global food production, energy use, and population growth offered by neo-Malthusians, but whether those figures and the ominous extrapolations from them are correct or not, the larger point is surely true. Indeed, conservatives in particular ought to know that it is true because conservatism revolves around it.

“Conservatism,” wrote the conservative historian Sir Lewis Namier, “is primarily based on a proper recognition of human limitations, and cannot be argued in a spirit of self-glorifying logic.” Whether it can be argued or not, the recognition of limits has been a distinguishing characteristic of conservative thought from the time of Burke and de Maistre down to that of Russell Kirk and M.E. Bradford, and the denial of limits has been a characteristic of the left since it first crept from the womb in the Renaissance. The very recognition of “human nature” implies limits, since it means that human beings are one thing and not another, that there are some things human beings cannot do or be and some kinds of society that human beings cannot create or sustain. And while conservatives have always insisted that human nature exists and does not change, it is the left—mainly, in this century, in the work of Franz Boas, Ruth Benedict, and John Dewey—that insists that human nature does not exist, that man is whatever his “environment” makes him, and that if we just manage the environment, we can also manage and manipulate human beings and their behavior.

Indeed, as Paul Gottfried points out (in an article in the Social Contract), Malthus’s essay was written primarily to challenge the vapid historical optimism bubbled forth by the left of his day, mainly by William Godwin and the Marquis de Gondorcet, both of whom prophesied their own Utopias as the necessary future of mankind (neither would have been impressed by Hong Kong). To Godwin and Gondorcet, as to their radical colleagues and their modern-day “conservative” heirs, the future of humanity was to be one of unlimited peace, plenty, equality, justice, freedom, and happiness. Malthus stated in the preface to the first edition of his essay that his work on population and food supply originated in an argument with a friend over the validity of the Godwin-Gondorcet prophecies.

Mr. Rohe frames Malthus’s general insistence on human limits in the context of modern ecology and sociobiology, especially as formulated by Garrett Hardin. The study of ecology offers insights into the balance of nature and the interdependence of plant and animal species within one area. Any significant alteration of the balance may lead to the destruction of the entire “eco-system.” In Hardin’s words, “We can never do merely one thing,” a law that is perfectly consistent with what classical conservatives understood about human society. As the late Robert Nisbet noted, one of the fundamental beliefs of classical conservatives who (like Malthus) rejected the Enlightenment and French Revolution was the “principle of interdependence of social phenomena.”

Since society is organismic in nature, there is always a delicate interrelation of belief, habit, membership, and institution in the life of any society. Each individual and each social trait are parts of a larger system of coherence.

Enlightenment social planners failed to grasp this principle, with regard to nature or society, and the consequence of their reckless and rationalistic planning was the destruction of existing social orders as coherent systems. Ecology as a science of nature is essentially the transference of Nisbet’s “principle of social interdependence” to natural rather than social systems: You cannot do merely one thing in a meadow or a rain forest anymore than you can in an urban housing project, a primitive culture, or a highly interdependent industrialized society.

The general validity of the ecological and Malthusian perspective and its overall consistency with the sociological and anthropological perspective of classical conservatism does not mean that everything modern environmentalists want to do (or not do) should be done. A good deal of what some of them demand is destructive, not only to the Utopia of strip malls but to the livelihoods and social communities of those who have to put up with the restrictions they impose and the bureaucracies they create. If it is true that we can never do merely one thing, that means we ought to be a good deal more cautious about doing not only what the growth cult demands but also many of the things the environmentalist movement insists we do immediately. Nevertheless, the point the environmentalists make is essentially valid and one that conservatives, at least those who are serious about that term, ought to support.

As for abortion and birth control, Malthus himself, a clergyman and a fairly conventional moral thinker, advocated neither, and he would have been outraged by the suggestion that either be practiced. His own solution to the demographic catastrophes he predicted was “moral restraint,” which of course is exactly what the anti-Malthusian pro-life movement advocates today. It is hardly Malthus’s fault if, in the 200 years since he wrote, Western society has turned away from his Christian morality, including the prohibitions on infanticide, abortion, and birth control. But it has also sufficiently abandoned traditional moral beliefs to the point that it can no longer bring to a halt the major source of population growth in the United States today, namely, immigration. As Dr. Hardin has written for years, immigration into the United States is responsible for 50 percent to 60 percent of the nation’s population growth since 1970, and halting it, aside from its cultural and political benefits, would more or less rip the muscles out of leftist environmentalism. A good many of the problems environmentalists talk about and the state-imposed solutions they demand would simply vanish if immigration were halted: The burden on land use, technical infrastructure, water use, and other perishable resources would be significantly lower, and halting this Third World overflow might eventually encourage the countries from which the immigrants are coming to do something about controlling their own populations. With the availability of the United States, Canada, Western Europe, Australia, and New Zealand as dumping grounds for excess and unwanted populations, these nations have no incentive whatsoever to reduce fertility rates.

Mr. Robe’s presentation of Malthus as essentially a reactionary, a critic of the modernist obsession with growth and material progress and the social chaos that this obsession engenders, ought to be useful to real conservatives, and the Malthusian principles of the recognition of limits and moral restraint (not necessarily confined to sex) ought to build a bridge between conservatives who are still serious about their conservatism and non-conservatives who have independently rediscovered what less serious conservatives have thrown away. The “convergence” of right and left symbolized by Jack Kemp and Newt Gingrich need not be confined to them: There is no reason why a new cultural right, unified around the principles of limits and social as well as natural interdependence, cannot begin to flourish as easily as the new cultural left that denies limits and sees as its main mission the preservation of a political and economic system that revolves around mass gratification and the destruction of community and personal independence.

What is perhaps already happening is simply the redefinition of “left” and “right” away from the political polarities that have defined them since the New Deal era and toward a new polarity, indeed a new political spectrum, that opposes defense of social cohesion and national- cultural identity to the demand for growth and gratification at the expense of cohesion and identity. Thomas Malthus and those who understand his legacy would offer useful models for one side of this political and ideological antithesis; the other side, like Karl Marx and his heirs in the modern conservative movement, would keep Malthus’s name at the top of its enemies list and continue to embrace the utopianism of unlimited growth that Malthus and the real conservatives of his age rejected.