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Qwiz5 Quizbowl Essentials - Thomas Malthus

Thomas Malthus was an English economist noted for his profound pessimism. Writing in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Malthus was concerned about the implications of unchecked population growth. Time did not bear out most of Malthus’ grim predictions, but he was a major influence on successors like John Maynard Keynes. Keep reading if you want to decrease the surplus population of people who don’t know much about Thomas Malthus.

An image of "An Essay on the Principle of Population", the best known work of English economist Thomas Malthus.  Part of the Qwiz5 series by Qwiz Quizbowl Camp, written to help quiz bowl teams power more tossups!

By analyzing questions, you can see patterns emerge, patterns that will help you answer questions. Qwiz5 is all about those patterns. In each installment of Qwiz5, we take an answer line and look at its five most common clues. Here we explore five clues that will help you answer a tossup on Thomas Malthus.


An Essay on the Principle of Population is Malthus’ most famous work. Malthus believed that population always increased in a geometric progression in contrast with food production, which increased in an arithmetic progression. Malthus thought that population size was kept in check through a combination of natural checks (such as war, famine, and disease) and preventative checks (such as abstinence). Published in 1798, An Essay On The Principle of Population influenced many thinkers, including Charles Darwin.


Unfortunately for quizbowl players, David Ricardo is not the only economist to write a work called Principles of Political Economy. Malthus, Ricardo’s contemporary, wrote his own Principles of Political Economy to rebut Ricardo’s ideas. In this work Malthus challenges Say’s Law, the principle that “supply creates its own demand.” Malthus theorized that oversupply (glut) could lead to an economic depression. This view contrasts with Say and Ricardo, who felt that the economy would fix itself by increasing demand.


Malthus developed the differential theory of rent contemporaneously with several of his colleagues, including Ricardo. In An Inquiry Malthus claims that rent is a deduction from the surplus.


The Corn Laws were famous British protectionist laws designed to favor domestic grain producers by keeping tariffs high on grain imports. Malthus initially opposed the Corn Laws, but he later came to support them. Malthus justified his support for the Corn Laws by maintaining that they would help England attain a self-sufficient food supply. Ricardo argued the opposite, advocating for an end to the Corn Laws and support for free trade.


The Poor Laws were England’s system of relief for the poor. Malthus was critical of the Poor Laws, believing that they encouraged unsustainable population growth. Malthus argued for the centralization of the poor population of England in workhouses. Malthus stated that “the fare should be hard” in these workhouses, seeing them only as a place to provide the barest relief from suffering.


Quizbowl is about learning, not rote memorization, so we encourage you to use this as a springboard for further reading rather than as an endpoint. Here are a few things to check out:

  • The life of the poor, never easy in England, became even worse after the reform to the Poor Laws.

  • Read this article for a brief breakdown of Malthusian demographic theory.

  • Want to learn exactly how Malthus influenced Darwin? Read this article.

  • So how wrong (or right) was Malthus? Watch this quick video for some two-hundred years’ worth of perspective:


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