I took a practice test for a law exam and am having difficulty with understanding the logic behind a question. Apologies for the length, but I included the whole question and details for completeness.
Until the middle of the eighteenth century, the population of Britain grew slowly. But, from then on, growth became more rapid, and in 1798 Thomas Malthus’s first essay on ‘The Principle of Population as it affects the future improvement of society’ made it a major subject of discussion.
Malthus began from two postulates:
- the passion between the sexes is necessary and will remain nearly in ‘its present state’
- food is necessary to the existence of man.
Given these postulates, his arguments forced him to conclude that:
- the population will, if unchecked, double itself every twenty- fi ve years;
- the means of subsistence can, at a maximum, increase by only the same amount every twenty-five years. In other words, while the population multiplies in a geometric progression, food supplies increase in an arithmetic progression.
Since man cannot live without food, what, Malthus asked, kept population within its means of subsistence? The answer he found in certain ‘checks’. First, there were ‘positive checks’ involving misery – famine, war, disease. Second, there were ‘preventive checks’ – which, with one exception, all involved ‘vice’, including contraception. The exception was ‘moral restraint’, by which was meant deliberately refraining from marrying at an early age. Since this was a remote possibility, the outlook for civilization was gloomy: in the long run mankind could only expect a subsistence level of existence. Moreover, social policies to alleviate poverty would be self- defeating.
Although at the beginning of the nineteenth century Malthus’s views were widely accepted, the final tragedy of starvation, the logical outcome of his two conclusions, has not occurred.
Where, therefore, did Malthus go wrong?
First, we must note that to some extent his argument was illogical, for he did not deal with the fact, well known at the time, that, in spite of the rapid increase in the population over the previous fifty years, people on average were no worse off. This showed that the means of subsistence must at least have increased in proportion. Had Malthus possessed a precisely formulated law of diminishing returns, he could have based his argument on a fixed total supply of land which would sooner or later make itself felt as the population increased.
Second, Malthus was preoccupied with people as consumers. He failed to see that, by and large, a consumer is also a producer, for ‘with every mouth God sends a pair of hands’. Here again a fixed supply of land with consequent diminishing returns could have overcome this objection.
Third, Malthus did not foresee change. On the one hand the geometric increase in Britain’s population did not come about, because of emigration and above all because of the reduction in the size of the family with rising living standards. On the other hand, improved agricultural techniques and the vast increase in imports meant that Britain’s food supplies were not limited to increasing in an arithmetic progression.
Thus Malthus’s arguments have validity only when there are fixed resources, such as land or energy reserves. It is, for instance, the limited supply of land which brings about a Malthusian situation in the Far East today.
Which of the following assumptions does the author suggest was being made by Malthus?
- The size of the population and the amount of food capable of being produced are not linked
- There is an absolute limit to the possible increase in available food
- The experience of previous population growth was irrelevant
- Methods of farming were likely to change
- Not all land is capable of yielding the same amount of food
I answered (2) and (3), but they were marked as incorrect with the following reasons:
(2) INCORRECT. It is said that the absolute limit on food production comes from the amount of available land, and that Malthus should have considered this. This suggests that it was not an assumption that he was making.
(3) INCORRECT. Although Malthus appears to have ignored some of the evidence arising from previous population growth, the fact that he based his theory largely on past experience of growth suggests that he cannot have regarded it as irrelevant.
Would someone please explain and enlarge on the given reasons for being incorrect?
Why are (2) and (3) are wrong? For (2) and (3), where does the passage state the bolded part?
Source: p 77, Mastering the National Admissions Test for Law, Mark Shepherd