Malthus with Institutions: A Comparative Analysis of Prudential Restraint

23 Pages Posted: 28 Dec 2013 Last revised: 27 Dec 2016

See all articles by Ross B. Emmett

Ross B. Emmett

Arizona State University (ASU) - Center for the Study of Economic Liberty; PERC - Property and Environment Research Center

Date Written: December 26, 2013


T. Robert Malthus is usually remembered for the “gloomy presentiments” of the population principle articulated in the first edition of An Essay on the Principle of Population. Less attention is given to the subsequent editions of the Essay, in which Malthus refined the principle, and evaluated it against evidence from around the world. The principle’s refinement allowed Malthus to sharpen the distinction between preventive checks that depended upon individual prudential foresight and those that requiring moral restraint. Prudential foresight allowed individuals to evaluate fertility decisions because of the constraints the individual faced. Few of us are graced with moral restraint, but societies provide institutional constraints that create a cost structure which our prudential reason uses to make what were, in Malthus’ time, decisions regarding the timing of marriage.

The refined population principle provided the basis for an empirical claim that could be tested. Where a civilization provided institutional incentives to delay marriage, prudential reasoning would become the primary means of checking population growth. Where the incentives to delay marriage were weak or did not exist, the civilization’ population would be checked primarily by the positive checks of disease, starvation, war, and disaster. Subsequent editions of the Essay provide the empirical check of this claim. In these editions, Malthus provided a comparative analysis of the variety of institutional frameworks within which human fertility decisions are made, and examines their effectiveness in delaying marriage, and hence, encouraging the operation of the prudential v. positive checks.

His comparative analysis provided a scale along which civilizations could be placed. Societies with few institutions featured early marriage, and, his empirical investigations showed, the operational primacy of the positive checks. Some societies, like Malthus’ own Great Britain, had developed some institutions which provided incentives to delay marriage, but had other institutional features which encouraged early marriage. Hence, while these societies were advancing because of the operation of the prudential checks, their populations were sometimes subject to the operation of the positive checks. The question remained whether any society could in the future achieve sufficiently advanced institutional features to control population almost exclusively via the prudential checks.

Keywords: Malthus, institutionalism, population principle, classical political economy

JEL Classification: B12, B31, N30

Suggested Citation

Emmett, Ross B., Malthus with Institutions: A Comparative Analysis of Prudential Restraint (December 26, 2013). Available at SSRN: or

Ross B. Emmett (Contact Author)

Arizona State University (ASU) - Center for the Study of Economic Liberty ( email )

CPCOMM 4th Floor
United States

PERC - Property and Environment Research Center

2048 Analysis Drive
Suite A
Bozeman, MT 59718
United States

Do you have a job opening that you would like to promote on SSRN?

Paper statistics

Abstract Views
PlumX Metrics