Malthus, the Slave Trade, and the Civilizing Effect of the Preventive Checks

15 Pages Posted: 13 Jun 2014

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: June 11, 2014


Robert Malthus was, by his own admission, opposed to slavery and the slave trade. Nevertheless, English proponents of the slave trade, and southern slave owners in the southern United States, appealed to his population principle in their defense. The disconnect between these two statements is a classic study of how ideas get lost in their cultural appropriation. My interest in this paper emerges not from the disjunction between different interpretations of Malthus’ population principle, but from his off-the-cuff response to the discovery that defenders of the slave trade in England were using his argument to bolster their case. In that response, Malthus constructs an argument about the interplay between the population principle and the preventive checks that reinforces the interpretation of the role of “the degree of civilization” in the subsequent editions of his Essay that I offered in a recent paper.

The argument is twofold. First, the paper revisits the argument that the expansion of the realm of exchange among individuals in a society, supported by institutional development of individual property rights and the rule of law, would effectively prevent the inexorable effects of the population principle by expanded operation of prudential and moral decisions regarding the timing of marriage. In societies with a high degree of civilization, population growth was regulated solely by the prevailing power of prudence and moral restraint. Slavery not only violated the individual rights of the slave, but also created a set of social relations that stymied the effective operation of prudential and moral restraint. Secondly, in the examination of Malthus’ response to the use of his population principle by advocates of slavery, we see Malthus argue that the continuation of barbarous (i.e., uncivilized and unrestrained) practices among societies that claimed to be “high” civilizations would only continue the participation of members of other societies in those same barbarous practices. Thus, slavery was also a form of institutional failure, which prevented the advancement of any society that participated in it toward a higher degree of civilization.

Keywords: Malthus, Slave Trade, Preventive checks, population theory, principle of population

JEL Classification: B12, B31, J10

Suggested Citation

Emmett, Ross B., Malthus, the Slave Trade, and the Civilizing Effect of the Preventive Checks (June 11, 2014). Available at SSRN: or

Ross B. Emmett (Contact Author)

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

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United States

PERC - Property and Environment Research Center

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Bozeman, MT 59718
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