Malthus and Ricardo: A Tale of Conflict and Friendship in Economic Thought

Everyone likes a bit of drama or even a vivid conflict from time to time, especially when one gets to enjoy it from a safe distance. In that respect history has not failed to provide us with plenty of examples. In this article we will tell the story of one of the most prominent intellectual battles in the history of economics, the battle between two of its towering figures: Thomas Malthus and David Ricardo. Do not worry, we will not bore you with all of the technical details of their dispute. Instead we want to give you a bit of insight into the minds of two guys, seeking to understand our society for its betterment. Just two men, who played a significant role in building foundations of what we today broadly know as economics. This article explores the legacies of Malthus and Ricardo, the points of contention that fueled their intellectual clashes, and the surprising moments of collaboration that marked their enduring friendship.

Malthusian Legacy

Thomas Malthus, an English cleric and scholar, rose to prominence with his groundbreaking work "An Essay on the Principle of Population," inspired by an unsettled dispute with his father over William Godwin’s “Enquiry Concerning Political Justice”. In this work, Malthus made his most famous point that population growth tends to outpace the growth of essential resources such, leading to an inevitable struggle with famine, disease, and war. His gloomy predictions painted a picture of a world on the brink of overpopulation, a concept that would later be referred to as "Malthusianism."

Malthus argued that human population, if left uncontrolled, would grow exponentially, while food production would only increase linearly. The resulting scarcity of resources would then create a natural limit on population growth. This theory stirred controversy and laid the groundwork for future debates on economic policy, resource management, and social welfare.

Ricardian Legacy

David Ricardo, a few years younger than Malthus, was a British political economist whose work "Principles of Political Economy and Taxation" became another cornerstone of classical economics. Ricardo's contributions extended beyond population dynamics, touching on issues such as international trade, labour theory of value, and the concept of comparative advantage.

Ricardo's most famous idea, the law of comparative advantage, argued that absolute advantage in production is not required for countries to benefit from trade, a point that was vital in the time of British dominance over the global markets. Instead, specialising in production of goods in which they have a lower opportunity cost, can foster mutually beneficial international trade. This principle challenged prevailing mercantilist views and had a profound impact on the development of economic policy.

Conflict in Ideas

While Malthus and Ricardo were giants in the same intellectual landscape, their theories clashed on key points, sparking a vigorous debate that would shape economic thought for generations.

The most notable point of contention was their disagreement over the implications of population growth. Malthus saw population as a threat to prosperity and consequently advocated for preventive measures such as moral restraint to slow down population growth. Ricardo, on the other hand, was more optimistic about the benefits of population growth. He believed that an expanding population could stimulate economic growth, provided that the right conditions, such as technological progress, were in place.

This fundamental disagreement on the consequences of population growth set the stage for a series of intellectual sparring matches between Malthus and Ricardo. Malthus accused Ricardo of overlooking the potential dangers of unchecked population growth, while Ricardo criticised Malthus for underestimating the role of technological innovation in addressing resource scarcity.

Friendship Amidst Disagreement

Despite their profound differences, Malthus and Ricardo shared a mutual respect for each other's intellectual prowess. Their exchanges, while often heated, were marked by a level of comradery that transcended their theoretical disputes.

When Ricardo’s health was beginning to deteriorate, their disputes were still well alive. As Rober Dorfman writes in his essay “Thomas Robert Malthus and David Ricardo”: 

"They were still at it on August 31, 1823, when Ricardo was beginning to suffer severe headaches from an abscess on his brain. On that day, Ricardo wrote Malthus a long letter, which began, "I have only a few words more to say on the subject of value, and I have done." After about two pages of careful reasoning, he concluded, "And now, my dear Malthus, I have done. Like other disputants, after much discussion we each retain our own opinions. These discussions, however, never influence our friendship; I could not like you more than I do if you agreed in opinion with me. Pray give Mrs. Ricardo's and my kind regards to Mrs. Malthus. Yours truly ..."

"Two weeks later, Ricardo was dead. At his funeral, Malthus is reported to have said, "I never loved anybody out of my own family so much. Our interchange of opinions was so unreserved, and the object after which we were both enquiring was so entirely the truth and nothing else, that I cannot but think we sooner or later must have agreed."

Legacy and Influence

The intellectual legacy of Malthus and Ricardo endured long after their deaths, influencing generations of economists and policymakers. Malthusian ideas continued to shape discussions on population, resource scarcity, and environmental sustainability, while Ricardo's contributions to international trade and comparative advantage remained foundational principles in economic theory.

The Malthusian-Ricardian debates paved the way for the development of economic thought, pushing scholars to reconsider established ideas and refine their understanding of complex economic phenomena. The interplay between conflict and friendship in the relationship between Malthus and Ricardo exemplifies the dynamism inherent in intellectual discourse and highlights the importance of robust debate in advancing economic theory.

While their disagreements were pronounced, the enduring friendship between Malthus and Ricardo showcases the capacity for respectful engagement and collaboration in the pursuit of advancing economic thought. The legacy of Malthus and Ricardo is not just a story of conflict but a testament to the enduring power of ideas and the transformative impact of intellectual partnerships.

About this article

Written by:
  • Oliwer Wirkus
| Published on: Jan 31, 2024