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The Malthus Fraud
Robert Dees, author

Adult; History & Military

The defeat of the British government by American revolutionaries and the role of the laboring classes in overthrowing the French monarchy in the late 1700s inspired confidence among working people and fear among the elites, posing the need for an ideological counterattack. The Essay on Population was Malthus’s contribution to this battle of ideas. He argued that working people, by “overpopulating,” have only themselves to blame for their poverty, that the form of government and economy play no role, and this condition cannot be changed by government action or popular revolution. The fact that there is not a single historical ex¬ample that supports his doctrine has had no effect on its continuing popularity among today’s propagandists for the status quo. This is be¬cause it never was a scientific theory, but a religious-political dogma, more akin to antisemitism and racism.
This incisive extended essay, an accessible and engaging excerpt from Dees’s The Power of Peasants: Economics and the Politics of Farming in Medieval Germany, finds Dees taking apart an epochal treatise: Reverend Thomas Malthus’s An Essay on The Principle of Population, from 1798. Malthus advanced the enduring belief that it’s population growth among the lower classes that keeps the poor impoverished and ushers in many of the ills afflicting society—and that it’s a law of nature that the impoverished must suffer. Labeling Malthus a “theologian-propagandist-apologist-plagiarist for the ruling elite,” Dees makes the case that Malthus’s “fraud,” and the Malthusian ideology it fostered, has little connection to historical or economic reality and instead exemplifies an ongoing “attempt to preserve the status quo by concealing the root cause of problems in society and diverting blame for them away from the ruling class and onto scapegoats.”

With power and clarity, Dees dismantles Malthus’s claims, noting that the original essay reads more like a religious tract than an argument rooted in logic or science. He demonstrates how Malthus, with little evidence, blames the poor for overpopulation and, by extension, for the conditions in which they live—conditions that Malthus insisted should actually be worse, the better to disincentivize propagation. Dees, by contrast, draws on a wealth of history and data, plus outraged invective, lamenting the dichotomy between Malthus’s dearth of proof and the outsize influence of his claims over centuries.

The Malthus Fraud is well-documented, sharply argued, and never dry despite its scholarly heft. Dees offers a cogent, compact critique not just of Malthus’s “religious dogma [with] a pseudoscientific veneer” but of Malthusian ideology that still resonates today. This spirited critique will please readers outraged today at continuing efforts to shift blame for poverty onto the poor themselves—or, as Dees writes, “when that did not work, God’s will, the Jews, the witches, the weather, or anyone but the real culprits.”

Takeaway: Brisk, blistering critique of Malthus and Malthusian ideology.

Comparable Titles: Jeremy Popkin’s A New World Begins, Deborah Valenze’s The Invention of Scarcity.

Production grades
Cover: A-
Design and typography: A
Illustrations: N/A
Editing: A
Marketing copy: A-

Kirkus Review



A slim but persuasive consideration of the popularity and wrongheadedness of Malthusian population theory.

Dees rebuts the famous population theory of Thomas Malthus in this nonfiction book.

Since his influential 1798 work Essay on the Principle of Population, Thomas Malthus has been synonymous with the concept of overpopulation. Malthus’ theory—that population grows exponentially while resources grow linearly, leading to inevitable shortages of those resources—has remained an influential concept in the fields of history and economics, used to contextualize everything from the collapse of the Roman Empire to the long-term viability of welfare programs like Social Security. In this short work, the author argues that Malthus’ theories are constructed on faulty logic: not only are they insufficient for explaining historical trends, Dees writes, but they are potentially dangerous if used to predict how trends might change in the future. The author sets out to answer the question, “[W]hy has such a patently absurd, easily refutable, plagiarized thesis become the standard, all but unique analytical tool in demographic historiography, with wide application in social policy today as well?” By looking at the original context in which Malthus was working and thinking, as well as evidence from across multiple eras, Dees reveals the underlying prejudices and misconceptions that Malthusian theory propagates. The author writes with directness and no shortage of attitude; the reader gets a healthy sense of Dees’ distaste for his subject and can’t help but partake in it. “Although Malthus may have been a master theologian-propagandist-apologist-plagiarist for the ruling elite,” deadpans the author, “he understood little about the workings of the system he was defending. His dogma claims that surplus population…is caused by the poor having too many babies. This is false.” This is an academic work rather than one for the general reader, but even those who don’t consider themselves Malthusian scholars will likely find much of Dees’ evidence to be revelatory, especially when it comes to the notion of overpopulation. Those worried about the coming demographic apocalypse can rest easier.

A slim but persuasive consideration of the popularity and wrongheadedness of Malthusian population theory.