Thomas Robert Malthus, HIV/AIDS and Population Control

A few weeks ago I found myself reading the Classical economist Thomas Robert Malthus’ Essay on the Principle of Population written in 1798 and his Summary View of the Principle of Population written in 1830. This got me thinking about the problem of HIV/AIDS and the importance of population control in order to ensure economic health and sustainability.
Whilst Malthus’ theories are highly controversial and to some extent discredited they do hold some important lessons for those of us who live in what is termed the developing world. His writings addressed such topics as population growth, methodology of GDP accounting, value theory, land rent and aggregate demand. Malthus set himself the lofty goal of “accounting for much of the poverty and misery observable among the lower classes of every nation” in his writings. In his “law of population” Malthus claimed that, “the population when left unchecked increases geometrically whilst subsistence increases at best only arithmetically. ” Malthus identified two types of checks to population growth: “preventive checks and positive checks.” According to Malthus, “preventive” checks are those that reduce the birth rate. Malthus termed it moral restraint. In his view people who could not afford children should either postpone marriage or never marry. Conduct before and during marriage should be strictly moral. The preventive check he disapproved of, Malthus called vice. This included things like prostitution and birth control, both of which reduced the birth rate. With seventy percent of the world’s inhabitants living in developing nations and nine out of every ten people added to the world population during the years 2000-2010 being found in these countries Malthus’ theories do carry a message for us in the developing world. It is a fact of life that in the developing world there are children being born every day out of wedlock with no realistic chance of ever becoming economically active, productive citizens and instead becoming a burden to society and the world. It is the poorest of the poor who often breed the most and often this is done with no thought to the future of the children being birthed, which simply burdens society and puts extra weight on those citizens who are the most economically productive and often the most responsible when it comes to giving birth to children. This is an unnecessary burden with massive economic consequences which could be avoided if Malthus’ preventive checks where applied to the developing world. Positive checks are those that increase the death rate, things such as: famine, misery, plague and war. Malthus elevated these to the position of natural phenomena or laws; unfortunate evils required to limit the population. In Malthus’ eyes these positive checks represented punishments for people who had not practised moral restraint. If positive checks could somehow be overcome, people would face starvation because a rapidly growing population would press upon a food supply that at best would grow slowly. According to Malthus, poverty and misery are the natural punishment for the failure by the “lower classes” to restrain their reproduction. As a direct result, Malthus believed that there should be no government relief for the poor. In his view to give the poor aid would cause more children to survive, thereby ultimately worsening the problem of hunger. Whilst all of this may sound Darwinian and uncaring and I don’t agree with a lot of what Malthus says, there are elements of his theory which are worth noting. In a world where a large percentage of HIV positive patients contract the virus through irresponsible sexual behaviour, the question needs to be asked whether society should be made to bear the cost of keeping alive and healthy those who didn’t value their lives enough to be sexually responsible in the first place. As inconvenient a truth as this is, it is important that we realise that the majority of those who are HIV positive have contracted the virus through irresponsible sexual behaviour and are thus not victims but culprits who don’t necessarily deserve our sympathy. Not to say that we should be uncaring and unfeeling but their irresponsible sexual behaviour costs society a disproportionate amount and has socio-economic ramifications which should never be taken lightly and by treating them as victims rather than culprits we indirectly encourage this behaviour and allow the disease to spread indefinitely. To add to that it is also true that the poor tend to reproduce unthinkingly without caring much about the cost to society and in fact often expect and demand that society bear the burden for their irresponsibility. By treating the poor merely as victims and not making them aware that their behaviour has consequences that go beyond them, we perpetuate a continuous cycle of poverty and dependency as we are not discouraging this irresponsible behaviour. We dehumanise the poor by not treating them as rational individuals who are able to consider and rectify their choices and decisions when faced with bearing the consequences of their actions instead of looking to government and society to bail them out and make decisions for them.
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Mugabe Ratshikuni

introverted, shy, nothing to write home about

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