Category Archives: Thomas Malthus

A Foreword to Sraffa’s Production of Commodities by Means of Commodities

Piero Sraffa’s classic Production of Commodities by Means of Commodities (PCMC) was published in 1960. It runs into 87 pages of main text (inclusive of the content list), 6 pages of appendices, less than 3 pages of Preface and a 3-page index. As we pointed out in A Foreword to Keynes’s General Theory, by foreword, we mean the following: ‘The introduction to a literary work, usually stating its subject, purpose, scope, method, etc.’ (Oxford English Dictionary).

The book is subtitled ‘Prelude to a Critique of Political Economy’. This slim book is divided into 3 parts: (1) ‘single-product industries and circulating capital’; (2) ‘multi-product industries and fixed capital’; and an untitled third part containing a single chapter titled ‘Switch in Methods of Production’. In the Preface, Sraffa acknowledges Keynes, A. S. Besicovitch (‘for invaluable mathematical help’), Frank Ramsey and Alister Watson. Sraffa was friends with Gramsci and Wittgenstein. [Ramsey, a friend of Keynes, supervised the 40-year old Wittgenstein’s PhD thesis at the age of 26 (source).] Appendix D contains the ‘references to the literature’ wherein works by Quesnay, Smith, Ricardo, Torrens, Malthus and Marx are mentioned. As Sraffa writes in the appendix, ‘[t]he connection of this work with the theories of the old classical economists have been alluded to in the Preface. A few references to special points, the source of which may not be obvious, are added here’ (p. 93). The orthodox economists mentioned by Sraffa are Marshall and Wicksteed.

With respect to method, Sraffa adopts the standpoint of the old classical economists – the surplus approach to value and distribution. This is contrast to the orthodox marginalist scarcity approach to value and distribution. In the surplus approach, one distributive variable is exogenously determined. This is in fact a realistic assumption because the rate of interest is set by monetary authorities and the rate of profit can be conceptualised as a sum of the riskless rate of interest (on government securities) and a pure rate of return on capital.

The conception of the ‘system of production and consumption as a circular process’, Sraffa notes in Appendix D, is to be found in Quesnay which ‘stands in striking contrast to the view presented by modern theory [marginalist], of a one-way avenue that leads from “Factors of production” to “Consumption goods”’ (p. 93) [cf. Kurz & Salvadori 2005]. The subject matter of PCMC is the theory of value and distribution – how are relative prices and distributive variables determined? More specifically, in an economy where the production of commodities is undertaken by means of commodities, how are prices and distributive variables determined? Sraffa’s correct solution is that ‘the distribution of the surplus must be determined through the same mechanism and at the same time as are the prices of commodities’ (p. 6). What are the data or givens? (1) size and composition of output; (2) methods of production; and (3) one distributive variable (either the wage rate or profit rate). The first two givens are mentioned in the Preface when Sraffa writes that his ‘investigation is concerned exclusively with such properties of an economic system as do not depend on changes in the scale of production or in the proportions of “factors”’ (p. v). The rationale for the third given is as follows: ‘…the practice, followed from outset, of treating the wage rather than the rate of profits as the independent variable or “given” quantity’ has been reversed because the ‘rate of profits, as a ratio, has a significance which is independent of any prices, and can well be “given” before the prices are fixed … in particular by the level of the money rates of interest’ (p. 33).

While the scope of PCMC is limited to the subject matter, its implications on general economic theory are far reaching; for instance, his work has implications for the theory of value and distribution (capital theory forms an important part of this). Therefore, his work has positively contributed to the theorising of economic growth and environmental economics. Also, Sraffa’s work is to be a ‘basis for a critique of’ ‘the marginal theory of value and distribution’ (p. vi). Sraffa’s work is a coherent articulation of the theory of value and distribution the classical economists attempted to solve. At the same time, it also forms the basis for a critique of the marginalist theory of value and distribution by underscoring the logical fallacy in treating capital as a quantity independent of prices.

In a sense, the purpose of Sraffa’s work depends on the use that is made of it and there is a growing body of literature emanating from PCMC (a useful survey is Aspromourgos’s 2004 paper titled ‘Sraffian Research Programmes and Unorthodox Economics’). The classical approach to economics has been made more articulate and coherent. By marrying the classical or ‘surplus’ approach to value and distribution with the principle of effective demand, an alternative explanation for the determination of activity levels and economic growth has been developed. Work is also going on in the areas of environmental economics, public debt, monetary economics and history of economic thought, all of which draws upon and/or are inspired by Sraffa’s work.

The Indian readers would be interested to know that an Indian edition of PCMC was published by Vora & Co. Publishers, Bombay (available online).  However, PCMC is out of print since 1996 according to Cambridge University Press.

Those of us who are dissatisfied with mainstream neoclassical economics will find valuable insights and an economically superior but modest basis in Sraffa’s work to develop a coherent alternative to the mainstream approach to economic thinking. Particularly fruitful is this research programme when combined with the rich insights of the classical economists and Marx as well as the principle of effective demand of Kalecki and Keynes.

Malthus: The Scope of Political Economy

In these difficult times we live in, what economics needs is perhaps, depth and not breadth. Unemployment, poverty, inflation, food insecurity, financial fragility, debt crisis, etc can be better understood and tackled by diverting increased resources (time and financial) in understanding the production, distribution, exchange and consumption of wealth. This blog post very briefly examines Thomas Malthus’s (1766-1834) view of political economy – its method, scope, uses and limitations.  For this purpose, I have used John Pullen’s definitive variorum edition of Malthus’s Principles of Political Economy published as 2 volumes by Cambridge University Press in 1990.

According to the Cambridge Advanced Learners Dictionary, ‘scope’ is defined as the ‘range of subjects covered’. In the context of political economy, scope refers to the range of subjects it covers. That is, the scope of political economy informs us about the sphere of analysis, the boundaries or limits, the kind of situations it describes and its applicability in the real world or, its relevance. Keeping in mind that mathematics played only a small role in political economy during Malthus’s time, let us see what his view of political economy is: ‘the science of political economy bears a nearer resemblance to the science of morals and politics that to that of mathematics’ (p. 2). Undoubtedly, morals played and still play an important role for interventions in the economy based on what we consider to be a ‘good society or economy’. And politics, distributional conflicts over income, land, natural resources and employment are integral part of any economy. Thus, it is important that political economy (and economics) takes into account these distributional conflicts when theorising or modelling an economy. However, for purposes of theory, these conflicts can be taken as given from outside economics (exogenous) or can be determined within economics, in the manner of behavioural economics.

It would not have mattered if political economy was/is not a very important branch of knowledge. Reminiscent of Keynes’s words, Malthus writes: ‘The science of political economy is essentially practical and applicable to the common business of human life. There are few branches of human knowledge where false views may do more harm, or just views more good’ (p. 12). But, Malthus wrote it more than a century earlier. (See also Sismondi’s words of a similar nature). Since Malthus viewed political economy to have significant practical applications, the complete title of his book reads ‘Principles of Political Economy Considered with a View to their Practical Application’. The editor, Pullen, gives us a bit more information on this matter. ‘This was apparently a lifelong concern. As a student at Cambridge in 1786 Malthus wrote to his father: ‘I am by no means, however, inclined to get forward without wishing to see the use and application of what I read. On the contrary I am rather remarked in college for talking of what actually exists in nature, or may be put to real practical use’’ (p. 291, Vol II; all other page numbers excepting this refer to Vol I).

Malthus understands that ‘To trace distinctly the operations of that circle of causes and effects in political economy which are acting and re-acting on each other, so as to foresee their results, and lay down general rules accordingly, is, in many cases, a task of very great difficulty’ (p. 12). Economic processes are caused by a multiplicity of causes and often not by a single one. Owing to this and because of his view of economics as a practical science, he maintained that ‘[t]o know what can be done, and how to do it, is, beyond a doubt, the most valuable species of information. The next to it is, to know what cannot be done, and why we cannot do it’ (p. 17). In other words, we must be very aware of the ‘scope’ of our knowledge.

Furthermore, if our objective is to understand the problems of unemployment and poverty, we must perhaps, as mentioned in the introduction, study in-depth the process of generation and distribution of wealth. I conclude with a statement by Malthus: ‘If we wish to attain anything like precision in our inquiries, when we treat of wealth, we must narrow the field of inquiry, and draw some line, which will leave us only those objects, the increase or decrease of which is capable of being estimated with more accuracy’ (pp. 27-8).

Foucault and Economics

This post is more of a suggestion than an explanation. There has been hardly any scholarly work done with respect to applying Michel Foucault’s ideas and approaches to political economy or economics. On searching the internet, all I could find was a conference conducted in 2005 titled ‘Rethinking Foucault, Rethinking Political Economy’ at University of Leicester, UK and a PhD thesis submitted by Iara Vigo de Lima at the University of Stirling in 2006. This post is a result of my reading of certain sections of Dr. Lima’s thesis and the sadness associated with the knowledge that economists have not studied/read/understood Foucault.

I find it difficult to believe that nobody has tried to think/rethink the methodology and historiography of Economics by applying Foucauldian themes. To do justice to this area of research, it is necessary that I quote certain sentences from Dr. Lima’s thesis, as my knowledge of Foucault is limited.

“Foucault followed Nietzsche’s genealogical approach aiming not ‘simply to gain access to the unfamiliar past’, but mainly ‘to articulate and illuminate the familiar present’, and ‘the past, then, becomes a means to access the present’.” [p. 16]

“For Foucault, concepts, notions, theoretical frameworks, methods, etc., are bounded by time and culture.” [p. 21]

“Michel Foucault’s particular insight, especially his way of thinking about history – which he preferred to call ‘history of systems of thought’ – does offer elements that let us think about this question, and specifically in economics (given that he applied it to the history of economic thought). According to him, every age has its way of producing ‘the truth’, which can be uncovered as we think about history.” [p. 24]

“… one of his objectives in OT: to find out how political economy established itself as a discipline (discourse) at the end of the 18th century.” [p. 29]

Very often economics is taught (in India) as if the present day economics is what has evolved out of the previous economic theories. Therefore, the multiple paradigms that prevail in economics are seldom expressed clearly. It is not uncommon to learn the theories of Adam Smith, David Ricardo, Thomas Malthus, etc under Classical theories. Then, they are forgotten. They are mentioned as the initial thinkers. No more are they mentioned nor their relevance. For, neo-Smithians, neo-Rocardians, neo-Malthusians, etc are very much present. And, they do come out with better theories than the neoclassical economists.

This post suggests that one ought to know that there are ‘other’ truths (heterodox economic theories) apart from the truth that we are taught – neoclassical economics. And in this aspect, a reading of Foucault will prove to be immensely insightful.

On Malthusian Theory of Population

This post revisits ‘An Essay on the Principle of Population’ written by Thomas Malthus in 1798. In my last post I briefly touched upon his population theory. Unfortunately, mainstream economics textbooks mention Malthus only for his ‘bad’ population theory. His other significant contributions like Differential Theory of Rent, his theory of money, his questions about the validity of Say’s law, etc are conveniently suppressed.

First, I would like to discuss why his theory is ‘good’ and then I would like to show how Malthus is viewed, interpreted and treated by various economists and students of economics.

Economics as viewed earlier and as viewed now (by a few) was a discipline which tried to understand the society (now known an economy) and also to come up with solutions for the problems that persist. His Essay was the first serious economic study of the welfare of the lower classes” during his times. He was also a clergyman who wanted to make the society perfect.

His two postulates were that “food is necessary to man” and that “the passion between the sexes is necessary and will remain nearly in its present state”. [Malthus 1798] Now we know that the first is a true premise and the second one is believed to be a law of nature. So, there are no issues with both his postulates. He also refers to these postulates as ‘laws of nature’.

Ceteris paribus, population growth will outstrip food growth. He also gives additional insights as to how population growth will necessarily be checked. His thought experiment based on the ‘true’ premises is therefore valid. At this juncture, one needs to understand the underlying assumption of diminishing returns to agriculture. Once this is understood, there is no reason to call his theory ‘bad’.

How can such a theory be useful to the society? It brings to the fore the need for improvements in agriculture through technological advances, so that food production can be increased. (Assuming increased food production implies lesser hunger, but Amartya Sen proved otherwise. But it is necessary to have sufficient ‘food’ to feed society) Family planning is undertaken so that no child goes hungry apart from other reasons. Such checks are welcomed by all. Also, they indirectly draw from Malthus- the need for all people to consume food. However, checks like the Chinese one child policy create social problems on a massive scale.

It is amazing that even when his theory is viewed in isolation (from his other works), it still holds good! With progress in education (school children get introduced to a lot of theories and facts at an early age) theories like Malthus’ seem obvious and hence pointless. This also reflects the way theories are taught in schools and colleges. Very often, the context of the theory is left out. Corn Laws, the then predominant Ricardian theories, etc are very often not mentioned or discussed.

Now, I shall put forth two different views on Malthus, the economist.


In this famous work, Malthus posited his hypothesis that (unchecked) population growth always exceeds the growth of means of subsistence. Actual (checked) population growth is kept in line with food supply growth by “positive checks” (starvation, disease and the like, elevating the death rate) and “preventive checks” (i.e. postponement of marriage, etc. that keep down the birth rate), both of which are characterized by “misery and vice”. [Source] (Note the mention of (unchecked))


Malthus believed that population would increase at a geometric rate and the food supply at an arithmetic rate.

Malthusian population theory was eventually dismissed for its pessimism and failure to take into account technological advances in agriculture and food production. [Source]


How should theories be taught? By this post, I only intend to question the current teaching and understanding of Malthus’ theories. Also, I wish to stress the importance of understanding and studying the ‘context’ (historical, political, social, cultural,etc) of a theory.

Now, economists (positive economics) are busy using scientific methods so as to universalise theories rather than provide solutions to hunger, poverty, unemployment and other socio-economic problems.

To sum up, Malthus stressed on the need to keep population and food production in such a way that everyone would be fed. I believe that this still holds true across the globe as one of the main concerns of economics.

Further Reading

1) 1) 1) Darwin and Malthus

2) 2) 2) Is India falling into the Malthusian trap?, C. J. Punnathara, The Hindu Business Line, April 9, 2008.

3) 3) 3) Malthus, the false prophet, May 15th 2008, The Economist.

4) 4) 4) The International Society of Malthus (further links from the society)

5) On GM Food and GM Mosquitoes