Population problems have been an eternal concern of man. A modern theory of population was proposed by Malthus in the late eighteenth century. His writings generated interests in population and related economic and social issues for the first time.
Earlier to the Malthusian view, views about population were more in the nature of conjectures. In the Roman Empire, population was considered a source of power. The economic and political advantages of a large population were emphasised in the context of nation-states and mercantile interests. Malthus’ theory had its roots in political, economic and social issues which existed during his time.
The same can be said of Marxist views on population. The other approaches to population, namely, mathematical, biological, and sociological were formulated in terms of some contemporary interests. The interest in population theories has aroused due to (1) the upsurge of population growth, particularly in the developing countries, and (2) the preoccupation with the problems of development.
The ancient Chinese writers observed that mortality increases when food supply is insufficient, that premature marriage makes for high infant mortality rates, that war checks population growth and that costly marriage ceremonies reduce the marriage rate. In China, the doctrines of Confucius regarding family, marriage and procreation were favourable for population increase.
The writers of early Greece, especially Plato and Aristotle, referred to the ‘optimum’ population for city-states. They looked at population mainly in terms of defence, security and government. Plato suggested a population of 5,000 citizens for a city-state as the ideal number. He suggested remedial measures for both under-population and overpopulation. The Romans thought of population in terms of the expansion of their empire. They thought of several devices to promote increase in population.
Kautilya, the author of Arthashastra, a classic of economics, thought of a large population as a source of political, economic and military power. He thought of a population of 100 to 500 for a village. Traditional Hindu philosophy considered marriage a sacrament. Marriage of a girl before attaining puberty was considered a pious act; hence child marriages have/had been quite common.
A girl was given in marriage in the form of kanyadan. Procreation was considered a duty, and the birth of a son was considered a necessity for giving pitradan to the dead souls. A girl was denied the right of giving pitradan, hence, a male child was considered a necessity. Large families were considered an asset for economic pursuits. Later on, joint families were immensely valued in Hindu society.
Islam inadvertently encouraged population increase by allowing four wives. Child marriage became a part of the Islamic ethos. Even today, Islam does not openly promote measures to check population increase. Only Christianity emphasised celibacy and thought of marriage and reproduction as evils. However, later on, Christianity considered marriage necessary for procreation. Thus, these views were more philosophical, moral and religious rather than the theories of population.
The period of the Renaissance witnessed the emergence of the nation-state, new scientific discoveries, exploration of new territories, rapid growth of trade, dissolution of medieval feudalism, a” development of early capitalism, which later on paved a way for Industrial Revolution. The Renaissance contributed to the evolution of economic ideas and thinking on population. These developments took place between the late fifteenth and the late eighteenth centuries.
Mercantilism was the dominant school of this period. Population increase was encouraged through large families, early marriage and immigration. It was not a scientific theory of population. This school had two tenets: (1) increase in national wealth by production and export of goods, and (2) rivalry among nations. A sizeable population was required for warfare. Inflation and human exploitation were its two natural consequences. Thus, mercantilism was a policy for obtaining economic and political gains. Because of the overemphasis on population increase, some people foresaw a scarcity of the means of subsistence, and therefore, suggested some checks on population growth.
Thomas Robert Malthus was the first to develop a consistent and comprehensive theory of population in relation to economic conditions. His first essay on population: “An Essay on the Principle of Population”, was published in 1799.
Malthus regarded the social institutions of his times as natural and inevitable. He asserted that the pressure of want, the cause of poverty, and the unequal distribution of property were not related to forms of government.
He formulated the principle that man could increase his subsistence only in arithmetical progression whereas his numbers tended to increase in geometrical progression. “Population always tended towards the limits set by subsistence, and was contained within those limits by the operation of positive and preventive checks.” In the revised version of this essay,
Malthus made the following propositions:
1. Population is necessarily limited by the means of subsistence.
2. Population invariably increases where the means of subsistence increase, unless prevented by some very powerful and obvious checks.
3. These and other checks are all resolvable into moral restraint ‘vice’, and ‘misery’.
Malthus drew two conclusions:
(1) With natural increase, population tends to double itself every 25 years, thus increasing in a geometrical progression; and
(2) Under the most favourable conditions, agricultural production increases each 25 years by an equal quantity, in an arithmetical progression.
In general, Malthus assumes diminishing returns from land. There are other checks, which keep population down to the level of subsistence. These checks are the preventive and the positive checks. The preventive checks are voluntary in nature, and include moral restraint, implying deferring of marriage, and ‘vice’. The positive checks include epidemics, wars, plague and famine, all manifestations of ‘misery’. These checks have operated in all countries with some variations. Only in a few cases population has increased beyond the means of subsistence.
In the neo-classical period two schools of thought dominated:
(1) The classical school of political economy, and
(2) The socialists and the Marxists.
Both the schools were concerned with the causes and consequences of population changes, particularly with a view to discover the laws related to production, wages, interest, rents and profits. The scholars of this period argued that population growth tended to depress wages and create poverty. J.S. Mill (1830) thought that population control, through flow of goods and services in a given country, would bring down the population pressure. Circumstances checked the growth of population. Technological progress also brought down the population pressure.
The natural or biological theory is that fertility decreases with the increase in density of population. This is known as the theory of optimum population. M.T. Sadler (1830) argued: “The fecundity of human beings under similar circumstances varied inversely as their numbers increase on a given space.” By fecundity he meant the physiological capacity to conceive and bear living children “A population cannot have high fertility without being highly fecund, but it can be highly fecund without having either a high fertility or a high rate of increase.
Thomas Doubleday (1830) observed that “man’s increase in numbers was inversely related to his food supply. The better the food supply, the slower the increase in his numbers”. Herbert Spencer (1961) thought that with increase in scientific and economic development interest in reproduction tended to decrease.
Karl Marx (1973) observed that when the capitalistic mode of production was replaced by a socialistic mode of production, the population pressure would decrease. The rise in the standard of living would bring down inequalities and result in a decline in both birth and death rates. Moral restraint would also be strong under the new conditions. Marx’s view is just opposite to that of Malthus. Marx traces the genesis of the problem of overpopulation to that of the capitalist society.
Alexander Morris Carr-Saunders (1922) felt that man always strived to arrive at an optimum population. He took all the factors including environment, skill and customs into account to attain this number. The optimum number is not fixed for all times. It depends upon the changes that occur in a given country or context. All the methods of putting a check on overpopulation strive at an optimum number that a country can afford.
The theory of demographic transition is based on the historical experience of different societies such as the primitive, the intermediate and the modern. Similar to historical evolution, stages of demographic evolution have also been found. These stages have been ascertained on the basis of different permutations and combinations of birth and death rates.
There are, for example:
(1) The high stationary stage;
(2) The early expanding stage;
(3) The late expanding stage;
(4) The low stationary stage; and
(5) The declining stage.
Certain modern forces of development and change are taken into account in understanding of these stages in different countries.