Thomas Robert Malthus, a 19th century (religious) minister and economist from Great Britain, argued that humanity is eternally trapped by the limits of agricultural production in relation to the natural rate of population growth, and it is only through the positive and preventive checks that the contradiction is resolved. According to him, we are trapped in an eternal state of subsistence whereby the only means of escape is through population control. This, while it was published two centuries ago, was meant to be eternal–that is, applicable now and forever. Yet since the 19th century the world has seen the most significant stages of growth that leaves us several hundred times above subsistence. Was Malthus just wrong?
He offers two suggestions: (a) get rid of all sanitation and public welfare so people die earlier so that “everyone can marry by puberty”, or (b) teach people “moral restraint” (not marrying and having kids until financially able to support them). The former isn’t very much of a comfort (he invites the return of the plague…), but he asserted his strict guidelines for the latter–it must be achieved without “vice” (masturbation and pre-marital intercourse). He believed that it is impossible to convince everyone to practice “moral restraint” because, unlike Adam Smith, he believed that the “passion between the sexes” is a force stronger than any material desires. And hence, because people cannot limit population sizes, nature will always have to do that task.
This leaves us to wonder why we have leisure time, the Internet, universities and goods beyond food, clothing and water–that is, how did we escape the Malthusian trap? The direct corollary to Malthus’s argument that (a) people will not adhere to his strict “moral” principles in practicing “moral restraint” and that (b) the widespread practice of “moral restraint” is necessary is that if people can delay starting families until they can afford them, even without the strict adherence to Malthus’s “moral” principles, we will enter a state in which we have agency over our future.
And indeed this corollary has seriously played out over the past century. Although Malthus despised the use of contraceptives (and other means of birth control) and early-term abortions, nobody can argue that these means and tools did not permit us to enjoy an extended period of prosperity (relative to subsistence). If Malthus is correct in his belief regarding the “passion between the sexes,” this is the only way of maintaining and extending civilization’s prosperity. No legal or economic incentive for keeping birth levels low will be fully effective without the means of doing so.
If we look at developing countries, we notice that those with the tightest controls on birth are also those with the highest growth rates in per-capita GDP. (Think of China, then think of Pakistan or Nigeria) If we look at developed countries, we notice that those with the highest levels of prosperity are also experiencing the lowest birth rates–perhaps because of the increased opportunity costs of childbirth. Hence, the social conditions of prosperity is self-perpetuating–once humanity is prosperous, it has no desire of returning to conditions of bare subsistence. Therefore, birth control played a pivotal role in humanity’s escape from the Malthusian trap.
In light of this discussion, we see the importance of having good reproductive control. Poverty in many of the world’s poorest regions can be mostly eliminated within a generation or two with the proper education and use of contraceptives. Therefore, I believe the Catholic church should drop its anti-humanitarian and highly-regressive rhetoric in regards to birth control and embrace the tools of the prosperity of our last century.