Prudence, Vice and Misery
In his newly published Limits: Why Malthus Was Wrong and Why Environmentalists Should Care, Giorgos Kallis challenges what has become the conventional perversion of Robert Malthus’s economic argument. Far from being a “prophet of doom” predicting the inevitable overshoot by population growth of food supplies, Malthus was an advocate of industrial progress as the antidote to a providential discrepancy between the tendency of humans to reproduce and the capacity of the land to feed them. The theodicy of Malthus’s position was explicit and undisguised: “Evil exists in the world not to create despair but activity.”
At the core of the misinterpretation of Malthus is his famous comparison between the tendency for population to increase at a geometrical rate (1, 2, 4. 8. 16…) but for subsistence to increase at only an arithmetical rate (1, 2, 3, 4, 5…). Much of subsequent debate focused on the validity and/or logical consistency of this comparison rather than the conclusions it was intended to support.
What Malthus was trying to show, however, was not that population inevitably will outrun subsistence but that the presumed tendency of population to outrun subsistence constitutes an incentive to industry unless that incentive is blunted by public assistance. For his part, Malthus was remarkably sanguine about the controversy generated by such a rash assertion:
It has been said that I have written a quarto volume to prove, that population increases in a geometrical, and food in an arithmetical ratio; but this is not quite true. The first of these propositions I considered as proved the moment the American increase was related, and the second proposition as soon as it was enunciated. The chief object of my work was to enquire, what effects those laws, which I considered as established in the first six pages, had produced, and were likely to produce, on society; a subject not very readily exhausted.
Defenders of Malthus argue that he meant those propositions only as tendencies, which he subsequently qualified by talking about the actual checks that occur on population. However, the rest of his discussion of “a subject not very readily exhausted” is predicated on the truth of ever-present threat of scarcity presumably demonstrated by those propositions. The logical inconsistency of comparing a constrained tendency of increase in food with an unconstrained one for population can’t be readily dismissed.
Classical political economy readily incorporated the drift of Malthus’s scarcity argument into it’s theory of wages, setting aside quibbles about geometrical and arithmetical tendencies. This is the notorious wages-fund doctrine used to argue for the futility of collective action to raise wages. The defunct doctrine is what underlies the unshakable conviction of “Econ 101” devotees that raising the minimum wage will increase unemployment.
One of the circumstances that no doubt focused a good deal of anxiety on over-population was the emergence of “neo-Malthusianism” in the early 19th century. Neo-Malthusianism is a bit of a misnomer to the extent that it offered a solution to the population problem that Malthus himself expressly rejected as immoral and improper — namely contraception. In Illustrations and Proofs of the Principles of Population (1822), Francis Place directly addressed what “Mr. Malthus seems to shrink from discussing…” Actually, Malthus didn’t shrink from discussing contraception, he rejected it unequivocally:
I have never adverted to the check suggested by Condorcet without the most marked disapprobation. Indeed I should always particularly reprobate any artificial and unnatural modes of checking population, both on account of their immorality and their tendency to remove a necessary stimulus to industry.
Nancy Folbre gives a brilliant account of this mostly unheralded episode in Chapter 8, “Self-love, Triumphant” of Sex, Lust and Gender: A History of Economic Ideas. Folbre points out that a year after Place published his Illustrations, he followed up with illegal and “obscene” handbills titled, “To the Married of Both Sexes,” in which he described a method of birth control. Seventeen-year old John Stuart Mill was arrested for distributing one of those handbills.
By the late 1860s, “Malthusianism” had become the discrete euphemism used to refer to advocacy of those “odious doctrines” and “monstrous propositions” that sheltered “under the phrase ‘limiting the number of children born…'”
So, why was Malthus wrong and why should environmentalists care? To begin with, Kallis points out that Malthus equated happiness with exponential population growth. “‘The happiness of a country,’ Malthus writes, ‘depends upon the degree in which the yearly increase in food approaches to the yearly increase of an unrestricted population.'”
Secondly, Malthus’s formula proclaimed a principle of scarcity as a law of nature. In this view, scarcity is inevitable because human desires are unlimited. As Kallis says, this is the “conception of nature that lies at the heart of modern economics and, to an extent, environmentalism.” Malthus was thus not a prophet of doom, but of perpetual growth — growth of production to feed an ever growing population.
Many environmentalists, Kallis argues, have largely adopted the neo-Malthusian side of the coin. Mid-20th century neo-Malthusian Paul Ehrlich raised the specter of an apocalyptic “Population Bomb.” Garrett Hardin advocated lifeboat ethics and coercive restriction on population. Hardin occupied the margin where environmentalist neo-Malthusianism shaded over into political white nationalism.
Neo-Malthusianism concedes the scarcity principal that is central to Malthus and to modern growth economics. Kallis offers an analysis that views scarcity as an artifact of a particular historical culture rather than as a law of nature. As a counter-example to the modern culture of insatiable consumption and growth, Kallis posits the ancient Greeks as cultivating limits as a path to self-awareness and fulfillment. This is not to say that the remedy for climate change is for everyone to suddenly adopt ancient Greek traditions and rituals. It is only to show that Malthus’s logically flawed model of geometric and arithmetic progression doesn’t have to be the only game in town.
This post is a sequel to my earlier Goats and Dogs, Eco-Fascism and Liberal Taboos. I am thinking of re-working the two parts into a comprehensive whole but in the meanwhile will leave it to the reader to discover or disregard the linkages between them.
Did Malthus consider human greed (wealth accumulation) as a cause of scarcity? Consider the potato famine, for example.
He saw a division of society into property owners and labourers as essential to progress and industry but argued against excessive wealth inequality.
Malthus was using the modeling tools he had available based on his understanding of the possibilities of the material culture of his day. I recently read an article on the Green Revolution. All those population warnings from the 1960s and 1970s were obviated by the development of new agricultural varieties and improved practices. Despite a double and more of world population, food supplies managed to increase as well. Now, a new generation of botanists and biologists and technologists were going to have to double the world’s agricultural capacity again. The low hanging fruit, nitrogen fertilizers and hybrid varietals, has been gathered. It is not clear whether the program can continue with the same success.
Malthus, however, identified a real problem. Population naturally increases exponentially. Food production is more governed by linear effects. Unless there is sufficient action and innovation, the alternative is famine. That action might involve improving yields, changing dietary habits, or limiting population through birth control. Just continuing without change leads to disaster. So far, we have been sufficiently driven to action and innovation, but vested and traditional interests work against this. Success and survival are not given.
Oh gag. It is false that food grows linearly (“arithmetically” as Malthus says), and Malthus figured this out after the second edition of his Essay on the Principle of Population. All species grow exponentially. Food growth becomes lmited due to diminishing returns due to fixed land, which became Malthus’s more accurate argument.
Do you need a swat on your back?
Sandwichman – I’m not sure what you are saying here. Are you saying that large enough population growth will not eventually overshoot the supply of food if nothing intervenes? Because that seems logically watertight to me. Eventually either people will voluntarily reduce their birth rates or death rates will rise.
What eventually actually led western societies to have much lower net reproductive rates is another story, that I believe needs urgently to be more carefully examined. I believe the story that lower birth rates are an inevitable result of higher incomes is simplistic at best. I’ll just throw the names Saudi Arabia and Karala as discussion points. I believe it is a social state (particularly state pensions, compulsory public education – especially of girls and also urbanisation) that is the key. If you increase the cost of children, and reduce their benefit, then people will have fewer of them.
What I am saying is that the ratio between population growth and food supply is, was and always will be a red herring. As Barkley Rosser pointed out in a comment at EconoSpeak, Malthus abandoned his geometric/arithmetic claim after the 2nd edition of his book. Getting worked up about some hypothetical ultimate inevitability is a distraction when we face actual problems and conditions that require something more thoughtful than a one-size fits all panacea or a superficial add-on tweak of business as usual.
The problem Malthus was addressing — and it was a real problem — was the perverse incentives resulting from the Speenhamland poor laws. But the ratio of population to subsistence had nothing to do with that problem. It was one of those “thin edge of the wedge”/”slippery slope”/reductio ad absudum rhetorical moves that wins the argument by emitting an immense cloud of impenetrable ink.
I just noted your comment that I need a “swat on the back.” Was this supposed to be a joke or did you think I had said something inappropriate. I note that Sandwichman accepts my point, which happens to be correct.
You said you were going to gag I offered a swat on the back! “Do you need a swat on your back?” I figured you were ignoring my sense of humor which I would have expected! 🙂