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.

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