Condorcet and Malthusian essay relevant to Social Security and the problem of too much kindness

by Dale Coberly

Condorcet and Malthusian essay

relevant to Social Security

and the problem of too much kindness

[note, important sentences in the following are quoted from another author because it’s easier for me to write that way.  Credit will be given at the end of the article.]

Goetzman: “In 1794 as the Reign of Terror raged the Marquis de Condorcet penned one of the most optimistic tracts of the eighteenth century.  He wrote hurriedly and in hiding…evading an arrest warrant that would surely mean his death.  Condorcet was a brilliant mathematician—a major contributor to the development of calculus—…He was one of the most enlightened of Enlightenment figures: an abolitionist, a promoter of women’s rights, an advocate of democracy, and a deep believer in the power of rational thought as a means to solve the problems of mankind. Despite these liberal views, he was in trouble for advocating imprisonment rather than the execution of Louis XVII [sic].  After completing his book, the marquis was caught escaping from Paris…  His book was published posthumously in 1795. It celebrates the progress of science as a means to knowledge. Finance and probability play a major role in his vision. Condorcet believed the same financial architecture [as the French system of annuities]could be used to provide universal old-age pensions:

Condorcet: “Inequality, however, may be in great measure destroyed, by setting chance against chance, in securing to him who attains old age a support arising from his own savings, but augmented by those of other persons, who, making a similar contribution to the common stock, happen to die before they shall have occasion to recur to it…”

Goetzmann: “In 1798 Thomas Malthus, a minister in Surrey who had studied mathematics at Jesus College, Cambridge, took exception to the rosy future portrayed by Condorcet…

Malthus: “By the application of calculations to the probabilities of life and the interest of money, he proposes that a fund should be established which should assure to the old an assistance, produced in part, by their own former savings…such calculations may appear very promising on paper, but when applied to real-life they will be found to be absolutely nugatory…were the rising generation freed from  ‘the killing frost’ of misery population must rapidly increase..”

Goetzmann: “in Malthus view…in good times the population would expand and ultimately compete for limited resources…A social system that eliminated the normal depredations suffered by humanity would reduce the death rate…and eliminate the incentive to work, which would, in turn, slow the  production of food and economic growth…”
“Although the debate between Condorcet and Malthus was never consummated…it would frame one of the greatest challenges of the modern world==universal provision for an uncertain future.”

Coberly: The last bit is from the author I have been heavily quoting…William N Goetzmann, Money Changes Everything.  By saying this it seems to me he has implicitly endorsed Malthus’ position.

Malthus’s error is first…his appeal to “real life” is in fact an appeal to his own theories about human life without realizing these are not the same thing. Moreover, he relies heavily on the idea that Condorcet’s proposal must solve every problem forever.  It turns out that Malthus’ projections have not been realized (yet), while they have become the basis of the Right’s eternal argument against any kind of public “welfare” at all:  “the people must die in misery or there can be no progress or incentive to work.”

It happens that FDR and his Economic Security Commission improved on Condorcet’s initial design…and it must be stated here that there was never a debate between Condorcet and Malthus.  Condorcet had been dead for three years before Malthus wrote…ironically, killed by French progressives for advocating relative kindness to one of “the rich”.
FDR’s improvement over Condorcet’s original idea was to tax the worker enough so as not to depend on the early death of many of them, but simply to pay the retirement out of the normal growth of wages and population. Note that contrary to Maltus, a growing population provides a growing economy:  the means to pay retirees more than what they paid in. And It turns out that even a non-growing population will provide enough, and even a nongrowing level of production will provide enough. The workers just have to save more of their present income toward their retirement…which they can do as long as their current wage is enough for them to live on as well as set aside enough for their old age.

If we ever fall below that threshhold we may have a problem Social Security cannot solve, but it would be stupid not to do what we can do now and for the foreseeable future because of what “might happen” sometime in the future of someone’s imagination.