The Skeptical Liberal: It Wasn’t Malthus Who Was Wrong!

The Skeptical Liberal

How can we live together in peace, prosperity, and harmony, while retaining our liberties as autonomous individuals who can, and must, create our own values? -- J.M. Buchanan


It Wasn’t Malthus Who Was Wrong!

An article appeared today in the NCPA Daily Policy Digest entitled “Malthus was Wrong.” Based on an essay about globalization and the environment by FREE’s John Downen, the article challenges the conventional “Malthusian” wisdom by arguing that rising incomes across the world are restraining population growth, natural resources are not in fixed and limited supply because we are finding better ways to use our resources, and the world is not a zero-sum game in which our gain is the poor’s loss. Downen’s original essay is a good statement of these facts, and I concur with his conclusions. However, I don’t agree with the statement contained in the title of the NCPA Digest article!

Most readers will be surprised to learn that Malthus would agree more with Downen than he would with his so-called “supporters.” Downen’s essay, like many by free market environmentalists, starts with a familiar refrain about Malthus. Malthus, we are told, thought that the hare of population growth would outrace the tortoise of resource growth; when the race is over, starvation, disease and death awaited us. Downen goes on, of course to show that Malthus was wrong. The problem is, it isn’t Malthus that is wrong; it is his “supporters,” the neo-Malthusians. In an ironic twist of fate, those who bear his name today would in fact have been his opponents during his own lifetime. In terms of today’s debate, Malthus would be more likely to side with Downen than with the neo-Malthusians.

The defense of my claim is going to appear in a forthcoming PERC Policy Series paper, but I can give a short synopsis of the argument here. I will summarize the argument in four parts, each of which could be elaborated at more length.

1. We need to think of Malthus’ famous population principle as the prelude to a theory of the political economy rather than as its conclusion. Malthus uses the population principle to defend a simple idea: any theory about human activity must take human beings as they are, rather than starting from some perspective of how we would like them to become. Modern economics is built upon this simple idea, and Downen’s own argument about the benefits of expanded markets and market-enhancing institutions depends upon it. Malthus started his analysis with two biological “givens” about human beings: we need food, and the “passion between the sexes” will remain unchanged, even if we abstain from it, or control its consequences. But he does not stop there: he also argues that human beings are “peculiar” among animals in that our use of foresight to anticipate the outcomes of our plans allows us to restrain even our biology. Prudential reasoning is as natural to humans as sex: a true political economy will take both into account.

2. The point of Malthus’ story about the tortoise and hare of food production and population is not that we will reach some point in the future where the race is over and we all starve. Rather, Malthus argued that population is constantly pushing against the limits of food production. Today, not at some point in the future, we have hard decisions to make about the allocation of resources among competing needs. Day by day, there is no such thing as a free lunch. Today we identify opportunity costs as the implications of scarcity. Malthus is the one who imprinted the concept of scarcity on his generation. They didn’t like the implications then anymore than the neo-Malthusians like the implications today.

3. Malthus’ fundamental policy rule is that parents (especially fathers) should be responsible for the costs of bearing and rearing children. When society is organized in ways that allow parents to shift the costs of rearing children to the whole society, population growth will accelerate. Malthus used this argument against his chief intellectual opponent, William Godwin, whose proposals for the disestablishment of property rights, markets, and marriage were designed to create a society in which each person contributed what they could to social production and took what they needed from that production. Such a society was, in Malthus’ estimation, designed to maximize population growth, because the private cost of having children was reduced to near zero (at least for men).

4. Institutional reform rather than interventionist policies were necessary to ensure a society in which Malthus’ fundamental policy rule could best be fulfilled. Malthus argued that private property rights, free markets (which he knew did not exist in his time), and marriage (or at least some institution that identified children with their fathers) were necessary to provide both the resources and the incentives for families to care for their children. In such a context, human reason would lead to prudential restraint: we would delay marriage, practice birth control, etc., in order to restrict family size.

The consequences of good institutional design, in Malthus’ estimation, would be a world in which moderate population growth could be coupled with steadily rising real incomes for everyone, rich and poor alike.

I have to admit that Malthus did not place a lot of stock in the hope of technological progress and that he focused more on the “dark train of distresses” that were avoided by good institutional design than the bright future that market-enhancing institutions could provide for the poor. Nevertheless, his theory of population and economic organization is closer to the one Downen proposes than it is to neo-Malthusianism.

It is neo-Malthusians who are wrong, not Malthus. And one more thing: he went by Robert, not Thomas.


Post a Comment

<< Home