The Malthusian Trap

Tuesday, March 18th, 2008

Arnold Kling’s recent review of Gregory Clark’s A Farewell to Alms reminded me that, although I’ve discussed it before, I’ve been meaning to write something more substantial, now that I’ve read the whole book myself.

Clark emphasizes the Malthusian Trap that pre-modern societies face. He explains it briefly in How To Save Africa:

Before the Industrial Revolution all societies were caught in the same Malthusian Trap that imprisons Africa today. Living standards stagnated because any improvement caused births to exceed deaths. The resulting population growth, pressing on fixed land resources, inevitably pushed incomes back down to subsistence.

But living conditions did vary across pre-industrial societies. Perversely, rich societies were those where nature or man created high death rates. In such settings living conditions could be good as long as the population did not grow. In the Malthusian era, what is now vice in economic policy — violence, poor public health, war, inequality — was virtue in terms of living standards. And what is now virtue, vice.

The African environment has always created high disease mortality. This was a blessing for Africa’s living standards. Before the Industrial Revolution, Africa was rich, with material consumption probably double or triple that of China, Japan, or India, and as good as that of Europe. For example, when the British were looking for cheap labor in East Africa in the 1840s they had to turn to India for low-wage workers. Asian living standards were low because of high standards of personal and public hygiene in preindustrial China and Japan. This condemned Asia to subsistence on a minimal diet. Europeans in contrast were lucky to be a filthy people who bathed rarely and squatted happily above their own feces, stored in basement cesspits. Filth engendered wealth.

Most of the world, thankfully, has escaped the topsy-turvy logic of the Malthusian era through the Industrial Revolution. Living standards are now independent of population levels, so any reduction in mortality is an unalloyed blessing.

In a pre-modern economy, wealth production is almost entirely a function of arable land. Pre-modern humans aren’t much different from herd animals, in that sense, because the land can only support so many hungry mouths. An additional farm hand doesn’t produce anywhere near as much additional food as he consumes. More people means less food per person, which means more misery, with fewer children surviving into adulthood and fewer adults surviving into old age.

Thus, anything that kills people off — especially if it kills them quickly, rather than crippling them — reduces the number of mouths to feed by more than it reduces the amount of food produced. Plagues and wars are terrible for the victims, but good for everyone else — because a pre-modern economy is almost zero-sum.

But it gets weirder. Note that Clark mentions violence, poor public health, war, and inequality. In a Malthusian society, terrible inequality does not make the lower classes worse off, at least not in the long term; it just makes them fewer in number. No matter what, they’re going to be miserable enough that deaths match births — but if the ruling class skims more off the top, the ruling class can live at a higher living standard without reducing the living standard of the lower classes. Again, the downtrodden masses will be, in the long run, miserable either way. It’s just a question of how numerous they’ll be.

The only way out of this Malthusian Trap is to grow production faster than the population can grow — and to sustain this economic growth — something that didn’t happen until the Industrial Revolution.

Without rapid, sustained economic growth, the only other alternative to misery is keeping the population down. The South Pacific islanders achieved their worldly paradise through infanticide. Christian Europeans clearly did not approve, put an end to the practice, saw populations increase dramatically, and watched living standards drop precipitously. Similarly, modern aid agencies provide “needed” medical care to poor Africans, making sure that they live long, impoverished lives. As Clark points out, “Modern medicine has reduced the material minimum required for subsistence to a level far below that of the Stone Age.” Life is full of unpleasant ironies.

And that’s why it’s hard to get excited about malaria nets and foods engineered to kill intestinal worms. They simply reduce the material minimum required for subsistence to a lower and lower level. (Such “solutions” are only helpful to the degree to which they reduce long-term disability.)

In fact, as long as a society makes such improvements in dribs and drabs, the population will keep up, and the result will be a more complex, potentially more fragile society, with no higher standard of living. Joseph Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Societies points to this idea, without the emphasis on the Malthusian element — or so I surmise from reading excerpts and reviews; I haven’t read the book (yet).

Jared Diamond points to a similar notion in Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. A society will short-sightedly grow, and grow, and grow, until “suddenly” it can’t support itself. Humans have a long history of not being much better than herd animals when it comes to matching their own population to the carrying capacity of the land. In fact, even forward-looking humans have a tendency to “eat their seed corn” when the seed corn isn’t literal corn, and no one owns it — when it’s water stored in underground aquifers, or wood growing in nearby forests, or fish swimming in the sea.

Of course, the modern “peak oil” crowd thinks we’re facing exactly that kind of situation now, consuming vast amounts of energy that were stored in the earth’s crust over not just years, decades, centuries, and millennia, but millions of years. What happens when you build an entire economy on energy stores that will run out in a few centuries?

Perhaps an Industrial Revolution allows society to break out of the Malthusian Trap in the short run, and, while still out of the trap, to develop the knowledge and skills to avoid falling back into it. Even if we’ve relied on fossil fuels so far, our modern economy has uncovered the benefits of broad innovation, of large numbers of intelligent humans building on each other’s discoveries and refinements. Let’s hope that the Net sets us free.

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