The Return of Thomas Malthus

Thursday, July 3rd, 2008

Robert Kaplan — himself something of a Malthusian — discusses The Return of Thomas Malthus:

Malthus was born in 1766 with a harelip and a cleft palate. He studied mathematics, history, and philosophy at Cambridge. Partly because of his speech defect, he decided to go into the church and live a somewhat reclusive life in the country. One of the most tranquil and cheerful of men, Malthus never minded interruptions, especially by children, to whom he would give his full attention. But this thoroughly decent man was humiliated by the literary and intellectual grandees of the age. The poet Shelley called him “a eunuch and a tyrant” and the “apostle of the rich,” simply because of his matter-of-fact empirical observation that society will always have rich people and poor people. Charles Dickens, Friedrich Engels, William Wordsworth, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge all heaped abuse on poor Malthus.

So what did Malthus say that was so terrible? He challenged the conventional view of human perfectibility that was in fashion during the aftermath of the French Revolution and the approach of a new century. He wrote in the realist spirit of Thucydides, Edmund Burke, and America’s Founding Fathers. He worried that leisure time and prosperity would produce as much evil as good, and that mass happiness would always elude society. He was a profoundly moral philosopher sensitive to the travails of the human condition. His specific theory — that population increases geometrically while food supplies increase only arithmetically — was eventually proven wrong, because the settlement of the New World and the Industrial Revolution would add significantly to agricultural output. And our current interest in Malthus may, too, prove short-lived if a new green revolution, for example, sweeps Africa.

Al Fin recently emphasized a point that needs plenty of emphasis: We’re not all in the same boat. In the first-world countries of North America, Europe, and Asia, technological progress and economic growth far outpace population growth, so standards of living can continue to rise.

In the third-world countries of Africa, on the other hand, extra lives saved are just more mouths to feed. They’re caught in a Malthusian Trap, where the marginal benefit of one more unskilled laborer is less than the cost of food.

Sure, a lack of food — or the high price of food — is the proximate cause of their woe, but what they need is not more food so much as greater productivity — and less reproductivity, I suppose.

(Hat tip to Coming Anarchy.)

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