Malthus was Late

Sunday, January 19th, 2014

Malthus was wrong, Matt Ridley says, but Malthus wasn’t wrong, Steve Sailer notes — he was late:

Gregory Clark’s A Farewell to Alms documents, using English public records such as wills from 1200 to 1800, that the English over these 600 years were using Malthus’s 1798 advice to engage in “moral restraint” avant la lettre. The chief mechanism was not exposing babies on mountainsides or whatever, but was simply delaying marriage until a couple could afford the various accoutrements appropriate for their class.

How different in that regard was Jane Austen’s world from today? Some, but the similarities should be obvious.

The average Englishwoman married during these centuries between 24 and 26. In contrast, the average Chinese woman married around 18. Thus, the Chinese population would grow faster, but tended to collapse when good government broke down.

In contrast, most of sub-Saharan Africa didn’t have to worry about Malthusian traps until fairly recently. Population density outside of a few nice highland locations tended to be well below the agriculture capacity of the enormous amount of land. Diseases, competition with co-evolving wild animals (especially elephants, who consumed crops if there weren’t enough people around to drive them off), and lack of fortifications meant that much of Africa tended to be underpopulated. The great African fear was not overpopulation of a region, but of humans dying out all together in an area.

Thus, while European culture tended to encourage sexual restraint, African culture tended to encourage sexual exuberance — a pattern we can still see today in America.

Sailer seems to think that “the very young average age of first marriage for American women in the 1950s compared to previous decades represented a zenith of mass prosperity,” but Malthus noted the same pattern in 1798:

In the United States of America, where the means of subsistence have been more ample, the manners of the people more pure, and consequently the checks to early marriages fewer, than in any of the modern states of Europe, the population has been found to double itself in twenty-five years.


But the English North American colonies, now the powerful people of the United States of America, made by far the most rapid progress. To the plenty of good land which they possessed in common with the Spanish and Portuguese settlements, they added a greater degree of liberty and equality. Though not without some restrictions on their foreign commerce, they were allowed a perfect liberty of managing their own internal affairs. The political institutions that prevailed were favourable to the alienation and division of property. Lands that were not cultivated by the proprietor within a limited time, were declared grantable to any other person. In Pennsylvania there was no right of primogeniture; and in the provinces of New England, the eldest had only a double share. There were no tythes in any of the States, and scarcely any taxes. And on account of the extreme cheapness of good land, a capital could not be more advantageously employed than in agriculture, which at the same time that it supplies the greatest quantity of healthy work affords much the most valuable produce to the society.


The population of the thirteen American States before the war, was reckoned at about three millions. Nobody imagines that Great Britain is less populous at present for the emigration of the small parent stock that produced these numbers. On the contrary, a certain degree of emigration is known to be favourable to the population of the mother country. It has been particularly remarked that the two Spanish provinces from which the greatest number of people emigrated to America, became in consequence more populous. Whatever was the original number of British Emigrants that increased so fast in the North American Colonies; let us ask, why does not an equal number produce an equal increase, in the same time, in Great Britain? The great and obvious cause to be assigned, is the want of room and food, or, in other words, misery; and that this is a much more powerful cause even than vice, appears sufficiently evident from the rapidity with which even old States recover the desolations of war, pestilence, or the accidents of nature. They are then for a short time placed a little in the situation of new states; and the effect is always answerable to what might be expected. If the industry of the inhabitants be not destroyed by fear or tyranny, subsistence will soon increase beyond the wants of the reduced numbers; and the invariable consequence will be, that population which before, perhaps, was nearly stationary, will begin immediately to increase.

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