We could consider the faith on the invisible hand as an optimistic view: If society act based on individuals choices everything will be OK. But, is there a pessimist view?. Of course! And it is handled by Thomas Robert Malthus. Most known as poor Malthus, the first professional economist.
Thomas Malthus was son of Daniel Malthus, an eccentric old gentleman who enjoyed to discuss the utopian and optimistic views of the future. Daniel Malthus found a mate to discuss, nonetheless than his son Thomas Robert Malthus, who was at the oposite side of the optimistic utopian views. Let’s call Thomas directly a party pooper.
According to the party pooper, the basic problem with society was that too many people lived on it and there was a lack of food for all of them. Even worst, there was going to get even been worst with time: people will grow a geometric ratio and food only in an arithmetic ratio.
Thomas wrote his ideas trying to convince his father of the not so bright future. Daniel was so impressed with the brightness and clarity of his son’s ideas, that he insisted to publish them in an anonymous treatise called An Essay on the Principle of Population as It affects the Future Improvement of Society. In that essay Thomas postulated that there was a tendency in nature for population to outstrip all possible means of subsistence. Instead of ascending in higher life standard, society was in caught in a trap in which the humans reproductive urge would inevitably shove humanity to a precipice of existence. Even though he wasn’t the first one to notice (B. Franklin and J.S Mill published previous essays pointing the problem of too many people), Malthus used strong phrases and images that made him well known.
An example of the strong idea: What could save us from geometric ratios of growing? preventive and positive checks. For preventive he meant to delay parent- hood (not that bad). For positive he meant: war, famine and plagues (not that good either. Not positive at all). In Malthus words, there is no more evil in the world than what is absolutely necessary.
But those solutions weren’t finals. They were just weeks forces against the giant power of reproduction. Of course moral restraints would be not enough for such a immense power.
If we consider his scientific interpretation of data was right, and his eloquence admirable. What happened with the doomed view of future? I mean, the essay appeared in 1798 and we are still alive and not dying from hunger (at least, in this part of the world). I hardly say precipice of existence. What Malthus missed in his rigorous calculations? Beside poor data information, he missed an important aspect (here is the key): technology improvement. I prefer, the nonlinearities of the human behavior.
Industrial revolution started, and with it, new ways to produce far more food at cheaper prices. At the beginning of the eighteenth century, European agricultural productivity was no higher than twenty centuries earlier. But from 1700 to 1800, output per worker doubled in England. In France, despite the effects of revolution and war, output grew by roughly 25% between Malthus’s birth and the first edition of An Essay. Several innovation accounted for the leap, including crop rotation, seed selection, better tools, and de use of the horse instead of oxen, reducing plowing time by nearly 50%.
With that quantity of food, why did we not explode having more and more children? Why higher standard of living did not lead to Malthusian birth spiral? I believe the answer is simple: we changed too. More education and job goals persuade us to have fewer children. So we changed, and we changed in a way that was not seeing from the past. The importance of this is that, it can happen again. It surely will be.
Once in a While, we remember the poor Malthus:
- 1970 Donella Meadows presented The Limits to Growth. In this book (to read) the data and trends predicted disaster within hundred years unless pre- ventatives were taken. Those preventatives were: immediately stop economic growth, stop population expansion, and recycle resources. They even propose, with hard data, that we are already living in a non sustainable way of life. We are living this way since 1980.
- 1973 Robert McNamara, president of the World Bank, compared the population explosion to the threat of nuclear war. (Malthus surely would have used the nuclear term as positive check.)
- 1974 Robert Heilbroner published An Inquiry into the Human Prospect in which he concluded that resources could not keep up with industrial demand.
- 1980 the State Department and the Council on Environmental Quality released Global 2000 Report proclaiming : If present trends continue, the world in 2000 will be more crowded, more polluted, less stable ecologically, and more vulnerable to disruption than the world we live now.
Were those guys just the ghost of poor Malthus trying to gain popularity? Or are those threats really going to happen? (if they are already not happening) Let’s pray for not to.
Maybe more important than his doom prophecy, is his scientific approach (even him missed). In Malthus words:
The principal cause of error, and differences which prevail at present among the scientific writers on political economy, appears to me to be, a precipitate attempt to simplify and generalize…[and not to] sufficiently try their theories by a reference to that enlarged and comprehensive experience, which, on so complicated a subject, can alone establish their truth and utility.
Malthus has been wrong, for a while, and that’s good for us, for a while.