Sunday, January 27, 2013

Malthus

It's a sort of tribute to human stupidity that the fundamental economic lesson of Malthus remains so widely unappreciated. Of course, when I say human stupidity here, I really mean the triumph of instinct over intellect.

Malthus, you might recall, pointed out that the geometrical power of human reproduction would always win out over any arithmetical increase in human productive capability. Consequently, in the absence of limitations on reproduction, the human population would increase until disease or starvation or other catastrophe limited it. Thus, the most productive soils, plus peace, plus improved hygiene, lead inevitably to population increase until some significant fraction lives in total immiseration. Add in equality, and everybody starves equally.

Thus the brutal irony that the wealthiest peoples have often lived under conditions of war, periodic famine, or devastating disease. The Africa before modern medicine and suppression of tribal warfare and slavery was richer than perhaps even today.

Throughout much of human history, the main tools for controlling human population have been war, disease, starvation, and female infanticide. Thus, if a conquering power suppresses war, improves hygiene, and suppresses female infanticide the consequence a couple of generations later will be a larger population living in equivalent or worse misery.

Today we have two effective weapons against the Malthusian catastrophe: education of women and effective birth control. It's still an open question whether they can keep us from drowning in our poisons.