Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Taking Malthus Seriously

The basic logic of the Malthusian argument is that resources are finite, and that unconstrained, population grows geometrically. There nonetheless remains the to me bizarre notion that Malthus has somehow been refuted by 200 years of rapid economic progress. Perhaps infinite progress is possible, but I doubt it. Moreover, if you look at where economic prosperity is concentrated, these places closely match those where Malthusian strategies of low fertility have been adopted.

China was not the first nation to adopt an explicitly Malthusian strategy, but it was the place where it was enforced, and it remains the most successful example. Gapminder charts like these make the correlation pretty darn obvious. Once again, facts and logic concur.

The point, by the way, is not whether Malthus correctly anticipated the industrial and scientific revolutions, or birth control, or any specific details of how the present has unfolded. That point is that population growth can potentially consume the results of any plausible progress, and that if nothing else inhibits it, starvation will. This principle is at the core of evolution and underpins economics as well.