Running through some notes from last year, I came across an article by Dietrich Vollrath published in 2017 that I’d printed out to give it proper consideration. It’s called, “Who are you calling Malthusian?”, and it addresses that interesting futures question of why calling someone “Malthusian” is such an effective form of ad hominem attack that it closes down any possible argument.
Poor old Malthus. He has had a bad reputation ever since he predicted, towards the end of the 18th century, that over-population would lead to famine and then to social collapse. It didn’t turn out like that, largely because we stumbled across a one-off supply of cheap energy, and because of the Industrial Revolution. And, because he turned out to be wrong, that means that if you mention Malthus these days you are instantly labelled as a crank.
So Vollrath does us a service in his long post in two ways. First, he tries to create Malthus’ argument in its original context, and second he goes back to the relationships that sit behind Malthus’ model of the world.
The relationships are simple.
One: living standards are negatively related to the size of population. This is because at time of writing the major factor of production was land, whose supply is largely fixed. Vollrath shares a diagram, originally from Greg Clark’s work, which demonstrates this. Peter Turchin’s model in Secular Cycles effectively has this relationship at its core.
Two: population growth is positively correlated with living standards. As Vollrath notes
“This may be because kids are a normal good, and so fertility rises when people have higher incomes. Or it may be because health is a normal good, so people take better care of themselves (and their kids) when they have higher income.”
…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…