Age of Invention: Escape from Malthus

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For economies before the Industrial Revolution, population growth was an important and ever-present brake on prosperity — an observation most famously articulated by the Reverend Thomas Malthus. Writing at the end of the eighteenth century, he warned against the promises of improvement. Whereas the optimists looked at the acceleration of innovation around them and claimed infinite horizons for increasing living standards, Malthus pessimistically argued that population would always catch up. Although a new agricultural technology might briefly increase the amount of available food, the inexorability of population growth meant that it would soon be eaten up by extra mouths to feed. The population would end up larger than it was before the new technology, but with that population eventually no richer than it had been to begin with. Economic historians call this the Malthusian regime, or the Malthusian Trap.

Fortunately, Malthus’s pessimism would prove unfounded. Economy after economy has managed to escape the trap. British output had already been outpacing its population for two centuries by the time he was writing — England’s agricultural output alone had increased 171% while its population had grown 113% (not even taking into account the fact that it also increasingly relied on imported food, paid for by its other industries). And in the decades and centuries that followed, England’s output continued to shoot ahead, widening the lead. Output per capita rose and rose, to the extent that Malthus’s worries about overpopulation are now usually applied to resources other than food.

But while Malthus is famous for the theory, he wasn’t its inventor. Well before Malthus, the people who actually lived in the trap seem to have recognised its effects. Concerns about overpopulation may have led to the Garland or Flower Wars of the Aztec Empire and its neighbours: after a series of famines in the 1450s, the local states reportedly began to engage in ritual battles, with the losers captured and sacrificed to the gods. Still earlier, in ancient Greece,the young men of a settlement might be formally conscripted to go forth and colonise other islands and coastlines. They were typically banned from returning home for several years, and in at least one case slingers were posted on the shore to kill any of the colonists who tried to make a break for home. In a whole host of pre-industrial societies, “surplus” infants were often simply exposed to the elements.

By the sixteenth century, with the rise of print culture, Malthusian rationales were being clearly articulated. Here’s Richard Hakluyt writing in 1584, over two hundred years before Malthus:

Through our long peace and seldom sickness (two singular blessings of Almighty God) we are grown more populous than ever heretofore; so that now there are of every art and science so many, that they can hardly live one by another, nay rather they are ready to eat up one another.

It’s a direct statement of the Malthusian regime in action, expressed by one of England’s most influential Elizabethan intellectuals, and written specifically for the attention of the queen. Hakluyt thanked god for the recent and unusual lack of mass death, but now worried about overpopulation leading to low wages and unemployment. And he went on to list many other effects. Hakluyt argued that the misery would lead to unrest, thievery, begging, and “other lewdness”. The prisons filled up, where the poor either “pitifully pine away, or else at length are miserably hanged.”

Yet, even more strikingly, Hakluyt also looked for an escape from the Malthusian regime. His purpose in raising these problems was to justify English colonisation of the New World — what he saw as a way out. Rather than pining away in prisons, the English poor were to work in Newfoundland, where they could become productive members of society: rehabilitated contributors to the commonwealth. In fact, even earlier than Hakluyt, we find a similar rationale for the English conquest and plantation of Ireland. Sir Thomas Smith, one of Elizabeth I’s ministers, in 1571 fretted that “England was never … fuller of people that it is at this day.” It experienced, he worried, “daily more increase of people” because of the dissolution of the monasteries. Whereas younger sons had once been sent off to a life of celibacy, now they married and had children.

What’s so fascinating about the Elizabethan colonial projects, however, was that they weren’t just looking for ways to get rid of the “surplus” population. This was not about reduction. Although Hakluyt gives one of the earliest and clearest statements of the Malthusian Trap that I have ever seen, he was not a Malthusian in the pessimistic, doomsaying sense. He was instead actively looking for ways to support larger populations, all under the dominion of the English crown. “Fools … allege that the realm is too populous”, Hakluyt asserted, but if we were to follow wise king Solomon, then “the honour and strength of a prince consists in the multitude of the people”. The greater the multitude at Elizabeth I’s command, he argued, the greater the strength of her army, navy, and riches. Far from Malthus’s pessimism, Hakluyt articulated an ideology of national growth.

Yet the kind of growth that Hakluyt and Sir Thomas Smith pursued was, in economists’ terms, mostly “extensive”, involving the increasing of outputs simply by increasing inputs. Unfortunately for the Irish and the native Americans, it was growth at their expense, achieved through the violent conquest of their land and resources. And by replacing indigenous peoples with English colonists, Hakluyt aimed to create a new market for English manufactured goods. His plan sought to also achieve what economists call “Smithian” growth (after Adam Smith): increases in output from specialisation, made possible by trade.

What Hakluyt failed to recognise was that growth from these sources would be inherently limited. In the long run, unless ever newer trades and ever newer conquests were pursued, then growth would run out and the gains would eventually be eaten up by more mouths to feed. Such growth would be the opposite of exponential. It would be logarithmic, with each extra conquest or trade route providing slightly less of an increase than the last, until there were no more worlds to conquer. Hakluyt’s proposals might very well have achieved his aim of a more populous England, but with its swelling multitudes eventually no richer than before. His programme for English growth could never truly escape Malthus, thus coming at great, needless cost to millions.

Instead, Malthus was ultimately escaped through another kind of growth: one that was “intensive”. Rather than increasing output by simply increasing inputs, intensive growth involved using new technologies to do more with less. Although the gains from any particular technology were finite, output could be increased again and again by increasing the rate at which new technologies were invented — achieving an acceleration of innovation. Intensive growth could be exponential. In theory, it may even be infinite. Over two hundred years on from Malthus, we still haven’t reached its end.

Till next week,


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