I’m reading Henry George’s Progress and Poverty, prompted in part by the 99% Invisible episode about the origins of Monopoly (the board game), but more prompted by having seen him cited many, many times; at the latest, I first saw him cited when I read The Worldly Philosophers as a callow youth.
Most of the attention the book gets is from its focus on land and the single tax. But I was really struck just now by his attack on Malthus. I’m embarrassed to say that I’ve seen Malthus cited not quite approvingly, but more as though he had proven some basic truths about the universe that were beyond all questioning. The Malthusian idea, of course, is that humanity will always remain teetering on a knife’s edge: whenever we accumulate a little extra in agricultural surplus, we immediately fritter it away by making more children, who consume all the surplus and return us to conditions of famine. The most anyone bothers to engage with this idea is to say that it used to be true, that it stopped being true at the Industrial Revolution, and that Malthus was unlucky enough to have written it five or ten seconds before the Industrial Revolution really got going in the early 19th century.
George rejects the whole Malthusian idea. As far as I’ve read, he doesn’t reject it because it’s obviously false, but rather because there’s no evidence that it’s true. The examples Malthus apparently cites are India, Ireland, and China, all of which — George says — are examples of famine caused by the intercession of a brutal government. (George disdains equally the Mughals and the Raj.) It may well be that humanity eventually reaches the carrying capacity of the land, kills itself off through famine, rebuild its numbers, and repeats the whole bloody cycle, but we’ve certainly (George says) not yet seen this pattern.
It embarrasses me that I’ve never read Malthus himself. Indeed, it embarrasses me that I’ve never even read anyone who questioned Malthus all that much. Gregory Clark’s annoying A Farewell To Alms more or less takes Malthus for granted, then explains that we in the UK and its dominions escaped the Malthusian curse by good old-fashioned Protestant self-abnegation. Malthus is alive and well; Henry George, 150 or so years ago, tells us that he shouldn’t be.
More generally, George feels that Malthus and his ilk are yet more examples of people ascribing the sad fate of the poor to their bestial natures rather than to the institutions that continually grind them into the dirt. My having accidentally gone along with this is what embarrasses me the most.
Well, don’t feel bad. I don’t agree with the school of thought often called “Malthusian” (there is no population problem, only a poverty problem), many anti-Malthusian arguments only work by denying their opponent creativity. Malthus, esp. in the second edition, would not only be happy to say things like societal changes can overcome population growth pressure but indeed that was his whole point!
It’s true that Malthus, like most theorists before Amartya Sen, were unable to coherently conceive of what I call “demand-side famine”, but a neo-Malthusian (which I am most expressly not!) could incorporate both demand and supply side famine without losing a whit of theoretical soundness (though, as you & George note, the empirical case is made more complicated). It’s interesting that Henry George presaged Amartya Sen on this issue!
I also want to say that Malthusian considerations are necessary for _all_ classical economics – including Marx’s, despite his constant denunciations of Malthus the man. Without a Malthusian minimum wage rate for a given population growth rate, wages aren’t fixed by the classical system.