The One Minute Case Against Malthusianism

The origin of apocalyptic overpopulation theory

In his 1798 Essay on the Principle of Population, Thomas Malthus argued that the growth in the food supply is linear, whereas the growth in the population rate is exponential. Whenever the population exceeds the food supply, social turmoil erupts until drastic checks such as famines, wars, and epidemics lowered populations down to sustainable levels. The only way to avoid periodic disaster is to implement strict population controls, which have historically included both voluntary restraints, as well as coercive measures such as limits on family size and mass sterilization of “undesirable groups.”

Malthus was wrong

Malthus predicted a population crash by the middle of the 19th century. In reality, living standards have increased over sixty times since 1820 despite a tripling of the European population in the 18th century.1 Meanwhile, family sizes fell naturally without the need for coercive measures.
Nevertheless, modern Malthusians perpetually extend the date of the inevitable apocalypse to the near future. Faced with the astounding growth of agricultural yields which virtually eliminated hunger in the West, environmentalists are continually discovering new resources to run out of, whether fossil fuels, metals, land, or water.
The discrepancy is explained by two errors in the Malthusian model: the population growth rate is not exponential, while the potential growth in human productivity is.

Family size is subject to individual cost/benefit analysis.

The reason for the natural decline in population growth rates is that children are much more expensive in industrial countries. Increasing productivity levels in the developed world mean higher standards of living, lower child mortality, and a higher opportunity cost of having children. Child labor is no longer necessary for families to survive, and children have become expensive in terms of both direct expenses and lost economic opportunities for parents. Rather than working in farms or factories to keep younger siblings alive, a smaller number of kids can take care of parents in old age. Welfare programs for seniors have actually tipped the balance below equilibrium levels in most developed nations.

Capitalism allows unlimited productivity improvements

Malthusian scenarios assume that the resources available to meet human needs are fixed — that each new human being requires a fixed amount of land, metal, and fossil fuels to live. But human values are ever-shifting, and so are the means to provide those values. Each baby born not only creates new demand for the products of civilization, but also provides new resources and insight for meeting those needs.

Our living standards are rising because we are finding more efficient ways to harvest existing resources, and improving the technology to produce the goods we consume. We are also exploiting new resources to create those goods. Whale oil, rubber trees, and native forests for paper and fuel have been replaced by petroleum, plastics, tree farms, and coal. This is possible because a free society allows a growing capital and knowledge base to be multiplied by entrepreneurs who find new methods to improve human life, resulting an exponential growth in wealth.

Malthus’s model applies to animals and collectivists

The Malthusian population model is not entirely without merit. Charles Darwin realized that it applies to the animal kingdom because animals lack the capacity to volitionally control reproductive rates, and their productivity is fixed by biology. Whereas humans adopt to environmental changes, animal populations can crash rapidly when the carrying capacity of their environment changes.

Human society experiences the same pattern in preindustrial and totalitarian societies. Whether it is the crushing mold of tradition or stagnant socialist states, when the potential of human beings to apply their mind to improve their quality of life is stifled, humans are reduced to survival on the animal level, and suffer similar cycles of periodic famines.

Further reading:

References:

  1. Angus Maddison, Phases of Capitalist Development (New York: Oxford University

Press, 1982), pp. 4-7.

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