Sunday, April 20, 2008

Why was Malthus wrong

Matthew Yglesias comments on a Krugman piece in which he points out that Malthus was not wrong, he was in fact right for all of economic history up to his time. Despite advances in technology there had been no real improvement in living standards (except at the very top).

I think they are mis-framing the question. There are really two questions here, first why did anyone notice, second why did his observation attract widespread attention?

I suspect that the true answer to the first would be that Malthus was not in fact the first person to notice that economic conditions were not improving for the poor. It occurs in the new testament 'the poor will always be with you'. The difference was the expectation that progress would eliminate poverty.

And this difference is also the explanation for the reason why Malthus attracted so much attention. At a time when the wealthiest of the wealthy were getting richer at an astonishing rate due to the early advances of the Industrial revolution, Malthus provided an excuse for their greed. Sharing the wealth would make no difference. Such excuses only become necessary when the aristocracy are coming under pressure to share the wealth.

Such class based analysis is unpopular these days, not least with the elite class. But Malthus lived in a society where class not only mattered, it was what mattered most. A similar observation may be made with respect to Marx and class. Marx created a theory of politics based on class at precisely the moment that the importance of class would diminish.

We might speculate that at least part of the reason Marx and Malthus got it wrong was that so many people with the ability to make a change believed that they might be right. Marx is in some ways the anti-Malthus. The message of Marx for the aristocracy was 'even if you don't think sharing the wealth will help the condition of the poor, failing to address poverty is going to lead to revolution and the guillotine'.

1 comment:

Robert Doyle said...


Are you half-recalling our semi-drunken undergraduate ramblings of twenty years ago!

I'm slightly perturbed to hear you echoing Lenin's attack on Malthusisan thought as "an attempt on the part of bourgeois ideologists to exonerate capitalism and to prove the inevitability of privation and misery for the working class under any social system".

But then I fear I am a hardened Manchester School Liberal.

Sitting in a Broadway theatre five years ago as the curtain came down on the Act 2 Finale of "Urinetown-The Musical" after the chorus exhorted "Hail Malthus!", I realised that I might be the only member of the audience about to shout Bravo in agreement with the sentiment rather than in appreciation of the performance! :-$