Poverty and Population
JULY 01, 1971 by HENRY HAZLITT
Henry Hazlitt is well known to FREEMAN readers as author, columnist, editor, lecturer, and practitioner of freedom. This article will appear as a chapter in a forthcoming book, The Conquest of Poverty, to be published by
Since the end of the eighteenth century every meaningful study of the causes of poverty has at some point referred to the growth of the population. It was the achievement of Malthus to have pointed out the connection in so impressive a way that it could never again be ignored.
The thesis of his first Essay on Population, published in 1798, was that dreams of universal affluence were in vain, because there was an inevitable tendency of population to exceed the food supply. "Population, when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio. Subsistence increases only in an arithmetical ratio." There is a fixed limit to the supply of land and the size of the crop that can be grown per acre. Malthus spells out what he sees as the fateful consequences of this disproportion:
This fearful arithmetic led Malthus to a despairing conclusion. He had started with two postulates: "First, that food is necessary to the existence of man. Secondly, that the passion between the sexes is necessary and will remain nearly in its present state." And as he saw no voluntary way, except a "continence" which he did not believe was possible, to prevent the geometrical increase in population, he concluded that population will always tend to expand to the limit of subsistence and be held there by misery, war, pestilence, and famine. "That population does invariably increase where there are the means of subsistence, the history of every people that ever existed will abundantly prove."
Malthus Made a Concession
The appearance of this Essay brought down on the author’s head a storm of criticism and vituperation. As a result, Malthus published five years later, in 1803, a second edition of the Essay. It was much longer, in effect an entirely new book, and it became the basis of the six subsequent editions.
There were two main changes. Malthus attempted to support his original thesis with a great mass of factual data on population growth and checks taken not only from history but from contemporary conditions in a score of other countries. But in addition to bringing in this supporting evidence, Malthus made a concession. "Throughout the whole of the present work," he wrote in the preface to his second edition, "I have so far differed in principle from the former, as to suppose the action of another check to population which does not come under the head either of vice or misery." This other check was "moral restraint"—that is, "the restraint from marriage which is not followed by irregular gratifications"—the deliberate restraint of the great majority of mankind, by the use of forethought, prudence, and reason, from giving birth as individual couples to an excessive number of children. In contemporary
The Principle Stands
Hostile critics have contended that in making this concession Malthus in effect abandoned his theory altogether. "The introduction of the prudential check (‘moral restraint’)," wrote Joseph A. Schumpeter, "makes all the difference…. All the theory gains thereby is orderly retreat with the artillery lost."1 Even a more sympathetic critic like Gertrude Himmelfarb writes:
"Thus the principle of population ceased to be a fatal obstacle to man’s dreams and ideals. Indeed the principle itself was no longer as inexorable as he had earlier suggested. It now appeared that population did not necessarily outrun food supply, or necessarily keep up with every increase in food…. Men were no longer at the mercy of forces outside their control: ‘Each individual has, to a great degree, the power of avoiding the evil consequences to himself and society resulting from it [the principle of population] by the practice of a virtue dictated to him by the light of nature, and sanctioned by revealed religion.’ Liberated from the eternal menace of overpopulation and the eternal evils of misery and vice, society could now look forward to the union of ‘the two grand desiderata, a great actual population and a state of society in which abject poverty and dependence are comparatively but little known; two objects which are far from being incompatible.”2
Yet in spite of these quotations from Malthus himself, the contrast between the first and subsequent editions of the Essay was not as great as these critics imply. The change in tone was greater than the change in substance. Malthus had been stunned by the savagery of the attacks on his despairing conclusions, and wanted to blunt this by emphasizing as much as he could any element of hope. In his first edition he had failed to admit the possibility of a really effective "moral restraint" on the part of the great majority of mankind; in his subsequent editions he did admit that possibility—but certainly not that probability. In fact, as he would have been appalled by the "vice" of our modern mechanical and chemical methods of birth control (now ironically called "neo-Malthusianism"), even if he had foreseen them, how could he have believed in the probability of the almost life-long refrainment from sexual relations necessary to prevent each couple, without "birth control" methods, from having no more than two or three children?
What Did He Say?
The trouble with most discussions of Malthus is that they have either tried to prove him wholly right on wholly wrong. Let us try to see, rather, exactly what he did contribute, and both what was right and what was wrong with it.
The great contribution of Malthus was to be the first to state clearly, and in relation to each other, two very important propositions. The first was the tendency of all populations, animal and human, to increase in the absence of checks at a geometrical ratio—or, in more modern technical terms, at an exponential rate. Malthus spoke of populations doubling every 25 years, in the
Law of Diminishing Returns
Malthus’s second great proposition, based on the limited supply and productivity of land, was in fact the first clear though crude statement in English of what afterwards came to be known as "the law of diminishing returns." No statement of this law is to be found in Adam Smith. (A remarkably good formulation of it was made by the French economist, Turgot, in 1767, but Malthus appears not to have been familiar with it.) By the time we get to John Stuart Mill’s Principles of Political Economy in 1848, however, we find a careful and qualified statement:
"Land differs from the other elements of production, labor and capital, in not being susceptible of indefinite increase. Its extent is limited, and the extent of the more productive kinds of it more limited still. It is also evident that the quantity of produce capable of being raised on any given piece of land is not indefinite….
"It is commonly thought… that for the present limitation of production or population from this source is at an indefinite distance, and that ages must elapse before any practical necessity arises for taking the limiting principle into serious consideration.
"I apprehend this to be not only an error, but the most serious one to be found in the whole field of political economy. The question is more important and fundamental than any other; it involves the whole subject of the causes of poverty….
"After a certain, and not very advanced, stage in the progress of agriculture, it is the law of production from the land, that in any given state of agricultural skill and knowledge [italics supplied], by increasing the labor, the produce is not increased in an equal degree; or, to express the same thing in other words, every increase of produce is obtained by a more than proportional increase in the application of labor to the land.
"This general law of agricultural industry is the most important proposition in political economy."
"The produce of land increases, caeteris paribus, in a diminishing ratio to the increase in the labor employed."3
Several points are to be noticed about this formulation. It discards the unrealistic
It is because Malthus overlooked this vital qualification that "Malthusianism" fell into disrepute about half a century after his book appeared and then remained so for a full century. For he was writing practically at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. During that Revolution (about 1760 to 1830) there was an unprecedented increase in the British population and at the same time an unprecedented increase in per capita production. Both of these increases were made possible by the relatively sudden introduction of new productive inventions and techniques. As Malthus’s statement had utterly failed to allow for this, the law of diminishing returns was thought to have been proved untenable. Fears of excessive population growth were dismissed as groundless.
It should be pointed out here parenthetically that the law of diminishing returns as applied to land is now seen to be only a special case of a much wider principle governing both increasing and decreasing returns. Decreasing returns do not apply solely to agriculture and mining, as the mid-nineteenth century economists thought, nor increasing returns specifically to manufacturing. In its modern form, the law of returns simply points out that there is an optimum ratio in which, in any given state of technique, two or more complementary factors of production can be employed for maximum output; and that when we deviate from this optimal combination by, say, increasing the quantity of one factor without increasing the quantity of the others, we may indeed get an increase in production, but it will be less than proportionate. The law can be most satisfactorily stated in algebraic form.4 But the old law of diminishing returns from land, properly qualified, remains valid as a special case.
To resume: Malthus was right in postulating a tendency for population, if unchecked, to increase at a "geometrical" rate. He was right in postulating a law of diminishing returns from land. But he was wrong in refusing (in his first edition) to recognize the possibilities of voluntary population restraint. He failed to foresee the possibilities of contraception by mechanical and chemical means. He was wrong, again, when he formulated his law of diminishing returns, in failing to recognize the enormous potentialities of technical progress.
So developments in the
A New Hysteria
In spite of the serious errors in Malthus, we have witnessed in the last decade an outburst of "Neo-Malthusianism," a new widespread fear, sometimes verging on hysteria, about a world "population explosion." Paul Erlich, professor of biology at Stanford University, in a book entitled The Population Bomb, warns us that we are all doomed if we do not control population growth. Professor Dennis Meadows of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology says:
"It used to take 1,500 years to double the world’s population. Now it takes about 30 years…. Mankind is facing mass starvation, epidemics, uncontrollable pollution and wars if we don’t discover new methods of population and industrial control and do it fast. If our society hasn’t succeeded in ten years in coming to grips with these problems, I think it will be too late."5
Even the usual current estimates are almost as alarming. They run something like this: It was not until about 1830 that the world’s population had reached a billion. By 1930 it had reached two billion. Now there are about three-and-a-half billion. President Nixon estimated in 1970 that, at present rates of growth, world population will be seven billion at the end of the century and thereafter an additional billion would be added every five years or less.
Most of these predictions are reached by simply extrapolating recent annual growth rates and assuming that they will continue, come what may. When we look at the projections country by country, however, we find that the real problem is created by what is happening, not in
Based not on simple progression but on calculations of changing birth and death rates and other factors, the United Nations, in its Bulletin of Statistics, estimated in April, 1971, that Mainland China’s population, assumed to have been 740 million in 1969, would rise to 1,165 million in the year 2000.
At the Edge of Subsistence
This outlook is at least a partial vindication of Malthus. His central thesis, supported in the later editions of his Essay by a wealth of research, was that every advance in the arts of increasing subsistence had been absorbed in the past by a consequent increase of population, thus preventing any rise in the general level of living. He was right regarding the past; he is still right in his forecasts so far as most of the world is concerned. It is widely estimated that of the world’s present three-and a-half billion people, nearly two billion are underfed. And it seems to be precisely where they are already underfed that they tend to multiply fastest, to the edge of subsistence.
Though the problem of population growth is most urgent in the backward countries, it exists everywhere. Those who are most concerned about overpopulation in the advanced countries today see it less as an immediate menace to the food supply than as a menace to "the quality of life." They foresee overcrowding, still bigger cities, "urban sprawl," more automobiles, more roads, more traffic jams, more waste products, more garbage, more sewage, more smoke, more noxious fumes, more pollutants, contaminants, and poisons.
Though these fears may be exaggerated, they have a rational basis. We may take it as a reasonable assumption that in most parts of the world today, even in the advanced countries, population has already reached or passed its optimum level in purely economic terms. In other words, there are very few places left in which it is probable that additional hands would lead to a more than proportionate increase in returns. The opposite is nearly everywhere more likely. Therefore we may assume that any increase in population will reduce per capita production, not necessarily in absolute amount, but in comparison with what it could be without a further population growth. From this standpoint the problem of overpopulation is not merely one for some distant future, even in the advanced countries, but one that exists now.
The Macro Solution, by Government Coercion
What, then, is the solution? Most of the neo-Malthusians, unfortunately, are collectivist in their thinking; they want to solve the problem in the aggregate, and by government coercion. They not only want governments to flood their countries with propaganda for The Pill, The Loop, and other methods of contraception, encouraging even abortion; they want to sterilize men and women. They demand "Zero Population Growth Now." A professor of "human ecology" at the
The professor surely has the courage of his premises.
It is the great merit of Malthus to have been not only the first to see the problem clearly but also the first to propose the proper path to its solution. He was a relentless critic of the poor-laws of his day:
"The poor laws of
"If it be taught that all who are born have a right to support on the land, whatever be their number, and that there is no occasion to exercise any prudence in the affair of marriage so as to check this number, the temptations, according to all the known principles of human nature, will inevitably be yielded to, and more and more will gradually become dependent on parish assistance."7 Malthus’s strictures did influence the Poor Law Reform of 1834. But no government in the world today is willing to accept his unpalatable conclusions. Nearly all continue to subsidize and reward indigent mothers or families in direct proportion to the number of children they bring into the world, legitimately or illegitimately, and cannot support.
Malthus was an individualist and a libertarian. His own proposed remedy for overpopulation was both voluntary and simple:
"I see no harm in drawing the picture of a society in which each individual is supposed strictly to fulfill his duties…. The happiness of the whole is to be the result of the happiness of individuals, and to begin first with them. No co-operation is required. Every step tells. He who performs his duty faithfully will reap the full fruits of it, whatever be the number of others who fail. This duty is intelligible to the humblest capacity. It is merely that he is not to bring beings into the world for whom he cannot find the means of support."8
If each of us adhered to this principle, no overpopulation problem would exist.
1 History of Economic Analysis, (Oxford University Press, 1954), p. 580.
2 Introduction to Modern Library edition (1960) of Thomas Robert Malthus, On Population, p. xxx.
3 Mill’s Principles, Book I, Chap. XII.
4 See, e.g., Ludwig von Mises, Human Action (Henry Regnery, 1966 edition), pp. 127-31 and 341-50; Murray N. Roth-bard, Man, Economy, and State (D. Van Nostrand, 1962), pp. 28-32, and Joseph A. Schumpeter, History of Economic Analysis (Oxford University Press, 1954), p. 587, and passim.
5 National Enquirer,
6 Garrett Hardin in The
7 Essay on Population, Book III, Chaps. VI and VII.
8 Ibid., Book IV, Chap. III.