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The Malthusian Trap

Tags The Environment

11/23/2004Benjamin Marks

The principle that there is a perpetual tendency in the race of man to increase beyond the means of subsistence is usually attributed to Malthus. But he was really just the popularizer of a belief that was (and is) fairly widespread. William Hazlitt, a mighty adversary of Malthus, does not think he was the first to write about it, either. In fact, plagiarism is hinted at. See Hazlitt's excellent essay on this topic here. The great Australian philosopher, David Stove, in the same vein as Hazlitt, thinks:

There are anticipations of his 'principle of population' in the writings of David Hume, Benjamin Franklin, Joseph Townsend, and no doubt others beside; but not, or not to any extent worth mentioning, in any writings whatever before about 1750. And yet people could have made, at any time during thousands of years before that date, at least a rough comparison between the size of a batch of fertilized cod eggs, or viable pine seeds, and the number of this batch which survived to reproduce in turn.

But whatever may have been the reason for it, it was left to Malthus to teach naturalists the strength of the organic tendency to increase, and of the resulting pressure of their numbers on their food. And he happened to do so in a book which, for reasons quite unconnected with evolution, reached an unusually great number of readers.1

The Malthusian population principle is always incorrect, but its proximity to the truth varies. It is also an instance where we can appreciate one of Rothbard's empirical generalizations—of high predictive value, but not apodictically certain—that nonAustrian individuals tend to specialize in the area they are least competent. As Stove put it:

It is . . . a curious irony that the general biological principle which he put forward comes steadily closer to being true, the further one departs from the human case, and is a grotesque falsity only in the one case which really interested Malthus: man.

Human populations, once they reach a certain size and complexity, always develop specialized orders, of priests, doctors, soldiers. To the members of these orders sexual abstinence, either permanent or periodic, or in "business hours" (so to speak), is typically prescribed. Here, then, is [a] fact about our species which is contrary to what one would expect on the principle that population always increases when, and as fast as, the amount of food available permits.2

Stove talks of many other instances, and not just in our species, where the Malthusian population principle is broken, but the one refutation will suffice for the purposes of this article. Similarly, Hazlitt wrote,

I am ashamed of wasting the reader's time and my own in thus beating the air. It is not however my fault that Mr Malthus has written nonsense, or that others have admired it. It is not Mr Malthus's nonsense, but the opinion of the world respecting it, that I would be thought to compliment by this serious refutation of what in itself neither deserves not (sic) admits of any reasoning upon it.

I encourage readers to devour all of Hazlitt's work on the matter. He even wrote an overview.

The Malthusian law is the basis of the environmental movement. Its application is often masked by the term "carrying capacity," which is the number of individuals that a unit of area can hold. And, more recently, "ecological footprint," which is a measure of how many units of area an individual uses—literally an inversion of carrying capacity. In practice, ecological footprints have very amusing results. For example, if we all wanted to live like Bill Gates, at current resource levels we would need multiple planet Earths.

These concepts, as they are commonly used, would have to be among the most un-Austrian. Subjective individualism is ignored; uncertainty of the future is ignored; impossibility of quantification of human action is ignored; and government intervention is always put forward as the solution. It is nothing more than the flip side of the free-rider problem: we can exclude others, therefore we should not increase the rate or take more than our fair—i.e., equal—share in which we exclude others; otherwise there will be nothing left for others.

What Malthus failed to realize is that, as William Godwin nicely pointed out, "possible men do not eat, [whereas] real men do."3 What they will eat in the future and exactly how it is grown cannot be deduced, no matter how elaborate the Malthusian equations are. Arguing that there is already proof of overpopulation by citing a problem, like poverty, is no argument at all: it is to consider proof of overpopulation as its theorized result.

Any numbskull can find statistics to show that if the resource base stays the same and population increases then all hell will break loose. This is the Malthusian mirage. Based on this sophisticated doctrine, believers go around telling people that we should desist from further folly, for the impending threat of doom is ever looming.4 And government, of course, is our only hope. Another silly use of this method is finding out that the population of Italy is decreasing, hence, they project that after a while there will be no Italians left.

The predictions based on the Malthusian fallacy are used as indicators of sustainability—i.e., temporal egalitarianism—itself a nonsensical concept. Things change over time. In any case, as P.A. Yeomans, the Australian agriculture designer said: " conservation is never enough"; it is not something one can aim toward, and therefore, not something that will solve a problem. An improvement on a previous state of affairs cannot be the same as them. Therefore nobody would voluntarily act to bring about it about, since no advantage would accrue.

The exception to this is for those who consider knowledge that things are the same as they were before, as being satisfying; they are happy because time has passed. But asking why they are happy that things are the same as they were before will hopefully lead to a revision of their mindset. There must be something that they do not like about the past; something they do not want continued.

It is from here that we uncover the underlying concern and error of most environmentalists: exploitation of resources, and blaming business, not government. These environmentalists, with their sustainability fetishes, fail to comprehend elementary economics. No sane property owner would want the capital value of his property diminished, therefore he would do whatever was in his power to preserve, and even increase, its capital value. Implied in this is that the property owner, whenever he feels it appropriate, uses his property for current ends. Otherwise what's the point of preserving it?

Comic Interlude

Here are some passages from the leaders of the environmental movement. Ted Trainer is considered by many to be an "ecological pioneer,"5 yet this is what he says:

A satisfactory society cannot be driven primarily by the profit motive or market forces. If the profit motive and market forces are allowed to be the major determinants, the inevitable results will be increased inequality, deprivation of those in most need and more and more of the existing wealth and resources taken by the rich. Unless they are carefully limited and controlled, market forces and the profit motive will destroy the social bond and the environment.6

This might have been worth my while addressing directly, but then, as I continued reading I came across this final straw: "Perhaps the most important point about a sustainable society is that economics would not be important."7 This is a silly comment. How would you know if a society was sustainable without any important knowledge of economics? In fact, "sustainable" is an economic term. As if Trainer's intellect can't be topped, Murray Bookchin, the founder of social ecology, has this profound insight to share:

Any attempt to solve the environmental crisis within a bourgeois framework must be dismissed as chimerical. Capitalism is inherently anti-ecological. Competition and accumulation constitute its very law of life, a law which Marx pungently summarised in the phrase, "production for the sake of production." Anything however hallowed or rare, "has its price" and is fair game for the marketplace. In a society of thus kind, nature is necessarily treated as a mere resource to be plundered and exploited. The destruction of the natural world, far from being the result of mere hubristic blunders, follows inexorably from the very logic of capitalist production.8

End of Comic Interlude

Government bureaucrats, not private workers, are the exploiters. Democratic government does not own things in the same way as a private individual does. This is the real tragedy of the commons. The "owners," who are really just "minders," possess higher time preference than a private individual would. They have no incentive to preserve the resource for longer than they "mind" it for. If they do not use the resource sooner, rather than later, someone else will. Even a monarchical government is still not as environmentally friendly as total private ownership. This is because the degree to which the private individuals preside over their land is limited. Their reliance on government for property preservation serves to compromise their own efforts. Here we come to the issue of calculation under socialism. Since valuation is subjective, government cannot allocate and manage resources as well as private individuals can. Hence, all governments hinder the cause of nonsuicidal environmentalists.

Suicidal environmentalists believe that the human race is a burden on the environment. They claim that for the sake of dolphins, koalas and cockroaches, we should cease to exist. They believe that by existing, humans take up space that other life forms could have used. We also eat other organisms, which would not be eaten—by us—if we did not exist.

We can see how ridiculous this view is when we apply it to any other living thing. To some extent, all life takes up space or other resources that other organisms could have used. Why do environmentalists think that humans are not entitled to do things at the level of other organisms? So much for these environmentalists professed avoidance of treating humans differently than other organisms, of considering humans as part of the environment. This is the misanthropic muddle. Typically, Rothbard gets to the bottom of this absurdity:

It is true that if the American continent had never been populated many millions of miles of square forest would remain intact. But so what? Which are more important, people or trees? For if a flourishing conservation lobby in 1600 had insisted that the existing wilderness would remain intact, the American continent would not have had room for more than a handful of fur trappers. If man had not been allowed to use these forests, then these resources would have been truly wasted, because they could not be used. What good are resources if man is barred from using them to achieve his ends?

Then there is the common argument that at any time a natural resource is used, any time a tree is chopped down, we are depriving future generations of its use. And yet this argument proves far too much. For if we are to be prohibited from felling a tree because some future generation is deprived of doing so, then this future generation, when it becomes "present," also cannot use the tree for fear of itsfuture generations, and so on to prove that the resource can never be used by man at all—surely a profoundly "anti-human" thesis, since man in general is kept in subservience to a resource which he can never use.9

The environmental movement, far from being "friends of the earth," does more to destroy the environment than most nonenvironmentalists. Those environmentalists who are upset at the fact that they are taking up space should go shoot themselves, and thereby practice what they preach and stop annoying the rest of us: a win-win situation.

The environment—that is, the natural order of things—has only one true movement: libertarianism. The other philosophies, instead of an environmental movement deserve a bowel one. They do not study the environment, but rather, impose their own preconceived fallacious ideas on it.

The only choice for those concerned about the environment is to be a fully-fledged libertarian of the Austrian breed. From this correct position it is seen that the market is superior in serving all legitimate ends on both logical and utilitarian10 grounds. Libertarianism is neither illogical nor suicidal. It addresses real and solvable problems. It proves that free enterprise is the best means toward environmental protection ends.

Mises on Malthus

I have always found Mises's endorsement of the Malthusian population principle quite surprising. He claims it is " one of the great achievements of thought... The objections raised against the Malthusian law ... are vain and trivial. [It is] indisputable." And, " The Malthusian Theory of Population is ... part of the social theory of Liberalism." Mises dismisses Marx's criticism of the Malthusian law, of which Marx calls "a schoolboyishly superficial and clerically stilted plagiarism," on the basis that Marx, Instead of refuting, tends to abuse. But is not Marx's abuse of Malthus accurate?

Could it be that on this Marx is right and Mises wrong?

Here, again, we can turn to Rothbard for guidance. Mises gives Malthus the credit for recognizing "the existence of a theoretical 'optimum' population that maximizes real output per head, given existing land and capital." When, in actual fact, it is this which "would go far to end the dreary Malthusian controversies in economic theory. For whether a given increase in population at any time will lead to an increase or decrease in real output per head is an empiricalquestion, depending on the concrete data. It cannot be answered by economic theory," as Malthus tries. 

Mises himself on this says: "The question whether at any given time production has reached this point [where "production per head diminishes"] is a question of fact which must not be confused with the question of general principle."

Mises also places great emphasis on the fact that only in the free market can overpopulation be avoided. According to Mises, Malthus's warning comes true under socialism: only can a society based on private ownership of the means of production harmonize the number of births with the limitations of the means of subsistence. This, again, is the issue of calculation under socialism. So, with the Malthusian doctrine as Mises saw it, there is still no excuse for government interference on utilitarian, let alone legal-logical grounds.

In conclusion, the Malthusian problem is one that economics solves. No wonder the Malthusians want to get rid of economics. Their rule only applies in noneconomic "societies." And, even then, only in its abridged Misesian form. The environmental movement of today is aiming toward living in a non-economic "society" by showing why it would be unpleasant to live in. It is staggering how a movement like this could amass such a following.


Benjamin Marks

Benjamin Marks is a comedy writer based in Sydney, Australia. He is editor of the print and online Misesian magazine Capitalism.HK, published by Hong Kong's Lion Rock Institute. He also runs Economics.org.au
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