Friday, 19 January 2018

Malthus rides again

The private thoughts of rising Conservative MP Ben Bradley, revealed by Buzzfeed recently, echo the sentiments of well-to-do reactionaries through the ages. Unless we can stop the poor procreating, goes the theory, we will be swamped and there will not be enough food to go round.

Thomas Robert Malthus (the scion of a comfortably-off middle-class family), gave some respectability to the theory in his 1798 essay, Essay on the Principle of Population as It Affects the Future Improvement of SocietyTo be fair to Malthus, he did not advocate forced sterilisation, but his rationalisation of what is no more than a gut instinct backed by superficially attractive mathematics nevertheless had a malign influence on too many political and economic thinkers in following years. The background to the essay is detailed here.

That article also shows how time refuted the Malthusian hypothesis. Technology has consistently enabled food production to keep pace with population.

There is another factor which is at least as important. As people's living standards improve, so family sizes decrease. Better public health provision means that there is less need to produce lots of children to increase the chances of survival of a few. Increased incomes enable families to save, reducing the need to produce children to look after parents in old age. Sociologists have noted that immigrants from areas of high birth rates adapt to the norm of their adopted country.

The counter-argument is that world population continues to rise, in spite of statistics showing that global inequality of income is shrinking. I would respond that the latest figures show that the rate of increase has slowed, and we have probably left behind the highest growth rates. It is conceivable that we will see no more than replacement rate in the lifetimes of some of us.

Against this background, it is depressing that ideas like Bradley's persist. He has now renounced his earlier blog post, and Mrs May has dissociated herself from it, but it clearly did not come from nowhere. One wonders whether Malthusian thought is behind the current government's steady reduction in support for the poorest in UK society.

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