Bryan Caplan  

The Malthusian Zombie

Would a Truth-Seeker Ask?... Taking "Looking on the Bright ...

No matter how many times a Julian Simon, Michael Kremer, or Steve Landsburg kills the Malthusian view that population growth reduces per-capita well-being, it comes back from the dead.

The latest sighting of the Malthusian Zombie is in Greg Clark's A Farewell to Alms. At least these days, however, the zombie only has to show himself for zombie-slayers to emerge. Reviewer David Warsh directs us to an interesting article asking "Is Anywhere Stuck in a Malthusian Trap?" Punchline: Even in modern Africa, the Malthusian story doesn't work.

A Malthusian would predict that rising GDP per capita would lead to a rising population, whilst rising population would (with a smaller lag) lead to falling GDP per capita. The data for an African sample... suggests that there is no significant link from GDP per capita growth in decade one to population growth in decade two and a significant but small impact of population growth in decade one on GDP per capita growth in decade two using a pooled sample. This provides scant evidence to support a theory that the region is caught in a Malthusian cycle.
That said, I've heard a lot of good things about A Farewell to Alms. With luck, the Malthusian Zombie will be too lethargic to cannibalize the rest of the book.

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COMMENTS (8 to date)
Barkley Rosser writes:

The Malthus story holds within the Sahel region of North Africa on the edge of the Sahara. There, property rights are such, more sons, more cattle, to encourage population growth and cattle growth, which then overstresses the ecosystem. Upshot: general local ecological collapse as the positive feedback of population increase and cattle increase work.

Barkley Rosser writes:

I would add that the above story is a major factor of the expansion to the south of the Sahara desert.

Bruce G Charlton writes:

I think BC and some reviewers may have misunderstood - Greg Clarke's Farewell to Alms is about the *escape* from the Malthusian trap in modernizing societies: firstly in England around 1800.

Eric Crampton writes:

Brad DeLong has a bit of a Malthusian story about Chinese stagnation post 1200 or so -- big increase in agricultural productivity with new strains of rice but a stultifying bureaucratic class prevents the population increase from generating Simon results.

Dan Weber writes:

Yeah, the favorable NYTimes review even has a sidebar called "Escaping from a Malthusian trap":

Steve Sailers writes:

Read David Landes' "The Wealth and Poverty of Nations" for a description of China's Malthusian trap -- the difference between Malthus' theoretical description and how it worked in practice was that it wasn't gradual like Malthus assumed, but catastrophic in timing. The population would rise steadily, then something disruptive like a rebellion would happen and the population would quickly be 20% smaller.

John S Bolton writes:

Not only that, but population increase makes it harder to get per capita growth in investment in production. There is a dilemma in the posting which is not known to be a valid one: that we either believe that Malthusian traps are still common in the world, or that broad population increase does not make it harder to obtain the increase in investment in production per capita, which is needed. These aspects can be isolated and their effects compared. Why is there such high correlation between low per capita income and high population growth in the world? After all, even Julian Simon himself, the arch-anti-abortionist, was quite willing to admit that he felt it was "better to have more people and a lower per capita income". Sometimes we have to choose, and that is the truth which can never die.

R. Richard Schweitzer writes:

Niall Ferguson showed a very good perspective on the actual Multhusian studies in a piece entititled "Worry about bread not oil" in the London telegraph (and L.A. Times too, I believe).
Worth a read, as he always is.

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