Monday, February 23, 2015


The labels "Malthusian" and "neo-Malthusian" in modern usage obscure more than they convey. Robert Mayhew, in Malthus: The Life and Legacies of an Untimely Prophet, goes a long way to place Malthus into context and perspective. Malthus was clearly a giant in the age of the classical economists.  His influence was profound and he was right about how the world works for much of human history -- until very recent times.  It is fair to say that much of the world has only very recently escaped the sad fates of "the Malthusian trap."  Angus Deaton is one of meany who informs us about the "post-Malthusian-trap" state of most of the world.

Julian Simon deserves tremendous credit.  Whereas economists love to talk about scarce resources, it was Simon who described how one resource, human ingenuity, is not scarce; it is infinite -- in a context of economic freedom. This kryptonite for the neo-Malthusians and explains how and why Simon made and won his bet with Paul Ehrlich.  I suspect you can take Simon's side in similar bets and win 9 out of 10 times.

I say all this because it is perplexing that, in an otherwise fine book, Mayhew lumps Simon (and also Bjorn Lomborg) with a group he refers to as "neo-conservative."  Hmmmm. Here is Hayek's encomium on the book jacket of Simon's book:  "I have never before written a fan letter to a professional colleague, but to discover that you have ... provided the empirical evidence for what with me is the result of a lifetime of theoretical speculation, is too exciting an experience not to share with you."  Good historians like Mayhew should take note.

Mahew ends the book giving attention to the world's trouble spots and allowing for the fact that some places have not shed the prospect of Malthusian checks. But most of these are societies mired in civil wars and not yet able to hop onto the virtuous cycle -- good institutions and prosperity feed each other.“It is evident from the experience of the countries that have successfully reformed policies that the payoff for shifting to a virtuous circle can be enormous.  Better understanding of the political-economic interactions that can enable this to happen is therefore of major importance for improving the development prospects of those countries still mired in the ‘stop-go’ cycle of detailed controls and intervention and gradually decelerating economic performance.”  Anne Krueger, The American Economist (1994)