One of the most (unfortunate) common problems facing old historical works today is taking a thesis that only is applicable to the specific hypothetical scenario discussed in the work and having later historians take it as applying to the real world. In June’s edition of The Freeman, What’s Right with Malthus?, writer Ross Emmett brings to light the historical mistreatment Thomas Robert Malthus has been undergoing at the hands of many historians and, more recently, environmentalists.
These misapplications generally happen to works that are hundreds of years old and don’t have particular relevance in contemporary society. These works are no longer read anymore, unless a reader is looking for some historical background on a particular subject. Many times this happens in the sciences. Why? Because these texts have been antiquated and outdated by newer theories, or the relevant information can be easily compounded (and has been) into a more brief synopsis and repeated in many second hand sources.
Take for example Gregor Mendel’s discovery of genes through his experiment with pea plants. No geneticist or biochemist (or whatever field it is relevant to) today would waste their time reading through Mendel’s whole experiment; the only relevant part of his study is the results and what they mean, which can be obtained from countless second hand sources. The same could be said of the works of many other individuals from the sciences.
This is all well and good. However, if someone along the way misquotes or makes false assumptions or conclusions based on the work, and this begins being copied and referenced in other sources, the error compounds and eventually becomes solidified in history (Google Lincoln misquotes and you will see how easily these errors can be made). We may easily see how this problem has affected Malthus; he originally wrote about a hypothetical situation of what would happen in the absence of social institutions but somewhere along the way it became attributed to him that he believed this was what will come to pass in the future; that this hypothetical world was his view of the real world.
As The Freeman article stated, his hypothesis was largely true. In the absence of social institutions, division of labor is not possible. To achieve the division of labor, there must be social cooperation. And social cooperation means there is society. Ludwig von Mises in Human Action talked extensively about the benefits social cooperation can bring to society. Social cooperation and the division of labor allow humans to advance above subsistence level because of comparative advantage and become more productive through specialization.
In a world where social cooperation and the division of labor are in absentia, what can we expect? We can expect humans to be competing with each other for scarce resources on a subsistence level. We can expect communities would be largely absent, as the point of a community is to engender social cooperation. We can expect that since humans are competing with each other rather than cooperating, once the population level reaches a certain point (it could be locally, such as on an island, or worldwide) the resources can no longer support that many people. And this is just what Malthus said. To quote Emmett, “If there are no institutions, human population will behave like any animal population and increase to the limit of its ecology’s carrying capacity.“
More population in a world where humans live and work in a solitary environment means a higher ratio of people to resources, ie. they’re more scarce. This conjures up Locke’s imagery when he said that in that world, life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” In a world where there is social cooperation, such as we live in today, more population won’t decrease per capita income as long as we keep progressing and coming up with better labor saving devices and technologies to amplify our own capabilities and the capabilities of our resources, such as we’ve been doing.
Even if we assume Malthus said that at some point in the future we’d be overpopulated, he isn’t necessarily wrong. If technological and scientific advancement were to halt and we no longer had the ability to obtain a higher level of productivity than our current level, there would be a point at which another individual added to the population would become a burden and make us poorer. Admittedly, the course of recent history has suggested that human advancement has no end in sight; we are far away from any Malthusian overpopulation becoming a problem in the foreseeable future, despite what the environmentalists keep saying.
When interpreting Malthus, we must look at Matlhus through the lense of his age. We must remember that for most of human history up to that point, per capita incomes were relatively static; the per capita income of someone in 1700 AD wouldn’t differ much from someone in 300 AD. If that situation had continued uninterrupted, his Iron Law of Population may have rung true. He could not possibly have foreseen the technological and scientific advancement forthcoming in the industrial revolution that would skyrocket man’s productive capabilities to levels never before reached in human history to that point.
It is an important task of historians to resurrect individuals who have been given false characterizations and whose work has been misrepresented. This is why due diligence must be done when researching a particular topic rather than accepting what one source says at face value. Always go back to the original source; context can be of supreme importance, as we see in the case of Malthus.