Sunday, December 12, 2010

Malthus More

There was one perfect day in college when it all worked out as planned. We learned something in calculus class (I think it was the natural log function), walked out of that lecture and into chemistry class, and saw what we just learned applied, I suppose to calculate concentrations. Then we went from there to physics class, and saw it used again --at this late date, I'm not sure on just what.

Needless to say, it's not common to learn something in math class and then see it applied in history! I mean, given that some historians use pretty extensive databases, there is a place for statistics, but beyond that? The one example I can think of is the day we were introduced to some old dude name Thomas Malthus, who told us that "population expands exponentially, food supply expands arithmetically." This was something we did, indeed, learn in math class, where we plotted x2=y and x=y and watched the rising curve of the exponential function ascend, intercept the straight diagonal of the linear function, and head for infinity. Math and social studies came together to tell us of of the three ages of Man: the age of abundance, represented by the corner below the interception point, the imminent point of catastrophe, and beyond that the post-apocalyptic age of horror. Though how it could be horrible with V-8 Interceptors and mutants and zombies everywhere I do not know. But that's beside the point, because at the interception point, we'd all be living in cars in the street and eating Soylent Green, and that's terrible.

It's also debatable in many, many ways. But when you get to the core point, you start with P. J. O'Rourke's take: "Way Too Many of Them, Way Too Few of Us." There's any number of things you can take away from O'Rourke's comparison of the hellish overpopulation of Bangladesh with the spacious elegance of life in a California county with the exact same population density, including some pretty effective criticisms, and also the updating observation that the rate of population increase in Bangladesh has fallen from 2.02%/year to 1.55%/year in the last three years alone. Certainly there's no getting around the fact that he shows the whole thing to be a little undertheorised. Which is putting it mildly. Historians and mathematicians have a heck of a lot to say about this.

Let's start with this: who was the Reverend Thomas Malthus? He didn't come from space, after all. He lived in a particular political context and theorised from the basis of specific data.

The answer is that he was a political Whig in the Britain of the 1790s. And inasmuch as parties were still the possessions of ecclesiastical factions as much as the reverse, it is helpful to note that he was low church. If you haven't got the idea of what those meant in 1798 in your bones, then you're not really in a position to judge what Malthus was trying to say in his "Inquiry into the Poverty of Nations," that was soon extended into the book Essay on Population. And that's okay. It is a lot of history to keep track of, and, anyway, it is hardly fair to a thinker to reduce his argument to his interests narrowly, as I am about to do.

The thing is, Malthus was trying to find a place for his interest on the centre-left. He had two enemies: the "right," which was trying to increase welfare payments, and the far left, which thought that everyone should be sexing it up more. In short, the "right" thought that the real reason that there was a revolution going on in France was that times were tough, and that was why welfare payments ought to go up. Malthus thought that this was an excuse for bribing voters with entitlements. Twas ever thus. The left, in the person of William Godwin, pointed to the virtually empty North American continent (and France, because this is a whole tradition in French discourse. Work out historic population densities of France and compare them with England and Germany for some eyebrow raising observations) claimed that we needed more people to fill up the Earth. Malthus thought that Godwin was a pervert who wanted to undermine church vicars like himself who protected the vulnerable from sexual exploitation. On which point, given the family history of the Godwins, I think he had a point.

Malthus' carefully crafted answer was this: paying the poor more means paying them to have more kids. Because this will lead to poor moral instruction. Attend: money for social services comes out of a pot of fixed size. More money for the support of the poor means less money for vicars. The "right" doesn't care, because it is "high church" and the "high church" thinks that the point of the religious establishment is to conduct religious ritual. The "low church," correctly, believes that the point of the religious establishment is to educate and moralise, and that in fact these are the same things, because religion is an intellectual experience as much as an emotional one. If there is less money for vicars, the High Church is okay, because it doesn't need many vicars to conduct rituals. But the Low Church objective is not met. Fewer vicars of lower quality mean less instruction of lower quality. Their parishioners' souls will be at risk, and they will have more sex.

Okay, so what, you say. More sex means, in the abstract, more babies. But there's any number of things that can supervene at this point. Perhaps the babies will all die because their ill-educated moms can't care for them. Perhaps the moms will not be able to get babysitters and will thus stop having sex, and, really, what's one illegitimate kid per mom mean in the grand scheme of things? (This last seems to be the actual reason why "the explosion in teen pregnancies" that worrywarts are always on about doesn't lead to higher population growth rates.)

But Malthus has data. First, in America, people marry young, because there's lots of land, and have lots of children, and the population is rising dramatically, doubling every 20 years. Godwin says that's okay, because there's lots of land. That's because he is mathematically illiterate. He should be able to see that the amount of uncultivated land in America (and France) will run out very soon. Second, in Ireland, populations are rising quickly, albeit not so quickly as in America. At the same time, the battle with the Catholic church for the souls of the Irish are being lost. The Catholics, being even more High Church than the High Church, are incapable of giving good moral instruction, and the illegitimacy rate in Ireland is rising. Clearly, the victory of false religion goes hand in hand with the decline of public morals on the one hand, rising population on the other, and rising poverty on the third hand.

That this is a hilariously wrong analysis of what was actually going on in Ireland was of no more relevance than the fact that his analysis of his third set of data was basically correct. That's because it was perfectly unambiguous that the parishes of Scandinavia were achieving at one and the same time stable populations and low poverty rates. People were restraining themselves and having just enough children to replace themselves, and, far from this being the consequence of poverty, it was the cause of their low poverty rates. And, of course, the Lutheran church organisation of Scandinavia was the very paradigm of what a nationally victorious Low Church apparatus could look like in England. This last bit I doubt, but it sums up as an argument for giving more money to people like Malthus.

How astonishing! But notice what is even more astonishing. Far from predicting imminent and scientifically inevitable overpopulation crises, Malthus points to a place where it wasn't happening, and identifies (correctly or not) the mechanism that ensures that it doesn't! I could add that he's also just wrong about what's going on in America, but this post is long enough without my dragging my thoughts about that into the discussion.

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