Sunday, December 05, 2010

Two New Papers On Malthus

As if we needed any reminding of it in this climate, economics is often known as the “dismal science”. Malthus is largely to blame for this unfortunate term, thanks to his pessimistic theories on the nature of population growth and mortality. In a simple Malthusian world, an increase in wages increases population. This only results in an increase in mortality rates, ultimately returning society to its original equilibrium with no permanent increase in welfare.

Two recent papers by UCD economists re-examine this issue. Cormac Ó’Gráda and Morgan Kelly (Living Standards and Mortality since the Middle Ages) find that all strata of English society, including the nobility, were affected by food shortages before the Black Death. The relationship between food prices and mortality disappears in the mid 17th century (although not in London), but then reappears in the early 18th century. Interestingly (given Malthus’ objections to the Poor Laws), the authors suggest that social welfare had a part to play in this. This paper is also discussed on the Economic Logic blog.

Research in this area has tended to focus on England; however we know that the UK was exceptional for several reasons. Alan Fernihough (Malthusian Dynamics in a Diverging Europe: Northern Italy 1650-1881) examines the evidence for Italy. He finds support for the existence of Malthusian checks into the late 1800s. Both papers are relevant for the debate on the stages of economic growth (e.g. Galor and Weil, Population, technology, and growth: From Malthusian stagnation to the demographic transition and beyond).

1 comment:

Kevin Denny said...

It's Carlyle we have to thank for coining that phrase, as a comment on Malthus. Those who like to invoke that phrase (and there's nothing a journalist likes more than a cliché) should be reminded that it was in an essay arguing for the re-introduction of slavery.