Killing Conscience with Arithmetic

Malthus’ graph

A reader writes from the UK with the following observation about Stuffed and Starved.

There is one issue which is scarcely mentioned in the book or on this web-site, and that is human over-population. This seems to me to be the Achilles heel of the political left.

Let’s remedy the omission, because for people who care about food, population is a serious concern. The world population is set to reach 9 billion before 2050, and in the name of ‘feeding the world’, a great deal of mischief has been, and will be, commissioned. So how do we understand this, and what shall we do about it?

First, it’s important to put this in historical context. When anxieties have been expressed about over-population, it’s always the powerful bemoaning the fecundity of the powerless, the rich concerned about the breeding habits of the poor. Indeed, economics gets to be called ‘the dismal science’ because the world’s first paid economist, Thomas Malthus, was the man who first argued that, because of increasing population, we were all going to die. He argued that there was a fundamental incompatibility between a population that increased geometrically, and a food supply that increased only arithmetically.

There was some fairly violent reaction against him from his contemporaries. Shelley and Byron both had digs at Malthus, and they inspired more amateur poets to take up the charge:

Could men but come awake – enchantments keep
Their noblest faculties held fast in sleep
And frightful dreams and real fears, alas!
Before their soggy haunted vision pass
Not least the reverend Thomas Malthus with his trick
Of killing conscience with arithmetic
             James MacAulay

Malthus didn’t do himself any favours. He had his reputation tarnished as a result of lines like these, from his Essay on the Principle of Population:

Instead of recommending cleanliness to the poor, we should encourage contrary habits. In our towns we should make the streets narrower, crowd more people into the houses, and court the return of the plague. In the country we should build our villages near stagnant pools, and particularly encourage settlements in all marshy and unwholesome situations. But above all, we should reprobate specific remedies for ravaging diseases… (BkIV, Ch. V)

But as Geoffrey Gilbert argues in his fine introduction to the 1993 Oxford University Press edition of the Essay, Malthus intended this passage not as an endorsement, but a criticism of the prevailing view. He wanted to indict the hypocrisy of seeming to care about population, but not about the poor. It’s an interpretation that holds water, and we ought to rehabilitate Malthus’ reputation, at least in this regard.

The main point, however, is that Malthus’ logic of inevitable catastrophe was married to a certain kind of social Darwinism to justify some fairly savage acts of ‘rational’ population management, from the forced sterilization of the poor in India (under Indira Gandhi) to eugenics.

So is all thinking about population bad because the Nazis did it? Hardly. There is plenty of space to think about population in a progressive spirit. Mahmood Mamdani’s splendid book ‘The Myth of Population Control” suggests some helpful ways of thinking. He asks why some people in an Indian village used contraception while others didn’t. He observed that the main factor in whether birth control is used is a family’s income level. Rich people are more likely to use contraceptives than poor, and this is because children are an asset rather than a liability for the world’s poorest.

How to reduce the birth rate, then? Make people richer.

And how do you do that? Another line on this comes from Amartya Sen, who observes that the best investment for those concerned about fertility is that of girls’ education. Better educated women are the solution to a number of problems around mortality, poverty and population, and this has proven time and again, the best way of both reducing the birth rate, and increasing the important measures of social welfare. If you care about population, you really ought to care about women’s social, political and economic rights. No one suggests that this is an easy process. But everyone agrees that while changing the education system might be expensive, the costs of keeping things as they are is far far higher.

Disagree? Then fire away in the comments section, and if there’s enough interest, I’ll turn this discussion into the site’s first forum.