Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The Malthusian Trap Is Not the Whole Story

I am more than usually busy just now – my book (Adam Smith: a moral philosopher and his political economy) was finished sometime ago and I heard today that it is into production.

But that affects me less, as I am busy contributing a chapter to an Danish academic book on negotiation (due this week), completing a read through of the manuscript for my fourth edition of book for The Economist (due end of June), and writing a final draft of my paper on ‘Adam Smith’s Theory of Bargaining’ for the History of Economics Society annual conference in Toronto at the end of June, due next week. And there is always a demand from my old day job for exams and solutions for three graduate courses I used to teach.

But I tend to read, last thing at night, books on different subjects (novels if I have them) and at present I am reading Robert Payne’sThe Christian Centuries from Christ to Dante’, 1966.

I too am surprised what books are on my shelves from yesteryear stored in my house in France. I didn’t acquire this book from a religious interest in the topic; my motives for doing so are forgotten now, but my interest this last couple of weeks (I usually manage up to a chapter an evening, though that varies) is from a discussion we were having some months ago on Gregory Clarke’s book, Farewell to Alms (Princeton University Press) on the Marginal Revolution Blog, with some side comments on Lost Legacy.

The proposition that I lodged at the back of my mind which did not seem to fit the assertion that population grew (excluding the Black Death years), subsistence incomes had remained the lot of the population (the Malthusian trap) for millennia. Now, I didn’t deny the statistical evidence; I had trouble reconciling the facts with other evidence that this was not the whole story.

Societies were changing slowly and remained unequal; a necessary consequence of the Adam Smith’s last three Ages of Man (shepherding, farming and commerce). The elites of these societies certainly were not generally on subsistence compared to the majority of their populations. They lived differently, if in many years the differences were marginal.

But, and this is what irritated my understanding of Greg Clarke’s thesis, from the great agricultural settled societies onwards, these settled societies (unlike the mobile shepherding tribes) were associated with stone buildings, defensive walls, armed retainers on them, religious mystics and rituals, later, with special buildings (temples, synagogues, churches), and in some cases, philosophers.

Now all these had to be paid for (even in conditions of slavery), both materials and wages (subsistence goods), or circulating capital in Adam Smith’s theory of growth. The only source of this capital is by extraction from annual revenue of society, which the ruling elites controlled. If this diversion is significant (and it was) the per capita subsistence of the majority is not the key statistic about what was happening from the first millennia of commerce.

Moreover the products of what we call stone-based ‘civilisations’ had a lasting impact on future generations in wide areas of knowledge, the pre-condition of the technology that made what is called the ‘industrial revolution’ possible and the almost simultaneous solution to the Malthusian trap as Malthus was writing his book about it.

Back to Robert Payne’s Christian Centuries, which details the stone-built evidence of centuries of architectural monuments, ever greater in their magnificence, to the extraction thesis applied across Europe. Judging by the accounts in Payne’s book, the substance of my nagging doubts about Clarke’s focus on per capita incomes seems firmer now than before.

But then I am only up the 12th century (‘The Gothic Splendour') of Christian Rome’s complicity in the extraction process. I shall press on with the next chapter in 30 minutes.

Good Night...


Blogger net3 said...

I quoted you, with regards to the Malthusian trap in this post as it followed the train of my thoughts on that matter. My objective and background differs but I do find your work interesting. Thank you.

10:17 am  

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