Academic journal article The American Journal of Economics and Sociology

The Law of Population and the Austrian School: How Austrian Economists Interacted with Thomas Robert Malthus

Academic journal article The American Journal of Economics and Sociology

The Law of Population and the Austrian School: How Austrian Economists Interacted with Thomas Robert Malthus

Article excerpt

Introduction

Few topics in the social sciences generate as much controversy as those pertaining to questions of population and sustainability. For several centuries scholars have studied population questions. Indeed, population assertions and inquiries are found in books of the Old Testament and the writings of Aristotle and other Greek philosophers. (1) Modern day scholars often point to Robert Malthus's An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798) as inaugurating demography as a formal branch of the social sciences. Malthus's Essay generated considerable controversy when it was first published; subsequent editions generated no less controversy and that controversy continues today. Although Malthus was not the first to assert the existence of a fundamental law of population with respect to the means of subsistence, his Essay serves as a convenient reference point for scholars addressing population questions.

For the past two centuries, economists have given considerable attention to Malthus and the economics of population. The subject was a popular topic in the 19th century as individuals as diverse as Frederic Bastiat (1850) and Friedrich Engels (1844) responded to Malthus's assertions. As thinking on the subject of population matured and expanded, economists began to shift their attention from general questions of sustainability to more specific questions--such as whether or not there is an "optimum" population. The economics profession retained its interest in population economics well into the 20th century. Fetter (1913) and Robbins (1927) are good examples of attempts by economists in the early 20th century to interact with the concept of an optimum size of population. Both address the implications of an ever-expanding population on productivity, wages, and the general standard of living. Economists continued to theorize concerning a hypothetical optimum population--or more specifically, an optimum growth rate in the population (e.g., Samuelson 1975). Excellent summaries of the development of population theory have been written by Dalton (1928), Robinson (1964), and Spengler (1998). Today, subspecialists now address questions of fertility, the intersection of population and the environment, changes in demographic cohorts and their impacts on social insurance, etc. This latter topic has garnered particular attention in recent years. For example, the International Monetary Fund dedicated an entire issue of Finance and Development (September 2006) to demographic economics, discussing how changes in the generational structure of the population will impact social welfare systems. Additionally, the dramatic increase in awareness of the potential implications of climate change has once again brought Malthus's law of population to the forefront of the intersection between demography and ecology. Population growth (or decline) finds no shortage of analysis and controversy.

Economists and sociologists have given various answers to questions of population growth ranging from those who think high fertility rates hamper economic growth in underdeveloped countries (Myrdal 1987) to those who claim population growth contributes significantly to economic growth (Simon 1983). In a recent excellent reassessment of Malthus, Brander (2007) underscores the continued centrality of demographics and fertility in addressing sustainable development worldwide. While Malthus was chiefly concerned with the ominous implications of population growth, more recent analyses have begun to focus on the economic problems associated with population decline. For example, Kotlikoff (2004), Longman (2004), and Turner (2006) highlight concerns of the dramatic decline in fertility rates and demographic generational shifts, describing the dangerous impact on economic growth and prosperity in general and the consequences for pay-as-you-go funded pension systems specifically. In a country-specific assessment, Eberstadt (2009) depicts the troubling consequences of a declining population in Russia. …

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