Knut Wicksell on Poverty: No Place Is Too Exalted

By Mats Lundahl | Go to book overview

Optimum.' J.D. Pitchford (1974:87) mentions him along with Edwin Cannan and Julius Wolf as 'independently originating the optimum population concept, ' and E.P. Hutchinson (1967:391) calls him an 'early exponent of the optimum population concept' Monica Fong (1976:314) argues that 'Wicksell's major contribution to population studies is…twofold: (i) the idea of an optimum population size-implicitly a stationary population-and (ii) the idea that this optimum may already have been exceeded.' Mauro Boianovsky (2001:130) claims that 'the first appearance in print of the notion of “optimum population”' was in Wicksell's Über Wert, Captal und Rente (English translation, 1954:165-6) and that he introduced the concept as such in the first (Swedish) edition of his Lectures in Political Economy (Wicksell, 1901:49). 1

Exactly how original Wicksell was in his area is open to some doubt, however. In an article written on the occasion of the centennial of the birth of Wicksell in 1951, Erik Lindahl stresses that 'The population problem was for him primary, ' and points out that Wicksell worked with an optimum population concept based on 'where the national product per head attained its maximum' (Lindahl, 1958:35) but that he did not pursue the concept of optimum population further than this. Joseph Schumpeter (1954:582), in his monumental survey of the history of economic doctrines, gives Wicksell only limited credit for having 'resuscitated' the optimum population concept.

Wicksell's successor as professor of economics at the University of Lund, Emil Sommarin (1926-7:29), simply points to his insistence on gaps that remained to be filled:

Exactly like…[Wicksell's] contributions to the population question have assumed scientific importance by demonstrating the lack of knowledge with respect to the regular connections between the elementary factors of the development of population, nativity, mortality and emigration, where a scientific theory is still lacking, he has brought up the necessity of computations of the probable development and distribution across the age groups etc. of the population during the next decades, without which political foresight must be deficient on important points.

The remainder of Wicksell's writings on population is generally considered not to belong to his most original pieces. Thus, writers on Wicksell either tend to pass them by altogether, give them a mere cursory treatment, or state more or less explicitly that they are doctrinaire and lacking in originality. Carl Uhr, in his centennial evaluation of the great Swedish economist, puts the optimum population concept at the heart of Wicksell's demographic

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Knut Wicksell on Poverty: No Place Is Too Exalted
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page ix
  • Contents xiii
  • Preface xv
  • 1 - Introduction 1
  • 2 - Tumultuous Beginnings 8
  • 3 - The Causes of Population Growth 23
  • 4 - The Centerpiece of Wicksell's Theory 30
  • 5 - Overpopulation, Specialization, and Trade 39
  • 6 - Emigration 50
  • 7 - The Optimum Population 59
  • 8 - Wicksell's Views 69
  • 9 - Why Was Wicksell Accused of Lack of Originality? 86
  • Notes 105
  • References 109
  • Index 117
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