Knut Wicksell on Poverty: No Place Is Too Exalted

By Mats Lundahl | Go to book overview

7

The optimum population

Joseph Spengler (1983:5) has summarized the implications of Wicksell's insistence on diminishing returns:

One may say in conclusion that Wicksell's emphasis upon the role of diminishing returns and the resulting limitations to the augmentability of the total output in a given country made evident the costs of population growth beyond certain limits. This discovery in turn drew attention to the fact that population growth beyond a certain point made for a decline in the realizable level of average output, that is, at a point that marked a country's optimum size of population, excess of which prevented maximization of average output in such countries. This conception, a derivative of Malthusian concern, won even wider support in the late nineteenth and the twentieth century, due in some part to Wicksell's contributions.

Wicksell himself was quite adamant. On one of the last pages in Value, Capital and Rent he suggested attaining the optimal population as the only alternative to fixing wages at the subsistence level (Wicksell, 1954:166):

…so far as I know, the question has never been raised in economic writings, what size of the population is economically most profitable when the amount of capital, size of the area of the land, etc., are given. If, therefore, these problems are to be solved according to the principle of the greatest utility, it is obviously a serious drawback that there is not even common agreement in what direction economic advantage or disadvantage in fact lies. If, on the other hand, we assume that changes of population are not regulated according to the principle of what is economically most advantageous (in the widest sense of the word), but are regulated now and for ever merely by blind natural instincts, then at least we are on firm ground. In that case, however, we should have no

-59-

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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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