Bastiat on Malthus: Wisdom from 1850 for Optimism Today
“If we face the facts courageously, we shall see that a large area has been left open for the exercise of our initiative.”
The holiday season is not only a time to count our blessings, but also to imagine (or perhaps simply recognize) an ever-improving future for ourselves and the broader society. To that end, we can be thankful that the theories of doom-and-gloom are wrong, and the disastrous predictions drawn from those theories bear no resemblance to reality.
Being both a great fan of the 19th century classical-liberal political economist Frederic Bastiat and a critic of neo-Malthusianism, I was surprised to discover recently that Bastiat devoted an entire chapter of his work “Economic Harmonies” to Malthus’s theory on population. As Master Resource readers probably know, it was Malthus’s theory on population that prompted historian Thomas Carlyle to refer to economics as “the dismal science.”
It was also Malthus’s theory on population that spawned the still-thriving “neo-Malthusian” worldview, which has been laughably wrong but still bleeds into discussions on energy policy. Fears of rampant population growth leading to environmental degradation and shortages in food, resources, energy, etc. were at the core of the environmental movement in the early stages, and neo-Malthusianism still colors the debate on energy abundance and the “sustainable” use of energy-rich resources such as fossil fuels. Prominent neo-Malthusian Paul Ehrlich has even said “[m]y view has become depressingly mainline!” Yes, depressing indeed.
As I had hoped, Bastiat provided a more positive look on population growth, while treating Malthus fairly (maybe generously) as both an economist and a human being:
It may be that I do not entirely share Malthus’ opinions. There are two sides to every question, and I feel that Malthus kept his attention fixed too much on the dark side. For my part, I admit, I have so often in my study of economics had occasion to come to the conclusion that what God does, He does well, that, when logic leads me to a different view, I cannot help but mistrust my logic.
Malthus was apparently not well-received in France at the time, largely due to mis-attribution and an academic ‘telephone game’ (whisper campaign) against him. As Bastiat said:
This is the way an opinion gains acceptance in France. Fifty ignoramuses repeat in chorus some absurd libel that has been thought up by an even bigger ignoramus; and, if only it happens to coincide to some slight degree with prevailing attitudes and passions, it becomes a self-evident truth.
Bastiat sought to correct his peers’ unfair treatment of Malthus. He agreed, at least, with the structure of Malthus’ “law” of population. To those who tried to refute both the theory and the good character of Reverend Malthus, Bastiat wrote:
Men who refused to accept this law have attacked Malthus spitefully and bitterly, with flagrant bad faith, as if he himself had deliberately thrown in the way of the human race obstacles that, according to him, stem from the law of population. It would have been more scientific simply to prove that Malthus was wrong, and that his so-called law is not in fact a law at all.
As an aside, this may be a lesson for those of us who spend our lives refuting neo-Malthusianism. First, just as Bastiat defended Malthus’s character, we should give the typical neo-Malthusian’s character the benefit of the doubt. Second, it shows our cause to have the upper hand when we attack bad ideas rather than deal out personal attacks.
As George Charles Roche III said in his biography of Bastiat: “Bastiat was perhaps the first of the happy libertarians, a special breed who are at once a delight to their friends and a thorn in the side of their enemies.” Here’s to the happy libertarians in energy – a thorn in the side of modern day Malthusians and, hopefully, a delight to our friends. Needless to say, I am optimistic about the optimists.
In his essay on Malthus, Bastiat focused on the element of human reason, foreshadowing some of the more systematic critiques that Julian Simon and others would eventually level. Similar to his analysis of the protectionist in the essay “What is Seen and What is Not Seen,” Bastiat demonstrated that Malthus had not reasoned falsely, but incompletely. In short, Malthus ignored the extent to which human reason and ingenuity can expand “the means of existence.” According to Bastiat:
If we face the facts courageously, we shall see that a large area has been left open for the exercise of our initiative. Here, as everywhere else, man can choose between two possibilities: either the pain that he imposes upon himself…or the pain that is imposed upon him…in a position of passivity in relation to beings of a lower order, a lesson forced upon the intelligent creature by inanimate or unconscious agents.
Using ingenuity, foresight, and reason, human beings can bring about real progress. Bastiat grasped this fact better than some present day thinkers, who inexplicably ignore the immense material progress humanity has made since Bastiat’s 1850 essay. Also, for the energy audience, it is no stretch to substitute “energy” or “resources” for the recurring Malthusian term “the means of existence” and apply critiques of overpopulation directly to issues like energy or resource scarcity. Bastiat continued:
Malthus did not fully appreciate this capacity for progress and was consequently led to pessimistic conclusions…
But are these means a fixed, absolute, uniform quantity? Certainly not.
Bastiat appreciated man’s ability to foresee (and avoid) the hardships that stem from increasing population at too fast a rate, but he actually underestimated man’s ability to increase the production and provision of “the means of existence.” Bastiat envisioned a constant or linear progress, regardless of population growth. Therefore, even the optimistic Bastiat warns that population growth must be checked in a preventive way in order to keep population from outstripping the means of existence (resulting in poverty, starvation, etc.):
Man is an intelligent being and can make unlimited use of the preventive check. He is perfectible; he seeks to improve his situation; he finds decadence repugnant. Progress is his normal state; progress implies an increasingly enlightened use of the preventive check; hence, the means of existence increase more rapidly than population. This result is not only to be deduced from the theory of perfectibility, but is also confirmed by the facts, since everywhere we find the range of man’s satisfactions widening….
After Bastiat, thinkers such as Julian Simon turned the Malthusian theory more completely on its head. Rather than needing to keep population in check, history has shown us that population growth expands the means of existence. We can breathe easy knowing that people themselves are part of the economic means. People are indeed “productive assets,” as Simon was able to convince Pope John Paul II. We are producers as well as consumers, conscious creatures with ideas and knowledge that improve the lot of us over time. Simon in The Ultimate Resource 2 sums it up nicely:
The most important economic effect of population size and growth is the contribution of additional people to our stock of useful knowledge. And this contribution is great enough in the long run to overcome all the costs of population growth.
Despite the mostly happy tone of Bastiat’s essay, his warning against the strongest obstacle to prosperity is sobering. That obstacle is not population growth or environmental degradation – it is political plunder. Bastiat ponders why so many unfortunate people live under such terrible conditions (“great multitudes of men who are in wretched circumstances”), and he points to political plunder as the first cause.
[P]lunder has played, and continues to play, too important a role in the world for us, even as economists, to be able to ignore it. It is not alone a question of haphazard thefts, cases of petty larceny, isolated crimes. War, slavery, pious frauds, privilege, monopoly, restrictions, tax abuses—these are the most striking manifestations of plunder.
Many of those plunders remain, almost as constant companions to government. What is worse, neo-Malthusian policies aimed at improving mankind or the natural environment tend to become riddled with the plunder and abuse Bastiat listed (pious frauds, privilege, monopoly, restrictions, tax abuses). Not only are they wrong in ideal – they are destructive in practice. Hence we must continue attacking the underlying dogma of neo-Malthusianism and waking people up to the abundance of energy, resources, and “the means of existence.”
Here’s hoping that human ingenuity can overcome these political limitations in the same way it has overcome so many economic limitations. Here’s hoping that the disproved dismal science will give way to the hopeful science.