Breaking out of the Malthusian Trap

Malthus title page

An article today by Nicholas Wade in the NY Times, “In Dusty British Archives, a Theory of Affluence”, covers the forthcoming book by Gregory Clark, A Farewell to Alms, which offers a new explanation of the Industrial Revolution. Clark covers a huge amount of research into the British population and economy in the period 1200-1800, and his thesis is that a sort of evolutionary process occured that shifted the population to habits of thrift, literacy and lower violence.

A few interesting points in the article. Here’s one: “But most have now swung to the economists’ view that all people are alike and will respond in the same way to the same incentives. Hence they seek to explain events like the Industrial Revolution in terms of changes in institutions, not people.” See the post below on The Geography of Thought for a differing view on whether people all think alike.

Wade quotes a number of economists and others who dispute Clark’s thesis. I personally think that a number of factors must have been involved with creating the conditions for the Industrial takeoff in the late 1700s, and clearly literacy and work habits had to be important. But the one factor I think may be most important is discussed by Kenneth Pomeranz, who argues that “tapping new sources of energy like coal and bringing new land into cultivation, as in the North American colonies, were the productivity advances that pushed the old agrarian economies out of their Malthusian constraints.”

I think cheap energy sources have been so ubiquitous in our lifetime that it is now difficult to see what a revolutionary force they have been in recent history.

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