Malthusian Trap


The Malthusian trap [mal-thoo-zee-uhn], named after political economist Thomas Robert Malthus, suggests that for most of human history, income was largely stagnant because technological advances and discoveries only resulted in more people, rather than improvements in the standard of living.

It is only with the onset of the Industrial Revolution in about 1800 that the income per person dramatically increased, and they broke out of the Trap; it has been shown, however, that the escape from the Malthusian trap can also generate serious political upheavals.

It was Malthus who first made the argument that in ‘every age and in every state’ that population increases are limited by the means of subsistence, and that when the means of subsistence increases, population will also increase, and that the population increase will be limited by ‘misery and vice.’ This pessimistic view on the impossibility of real progress was first made in 1798, ironically, just as the industrial revolution was getting underway.

In accordance with the theory, cross-country evidence indicates that technological superiority and higher land productivity had significant positive effects on population density but insignificant effects on the standard of living during the first fifteen centuries CE. In addition, scholars, have reported on the lack of a significant trend of wages in various places over the world for very long stretches of time.

In Babylonia during the period 1800 to 1600 BCE, for example, the daily wage for a common laborer was enough to buy about 15 pounds of wheat. In Classical Athens in about 328 BCE, the corresponding wage could buy about 24 pounds of wheat. In England in 1800 the wage was about 13 pounds of wheat. In spite of the technological developments across these societies, the daily wage hardly varied. In Britain between 1200 and 1800, only relatively minor fluctuations from the mean (less than a factor of two) in real wages occurred in Britain. They peaked at around 1450 and in 1800 they were actually significantly worse.

Causes for the Malthusian Trap and theories for the causes of the Industrial Revolution have been as multifarious as the theories of the fall of the Roman Empire. The transition from the Malthusian epoch to an era of sustained economic growth is explored by Unified growth theory, one branch of which is devoted to the interaction between human evolution and economic development. Some argue that natural selection during the Malthusian epoch selected beneficial traits to the growth process and brought about the Industrial Revolution. It has been recently suggested that the emergence of major sociopolitical upheavals at the escape from the Malthusian trap is not an abnormal, but a regular phenomenon.

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