The Malthusian Trap

Thomas Malthus (1766–1834) David Ricardo (1772–1823)

What Engenders Modernity? Overcoming the Malthusian Trap

There is a Malthusian trap in which for ten thousand years, since the Neolithic agricultural revolution, workers in general could not escape "subsistence wages" (David Ricardo’s Iron Law of Wages). England escaped that dilemma by the year 1800. In particular, Gregory Clark has expounded the view that because of behavioral changes in the ruling class achievement-oriented traits trickled down into the general laboring population to effect a change from subsistence wages (the amount of income to live strictly as a biological animal) to a level of wages that allowed for abundance (quality of life in which there is time for leisure and the purchase of luxury items). He said that the chief factor was genetic (neo-Lamarckian), in which acquired traits of a disciplined work ethic could be inherited. Revolution in the attitudinal structure of the population allowed for industrialization of both town and city, a social and technical division of labor that rewarded the intelligent and hardworking, good management, and capital invested in humansfor the first time (education). Ffinally through a system of incentives there was not only an increase in technology and science, but an incremental change in overall efficiency of the capitalist infrastructure, allowing the survival of the slightest variation in the interaction between machine and laborer that provided the sustained growth needed for a society of abundance. That social selection process effected divergence of adaptive characteristics to economic necessities between classes within the nation and even more between nations (the rich and the poor) to this very day. There is a struggle for existence between individuals in the marketplace and between nation-states. Only the fittest survive. "Fit" is not a moral term, but encompasses the host of traits that allow the individual or state to differentially reproduce the next generation of workers who can best adapt, that is, most efficiently take advantage of the human and capital resources at hand to adapt to changes in the marketplace by exploiting the slightest advantage the worker or state might enjoy.

Clark dated the historical onset of development from the year 1200 in England. The key variable for Clark was what he called time preferences. The longer the time preference of an individual or a political economy, the more successful the outcome in economic well-being. A time preference is the ability to postpone immediate gratifications for long-term, strategic goals, like exponential growth in personal and Gross Domestic Product. There is the presumption that stable political institutions, rule of law, a free marketplace, research and development funds for capital and human improvements, and peace for economic success converge. In the absence of those institutions, there is no incentive to save for there is no foreseeable future in a state of nature. Do you agree?

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in England, the study of political economy, on the one hand, and ethics and morality, on the other, was considered incorporating coincidental fields of study. The English university realized that commercial capitalism and economic success were mediated by a hierarchy of moral values that had to be implanted into the individual and collective psyche for work to be productive and efficient. Religion spurred individual performance because success was an indicator of divine predestination of an elect not only of this earth but of the kingdom to come. Hence, economic success was the measure not only of social ranking but ultimately of God’s grace in providing bounty to the successful competitor. The more successful the individual in the marketplace, the greater likelihood of being one of God’s chosen elect. That idea of salvation drove men to greater effort in the war of all against all in the marketplace. The individual worker could succeed with a good conscience, even though he might and must ruthlessly eliminate his competition. Success, however achieved, assured a person’s status as virtuous, as opposed to being deemed a vicious character if he should fail. That was not only the ways of natural law but God’s laws. In sum, the Protestant work ethic has been described. That was the religious ideology that justified the evils, as well as the good, that emanated from the tremendous human sacrifices made to the Industrial Revolution.