Malthusian regime: Introduction 2


The Malthusian model implies that, in the absence of changes in the technology or in the availability of land, the population will be stable around a constant level. Further, improvements in technology will, in the long run, be offset by increases in the size of the population. Countries with superior technology will have denser populations, but the standard of living will not be related to the level of technology, either over time or across countries.

The Malthusian model’s predictions are consistent with the evolution of technology, population, and output per capita for most of human histoty. First, the standard of living was roughly constant. Maddison (1982) estimates that the growth rate of GDP per capita in Europe between 500 and 1500 was zero. Lee (1980) reports that the real wage in England was roughly the same in 1800 as it had been in 1300. Clark (1957) concludes that income per capita in Greece in 400 BC was roughly equivalent to that in Britain in 1850 or Germany and France in 1870 add comment.

According to Chao’s (1986) analysis, real wages in China were lower at the end of the 18th century than they had been at beginning of the first century. Mokyr (1990), Lucas (1996), and Pritchett (1997) argue that even in the richest countries, the phenomenon of trend growth in living standards is only a few centuries old. Similarly, population growth was nearly zero, reflecting the slow pace of technological progress. For example. Livi-Bacci (1997) estimates the growth rate of world population from the year 1 to 1750 at 0.064 percent per year. And yet this growth represented a great increase over the rates in earlier periods (Coalc, 1974).

Fluctuations in population and wages also bear out the predictions of the Malthusian model. Lee (1997) reports positive income elasticity of fertility and negative income elasticity of mortality from studies examining a wide range of pre-industrial countries. Similarly, Wrigley and Schofield (1981) find that there was a strong positive correlation between real wages and marriage rates in England over the period 1551-1801. Negative shocks to population, such as the Black Death, were reflected in higher real wages and a lower age of marriage (Livi-Bacci, 1997). In North-West Europe, the Malthusian “preventive check” was enforced by late marriage, as couples were forced to inherit or save up to buy a shop, cottage, or farm before marrying. But settlers from that region who came to the American colonies, where land was abundant, married early and bred prolifically. (Stone, 1977; Haines, 1997).

Finally, the prediction of the Malthusian model that differences in technology should be reflected in population density but not in standards of living is also borne out. As argued by Easterlm (1981), Lucas (1996), and Pritchett (1997), prior to 1800 differences in standards of living among countries were quite small by today’s standards. And yet there did exist wide differences in technology. China’s sophisticated agricultural technologies, for example, allowed high per-acre yields, but failed to raise the standard of living above subsistence. Similarly in Ireland a new productive technology – the potato – allowed a large increase in population over the century prior to the Great Famine without any improvement in standards of living.2 Using this interpretation, Kremer (1993) argues that changes in the size of population can be taken as a direct measure of technological improvement.

Ironically, it was only shortly before the time that Malthus wrote that humanity began to emerge from the trap that he described.