03 July 2010

Thinking about Population

When the phrase "population theory" comes to mind, so inevitably, does the name Thomas Malthus, the author of the single most influential essay on the subject. Indeed, Malthus is to essays on population what Melville is to novels about whaling.

But what of the more than two centuries of subsequent debate? Which other names should one know to get up to speed? Well, first, there is Edwin Cannan.

In 1888 he wrote, in Elementary Political Economy: "[A]t any given time the population which can exist on a given extent of land, consistent with tha attainment of the greatest productiveness of industry possible at the time, is definite."

"Is definite"??? What the heck kind of a predicate for such a long convoluted subject is that?? A very indefinite one. Nonetheless, one gets his drift. There presumably is some "best case" at any one time, given the technology and capital accumulation and all other pertinet factors at that time, that can be stated in a given number of people per square mile.

One might also mention Henry George, the land-tax theorist, who addressed population issues. Here is the relevant chapter of Progress and Poverty. George didn't involve himself with trying to determine the optimum level of population. He is certain that the earth could support everyone there is, and everyone that is likely soon to arrive, were social conditions such as to allow it. His refutation of some of the Malthusian arguments is salutary.

Finally, I'll link you to a recent philosophical discussion. Gustav Arrhenius has used population theory to illustate moral issues, "what we ought to do in situations when our actions affect future generations. More specifically, I shall focus on the moral problems involved when our actions affect who’s going to live, their number and their-well being."

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Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.