Jesus And The Malthusian Economy: Part 1

Jesus: A Nazarene Jew who preached “The Kingdom of God” in Roman Palestine in the 1st Century CE. Crucified by the Romans as an enemy of the state. Worshiped by Christians as the second person of the Trinity. Inspires a lot of really repetitive, really bad contemporary worship music.

And: A conjunction used to connect grammatically coordinate words, phrases or clauses.

The Malthusian Economy: The economic reality of the world before 1800 CE, characterized by astonishingly slow technological advance, slow or non-existent economic growth, static or declining wealth/consumption per person, high birth rates, high death rates, and other really fun factors that make it virtually unimaginable to much of the modern world.

Jesus and the Malthusian Economy

“He was the best abused man of his age. Bonaparte himself was not a greater enemy of his species. Here was a man who defended small-pox, slavery, and child-murder—a man who denounced soup kitchens, early marriages and parish allowances—a man who ‘had the impudence to marry after preaching against the evils of a family.’” – James Bonar, via Robert Heilbroner, The Worldly Philosophers

Thomas Malthus defended small-pox, slavery and child murder. He denounce soup kitchens and preached against the evils of a family. He was also known as Reverend Thomas Malthus as he was a clergyman in the Church of England. Malthus was brilliant, insightful, and his analysis is indispensable for understanding economics. When he wasn’t advocating for child-murder or trying to convince the public not to help the poor, he was a genuinely good man, and he also made spectacularly wrong predictions about the future of the world. And, I believe that understanding Malthus is necessary for understanding the economic and political views of Jesus of Nazareth.

He’s one of my favorite economists.

How can someone advocate for child-murder, defend small pox, and fight against helping the poor, while being a genuinely decent person and a Church of England clergyman? Well, it’s complicated.

Malthus lived in England in the mid 1700s, a time of rapid, unprecedented population growth. From 1740 to 1790, the population in England grew by 37%. This rapid growth wasn’t because English workers became more productive. In fact, the productivity gains of the Industrial Revolution hadn’t happened yet. Simply put, for reasons unexplained, women married younger, more women chose to get married instead of staying single, and more children were born outside of marriage. The rapid growth of agriculture imports from the American colonies supported such growth. But to Malthus, the math didn’t add up right. Something was wrong. The world was headed for disaster.

While other philosophers and clergymen were convinced that the world was on its way to a utopia (including his father), Malthus thought otherwise. And, his math was logical. His most basic argument is that the rate of agricultural output could only grow arithmetically while the number of mouths to feed could grow geometrically. As the number of mouths to feed would begin to far exceed the amount of food demanded, the only result for Malthus was permanent, horrible, wretched poverty to the point of starvation. Therefore, normal scourges of humankind: war, disease, infanticide, etc., were actually blessings for the most poor. The only way to limit widespread famine and poverty was population control by natural means or by the intentional actions of men. During most of his life, this is pretty close to what was happening. Population was growing. Agricultural productivity per person was fairly static, and the total cultivatable land area remaining was rapidly declining. Urban poverty was growing at an astounding rate.

Malthus was wrong. Sort of. Malthus did not, and could not, predict the rapid growth of technological output yet to come. As the population continued to expand, agricultural production also expanded rapidly with the growth of technology during the Industrial Revolution. He assumed that per person productivity could not increase with population growth, but as population grew in the 18th century, it was quickly followed by a historically unprecedented period of productivity growth resulting in increased wealth in all sectors of English society. The Malthusian disaster of starvation due to unchecked population growth never happened and astonishingly, the poor commoner instead grew far wealthier. But, the Malthusian economy does hold in many respects to the world before 1800.

The economy before 1800 was very different than anything that we know today. It’s an economy with essentially zero growth, since forever. It’s also an economy with very, very little population growth. In a modern economy, when the economy grows, people generally become wealthier and change their consumption habits. They buy more products, they eat more expensive foods, they save more for the future, and so on. There are also broad, identifiable changes in birth rates and death rates. Wealthier individuals have less children and die at older ages (generally). This is not true of the economic world before 1800.

Before 1800, changes in individual wealth (as expressed by consumption) happens only in the short term. As consumption rises, birth rates rise and/or mortality rates fall resulting in higher populations. The reason is simple, wealthier people are healthier and thus have more children and live longer. Because the vast majority of the population is involved in agricultural production, any additional laborers from population growth enter into the agricultural industry. Unfortunately, agricultural output, like all other economic outputs, suffers from decreasing marginal returns. In short, the more people you add, the less each additional person contributes. A 10-acre farm may be twice as productive with 2 people as opposed to 1, but will it be 50 times more productive with 50 people? Or 1,000 times more productive with 1,000? After a certain point, each additional worker becomes a burden, not a benefit, to the farm’s relative output.

Agricultural output requires land, and if the best land is already being used for agricultural production, additional people either work the same plot of land, or they work less productive land, resulting in decreased output per person. As production declines due to population increases, consumption per person also declines. As people consume less, they, by definition, become poorer. While in the modern world, poor people have more children than the rich, the exact opposite happens in the Malthusian economy. The rich have many children. Poor families have a difficult time even replacing their own numbers. All economic growth in the ancient world is eventually consumed by population growth, not by increased standards of living. In the long run, the economy pushes people back toward a subsistence-level no matter how wealthy, how poor, how righteous, or how evil the society is. The commoners suffer the same fate: subsistence-level poverty.

In the Malthusian economy, economic growth, population growth and declines in wealth resulting in poverty is a vicious circle. This Malthusian trap was the economic norm for all of human history until roughly 200 years ago at the advent of the Industrial Revolution. No society escaped it until England in the early 1800s. Poverty for you or your offspring was unavoidable. The gods did not save you.

The results of the Malthusian economy, if you accept its assumptions, are clear. Populations can grow, but in the long run, people do not become wealthier (with the exception of the elite whose cuts from the increased peasant population add up to greater amounts over time). In fact, there is evidence that the average person becomes less wealthy over the long run due to the slow, but real, technological growth lowering the basic levels needed for human survival. This means that in advanced economies, peasants were poorer just before the Industrial Revolution, than they were hundreds to thousands of years prior. Furthermore, because birth rates rise and mortality rates fall the wealthier one is in a society, the children of the wealthy have a hereditary advantage and over the generations the children of the wealthy constitute a greater percentage of the population. But because the economy of the Malthusian era is static over the long run, the large number of children of the wealthy must compete with each other over a limited supply of wealth and influence creating a system of constant downward economic mobility. The oldest son of a king may be king, but what happens to his fifth son, and the fifth son’s children? They’re poorer than their parents and their siblings. In this economy, there is little room to move but down the economic ladder. Downward social mobility is the norm.

Thomas Malthus’s defense of smallpox, child-murder and slavery should then make some bit of sense (although I am absolutely not calling them correct or morally defensible). Anything that lowers the birth rate (infanticide) or raises the death rate (smallpox), raises the per person wealth of individuals in the long run if such factors can be sustained by lowering the population. Lowering the birth rate and raising the mortality rate are the only ways to increase the consumption/wealth of the average person over the long run. Good government, charitable neighbors, and hard work ultimately don’t matter.

Thus the Malthusian economy, the world economy before the industrial revolution, can be described as having:

  1. Glacially slow technological, population and economic growth.

  2. Long-term declines in per person consumption (individuals become poorer)

  3. High birth rates for the rich

  4. Low birth rates for the poor

  5. Downward economic mobility

  6. Ineffectiveness of all efforts to increase the wealth of the commoner over the long run– except for low birth rates and high mortality rates.

It is this alien and unimaginable economic world in which Jesus is born, in which he performs his ministry and in which he dies. This is also the same world in which the bulk of Christian thought about theology, wealth and politics is developed, including the Wesleyan theology of which my own denomination is based. However, the vast majority of commentary and analysis of Jesus do not take such a world into consideration. They barely even acknowledge its existence. Christian theology and social ethics keep many of the same assumptions that the rest of us do about the modern economy and simply apply them to the ancient world. But that world does not play by our rules. It doesn’t reward the same things. The consequences are not the same at all. Our world is the anomaly in human civilization. The Malthusian economy is the norm. It’s likely that if Jesus, the church fathers, the prophets, or any of the ancient scriptures speak about economics, they either don’t apply to you or our society at all or they do not advance your agenda.

Does Jesus speak about the poor? If so, just what is he advocating if the best result is subsistence-level poverty? And, how could he call a life of permanent subsistence-level poverty “good news,”especially when it includes horrors, such as 50% of children dying before the age of 5? How can his ministry be characterized as salvific if the only option to the community is a life that the modern world would characterize as “extreme poverty”? And just what possible role could we have in such a ministry for Christians who live in the enormously wealthy western world?

I’ll be exploring this in the next few articles. Part 2: The Politics. Part 3: The Economics. And Part 4: Bad News Everyone! The Good News Isn’t For You!

One thought on “Jesus And The Malthusian Economy: Part 1

  1. i believe that Jesus understood what levels of life even the very poor would live if, they could see themselves as worthy persons regardless of economics. They would then findGod and move from that level . Yes it is very possible. If you believe the word of God instead of the Scientific explanations.

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