Principalities & Powers

Paleo-Malthusianism

"Parson," wrote the Tory radical William Cobbett in an open letter to Thomas Malthus in 1819, "1 have, during my life, detested many men; but never any one so much as you." Cobbett's hatred of Malthus, the founder of modern population science, is comparable to the dislike that most conservatives feel toward him today, though they probably would not care for Cobbett, an unsparing critic of the ravenous industrial capitalism of the early 19th century, any more than for the author of the Essay on the Principle of Population, first published exactly 200 years ago in 1798.

It is not surprising that most conservatives have not exactly waxed exuberant about the anniversary. They regard Malthus as the father of "population planning" and of the idea that too many people can be a bad thing, and in addition, growtho-maniacs like the late Julian Simon hold the harelipped demographer and English clergyman responsible for the even more wicked idea that infinite and unrestricted economic growth is not necessarily a good thing. Thus, Malthus takes it on the lip from both wings of the "conservative movement," from the religious right and the anti-abortion, anti-birth control faction as well as from the libertarians, who like to insist that there is no environmental or population problem that cannot be solved satisfactorily by building a few more strip malls.

As usual, both sides of the...

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