I am neither an economist nor a historian.  I am a retired businessman who has spent his adult life in, or attached to, the trucking industry.  I am a card-carrying member of the Libertarian Party, and a dilletante Malthusian.  And yes, sometimes those beliefs conflict, and my knickers get tangled.  But for the last several years, I have become more convinced that Thomas Malthus knew what he was talking about.

Mr. Malthus was an English preacher and self-taught economist about 250 years ago.  He wrote a book, “An Essay on the Principle of Population,” that made him famous.  In it, he made the observation that a small increase in goods (particularly food) causes a huge and disproportionate increase in population.  From that, he predicted that eventually the world would be unable to support a continually increasing population, and the result would be disaster – man made or otherwise: “the power of population is so superior to the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape, or another visit the human race.”

Malthus believed that this problem could self-correct through famine, disease, or war; but that deliberate population control, “moral restraint”, including birth control, celibacy, and forced sterilization, was preferrable.  He published his book in 1798 when the world’s population was about one billion.  It reached two billion about 1930, three billion about 1960, four billion in 1980, six billion in 2000, and in 2022 is almost eight billion.  Meanwhile, the amount of arable land on the planet hasn’t changed materially.

As a writer and an economist, Malthus was a major, although controversial, public figure in the 19th century.  Among his admirers were Charles Darwin and Frederich Nietzche.  He was elected to the Royal Society (of Britain) and the Academie des Science (of France).  Lord Byron and Karl Marx opposed his beliefs.  Other notables and economists were similarly split. Later 20th century economists, such as John Maynard Keynes, admitted they admired him. 

But probably no admirer was so influential as Charles Trevelyan, the British official in charge of the administration of Ireland during the “potato famine” in the 1840’s.  Worried that the Irish propensity for large families would lead to a population explosion, he listened to a Malthusian economist (Nassar Senior) who is reported to have said that “he feared the famine of 1848 in Ireland would not kill more than a million people, and that would scarcely do much good”.  He partially was right.  Estimates of the starvation numbers during the famine vary from 750,000 to 1,200,000 – about 20 percent of the island’s population at the time (makes our wailing about covid deaths look a bit over dramatized).   The real irony is that there was no famine: Ireland had a net surplus of food exports during it, and despite living next to one of the richest seafood oceans in the world, the Irish refused to catch or eat fish – except on Fridays, of course.

Regardless, the famine tarnished Malthus’ reputation, as did the continued explosion of world populations in the late 19th and early 20th centuries – without any resulting major problems feeding people.  Thank the Mayans; their agricultural innovations feed the world today. World wars and a recessions also helped, as did technological innovations (Deere tractors, McCormick reapers, hybrid grains, chemical fertilizers).   Malthus was relegated to the junkyard of false prophets and kooks.

But in the last half century, things have changed a bit.  Not population growth; that has continued and accelerated.  But the ability to feed and clothe everyone is becoming increasingly burdensome; and the environment is suffering as a result.   We acknowledge that the rain forest is being destroyed, the oceans are being over fished, agricultural land is being over fertilized and converted to streets and housing, and the air is being contaminated, but we won’t acknowledge that the folks performing these dastardly deeds are trying only to feed their families.  This was brought home to me a couple of years ago in Tanzania where the rain forests have been replaced with corn fields (not very successfully).  But there are no jobs, and there is no support network for hungry kids.   Should parents just walk away from their families?

We scream about protecting the environment, but we have no sensible idea how to do it.  We advocate electric cars, but we refuse to admit they pollute more than carbon vehicles.  We ignore diesel engines on my industry’s big trucks that are needed for moving goods.   Instead, we ban tiny and efficient two cycle engines on hand tools. We quack about factories that may emit tiny amounts of gas needed to sanitize hospital equipment, but we ignore the 100-mile square mile dead area at the mouth of the Mississippi River – caused by fertilizer from the Midwest. Why?  Maybe because we must have ever more goods to feed ever more mouths?

Malthus probably would have assumed that our obsession with killing each other eventually would bring things under control, but we have wars and massacres occurring all over the planet; in Europe (Ukraine, Ireland), the Middle East (Gaza, Iraq, Syria, Yemen), Africa (Ethiopia, Nigeria, Mali), Asia (China, Myanmar, Korea), and Latin and South America (Guatemala, Venezuela, Mexico).  They involve all races, political systems, and religions.  But one thing they have in common is an obscenely high birthrate: far beyond the ability of the local infrastructure to support.  So, hungry, and desperate, the residents fall on each other, and pour into countries that are more responsible in family planning.

We accept them as “refugees”.  We ignore that they are unskilled because “it is humanitarian, and they are needed for jobs our own citizens won’t accept”. Aren’t those assertations silly, really? Their woes mostly are self-inflicted (through over breeding and crime) and bringing them and their problems here won’t do any lasting good.  There are no jobs natives won’t do the if pay is adequate.   Recently, a neighbor boy told me he was learning to be an underwater welder.  I asked if that was not one of the most dangerous trades in the world.  He affirmed it was but explained the going pay scale was $160/hour.   Also, why do the same people who demand increases in the minimum wage also demand we loosen our borders to illegal immigrants?  Maybe they should talk to building contractors who hire $7/hour “braceros” because domestic workers demand at least twice that rate.

Then there is artificial intelligence (“AI”).  AI scares me, and it will aggravate the problems.  I won’t be around to see most of it, but it’s coming, and it is going to put millions of folks out of work.  The politicians don’t want to talk about it; they deal in votes, not jobs, nor quality of life.  In most fields, machines soon will be more efficient than people.  They will be cheaper, more reliable, and cause fewer problems than humans.  They work 24/7 for 365 days/year without medical leave, unemployment compensation, vacations and holidays, labor walkouts, lunch breaks, and protests over social issues.  They don’t complain that the office is too cold, nor that their “employer” is not socially conscious.   In trucking, my own career industry, it is estimated that in twenty years all trucks will be “driven” by machines.  They will be safer, cheaper, and more efficient than human drivers (especially when all the other vehicles on the road are taken out of the hands of unpredictable humans).  Of course, that will put two million truck drivers out of work, not including the dispatchers, truck stop employees, ambulance chasing lawyers, and others dependent upon drivers.  Does anyone think that McDonalds doesn’t have a plan to replace workers when it becomes cheaper to use machines to flip hamburgers and stir fries?  Just keep raising the minimum wage to find out.  McKinsey Global Institute recently ran a survey and found that “two-thirds of global firms are doubling down on automation”.  On January 16, 2021, The Economist reported that “breakthroughs in artificial intelligence (AI) seemed to support the idea that robots would soon upend every workplace”.  What will we do with all those unemployable people? And who will buy all the efficiently made goods?

Back to Mr. Malthus.  The great problem with Mr. Malthus’ theory is deciding who should play God.  Who will decide who is expendable, and how should they be eliminated?  Think of the social, economic, political and religious issues related to that question.  But he claimed that if we do not address the problem, nature (or God) will.  Maybe it already is.  Covid 19 is just the latest of over half a dozen pandemics in the last 100 years (others: Ebola, swine flu, Spanish flu, SARS, Avian flu, and AIDS).  And Covid has been quite logical in picking its victims.  Three quarters of them have been setting around waiting to die anyway: convicts, derelicts, and bed ridden geriatrics.  And the diseases are getting more sophisticated almost daily.   Increases in the murder rate have caused similar results.  Yes, there has been some “collateral damage”, but most the of the folks involved have been nogoodniks.   It is far quicker, cheaper, and more efficient to “defund” and hamstring the police and let them shoot each other.   

The thrust of this paper is that a looming problem is out there, and if we don’t address it, nature will.  Maybe that default option is the best option.  But don’t tell me that we have always replaced eliminated jobs and fed everyone, so we don’t need to worry.  We will not be replacing assembly line jobs this time.  The few available jobs will require people with superior intelligence and education; those few that machines won’t be able to perform more effectively.

No, I don’t have solutions, and I hope I am yelling “ fire” for nothing – but I am not very comfortable with that.  Smarter people may address the issue, or we can just sit and wait to see if Mr. Malthus’ Armageddon prediction was right!

The opinions shared here do not necessarily represent the official position of the Libertarian Party. These editorial articles have been submitted by Libertarians across the country, and featuring these topics does not represent an endorsement of the content therein.

The opinions shared here do not necessarily represent the official position of the Libertarian Party. These editorial articles have been submitted by Libertarians across the country, and featuring these topics does not represent an endorsement of the content therein.