Anti-Growth Politics
Jude Wanniski
July 9, 2005


Memo To: SSU students
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: The Malthusian Paradigm

At the end of the 18th century a British economist named Thomas Malthus wrote an essay on "The Principle of Population" that questioned the perfectability of the world political economy on the following grounds:

Population, when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio. Subsistence increases only in an arithmetical ratio. A slight acquaintance with numbers will shew the immensity of the first power in comparison of the second. By that law of our nature which makes food necessary to the life of man, the effects of these two unequal powers must be kept equal. This implies a strong and constantly operating check on population from the difficulty of subsistence. This difficulty must fall somewhere and must necessarily be severely felt by a large portion of mankind.

Observing the population growth of mankind in the two centuries since Malthus warned that population would be checked by starvation unless it were checked by other means, modern economists no longer warn that food supply cannot keep up with population growth. Still, the Malthusian paradigm is alive and well in other issues that divide our two political parties, which is why it is well worth the time of a serious SSU student to read the Malthus essay.

The abortion issue has the most obvious connection to Malthus, with Democrats (the Mommy party) generally "pro-choice" and Republicans (the Daddy party)"pro-life." The two sides are now gearing up for a knock-down-drag-out fight over Supreme Court nominees, and we might imagine Malthus rooting for abortion rights. The food issue doesn't arise in the debate here because we are a food-exporting nation, but it still comes up in Congress regarding U.S. support for "family planning" in countries deemed overpopulated, such as India and China. When I first came to Washington in 1965, there was a vigorous lobby warning of mass starvation in India on Malthusian grounds, but within a year or two the development of new hybrid seeds led to an explosion of crop yields that raced ahead of population growth. There is still elements of the old lobby, but it is quiet.

Global warming is another major piece of the modern Malthusian paradigm. Democrats are more in favor of the Kyoto Treaty that would require national economies to produce less carbon dioxide. At the G-8 Summit just concluded this week in Gleneagles, Scotland, President Bush prevailed over Britain's Tony Blair (who heads Britain's "Mommy" party), with the consensus statement promising to do something about CO2 only "as the science justifies." In other words, the G.O.P. is not buying the idea that almost all scientists agree that mankind is cooking the planet. Indeed, there is a petition now containing the names of 17,000 scientists who agree with Bush that the science does not justify shutting down the world economy to cool it off.

This kind of conflict is relatively mild today compared to where it was 30 years ago when the Democrats believed the world was running out of oil, with some serious presidential candidates in 1976 arguing for the nationalization of American oil companies!! Here is an editorial I wrote for The Wall Street Journal on February 23, 1976, which gives you an idea of how bad things were back then and how far we have progressed:

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The Wall Street Journal
February 23, 1976

The Politics of Despair

The unofficial word from the political handicappers is that out of the cluster of liberal Democrats running in New Hampshire, Rep. Morris K. ("Moe") Udall seems to be spurting ahead in the homestretch and should finish on the heels of Georgia's Jimmy Carter, who is a moderately liberal conservative Democrat. This makes sense to us, and indeed gives us a perspective from which to understand the whole spectrum in the race for the Democratic political nomination.

Mr. Udall is the logical candidate of the party's true left, for he best exemplifies the prevailing liberal ethos, expressed in what we think of as the politics of despair. The lanky Arizonan, who vies with Mr. Carter as the most amiable and personally pleasant of all the various contenders in their party, makes no bones about his belief that the year 1976 marks a divide in the history of civilization: Heretofore there was plenty and henceforth there will be less.

Thus Mr. Udall offers himself as the one political leader who can help the nation accommodate to this brooding period of declining resources and Malthusian population curves, a modern Dark Age. When a high school boy the other day asked him what distinguishes him from the rest of the field, his answer was that he is the only candidate discussing "the hard, tough facts about where this country is going" as its resources are being depleted.

On "Meet the Press" last month, he capsulated his campaign, declaring that the days of "cheap land, cheap timber, cheap resources, cheap everything" are over, and "the story of our lives is going to be how we are going to adapt to the end of that era." He proposes "to move us toward an era in which our lives are different, but our lives are going to be better. We are going to recycle, we are going to conserve energy, and we are going to bring the people down below the poverty line up, and we are going to have a just society where everyone pays fair taxes and we have national health insurance and a lot of other things."

The politics of despair appeals to the liberal Democrats because, as Mr. Udall's rhetoric makes so clear, once you have written off growth you have to concentrate on the issue of wholesale income redistribution. This is a program to transfer power from the conservative wealthy elite to the liberal intellectual elite, which is to say, to the left wing of the Democratic Party: So our guess is that the liberals will recognize Mr. Udall as their man, since his the only Democratic contender to explicitly embrace a Club-of-Rome, doomsday, no-growth philosophy.

Now we do not believe the American people are yet quite ready to throw in the towel and abandon the American dream, and it will be a very tough job marketing political despair to the electorate at large. So even though the liberal wing will exert considerable clout at the national convention, the party will reach out for alternatives. Within the Democratic Party, the chief counterweights to the politics of despair are Mr. Carter and Hubert Humphrey, not to mention George Wallace. The three are all "growth" candidates, and the fact that they are all doing so well in the public-opinion polls reflects our belief that Americans as a whole do not accept the inevitability of an end to plenty.

Governor Wallace proposes more growth through less government. Senator Humphrey proposes more growth through more government, which is the "politics of joy" of the old liberalism. Mr. Carter, like President Ford an avowed pragmatist, proposes to have more growth through government more efficiently organized. The Carter approach is similar to President Nixon's New Federalism, but where Mr. Nixon sought economies through decentralization, Mr. Carter seeks economies through centralization. The true liberals will of course have nothing to do with Governor Wallace; even without the racist history and anti-elitist oratory, there is the likelihood that less government would in fact produce economic growth. Mr. Carter is unacceptable because he is soft on private enterprise and does not want to break up the oil companies. Thus he also presents some risk of actually producing growth. Mr. Udall clearly states that he does not want growth, but even true liberals know the odds are stacked against the election of a candidate selling out-and-out despair.

Which brings everyone back to Senator Humphrey. He can probably pull enough of the party together to get the nomination. Moderates will want to try one more time to produce growth through government planning and spending. The liberals can take comfort in the fact that this does not work, so that to them the politics of joy will be almost, if not quite, as good as the politics of despair.

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P.S. Let there be no mistake that while I don't believe mankind is contributing to any warming of Mother Earth via CO2 emissions, I've always sided with environmentalists when it comes to promoting economic growth at the expense of the planet. There will always be businessmen at the margin who will rationalize a bit more air and water pollution to stay in business.