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The Malthus delusion


Greg Clark is a master of the art of using one-liners in telling stories and Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World is no exception. It offers the Malthusian hypothesis of population growth leading to misery as an all-purpose vehicle for all human history, except for the last 200 years. However, his Malthusianism is at times more evangelical than empirical and analytical. He dismisses Angus Maddison's painstaking efforts (e.g. Maddison 2001, 2003) at providing an empirical basis for long-run income estimates (p. 19) as inconsistent with the logic of the Malthusian economy. When the historical record contradicts Greg Clark it is not allowed to stand in the way of his noble aim and declared intention of writing big history. At least in one respect he has succeeded: this book is the widescreen version of the Postan Thesis, although M. M. Postan (1966, 1972) is remarkably missing in the credits. The book is also big in rhetorical gestures, starting with the title, and a reader must be forgiven for occasionally asking whether the author should be interpreted literally, or whether statements should simply be deflated by common sense. I have decided to go nominal on Clark.

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R. E. Bailey and M. J. Chambers (1993). Long-term demographic interactions in pre-census England. Journal of the Royal Statistical Society, series A 156 (3), pp. 339–62.

O. Galor (2005). From stagnation to growth: unified growth theory. In P. Aghion and S. Durlauf (eds.), Handbook of Economic Growth, vol. 1, part 1. Amsterdam: North-Holland.

R. W. Goldsmith (1984). An estimate of the size and structure of the national product of the early Roman empire. Review of Income and Wealth 30 (3), pp. 263–88.

R. Lee (1973). Population in pre-industrial England: an econometric analysis. Quarterly Journal of Economics 87 (4), pp. 581607.

R. Lee and M. Anderson (2002). Malthus in state space: macro economic-demographic relations in English history, 1540–1870. Journal of Population Economics 15 (2), pp. 195220.

A. Maddison (2001). The World Economy: A Millennial Perspective. Paris: Development Centre Studies, OECD.

A. Maddison (2003) The World Economy: Historical Statistics. Paris: Development Centre Studies, OECD.

B. Milanovic (2006). An estimate of average income and inequality in Byzantium around year 1000. Review of Income and Wealth 52 (3), pp. 449–70.

B. Milanovic , P. Lindert and J. G. Williamson (2007). Measuring Ancient Inequality. The World Bank, Policy Research Papers WPS 4412.

E. A. Nicolini (2007). Was Malthus right? A VAR analysis of economic and demographic interactions in pre-industrial England. European Review of Economic History 11 (1), pp. 99121.

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European Review of Economic History
  • ISSN: 1361-4916
  • EISSN: 1474-0044
  • URL: /core/journals/european-review-of-economic-history
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