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Wednesday, May 21, 2008

"The Malthusian Trap Is Not the Whole Story"

Gavin Kennedy wonders if per capita income captures the full story of what was happening during "the first millennia of commerce":

The Malthusian Trap Is Not the Whole Story, Adam Smith's Lost Legacy: ...I am reading Robert Payne’s ‘The Christian Centuries from Christ to Dante’, 1966. ... I didn’t acquire this book from a religious interest in the topic; my motives for doing so are forgotten now, but my interest ... is from a discussion we were having some months ago on Gregory Clarke’s book, Farewell to Alms ... on The Marginal Revolution Blog...

The proposition that I lodged at the back of my mind which did not seem to fit the assertion that population grew (excluding the Black Death years), subsistence incomes had remained the lot of the population (the Malthusian trap) for millennia. Now, I didn’t deny the statistical evidence; I had trouble reconciling the facts with other evidence that this was not the whole story.

Societies were changing slowly and remained unequal; a necessary consequence of the Adam Smith’s last three Ages of Man (shepherding, farming and commerce). The elites of these societies certainly were not generally on subsistence compared to the majority of their populations. They lived differently, if in many years the differences were marginal.

But, and this is what irritated my understanding of Greg Clarke’s thesis, from the great agricultural settled societies onwards, these settled societies (unlike the mobile shepherding tribes) were associated with stone buildings, defensive walls, armed retainers on them, religious mystics and rituals, later, with special buildings (temples, synagogues, churches), and in some cases, philosophers.

Now all these had to be paid for (even in conditions of slavery), both materials and wages (subsistence goods), or circulating capital in Adam Smith’s theory of growth. The only source of this capital is by extraction from annual revenue of society, which the ruling elites controlled. If this diversion is significant (and it was) the per capita subsistence of the majority is not the key statistic about what was happening from the first millennia of commerce.

Moreover the products of what we call stone-based ‘civilisations’ had a lasting impact on future generations in wide areas of knowledge, the pre-condition of the technology that made what is called the ‘industrial revolution’ possible and the almost simultaneous solution to the Malthusian trap as Malthus was writing his book about it.

Back to Robert Payne’s Christian Centuries, which details the stone-built evidence of centuries of architectural monuments, ever greater in their magnificence, to the extraction thesis applied across Europe. Judging by the accounts in Payne’s book, the substance of my nagging doubts about Clarke’s focus on per capita incomes seems firmer now than before.

But then I am only up the 12th century (‘The Gothic Splendour') of Christian Rome’s complicity in the extraction process. I shall press on with the next chapter...

    Posted by on Wednesday, May 21, 2008 at 12:15 AM in Economics, History of Thought | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (24)

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