The Logic of the Malthusian
No arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual
fear, and danger of violent death: and the life of man, solitary, poor,
nasty, brutish and short.
(Hobbes, 1651, ch. 13, 84).
The vast majority of human societies, from the original
foragers of the African savannah, through settled agrarian societies
until about 1800, had an economic life that was shaped and
governed by one simple fact: in the long run births had to equal
Since this same logic governs all animal species, until
1800, in this “natural” economy, the economic laws for humans
were the same as for all animal species.
It is commonly assumed that the huge changes in the tech-
nology available to people, and in the organizational complexity of
societies, between our ancestors of the savannah and Industrial
Revolution England, must have improved material life even
before modern economic growth began.
The estimates, for
example, of Angus Maddison, the much-quoted creator of pre-
industrial economic data, of income per person before 1820 are
hazarded on this basis.
But in this chapter I show that the logic
of the natural economy implies that the material living standards
person in the agrarian economies of 1800 was, if
anything, worse than for our remote ancestors.
Hobbes, in the
quote above, was profoundly wrong to believe that in the state of
nature man was any worse off than in the England of 1651.
Maddison, 2001, 28, for example, estimates GDP per capita in western
Europe more than doubled from $450 in 1 AD to $1,232 by 1820 (in 1990 $),
while for Japan the rise was from $400 to $669.