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Malthus: The Dismal Science

"Ideas matter" and Ideas have consequences are phrases frequently heard in political discourse. Policy-making requires that a prescription of action be promulgated that produces tangible and desirable results soon afterwards. Policy analysis is serious stuff: Money is spent, coercive authority mobilized, all sorts of effects (some hidden or unintended) happen, and rarely do we even clearly specify what purposes we are trying to accomplish. The task environment, which is the field of action, poses complications and gaps in knowledge, so we use shorthand, theories, and ideologies. All this is the field of policy analysis.

An example of an early policy analyst who used theory and convincing ideas to influence public policy is Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus, the first academic chair in the nascent field of political economy and also the founder of demography.

In the late eighteenth century, the Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus wrote a long and seminal essay about poverty and population, An Essay On the Principle of Population. He took issue with the optimism that his era's reformers, particularly his father, saw in education and in publicly supported charity as the path to a good society. Rather, Malthus argued that unchecked population growth would inevitably exceed food supply, driving more and more people into destitution and undermining all efforts to alleviate the plight of the poor. Population, he reasoned, expands exponentially (2, 4, 8, 16, 32) while food, the limiting factor of population, grows arithmetically (2, 4, 6, 8, 10). The gap between the growth of food supply and the number of mouths to feed creates a population crash. Ecologists would claim that the population has exceeded the environment's carrying capacity. The end result, famine, remains inexorable, a kind of iron law that is not responsive to policy remedies. Today, that doctrine is alive and well, known as die-off, which we will examine in the second part of the course, on sustainability. Well intentioned policies frequently fail.

Alas, said Malthus, the well intentioned but wrong-headed prescriptions of reformers would founder on the lack of restraint among the working people. Malthus's grim theory gained wide influence: It dampened social reform, provided a tidy and logical explanation of poverty, exposed the futility of doing anything about underlying social conditions, and promoted popular discussion and even heated argument about public policy. His theory provided a rational for benign neglect --- do nothing. People starved; end of story. (The natural moral restraint exhibited by the upper-classes, argued Malthus, averted such a fate for the presumed moral folks like himself and his adherents.)

Others labeled the elaboration of Malthus's method of analysis the dismal science. The label has been applied both to demography and to economics, fields of study which were not formalized when Malthus wrote but claim him as a pioneering, seminal thinker. In fact, Malthus was given the first academic post in the new field of Political Economy, a chair at Oxford University, funded by the British East India Company, the largest transnational corporation of his era. His theories about populationism, citing unbridled population growth alone as the cause of poverty, was later dubbed benign neglect.

The field of public policy can now also claim the label dismal science. Malthus's argument that public policy intervention produces few real solutions, wastes resources, and engenders disappointment widely prevails today. The common belief appears to be that much that the government does is either done badly or disingenuously. This doctrine comports with the conservative ideology, refuting the liberal prescription of active governmental intervention. Ideas matter, have consequences, and persist.

The crisis of confidence in the efficacy of public policy may become a defining characteristic of our age. Our public paralysis begets the standing policy of benign neglect, the triumph of laissez faire. The patient's symptoms worsen but the cure is not available. Public confidence in the authors of national policy, the President and Congress, wilts to record low numbers in opinion polls while the fear of Big Government has increased sharply.

Yet, no published textbook in public policy entertains the premise that public policy is failing to address the needs of the American people. After all, a course in public policy attempts to explain how government works, not how it fails to work. However, the collective doubt looms so large that this theme will be woven into the fabric of this online textbook. Hopefully, we can ascertain how public policy might work better.

The dismal theory of benign neglect was invented by Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus, an idea worth remembering here.


The Public Policy Cycle Web Site | Page: © Wayne Hayes, Ph.D. | ™ ProfWork | wayne@profwork.com
Initialized: September 3, 2001 | Last Update: 05/28/2014