THE POPULATION AND RESOURCES
Frequently our most intimate convictions or feelings cause terrible damage when dealing with the building of a science that looks passionlessly for the truth as its objective. In that land of feelings there is no doubt that, today, a wave of sadness and absurd pessimism invades most discussions, also scientific, about the population and resources.
That decadent atmosphere when faced with the problem, from the vulgar and also scientific point of view, reminds us of the predictions of L’Abbé Raynal -author who liked to quote Malthus – who wrote in 1781: “One cannot say without recklessness what the population of the United States will be one day. But if ten million people find their existence assured in these lands at some time, it will already be a lot. There are few things that the country can supply itself, and its inhabitants will have to resign themselves to a life full of hardship and mediocrity.» Two hundred and forty four million people that inhabit that country with an enviable standard of living highlight the unfairness and lack of realism of such scientific statements. We can also remember that if the English population in times of Malthus was 17 million and today is 56 million, and if a woman of humble condition can use silk stockings today, something that was a luxury for Queen Isabel, as Schumpeter observes, it is easy to deduce the grave error of such pseudo-Malthusian reasoning.
In spite of much grief, the reality is generally more surprising, interesting, attractive and positive than many novels written or dreamt in fiction. For that reason the genuinely most scientific science, if it wants to approach the truth, will be more optimistic than depressing. For that reason I believe that Adam Smith, the ‘first economist’ according to many, had his feet firmly on the ground of economic reality when he affirmed in The Wealth of the Nations: “The most decisive sign of prosperity in a country is that of the increase in number of inhabitants.»
For Smith, as he explains almost textually at the beginning of chapter one, the most important progress in the productive abilities of labour, and most of the aptitude, dexterity and good sense with which this is applied or directed everywhere, are the consequence of the division of labour. Each individual, free and civilizingly understood in his work, becomes more of an expert in his field, and, as a consequence, produces more in total and increases the quantity of theoretical, practical and reflexive science considerably. The progressive division of labour is tied to that population’s increase with original capacities of civilization. With more workers, each one always different to the others, the tasks can be divided and supplemented more and more through the correct operation of the basic institutions of free markets; and general prosperity increases.
With this reasoning Adam Smith favours the growth of the population, which he does not see as an obstacle, but rather a condition “sine qua non” for general economic development. If the available hands and minds do not increase, the process of division of labour stagnates; and with that follows the depression of economic progress.
For that reason, the widespread opinion and practice, of representing the relationship resource-population as a fraction in which the total sum of available resources would be the numerator and the homogeneous sum of the number of inhabitants would be the denominator, is absurd. In the confusion of abstract numbers, and without more considerations, the denominator hides the numerator, and how much each one has is calculated. With this position there are two radically different forms of making the result of the relationship increase: 1) increase the numerator in a rising way before new increases of the denominator or 2) diminish the denominator so that, in constant maintenance of resources, more have access to them.
With the simplicity of this index a multitude of book errors are made, among which it is necessary to highlight what seems like an atrocity to us in everyday language: to mix the numerator and denominator up.
The other striking error, no less terrible, is considering numerator and denominator as independent, when, I insist, the increase in the civilized population gives rise to a greater increase in resources. The population is the most important of all resources. Maybe Malthus was wrong to see in his time the obvious fact that man with his own labour is the one that produces subsistence and surpluses. Neither are found spontaneously in nature, or they are found in a minimum proportion. To obtain them it is necessary to work and to capitalize. And if there are no men, one can neither work nor capitalize. As José María Méndez indicates in his theory of population, also very Smithian, Malthus gives such an emphasis to the demand that ends up forgetting the role of supply.
Man enjoys the unique privilege of being able to push the ceiling of growth of his species by himself. The resistance of means can be conquered by human intelligence and creativity. The quantity of subsistence and other goods available to the human species is not a fixed or extra-polar fact of nature, but rather it can increase with labour and doing-good in all fields of human activity. Our labour can leap to superior levels of efficiency and productivity. When the human species reaches its limit it can, with its intelligence and reflection, continue pushing that limit by means of progressive division of labour and the growing knowledge of the strength of nature.
Historians say that in the Palaeolithic time there were about 35.000 inhabitants in France. In Spain there were about 15.000.and they say that the Manzanares valley was inhabited by nomadic tribes of 300 or 500 people whose fundamental origin of resources was some elephants that lived there then. If, jumping the tunnel of time, we could have let them know that a population of four million natives of Madrid would live there, they would surely think that we were crazy, only for the simple reason that there would not be enough elephants for everyone. The reality is more optimistic.
JJ Franch Meneu