The Growth of Population

Book 4, Chapter 4

§1. This chapter concerns the supply of labor, and thus population. Marshall points out that leaders and thinkers changed their minds, in favor or against greater population, over the centuries, depending on wars, food supplies, religious influences, etc. There were many cases in which taxes were forgiven to large, legal families (i.e., to fathers with more than 10 legitimate children).

§2. In opposition to those favoring more people were those who wanted more income per person. Malthus is the most famous proponent of population control as a means to prosperity.

§3. Malthus was not worried about absolute population, but population relative to the “income of Nature” which includes food but also many other goods whose supply is fixed (relative to labor involved).

Marshall notes some figures: The UK’s population was 7 million (it’s 60 million today), the world’s population was estimated at 1.5 billion, and it would reach — following on British population growth rates — 6 billion by 2090. We got there a little sooner!

§4. An interesting excerpt:

The age of marriage varies with the climate. In warm climates where childbearing begins early, it ends early, in colder climates it begins later and ends later; but in every case the longer marriages are postponed beyond the age that is natural to the country, the smaller is the birth-rate; the age of the wife being of course much more important in this respect than that of the husband. Given the climate, the average age of marriage depends chiefly on the ease with which young people can establish themselves, and support a family according to the standard of comfort that prevails among their friends and acquaintances; and therefore it is different in different stations of life.

In the middle classes a man’s income seldom reaches its maximum till he is forty or fifty years old; and the expense of bringing up his children is heavy and lasts for many years. The artisan earns nearly as much at twenty-one as he ever does, unless he rises to a responsible post, but he does not earn much before he is twenty-one: his children are likely to be a considerable expense to him till about the age of fifteen; unless they are sent into a factory, where they may pay their way at a very early age; and lastly the labourer earns nearly full wages at eighteen, while his children begin to pay their own expenses very early. In consequence, the average age at marriage is highest among the middle classes: it is low among the artisans and lower still among the unskilled labourers.

§5. Population will rise quickly when there is more land that can provide food and jobs to children. This was the case in the New World. In the old world, tradition (primogeniture, nunneries, monasteries, servitude etc.) kept men from marrying and having children.

§6. Marriage and large families were encouraged after wars or pestilence (the Black Death). In other times, Perish and Poor laws were used to prevent family formation, immigration, and other actions that would increase  claims on welfare by the poor and numerous.

§7. Although there was a strong negative correlation between food prices and marriage rates, that relation broke down in 1870s England. Prices were falling but people were not marrying as quickly, so the average standard of living (resources or consumption per capita) was rising rapidly. This note matches what I’ve read elsewhere: the Industrial Revolution really only began to help the middle classes after 70 or so years…

Author: David Zetland

I'm a political-economist from California who now lives in Amsterdam.

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