Population and economic growth

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There was no population census in England before 1801, and few anywhere else. Eighteenth- (and seventeenth-) century writers did not know what the population was or whether it was increasing. Graunt and Petty had made a start, but their estimates were open to criticism. Steuart, for example, rejected Petty's results because they clashed with his theory. There was even debate about whether population had grown by comparison with classical antiquity. One of Hume's essays dealt with this question.

Population size and growth was widely used as an index of economic success, since reliable estimates of income and output were even scarcer than estimates of population, but there was no agreement on the direction of causality. The Graunt-Petty estimates of population growth used estimates of births and deaths, which Petty treated as essentially independent of economic success. Population growth, he thought, would certainly increase total income, and perhaps income per head. His notorious proposal to ship most of the Irish to England was based on the assumption that an increase in the population of England would be a good thing. Many seventeenth-century writers shared this opinion.

The alternative view, which was to dominate classical economics, saw population as endogenous. Steuart, like Smith and Malthus a few years later, thought that population presses against the limits set by subsistence, so that economic success would automatically lead to population growth. On the other hand, Josiah Tucker (1713-99), one of the few significant English economic writers of the mid-eighteenth century, wanted to encourage immigration because he saw an enlarged population as an asset. Whether population is seen as exogenous or endogenous matters to the emergence of a concept of economic growth in the late eighteenth century. Sustained economic growth was not taken for granted then, as it has been in later centuries, and there was no agreement on whether population and output had grown or would grow in the future (A. Brewer, 1995).

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