T.R. Malthus’s Principles of Political Economy first edition was published in 1820

This is the 200th anniversary of the publication of the first edition of Thomas Robert Malthus’s Principles of Political Economy in 1820.

The funny thing is that I was thinking about the publication of Malthus’s first edition of his Principles only because I was thinking about how hard it is to maintain friendships with other economists who differ with our own views, which from that led me onto thinking about the greatest friendship in the history of economics, the friendship between David Ricardo and Robert Malthus, and how Ricardo had written to Malthus, just before he died, that even had they agreed on everything instead of disagreeing on everything – which was more or less the truth of it – he could not have liked Malthus any more than he did. It really is how economic discourse should be undertaken. And from that it occurred to me that the publication of Malthus’s text led onto the General Glut debate, the formulation of what we now call Say’s Law, which then instigated the Keynesian Revolution and thereon to modern macroeconomic theory. There can hardly be an anniversary in the entire history of economics more significant than that.

The second edition from The Liberty Press can be found online here.

The Outline

Malthus may have been the single most influential economist who has ever lived – Karl Marx included. In his own time there was his Essay on Population which was a crucial element in the structure of economic theory as well as a good deal of social policy in his own time and for long after. Far more important, however, was his Principles of Political Economy, published exactly two hundred years ago this year in 1820, which touched off a debate over the possibility of a “general glut” – demand deficiency – that has had two sets of consequences. In his own time and until 1936, the mainstream of the economics community were united in denying the possibility of a general glut, that is in denying the possibility of over-production as a cause of recession and high unemployment. But then, of even more significance, John Maynard Keynes, following his coming across the general glut debate in his reading of Malthus’s correspondence with Ricardo at the trough of the Great Depression in 1932, was set on the road to write The General Theory in which the possibility of a general glut – a deficiency in the level of aggregate demand – was developed so that an under-employment equilibrium was seen as not only possible but common.  Virtually the whole of mainstream economic theory has as a result accepted Malthus’s conclusion down through to the present day.

Malthus published his economics text Principles of Political Economy exactly two hundred years ago in 1820, but what made its publication so notable was that Malthus was already world-famous because he had previously published his Essay on Population in 1798 (a book which has never since then been out of print). Malthus’s Principles was not therefore just another text on economic theory but was authored by the most famous “public intellectual” of his time.

In so far as economic theory was concerned, it was a generally standard account for its time, except that he argued that the recessions that had followed the Napoleonic Wars which had ended in 1815 were due to a general glut, or in modern terms, to a deficiency of demand. The notion of a general glut needed to be distinguished from a particular glut. That an individual product could be produced in quantities so large that not all production could be sold was recognised as obviously true. A general glut, however, suggested that not just individual products, but an excess of output in general of everything could be produced.

The reason that a general glut might occur was due to over-saving. Production was being channelled into proportionately too large a flow of capital goods rather than into consumer demand. The additional capital was creating a flow of output beyond the willingness of the population to consume everything that had been produced, leading to a general glut and a high level of unemployment.

His solution was that the landed aristocracy be encouraged to spend more and invest less.

This proposition led to what has since been called “the general glut debate” which, according to Thomas Sowell, continued through until 1848, only finally coming to an end with the publication in that year of John Stuart Mill’s own Principles of Political Economy.

The core question of the general glut debate was whether it was even conceivable in a world of scarcity that the productive powers of an economy could overwhelm the willingness of a community to buy everything that had been produced. It was conceded by all that too much of any individual product might be produced, and that if there was a large disorganisation in the specific goods and serviced being produced an economy might end up in a downturn where many might lose their jobs.

Virtually every economist at the time entered into this debate.

But the economic consensus was that an economy could not produce more than an economy.


Why focus on Say’s Law?

This was not written to me but I was copied in on the reply that was sent to Michael:


You asked about the article in the latest Quadrant by Steve Kates on “The Dangerous Return of Keynesian Economics – Five Years On”. On the use of “Keynesian” stimulatory policies, I think he is right to draw attention to their failures and the idea that budgetary action to stimulate demand works. This is apparent from recent and past experience, such as the failed Roosevelt policies in the 1930s cf to the Premiers plan of budgetary cuts, which helped get Australia out of the recession much more quickly than the US (I think I have written to you about this before). However, don’t forget that Keynes himself said at the time not to risk budget deficits and that he also changed his advice to Roosevelt ie Keynes did not in practice necessarily stick to his textbook (published I think in 1936, half way through the recession). It is amazing that Australia’s experience in the 1930’s is still said to reflect Keynesian “stimulatory” action: Rudd ran that line when he became PM and used it to justify his stimulatory policies during the GFC.

I prefer not to get involved in the Say’s law argument like Kates does [my bolding]. It is simpler, I think, to focus on what is the likely response of the private sector to budgetary stimulus action. As suggested, recent experience supports the view that it is not likely to result in any sustained increase in spending (ie there may be a temporary surge but not a lasting one). Treasury had to publish a correction to the budget papers about the claimed success. [But why didn’t it work?]

What about “stimulation” through monetary policy? The recent experience in the US and some other countries again suggests this doesn’t work. It may be claimed that it has worked in the sense that Bernanke may have prevented the US from going into recession. But what would have happened to interest rates if there had been no abnormal increase in the supply of money and the market had been allowed to determine interest rates without central bank intervention? My guess is that they would still have fallen to similar low levels because the private sector would not have been invited to finance additional spending by borrowing, just as it wasn’t under the Bernanke policy.

I have also written to you about what caused the GFC. I won’t venture further on that here other than to say that central banks allowed the supply of credit to increase at far too rapid a rate.

In his article Kates also includes a graph on the US unemployment rate calculated by including in it labour force drop outs since 2009 and showing that (on this basis) the rate has not fallen at all from the 11% reached in 2010. Kates uses this as one indication that the stimulatory policy in the US hasn’t worked. With press releases and letters I have been trying (unsuccessfully) to get across a similar message here and that the unemployment rate is not on its own an effective measure of the state of the labour market and the regulations thereof ie including drop outs our unemployment rate in Australia is much higher than the published one.

So my reply.

I much appreciate Des’ comments but if I might, would like to add my own perspective. And what is most important here is why I do dwell on Say’s Law which I do not just because it is the most accurate way of thinking about macroeconomic issues which I will come to in a moment. But why Say’s Law.

First, Say’s Law was Keynes’s own issue. The General Theory is written as a book-length refutation of Say’s Law which Keynes is at pains to show. The key passage in the General Theory so far as explaining Keynes’s intentions are found on page 32:

The idea that we can safely neglect the aggregate demand function is fundamental to the Ricardian economics, which underlie what we have been taught for more than a century. Malthus, indeed, had vehemently opposed Ricardo’s doctrine that it was impossible for effective demand to be deficient; but vainly. For, since Malthus was unable to explain clearly (apart from an appeal to the facts of common observation) how and why effective demand could be deficient or excessive, he failed to furnish an alternative construction; and Ricardo conquered England as completely as the Holy Inquisition conquered Spain. Not only was his theory accepted by the city, by statesmen and by the academic world. But controversy ceased; the other point of view completely disappeared; it ceased to be discussed. The great puzzle of Effective Demand with which Malthus had wrestled vanished from economic literature. You will not find it mentioned even once in the whole works of Marshall, Edgeworth and Professor Pigou, from whose hands the classical theory has received its most mature embodiment. It could only live on furtively, below the surface, in the underworlds of Karl Marx, Silvio Gesell or Major Douglas. [My bolding again]

The one innovation of The General Theory that remains embedded in all macroeconomics today is aggregate demand. The existence of aggregate demand as an independent force in economics was absolutely denied by pre-Keynesian economists. The denial was summarised in the propositions “demand is constituted by supply” and “overproduction is impossible” which were the specific meanings associated with Say’s Law, along with there is no such thing as a general glut. Demand deficiency, so far as classical economic theory is concerned, is never a realistic explanation for recession and therefore demand stimulation is never a solution for recessions when they come.

If you use aggregate demand in any context to explain anything about the state of the economy, in my view you have sold the pass. You can never recover since you have accepted Keynes’s basic premise to argue against Keynesian theory. And once you have done this, you really have no firm foundation that will allow you to turn back the Keynesian tide. In fact, if you think of aggregate demand as actually independent from aggregate supply, and therefore a force for raising the level of economic activity and employment, there is no reason not to apply a stimulus of some kind during recessions. It is only if you understand that such a stimulus cannot possibly work that you would oppose a stimulus as a set of actions that will certainty harm our economic prospects whatever brief relief it might do over the initial one or two quarters.

But there are other reasons for bringing Say’s Law into it. Because when I do, I am invoking the conclusions reached by all of the great economists of the past: David Ricardo, John Stuart Mill, William Stanley Jevons, Alfred Marshall, Henry Clay and Allyn Young. This takes me across a period from 1820 through to 1928 and thus encompasses economists from the first days of economic theory through until almost the very day of publication of The General Theory. No economist of any stature denied the validity of Say’s Law until it was swept away by Keynes. Please see my Say’s Law and the Keynesian Revolution if you would like to go through the entire sordid story how Say’s Law disappeared from economic discourse.

But the theory is what’s important, and for this you would need to go to my Free Market Economics. Very hard to summarise but the two elements that make this kind of economic theory different are firstly the essential role of the entrepreneur and secondly the embedding of value adding into the very core of economic thinking.

The order in which everything occurs within an economy is that entrepreneurs come to conclusions about what they might produce and sell at a profit, then go through the many stages of setting up their businesses which requires a tremendous amount of outlay before they earn a single cent of positive return, and then, when the goods or services are brought to market, buyers may or may not choose to buy enough to repay all of the previous costs. Demand, to be strictly technical about it, is the relationship between price and quantity demanded for an existing product that is already on the market. All production, however, is future orientated and while past sales may provide some clues about what might sell in the future, it is hardly the most important consideration in the minds of entrepreneurs in trying to decide what they will do next. Governments wasting a tonne of money on pink batts and school halls is great in the short term for pink batt and school hall producers but distorts your economy away from productive activities, raises input costs across the economy and provides no clear direction about the nature of demand say eighteen months ahead. And because such activities were non-value-adding, the effect on employment at the going wage was certain to be negative as time went by.

As for Say’s Law here’s a brief outline.

1) If you pay some people to dig a hole and then pay other people to fill them in again nothing of value has been created so no matter how much money you pay them thinking only of this group there is nothing for them to buy.

2) Every form of economic activity uses up resources. All economic activity draws down on the available productivity of the economy. Keynesian economic theory thinks of the drawing down as in and of itself stimulatory. No classical economist would have been so stupid. Drawing down on resources – even in some activity that will eventually provide you with a positive return – makes you worse off. You have used up resources and are less wealthy than you had previously been.

3) The need for economic activity to be value adding is essential. Production is value subtracting. It uses up resources. When whatever is being produced finally becomes available, it is either just consumed or it becomes part of the productive apparatus of the economy. It is those additions to the productive parts of the economy that are the essential for growth and prosperity. Only if the value of what these newly produced capital assets is greater than the value of the resources that have been used up can the activity be counted as value adding. And only if the net effect of such investment has left behind an economy capable of producing more than it previous could do can one say that the economy has grown.

4) Only value adding activities create growth and employment over anything other than the short term. Timing is everything, but the flow of new productive assets coming on stream (and it may take years of value subtracting investment for any particular project to become productive) is the only thing that can make an economy more productive, raise living standards, add to employment at the going real wage and then, thereafter, increase the real wage.

5) Why Say’s Law? Amongst the many lessons that Say’s Law provides, and this is from the classics, is that “demand is constituted by supply”. Because of the low state of economic theory today, I now make it explicit what classical economists had meant, “demand is constituted by value adding supply”. Unless what is produced is value adding – that is, it adds more to output than the resources that have been used up in their production – then it cannot add to employment at the going real wage.

6) No stimulus program in the world was value adding and was ever likely to be. Virtually no government activity, other than some roads and a few infrastructure projects, is value adding. All draw down on resources but do not provide a net addition either in the short term or in the long. NBN is such a prime example, as is the Desal plant in Victoria. We are not better off for spending the money and using up the resources because there is no return above the costs. That the construction workers went out and bought goods and services with the money they were paid do not make those projects in any way beneficial to the economy. They are pure waste.

7) Private sector activity often misfires on an individual basis which is what bankruptcy is about. But a properly structured free enterprise economy, where financial institutions lend to the most promising projects for which funds (ie resources) are sought, provides you with the only structure that will provide an overall net rate of growth and an accumulation of capital assets across an economy that will build prosperity.

8) You want to understand what’s wrong with Keynesian economics, it offends against Say’s Law which makes it absolutely clear that only value adding activity adds to growth – demand is constituted by supply.

Say’s Law and the law of markets are not the same

I have belatedly come to realise that Say’s Law is not the law of markets. How weird is that, after all these years. I have put the following up on the SHOE website as a continuation of my previous post L’offre crée même la demande. Hollande, as a result of the bitter experiences in trying to manage the French economy, now has a better grip on our fundamental economic principles than pretty well the whole of the economics profession.

There are a number of facts that are relevant in any discussion of Say’s Law which I thought I might set out. What I find something of a problem is the common assumption that Say’s Law refers to something that was believed during the early parts of the nineteenth century and was of little significance thereafter. No discussion ever seems to get past Malthus, Say and Mill in looking at what was an embedded principle right up until 1936.

The first thing that might be noted is that the term “Say’s Law” is not classical in origin but was consciously invented by Fred Manville Taylor and introduced into general economic discourse with the publication of his Principles of Economics text in 1921. Before Taylor no one called this association of demand with previous supply “Say’s Law”. Taylor introduced the term because he thought economic theory needed to identify one of its most important underlying principles. The ironies of what followed next are too obvious for comment.

This continuous fixation on the early classical economists has had a number of unfortunate consequences. The first is that economists are always returning to Say as if he provided the definitive statement on Say’s Law. He did not. If you want the point of origin, it is in James Mill in his Commerce Defended published in 1807. Here is the passage that matters, although the whole of his discussion is well worth the effort:

“No proposition however in political economy seems to be more certain than this which I am going to announce, how paradoxical soever it may at first sight appear; and if it be true, none undoubtedly can be deemed of more importance. The production of commodities creates, and is the one and universal cause which creates a market for the commodities produced.”

The final sentence should be familiar but is not the actual origins of the specific words used by Keynes.

It is also important to appreciate James Mill’s role since I see his statement not only as exactly right, but he wrote his book in response to an argument in which too much saving and too little demand were seen as the causes of recession. This was the first instance in which an argument that economies are driven by demand was rejected. Mill was saying an economy could not be stimulated from the demand side. That was the point of Say’s Law, and still is.

This nameless principle was universally accepted by the mainstream. But if you would like to find Say’s Law as clearly stated as it is possible to find it in the classical literature, this is David Ricardo writing to Malthus just after the commencement of the General Glut debate in 1820. Malthus said the post-Napoleonic recessions had been caused by too much saving and too little demand. To this, Ricardo replied:

“Men err in their productions, there is no deficiency of demand.”

That’s it. Say’s Law. Recessions are caused by mis-directed production, not deficient demand. This was the foundation for the entire theory of the cycle that would develop over the following century. It is the disappearance of the theory of the cycle that may be the greatest loss economists have experienced because of the General Theory.

There is then this. At the end of the General Glut debate in 1848, John Stuart Mill published his Principles of Political Economy, which included his fourth proposition on capital. This may be the most enigmatic statement ever made by a great economist, but if you want to see the principle behind Say’s Law, whether you agree with it or not, this is what Mill wrote:

“Demand for commodities is not demand for labour.”

Or as we might put it today, an economic stimulus will not create jobs. This is a statement whose reasoning is perfectly clear to me. I teach it to my students and it is in my text and few ever have any trouble with it. Described in 1876 as “the best test of a sound economist”, in my view it still is. It was a conclusion that policy makers accepted right through until the 1930s and perhaps even for a while after. But it was an enduring concept.

So I take you back to Francois Hollande. What he said in French was this:

“Le temps est venu de régler le principal problème de la France : sa production. Oui, je dis bien sa production. Il nous faut produire plus, il nous faut produire mieux. C’est donc sur l’offre qu’il faut agir. Sur l’offre ! Ce n’est pas contradictoire avec la demande. L’offre crée même la demande.”

This is the whole thing in my free translation:

“The time has come to work through the number one problem in France: which is production. Yes, that’s what I said, production. We must produce more, we must produce better. Hence, it is upon supply that we must concentrate. On supply! This is not in opposition to demand. Supply actually creates demand.”

It is true the point Hollande makes takes you back to J.-B. Say, David Ricardo and James and John Stuart Mill, all of whom are, of course, classical. But he also takes you back to Fred Taylor whose book was published only a few years before the General Theory, where he was trying to state what every economist of his own generation knew and accepted. Today, so far as aggregate demand goes, we are all Keynesians now, with some very few exceptions.

And while we’re at it, you might also ask yourself how Taylor’s very much twentieth century phrase ended up in The General Theory. The standard story of the trek from the Treatise to the General Theory has a lot of gaps, even after the hundred million words that have been devoted to explaining what the General Theory means and how it came to be written.