A Malthusian Model for all Seasons: A Theoretical Approach to Labour Input and Labour Surplus in Traditional Agriculture
It has become popular to argue (e.g. Clark 2007) that all societies were Malthusian until about 1800. At the same time, the phenomenon of surplus labour is well-documented for historical (as well as modern) pre-industrial societies. This study discusses the paradox of surplus labour in a Malthusian economy. Inspired by the work of Boserup (1965) and others, and in contrast to the Lewis (1954) approach, we suggest that the phenomenon of surplus labour is best understood through an acceptance of the importance of seasonality in agriculture. Boserup observed that the harvest season was invariably associated with labour shortages (the high-season bottleneck on production), although there might be labour surplus during the low season. We introduce the concept of seasonality into a stylized Malthusian model, and endogenize the extent of agricultural labour input, which is then used to calculate labour surplus and the rate of labour productivity. We observe the effects of season-specific technological progress, and find that technological progress in the low-season increases labour surplus and labour productivity whilst, perhaps surprisingly, technological progress in the high-season, by relaxing the high-season bottleneck, leads to work intensification and a drop in labour surplus and labour productivity.
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