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Collective and individual rationality: Robert Malthus’s heterodox theodicy

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  • Andy Denis

    (City University, London)

Abstract

This paper forms part of a research project investigating conceptions of the relationship between micro-level self-seeking agent behaviour and the desirability or otherwise of the resulting macro-level social outcomes in the history of economics. I identify two kinds of conservative rhetorical strategy, characterised by reductionism, and by holism plus an invisible hand mechanism, respectively. Like the reductionist (Friedman, Lucas) and holistic (Smith, Hayek) proponents of laissez-faire, Malthus, too, is a defender of ‘the present order of things’ and an advocate of dependence on spontaneous forces. Malthus starts out within the eighteenth-century providentialist paradigm epitomised by Adam Smith and Dugald Stewart, but he later abandons providentialism, adopting a more reductionist standpoint. Like Smith and Stewart, he takes a conservative political stance and opposes radical reform of society. But in taking up the arguments of the leading reformers of the day, Godwin and Condorcet, he is drawn to a position very far removed from Smith’s stoic optimism. Though a potent weapon against the utopians, the principle of population also undermines providentialism In the First Essay he tries to mitigate this by presenting a theodicy to reconcile his theory with a version of providentialism, but within weeks of publication he begins work on its replacement, a secular and reductionist argument that individual self- interest can guide us to socially desirable outcomes.

Suggested Citation

  • Andy Denis, 2003. "Collective and individual rationality: Robert Malthus’s heterodox theodicy," Method and Hist of Econ Thought 0311001, EconWPA.
  • Handle: RePEc:wpa:wuwpmh:0311001
    Note: Type of Document - word doc; prepared on WinXP; to print on hp deskjet 940c; pages: 18; figures: None
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    Cited by:

    1. Denis, A., 2010. "A century of methodological individualism part 2: Mises and Hayek," Working Papers 10/03, Department of Economics, City University London.
    2. Denis, A., 2010. "A century of methodological individualism part 1: Schumpeter and Menger," Working Papers 10/02, Department of Economics, City University London.

    More about this item

    Keywords

    malthus; rhetoric; reductionism; holism; ontology; policy prescription; invisible hand; providentialism;

    JEL classification:

    • B12 - Schools of Economic Thought and Methodology - - History of Economic Thought through 1925 - - - Classical (includes Adam Smith)
    • B31 - Schools of Economic Thought and Methodology - - History of Economic Thought: Individuals - - - Individuals
    • B41 - Schools of Economic Thought and Methodology - - Economic Methodology - - - Economic Methodology

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