Reading these posts by Kristian Niemietz and this from Don Boudreaux raises a question: why is it that many advocates of free markets are anti-Malthusian optimists, in that they believe that innovation in response to market forces will overcome the scarcity of raw materials?
It’s not because they are generally optimists. Right libertarians tend to be pessimistic not only about the potential of state intervention, but also about human motivations - stressing the importance of money whilst sceptical about altruism - and even about the potential for new forms of property; few take seriously Hayek’s words that “cultural and moral evolution do require further steps if the institution of [dispersed property ownership] is in fact to be as beneficial as it can be.” In all these regards, right libertarians’ mix of pessimism and optimism is the mirror image of leftists.
Nor, I think, is it because the facts justify such optimism. To believe that technical progress will continue to win the race against diminishing returns is to do exactly what Malthus did - it is to extrapolate past experience into the future. The difference is that, in 1798, Malthus had pretty much all history on his side whereas today’s anti-Malthusians have only a couple of centuries. They might be right. Or wrong. But no-one can be sure.
Still less, I think, is it because such optimism is necessary to defend free markets. It’s not. It’s perfectly reasonable to argue for the many and great merits of free markets whilst at the same time being sceptical that human ingenuity will be so powerful as to continue to overcome diminishing returns. Just as no incentives are strong enough to get me to run a four-minute mile, so perhaps no (feasible?) incentives can unleash sufficient innovative activity to painlessly remove western economies’ dependence on oil.
In fact, this pro-market pessimism was pretty much David Ricardo’s position - and to misquote the apocryphal club owner, “if it’s good enough for David Ricardo, it’s good enough for thee.”*
I suspect, then, that we can add anti-Malthusianism to Bryan Caplan’s “libertarian penumbra” - a belief which many libertarians hold but which is, in fact logically separate from libertarianism.
* In the early 70s, David Bowie was playing a grim northern nite spot. He asked the owner about toilet facilities. He nodded to a corner. Mr Bowie, in full Ziggy Stardust dress, replied: “You don’t expect me to piss in the sink, do you?” The owner replied: “If it’s good enough for Shirley Bassey, lad, it’s good enough for thee.”