On Population and Progressivity

Consider an agrarian society, such as much of the population has lived under until the past century. The primary inputs to the economy are labor and land. In a sparsely populated country, labor is the limiting factor, so income would tend to go primarily to labor in such a country – if it were free. (Under Czarist Russia, such a situation existed, but the country was extremely unfree, and unequal.)

On the other hand, in a densely populated country, land would be the limiting factor. Those who owned land would get a larger share of the national income. This income could be reinvested into more land leading to a feudal type of wealth distribution. This pattern has happened repeatedly.

Note the important difference between Land and Capital: Capital can be created, Land is fixed. Over time, capitalism evolves from a windfall for the first capitalists to a surplus of Capital, leading to an eventual windfall for Labor. Land based economies evolve in the other direction: growing populations mean less Land per person leading to an increasing windfall for the Land owning class.

There are several ways out of the problem. One is to have a forcible reallocation of Land. This can be via a brutal revolution as happened in France and Russia, or it can be done in a orderly process as is prescribed in the Old Testament (every 50 years, according to genealogy).

Another approach is to keep the population in check. Traditionally, this was done by war. Tribal societies keep each other’s population in check by a near-continuous state of war. In return, they maintain low enough populations so that they can live by hunting, herding, and low-intensity agriculture. Such societies tend to be more equal and more democratic. Compare the tribal societies of ancient Northern Europe with the empires of Egypt and the Fertile Crescent. Compare the tribal societies of the northern part of North America with the civilizations of the Aztecs and the Incas. Given a choice between these two modes of life, I would rather live in a tribal society than an agrarian civilization. But it would be nicer yet to be able to preserve freedom and equality without all the killing.

Yet another approach is to obtain more land by opening up a frontier. This approach lead to a great deal of economic mobility for the citizens of the United States up until the frontier closed about a century ago. Such economic and social mobility lead to millions of peasants from Europe to immigrate, at great expense and danger, to the U.S. Of course, all this came at the expense of those population-controlled tribal societies I mentioned earlier.

Land redistribution can be a brutal business, whether it be by communist revolution or by the conquest of tribal societies. I realize that many in the audience many find it weird that I am grouping these processes together, since today tribal rights are now considered a Leftist cause. But consider, in terms of land, the Native Americans were immensely rich by the standards of European peasants. And the life of a tribesman has much in common with the life of a feudal lord: hunting, fighting, vigilant maintenance of status and honor, and a great deal of leisure time. In Mark Twain’s “A Connecticut Yankee in King Author’s Court” the protagonist refers to the Knights of the Round Table as “White Indians.” And it is also no coincidence that the first anti-aristocratic president, Andrew Jackson, was also a noted Indian fighter.

Are there better, less violent, ways to achieve some degree of equality? Well, for starters, there is Capitalism. Capital can substitute for Land to a significant degree, and Capital builds up, so over time more of the national income goes to Labor. (In the early stages of Capitalism, the owners of Capital experience a windfall, making Capitalism appear to be regressive.)

Another approach is birth control. This goes along well with Capitalism, since evidence indicates that wealthy societies voluntarily choose to have a lower birthrate. The wealthier, developed nations would have low or even negative population growth were it not for immigration. Part of this phenomenon stems from the fact that in a wealthier society you have retirement options other than having children to take care of you in your old age. This could be used as an argument for Social Security. But it can also be used as an argument for teaching investment theory as part of the core curriculum in high school, or for having a hard money system so even the financially naïve can understand how to preserve their nest egg. It is also an argument for taxing the Labor class with consumption taxes instead of labor/income taxes, so that saving becomes easier.

There are also possibilities for opening up new frontiers, frontiers that are currently uninhabited. Space travel comes to mind, but the mass use of spaceships is still some ways into the future. The oceans, on the other hand…I will have more to say on this subject in another chapter.

Finally, there is the possibility of using existing land and natural resources more efficiently. Some of this has to do with technology, so with changes in law. And just like with Capital, there are government subsidies for the owners of Land that we can repeal.