unconventional wisdom

There is less than a week in which to write my _Analysis_ script on demography and I finally managed to scan in one of the passages which inspired the thought that informed opinion knows what will happen to the population in fifty years’ time — and informed opinion is always wrong. This is George Orwell, writing in 1945 ( _In front of Your Nose_ )

bq. Twenty or twenty-five years ago, contraception and enlightenment were held to be almost synonymous. To this day, the majority of people argue – the argument is variously expressed, but always boils down to more or less the same thing – that large families are impossible for economic reasons. At the same time, it is widely known that the birthrate is highest among the low-standard nations, and, in our population, highest among the worst-paid groups. It is also argued that a smaller population would mean less unemployment and more comfort for everybody, while on the other hand it is well established that a dwindling and ageing population is faced with calamitous and perhaps insoluble economic problems. Necessarily the figures are uncertain, but it is quite possible that in only seventy years our population will amount to about eleven millions, over half of whom will be Old Age Pensioners. Since, for complex reasons, most people don’t want large families, the frightening facts can exist somewhere or other in their consciousness, simultaneously known and not known.

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3 Responses to unconventional wisdom

  1. Of related interest: Paul Krugman’s review in NYRB of The Coming Generational Storm: What You Need to Know About America’s Economic Future (Laurence J. Kotlikoff and Scott Burns).

    America in 2030 will be “a country whose collective population is older than that in Florida today.” It will be in “desperate trouble” because the expense of caring for all those old people will cause a fiscal crisis. The nation will be plagued by “political instability, unemployment, labor strikes, high and rising crime rates.” That’s the picture painted in The Coming Generational Storm by Laurence Kotlikoff and Scott Burns, a book that has helped to feed a rising tide of demographic alarm.

  2. Rupert says:

    This sent me off to Malthus and his Essay, the basics of which I supposed I knew. What I didn’t know, because I’d never bothered to read it, was how the wit and perception of the introduction holds up two hundred years later.

    “The advocate for the present order of things is apt to treat the sect of speculative philosophers either as a set of artful and designing knaves who preach up ardent benevolence and draw captivating pictures of a happier state of society only the better to enable them to destroy the present establishments and to forward their own deep-laid schemes of ambition, or as wild and mad-headed enthusiasts whose silly speculations and absurd paradoxes are not worthy the attention of any reasonable man.

    The advocate for the perfectibility of man, and of society, retorts on the defender of establishments a more than equal contempt. He brands him as the slave of the most miserable and narrow prejudices; or as the defender of the abuses. of civil society only because he profits by them. He paints him either as a character who prostitutes his understanding to his interest, or as one whose powers of mind are not of a size to grasp any thing great and noble, who cannot see above five yards before him, and who must therefore be utterly unable to take in the views of the enlightened benefactor of mankind.

    In this unamicable contest the cause of truth cannot but suffer. The really good arguments on each side of the question are not allowed to have their proper weight. Each pursues his own theory, little solicitous to correct or improve it by an attention to what is advanced by his opponents. ”

    This from a man closer in history to Shakespeare than he is to Dave Winer.

    As Malthus said immediately before the above passage:

    “It has been said that the great question is now at issue, whether man shall henceforth start forwards with accelerated velocity towards illimitable, and hitherto unconceived improvement, or be condemned to a perpetual oscillation between happiness and misery, and after every effort remain still at an immeasurable distance from the wished-for goal.”

    Two hundred years later, who can say?

    R

  3. acb says:

    bq. In this unamicable contest the cause of truth cannot but suffer. The really good arguments on each side of the question are not allowed to have their proper weight. Each pursues his own theory, little solicitous to correct or improve it by an attention to what is advanced by his opponents. ”

    %(loony)This from a man closer in history to Shakespeare than he is to Dave Winer.% This is gross abuse of the “loony” tag, but I needed to highlight somehow a comment that made me shout with laughter. Thanks.

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