Troy Vettese: "Hayek v. Malthus"

  • Date: –16:00
  • Location: Seminar through Zoom (contact Sven Widmalm for link and details)
  • Organiser: Department of History of Science and Ideas
  • Contact person: Sven Widmalm
  • Seminarium

The Higher Seminar

(NB, time)

Troy Vettese, Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, Harvard University: "Hayek v. Malthus: Molecular Capitalism and Natural Resources in the Neo-Liberal Imagination"

The familiar story of the neo-liberals’ ascent stresses their long-running struggle with Keynesians, and the political opening created by stagflation and the collapse of Bretton Woods in the 1970s. Yet, this narrative fails to include the neo-Malthusians, who were not only contenders for the throne of political economy during this epistemic crisis, but at the time seemed set to triumph over the neo-liberals. Although the neo-Malthusians ranged from genocidal white supremacists like Garrett Hardin, to more restrained prognosticians such as Donella Meadows, they all adhered to Thomas Malthus’ bleak geometry of demand on resources growing exponentially, while compensating supply improved only linearly. Past the intersection of these two curves there would be a Malthusian “check”, such as potentially mass starvation or economic crisis. Building upon the foundation of eighteenth-century political economy, the neo-Malthusians used cutting edge computer simulations, advanced statistics, and insights from biology. During these debates, it became clear that only the neo-liberals offered a vigorous riposte to neo-Malthusianism because the neo-classical mainstream of economics shared too many philosophical assumptions with it. Yet, at the time it was not obvious what form the neo-liberal critique would take. By combining insights from both neo-liberalism and institutional economics, Julian Simon’s framework of “resourceship” redefined the debate’s central concepts of “resources” and “scarcity”. Both neo-classicists and neo-Malthusians imagined resources as discrete, limited, tangible things, but Simon rejected this. To put this in Heideggerian-inflected language, neo-classicists and neo-Malthusians assumed resources were “found” while neo-liberals came to believe that they were “made”. It is only by retracing the intellectual history of this moment that one can understand why resourceship triumphed over neo-Malthusianism, and why neo-liberals became early devotees of controversial technologies like non-conventional fossil fuels and geo-engineering.