Capitalism, Feminism, and the Malthusian Trap

How the Industrial Revolution and Economic Progress Enabled Sexual Liberation

A large number of contemporary feminists are hostile towards capitalism. One only need to peruse the halls of your local university’s philosophy department — preferably one where office door art is acceptable. Next take a stroll through the women’s studies department. Pick up some of their recent work or even follow a Twitter or Facebook page.


Ayn Rand captured the tension between classical, individualist feminism — in line with her objectivism and capitalism — and collectivist, interventionist feminism, which seems more prominent today. Read: “Feminism and Objectivism” from the Atlas Society.

It won’t be long before their anti-capitalist positions become clear, but it has not always been so for feminists. And on the rare occasion some defend capitalism. Camille Paglia, Steven Pinker, and Deirdre McCloskey, for example, all self-identify as feminists and can be categorized as pro-capitalism.

Just this morning, I learned of a theoretical framework for understanding a possibilities-based relationship between capitalism and feminism — or, at a minimum, innovation and feminism. UC Davis’s Gregory Clark in A Farewell to Alms presents the argument that the increased rate of technological output allowed humanity — in various places initially and globally later on — to escape the Malthusian trap. That is the predicament of long-term birth rates and death rates remaining about equal.

There was constant, generally speaking, technological improvement for all of human history and pre-history. However, only once the rate of technological improvement shot forward, more recently, did (1) living standards increase and (2) the the control of birth rates cease to be a social concern.

Technological improvement pushes the Malthusian equilibrium outward, allowing for an increased population. That is why there has been a relatively steady rate of population increase through most of human history. If the rate was slow enough, per capita consumption could increase. In other words, technology can improve vastly, but technological improvement alone does not mean that human welfare increases — at least when overwhelmed by population growth. (And no, this is unrelated to fallacious rhetoric about technological improvement stealing jobs as is claimed in the political environment of today.)

If technological improvement can happen at a high rate, or fast enough, then society can avoid the Malthusian trap. This means that populations can increase at ever higher rates while still accompanying higher standards of living.

On the other hand, when technological improvement happens at a slow enough rate, individuals will attempt to restrain population growth to maintain or improve their standards of living. This is why all human societies have concerned themselves with sex and birth rates (and death rates in some cases). It was vital to the standards of living within that society.

Spoiler alert: it was the Industrial Revolution that allowed for the rate of technological improvement to increase such that society no longer had to concern itself with birth rates and death rates. This has enabled the emancipation of women (in the West). Sure, it could have happened earlier (and it still needs to happen globally) but this really has nothing to do with anti-feminism. It is a cultural hangover from whence it was necessary for societies to control sex.

And yet many contemporary feminists are extremely hostile to capitalism (for our purposes here capitalism is being used synonymously with “the institutional conditions that allowed for the industrial revolution”). They bite the invisible hand that pulled feminism from its mother’s womb, that fed it, and that continues to feed it.

There are two other (compatible) conditional theories for what brought feminism into existence. The first: the ideas of liberty (first for propertied white men and then for others) that inspired capitalism and the industrial revolution had to eventually find their way to include women. The second: capital was increasingly being used on the margin (as opposed to brute strength) and women were then able to compete with men for the marginal job available in the labor market. It had been a case of supply and demand where technology made it so that women were considered in the supply of labor by potential employers — from a purely capacity and efficiency standpoint.

But this innovation versus population and income perspective is much more fundamental and elucidates how feminism (or the separation of sex from society) was not possible in the pre-industrial world. Members of such societies concerned themselves with well-being and therefore imposed slow, steady rates of population growth — at least until rapid technological improvement arrived.

Clark does not specifically mention this connection with feminism in his lecture, but it reasonably follows. Here is a link. I recommend the entire course and the book that inspired it.

Follow up from the author: It has come to my attention, by way of friendly interaction, that Malthus himself had this theory about the origins of marriage.

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