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Collective and individual rationality: Robert Malthus’s heterodox theodicy

Denis, A. (2006). Collective and individual rationality: Robert Malthus’s heterodox theodicy. History of Economic Ideas, 14(2), pp. 9-31. doi: 10.1400/57563


In previous research, investigating economists’ conceptions of the relationship be- tween micro-level self-seeking behaviour and the desirability of macro-level out- comes, I identified two rhetorical strategies of laissez-faire, characterised by reductionism, and by holism plus an invisible-hand mechanism. The paper suggests that Malthus switches from the latter to the former. Opposing literary Jacobins by means of the principle of population, he is drawn far from Smith’s providentialism. In 1798 he presents a novel theodicy to reconcile his theory with providentialism, but by 1803 abandons this in favour of a reductionist argument that unaided individual self- interest can guide us to socially desirable outcomes.

Publication Type: Article
Departments: School of Policy & Global Affairs > Economics
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