Malthus and Free Trade: A New Interpretation

Ryan Walter - The University of Queensland

Date and time
Monday, September 26, 2022 at 2:30 PM

Contact person
Sergio Noto

Publication date
September 14, 2022



This paper investigates the intellectual context for Robert Malthus's contributions to the Corn Laws debate, c. 1813-15. The established narrative treats this period as one of theoretical breakthrough owing to the insights of David Ricardo and Robert Torrens who stand as rival candidates for the discovery of the theory of comparative advantage. By contrast, a contextual account reveals that policy casuistry - not abstract theory - was the genre in which the debate was conducted. This style of reasoning obliged its practitioners to resolve policy questions by weighing multiple governmental objectives of which wealth was only one, and not the most important. Seen in his historical context, Malthus emerges as an accomplished casuist while Ricardo appears maladroit. More generally, the rise of comparative advantage as a standalone defence of free trade signals the disappearance of casuistry as a component of the economist's toolkit.

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