• Tue. Oct 26th, 2021

Martin Wolf presents the winners of the Political Economy Club essay competition

ByChris J. Taylor

Jul 13, 2021

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In 1821 James Mill, a Scottish historian, economist and philosopher best known for being the father of the great philosopher and liberal economist John Stuart Mill, founded the Political Economy Club, a private catering club in London. The club still exists 200 years later.

Among the founding members were two heavyweights in the history of economics, Thomas Malthus and David Ricardo. Malthus was a pessimist, arguing that the population would eventually outpace increases in production. Ricardo is best known for inventing what today we call the theory of comparative advantage in commerce.

The club has decided to create an editorial award in honor of its bicentennial, in collaboration with the Financial Times. It offered two titles from which candidates could choose:

1. What is the relevance of the ideas of Malthus and Ricardo respectively to the current issues of climate change (is this an example of Malthusian limits) and limits to markets (globalization with free trade and the free movement of capital is- she an unadulterated blessing)?

2. With real per capita income in the UK having increased 15-fold over the past 200 years and distributed more evenly, will this be repeated over the next 200 years – and if not, why?

There were 45 submissions. The judges (of which I was a part) unanimously agreed that the two essays we publish were the best argued and the most original.

Coincidentally, the authors also wrote on different issues. Joe Spearing explores the first question, coming to the conclusion that markets have not only practical, but also ethical, limits as tools to combat climate change. Krzysztof Pelc addresses the second question, arguing that limits to growth do exist, but these do not come from supply, as Malthus (and some Malthusians) have suggested, but rather from satisfaction with demand.

It is impossible to guess what Malthus and Ricardo would have done with these arguments. I hope they would have concluded that political economy remains vital, because these stimulating essays are part of this intellectual tradition.

The winning essays

We must look beyond the market to beat climate change

Humanity’s interaction with nature has become increasingly publicized by the motive of profit, argues Joe Spearing

Conspicuous consumption can no longer be our economic engine

A woman walking on a step wearing high heels with red soles

Our definition of prosperity must now support, not harm, equality and the environment, writes Krzysztof Pelc


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