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Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Cantillon, Mice and China

I am rumaging around trying to find the source of the Cantillon quote:

"Men multiply like mice in a barn if they have unlimited means of subsistence"

I have found it, and the idea behind the quote is, of course, interestingly wrong. It is wrong for self-evident reasons, and it is interesting for the lasting impact it has had on the way some economists see demography and fertility. (More on all this soon, but meantime you can find Cantillon's Essai Sur La Nature Du Commerce En General here).

However, I couldn't help noticing the similarity between what Richard Cantillon argued 250 years ago, and the latest OECD report on Chinese agriculture (see previous post and - plus ça change!).

There is no country where population is carried to a greater height than in China. The common people are supported by rice and rice water; they work almost naked and in the southern provinces they have three plentiful harvests of rice yearly, thanks to their great attention to agriculture. The land is never fallow and yields a hundredfold every year. Those who are clothed have generally clothing of cotton, which needs so little land for its production that an acre of land, it seems, is capable of producing a quantity full sufficient for the clothing of five hundred grown up persons. The Chinese by the principles of their religion are obliged to marry, and bring up as many children as their means of subsistence will afford. They look upon it as a crime to lay land out in pleasure gardens or parks, defrauding the public of maintenance. They carry travellers in sedan chairs, and save the work of horses upon all tasks which can be performed by men. Their number is incredible if the relation of voyages is to be depended upon, yet they are forced to destroy many of their children in the cradle when they apprehend themselves not to be able to bring them up, keeping only the number they are able to support. By hard and indefatigable labour they draw from the rivers an extraordinary quantity of fish and from the land all that is possible.

Nevertheless when bad years come they starve in thousands in spite of the care of the emperor who stores rice for such contingencies. Numerous then as the people of China are, they are necessarily proportioned to their means of living and do not exceed the number the country can support according to their standard of life; and on this footing a single acre of land will support many of them.

Guessing that 0.65 hectares is around an acre, this seems to be the case: "Fully 200m of China’s 248m rural households farm on plots of land of around 0.65ha".
OECD 2005

Update: Robert "the rattlesnake" has just mailed me pointing out the following:

0.65 hectare is 1.6 acres

One hectare is 2.5 acres (actually close to 1% less)
and 1 acre is 0.4 ha (actually a little over 1% more)

In passing I would add two unrelated comments. Firstly I have comments switched off since Blogger has been attracting one hell of a lot of spam, and since posts which may be more likely to attract comments and discussion go on A Fistful of Euros (or Afem) anyway. Secondly, can I recommend Robert's interesting looking tour de force: Choice and Constraint.