To those of you that are Marvel movie fans, this is a spoiler warning. If you have seen the movie, or have no interest in seeing the movie, then please continue. You have been warned.
In the latest Marvel movie, Avenger’s: Infinity War, the big bad guy is named Thanos, and he has a plan to eliminate half of all conscious life from the universe. How he has to do this is less important than why he thinks he has to do this. Thanos believes that while some life is good, too much of it leads to deplorable conditions and a meager, subsistence lifestyle. He believes that by eliminating half of all life, there will be a state of abundance left for the survivors, and they will flourish. When you look at it from his perspective, his choices seem noble. However, morality aside, you have to be completely ignorant of economics to think his actions are a good thing.
If ever there was a real life historical figure with which the fictional Thanos would agree, it would be Thomas Robert Malthus, a political economist and cleric that lived in the late 18th century and early 19th. Malthus was famous for the idea that became known as the Malthusian Trap. It stated, as food production increased, the standard of living for individuals in said society improved. Malthus observed, however, that the improved living standards led to a population increase, which resulted in living standards returning to subsistence levels. This cycle of improvement, growth, reversion to subsistence, was what Malthus called the trap, and he believed it would prevent humans from reaching a utopian existence. In fact, what he actually believed would happen was humanity would continue through the cycle until all of the natural resources were used up and we faced a catastrophe. That same catastrophe is what Thanos believes he is saving life from reaching in the Marvel Universe.
Imagine what life would be like today if half of all people that have lived from the dawn of recorded time had never lived. We may have never had Socrates, Aristotle, Plato, Caesar, Augustine, Aquinas, Newton, Jefferson, Washington, Tesla, Mises, Rand, Rothbard, and any number of other great individuals whose ideas shaped our world for the better. Perhaps eliminating half of all life on earth would make more iPhones available to those that are left, but there would not be as many great minds remaining to invent the next revolutionary piece of technology. And that is why Malthus and Thanos were wrong.
Technology was the factor that Malthus never considered when he was writing, and it is the one input that Thanos completely disregarded. There are seven billion people on the planet right now, and if we are to assume that our living standards would be better if there were only three and a half billion, that is a hypothesis we can consider. Around 1966, the population of the planet was about three and a half billion. Would you say our standard of living has improved since then? I certainly would, although I wasn’t alive at the time. Let’s go back even further. If reducing population by half is good, why not by three quarters or even six sevenths? It was right around the time Malthus was writing, 1800, when the population was at approximately one billion people. I think it is safe to say our lives are considerably better now than they were then.
So what is the reason for this discrepancy between what the movie villain proclaims and what reality demonstrates? It is individual human action that leads to an improved standard of living, and the more individual humans we have working towards that goal, the better your standard of living will be. The agricultural revolution moved us out of a subsistence lifestyle, and from that, we were able to move into cities and start to industrialize. Industrialization led to an incredibly high demand for innovation, and the freedom of the capitalist market system allowed for that innovation to occur. The more productive people you have, the more potential innovators and improvers you have working towards the goal of flourishing.
Technology allows for better use of material inputs and a better outcome, which in turn leads to more opportunities to innovate and improve. Only if you believe that we are not capable of innovating and improving our lives would you think that eliminating half of all life is necessary to preserve the rest. In our current age, the only thing holding individuals back is onerous laws and regulations stifling critical individual innovation for the sake of maintaining government control and power over the people.
Thanos is the government, or the government is Thanos, however you want to look at it. When governments run out of the money to spend as they please, when they run out of the influence to rule as they please, and when they run out of the consent of the governed, they will go to war in an effort to kill off as many of their own population as possible in order to reaffirm control. Governments have even outright killed their own under the guise of the common good. Stalin killed 50 million or more citizens of the Soviet Union, just so he could “effectively manage” the economy. Chairman Mao killed upwards of 70 million Chinese in the Great Leap Forward, so as to improve the living conditions of the rest of the country. Thanos is the greatest villain in the Marvel Universe, but the government is the greatest villain in ours.