Wilhelm Roscher on Means of Promoting Population Increase


The assembling of a mass of historical detail to buttress policy argument was a feature of the nineteenth-century German historical school in economics. At its best, this gave a healthy appreciation of institutional contingency and a skepticism toward deductive theorizing, in both respects contrasting with the disciplinary mainstream. More often, however, the detail overwhelmed a meager or derivative analytical text. The treatment of population by Wilhelm Roscher, a founder of the historical school, is of this latter kind—its interest lying mainly in the wealth of historical references contained in its swollen footnotes. The brief excerpt below, on measures to raise population growth, conveys its flavor.

Wilhelm Georg Friedrich Roscher (1817–1894) was for most of his career professor of political economy at the University of Leipzig. Among his many books were the five volumes of his System der Volkswirtschaft [System of Political Economy] (Stuttgart, 1854–1894). The first volume, Grundlagen der Nationalökonomie, appeared in 1854, and was steadily enlarged in size and documentation through many subsequent editions. (It was still in print, in its 26th edition, in the 1920s.) A two volume English translation by John J. Lalor, titled Principles of Political Economy (New York: Henry Holt, 1878), was based on the 13th German edition (1877). J. A. Schumpeter, in his History of Economic Analysis, remarks of Roscher that “There is hardly another economist of that period who enjoyed so nearly universal respect inside and outside of Germany.” Schumpeter's own verdict, however, was brusquer and less complimentary: Roscher “conscientiously retailed, in ponderous tomes and in lifeless lectures, the orthodox—mainly English—doctrine of his time, simply illustrated by historical fact.” Population—much of it retailing Malthus—is the subject of Book V of the Principles, comprising three lengthy chapters. The excerpt is pp. 347–354.