Malthus (1798) had argued that improvements in living standards would almost invariably call forth such an increase in population that wages would eventually be pushed back to subsistence levels. About a hundred years later Cannan (1888), Wicksell (1910) and others were writing of an optimum population, where by implication choice of family size enabled choice of living standards. A variety of measures of birth control had come into use in the 19th century, opening the prospect of permanent escape from the trap of subsistence consumption. The early optimum concept involved a population which, at some specified time, and other things such as the capital stock being held constant, resulted in maximum output per head. Clearly it is associated with the idea of first increasing and later decreasing returns in a given region with given resources and technical knowledge.
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