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The Population Problem That Isn’t


It is an article of faith that the world suffers from overpopulation. This alleged problem surfaces in many contexts: poverty in the developing world, global warming, environmental degradation, and so on. It has been said over and over again: we won’t ever get a handle on the myriad problems plaguing human society until we get control of population growth. And while many people would like to think that population growth could be controlled in ways that do not conjure up dark images of 1984 or Brave New World, the realistic leaders of the control, or antinatalist, movement would agree with their guru, Paul Ehrlich, who believes that population growth must be controlled by “compulsion if voluntary methods fail.” (These self-proclaimed human rights advocates are ominously tolerant of China’s program of compulsory birth control.)

Why do people believe there is a population problem? It is really quite understandable that, at first blush, a person unfamiliar with basic social and economic principles would fall victim to what later should be seen as an obvious fallacy. As more and more people vie for what at any given moment are scarce resources — land, food, water, breathable air, minerals — one should expect the condition of each person to worsen. Underlying this picture of the world is the notion that people have a fundamental conflict of interest — and that the conflict may be held in abeyance as long as population is below a certain level. But once population exceeds that level, the conflict asserts itself, and life threatens to become, as Hobbes put it, “nasty, brutish, and short.”

One can be forgiven for adopting this world view initially — and for perhaps five minutes. But some very obvious problems with it should come crashing into one’s consciousness shortly thereafter. It is rather hard not to notice that life in the developed countries, in terms of material amenities, seems to have continuously improved despite a growth in population. To be sure, the population growth rate in the West has fallen to below replacement rate, but that is a recent development. The standard of living steadily improved all through the baby boom after World War II.

The Industrial Revolution

Moreover, a little investigation reveals that the greatest progress in man’s material condition came precisely during the time the growth in his numbers was the greatest. The Industrial Revolution brought not only increasing wealth, but a dramatic lengthening of life expectancy and fall in infant mortality — in other words, an unprecedented growth in population. The population economist Julian Simon likes to point out that graphs illustrating population growth and life expectancy in the West look nearly identical. From 8000 B.C., the line is nearly horizontal. Then at about 200 years ago, it turns up like a rocket. Life expectancy jumped from under 30 years to over 75. The growth in world population is equally dramatic. The population stood at about 5 million in 10,000 B.C. For 99.9 percent of human history, population doubled about every 35,000 years. But beginning in 1650, that doubling time began to shrink. Between then and 1750, it was 240 years. Between 1850 and 1900 it fell to 115 years. In 1970, the doubling time shrank to a mere 35 years, a population growth rate of 2.1 percent a year.

Yet during the acceleration in population growth, industrial society got better and better. Think about how material conditions in the region of the United States have changed in the last 100 years or the last 200 years. In 1492 this resource-rich area was inhabited by many fewer than the 250 million who live there today. Yet the pre-Columbian inhabitants could do no better than eke out a subsistence. The area could barely support a few million people then, but today it easily supports 250 million.

The solution to this apparent paradox lies in the fact that, as Ayn Rand so often reminded us, man’s basic tool of survival is reason. Man is a creator. That solution overthrows any notion of a conflict of interest between human beings. Every person, being equipped with a mind, is a potential problem solver and not just a consumer of resources. Thus, we should expect that more people will solve more problems, make more scientific discoveries, invent more things that make life better. That is exactly what happens.

No Natural Resources

This brings us to a sadly unappreciated point: there are no natural resources. Resources are not natural; they are manmade. Nature provides a variety of stuff, but it comes with no instructions on what it is good for, if it is good for anything at all. It takes a human being to invent a use for it and thus make it valuable — a resource. The Indians lived in poverty amidst an abundance of potential resources, just as the poor Arabs lived for centuries with oil and Third World peoples live today on potentially rich agricultural land. Until a mind identifies a potential and discovers how to turn it into an actual, the stuff might as well not be there.

Consider the implications: in practical terms, the supply of a resource is not finite. It is integrally dependent on human ingenuity. If we were to think of ways to double the efficiency with which we use oil, it would be equivalent to doubling the supply of oil.

There can be no more dramatic illustration of this principle than the information revolution that now swirls around us. The world is being transformed because the cost and speed of creating, manipulating, and communicating knowledge (and other forms of wealth) have fallen to tiny fractions of previous levels. What resources facilitate this revolution? Silicon, for computer chips, and glass, for fiber optic cables. Both are made from silica, which, after oxygen, is the most common element on earth. It is sand! Thus, human beings took a common, abundant material, applied their ingenuity (in the form of, for example, quantum mechanics), and created unprecedented wealth.

There are no natural resources. None. So we can’t ever run out. Resources are limited by our imagination. More people and more development mean more resources. Not less.

What we value are not resources per se, but services. The voice-transmission services rendered by copper wire are now better rendered by glass threads. Thus, we are happy to leave the copper in the ground and switch to fiber optics. And if human ingenuity found a superior substitute for copper in every use, it would not matter if we “ran out” of copper (even if we could — copper is indestructible).

Freedom is the Answer

There is one caveat to this analysis: human ingenuity can overcome the apparent obstacles to prosperity only if people are free to create, produce, and trade unimpeded by government or criminals. For this to occur, there must be a rule of law that protects property and profits and that permits the price system of the free market to operate. The price system is particularly relevant, because it is the communications system that indicates to entrepreneurs what people want and how best to procure it. Without the free market, the principles outlined above are suspended and so are man’s hopes for progress.

The poverty of the so-called Third World is not an exception to the principles discussed here, but rather confirmation of them. Where human ingenuity is not allowed to operate, it doesn’t. The poverty of Russia, India, China, Somalia, and Brazil is the result of cultures and governments that do not let people act capitalistically. We know this because in recently poor areas where people are free to so act, they thrive: Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea. (These are not perfect free markets, but they are substantially market-oriented.) They have experienced rapid economic growth-along with population growth-while their neighbors, with lower population densities and more abundant raw materials, remain destitute. What the poor countries have is not overpopulation but overgovernance.

Overpopulation, if it could exist, has to be relative to something. Yet we can find nothing relative to which there are too many people. Resources are more abundant and cheaper than ever. Same for food and habitable land. Human settlements account for less than three percent of the earth’s land area, and if the entire world population moved to Texas, each person would have 1,400 square feet. More people are living longer, healthier lives than ever before. (The exception, naturally, is in the former communist countries and the most isolated parts of Africa.)

Life, of course, is never without problems. Growing population creates short-term difficulties. But where people and markets are free, entrepreneurs and inventors, seeking profit opportunities, will solve the problems and leave us better off than before the problems arose. If the population had been stabilized in 1750, we would not be as rich as we are today.

Contrary to the antinatalists, people do not breed like rats. They have always adjusted their reproductive activities to the constraints and incentives that confronted them. (Big families make sense in pre-industrial economies.) Population is no threat to progress. The basic issue is who shall determine how many children people may have, the state or individuals? The moral is the practical. Individual freedom is the answer.

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    Sheldon Richman is former vice president and editor at The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.