Cato Unbound: The Politics of Family Size

In the 1970s, economists and demographers worried about the “population bomb” — world population was exploding, and many doubted there would be resources enough for everyone. At least two schools of thought emerged. One held that population needed to be curbed through public policy — perhaps coercively. The other school, always a minority view, held that human beings themselves were “the ultimate resource” — a phrase coined by economist Julian Simon. On this view, more people would mean more productivity and more creative minds brought to the task of providing for the species.

Since then, conditions have changed dramatically and in ways no one predicted. World population growth slowed at a pace far beyond what anyone thought possible, even in countries that didn’t adopt anti-natalist policies. Several countries are now below replacement fertility rates, and even the fastest-growing populations are slowing down.

Those who worried about the population bomb may worry a little bit less, but fans of Julian Simon shouldn’t be so pleased. This month’s Cato Unbound lead essay by Bryan Caplan examines the problem of world population with a framework strongly inspired by the late Professor Simon. Caplan recommends several policy initiatives that will encourage the growth at least of the American population while protecting individual rights and respecting individual choices.

Caplan’s views here, as elsewhere in his work, are iconoclastic. We’ve invited a distinguished panel to discuss them over the course of the month: Economist Betsey Stevenson of the Wharton School, Columbia University historian Matthew Connelly, and historical economist Gregory Clark of UC Davis. Each will address Caplan’s argument using a range of methodological tools and with somewhat different political values.

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