The International Population Stabilization and Reproductive Health Act (S. 1029)

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Summary

  1. There is no population problem. Population growth is the resultof the plunging death rate and increasing life expectancyworldwide. That is progress.
  2. The growth in human population has been more than met byincreases in the production of food and other resources, includingenergy. Famine in the 20th century is a political rather than anecological phenomenon. We are not running out of resources, andreal prices of raw materials are lower than ever before. Only theprice of labor consistently rises. Population growth and economicgrowth are compatible: Between 1776 and 1975, while the world'spopulation increased sixfold, real gross world product rose about80-fold. People are net resource producers.
  3. Countries are not poor because their populations are growing.The England, United States, Hong Kong, and others became richduring unprecedented growth in population. The most denselypopulated nations are among the richest. What the poor nationssuffer from is not too much population but too much government. Ifthe developing world evolves into a liberal market order, it willfind that it can have both reproductive freedom and prosperity.People are not problems; they're problem solvers.
  4. While economic progress and the freedom of women in thedeveloping world are worthy objectives, S. 1029 is ill-conceived.First, the powers authorized in the Act are beyond those grantedCongress in Article 1, Section 8, of the U.S. Constitution. Second,U.S. foreign aid increases the power of recipient governments,politicizes society, and retards progress, which is why its recordis so poor. The United States can help developing countries byopening its market to their products. Trade modernizessociety.
  5. Government involvement in the intimate matter of reproductionis especially dangerous, as the documented horrors of such programsin China, India, and elsewhere demonstrate. A prohibition on U.S.funds to compulsory programs is meaningless because money isfungible. Tributes to reproductive freedom are cheap. If freedomconflicts with official population targets, which objective will bejettisoned?
  6. Private enterprise is capable of providing Westerncontraceptives to those in the developing world who want them.American taxpayers should not be compelled to subsidizecontraception. Moreover, research indicates that what primarilydetermines the fertility rate is not the availability ofcontraception but the wishes of couples. The ultimate issue is, whowill have the power to make decisions about reproduction, thosecouples or the state?
  7. Believers in overpopulation should ask themselves thisquestion: What evidence would persuade you that there is nopopulation problem?
  8. A central tenet of our time (and times before us) is that thereare too many people in the world. One cannot go through a week ofwatching television, listening to radio talk shows, or readingnewspapers and magazines without seeing mournful references tooverpopulation. Everyone "knows" that the world has too manypeople. But as somebody once said, it's not what we don't know thathurts us. It's what we know that isn't so. Overpopulation isn't so,and the measures designed to address it will hurt.

Let's go back to the beginning. How many people are too many? Weknow that five and a half billion people walk the earth today. Butthat number by itself says nothing. Maybe it is too few. How can wetell?

Over What?

The prefix "over" implies a standard. For example, "overweight"implies a standard linked to height. By what standard is the earthoverpopulated? Certainly not living space. The world's populationcould fit into Jacksonville, Florida, with everyone having standingroom. Dense cities are often surrounded by nearly emptycountrysides. For overpopulation to be real, there must beconditions that are undesirable and unmistakably caused by thepresence of a certain number of people. If such indications cannotbe found, we are entitled to dismiss the claim ofoverpopulation.

In arguing their case, the believers in overpopulation makevague, tautological references to a standard known as "carryingcapacity" colorfully illustrated with stories about gazelle herdsand bacteria (anything but human beings). When the verbiage iscleared away, what are adduced as the symptoms of overpopulation?Famine, deepening poverty, disease, environmental degradation, andresource depletion. Yet on no count does the evidence support theanti-population lobby's case. On the contrary, the long-term trendfor each factor is positive and points to an even betterfuture.

The television pictures of starving, emaciated Africans areheartbreaking, but they are not evidence of overpopulation. Since1985 we have witnessed famine in Ethiopia, Sudan, and Somalia.Those nations have one thing in common: they are among the leastdensely populated areas on earth. Although their populations aregrowing, the people there are not hungry because the world can'tproduce enough food. They are hungry because civil war keeps foodfrom getting to them. Moreover, the very sparseness of theirpopulations makes them vulnerable to famine because there areinsufficient people to support sophisticated roads andtransportation systems that would facilitate the movement offood.

In the 20th century there has been no famine that has not beencaused by civil war, irrational economic policies, or politicalretribution. Not one. Moreover, the number of people affected byfamine compared to that in the late 19th century has fallen--notjust as a percentage of the world's population but in absolutenumbers.

Food Supply

Food is abundant. Since 1948, according to the UN Food andAgriculture Organization and the U.S. Department of Agriculture,annual world food production has outpaced the increase inpopulation. Today, per capita production and per-acre yields are atall-time highs. Prices of agricultural products have been fallingfor over 100 years. The average inflation-adjusted price of thoseproducts, indexed to wages, fell by more than 74 percent between1950 and 1990. While Lester Brown of the Worldwatch Institute andthe noted butterfly expert Paul Ehrlich predict higher food pricesand increasing scarcity, food is becoming cheaper and moreplentiful. That good news is due largely to technological advances(the "green revolution") that have provided better seeds,fertilizers, pesticides, and methods of farming. The only obstaclesto agricultural progress are the impediments created bygovernments. Imagine what the world would be like today if thefertile farmland of the former Soviet Union or China or India hadbeen in productive private hands operating in free markets for thepast several decades. Since permitting market incentives inagriculture, India has been come a net food exporter andagricultural production in China has boomed.

Catastrophists argue that the bright past does not imply abright future; they arbitrarily assert that mankind has crossedsome fateful threshold. But the earth is capable of feeding manymore people than are now alive. The late Roger Revelle of HarvardUniversity (whom Gore claims as a mentor) estimated that Africa,Asia, and Latin America alone, simply by using water moreefficiently, could feed 35 to 40 billion people--seven to eighttimes the current world population. And that assumes no change intechnology--a groundless assumption, to be sure.

Those who annually predict imminent famine (while urging readersto subscribe to next year's publications) seize on any change asevidence that man's alleged strain on the biosphere is finallybeginning to show. Thus, if the price of seafood rises, theyannounce that the seas are nearing exhaustion. They never considerthe myriad other possibilities, such as the shift in diet from meatto fish, the decline of the Russian fishing industry during thedissolution of the Soviet Union, or the "tragedy of the commons"associated with the lack of property rights in the oceans andlakes.

The most telling indication of the trend in food production isthe presence of a farm lobby in every industrial capital. Thoselobbies spend millions of dollars a year to persuade theirgovernments to hold food prices up and food supplies down. Theyapparently don't expect help from nature.

Plunging Death Rate

The catastrophists' claim that the population explosion causesfamine, poverty, disease, and environmental degradation founders ona single undeniable fact: the global plunge in the death rate. Allover the world, people are living longer. More babies surviveinfancy than ever before, and more people are reaching old age.That cannot be squared with the assertion that living standards arefalling, that food production is declining, and that the air andwater are more dangerous to human life. "Human comfort," wrote JohnRickman, a contemporary chronicler of the Industrial Revolution,"is to be estimated by human health, and that by the length ofhuman life."

It should be unnecessary to emphasize the increase in longevity:without it there would be no population explosion for thecatastrophists to complain of. The increase in the number of humanbeings has not occurred because women are having more children thanbefore. The increase is chiefly the result of the falling mortalityrate, which economist Julian Simon calls "man's triumph overdeath." It should be the occasion for celebration, but thecatastrophists prefer sackcloth.

In the period 1950-55, there were 159 infant deaths per 1,000live births in the developing world. By 1980-85, the number plungedby over 42 percent--to 92. In East Asia, infant mortality dropped71 percent. In South America, the drop averaged 52 percent. Even inAfrica, the world's laggard, infant mortality dropped 38 percent.In the industrialized world, the rate fell more than 69percent.

The increase in life expectancy at birth has been equallydramatic. Between 1950-55 and 1980-85, the average increaseworldwide was 13 years, up 29 percent. In the industrialized world,life expectancy went from 65 years to 73 years. But the biggestnews was in the developing world, where the increase went from 41to over 56--a 38 percent increase. The most dramatic increases werein East Asia, where more than 25 years were added to peoples' lives(for a total of 68 years), a 60 percent gain. In South Americathere was an average gain of almost 11 years, and in Africa thegain was over 12 years. "The increase in average life expectancyduring the twentieth century," the late David Osterfeld wrote inProgress versus Planning: How Government Stifles Economic Growth,"equals or exceeds the gains made in all the preceding centuriescombined." In A Moment on the Earth, Gregg Easterbrook points outthat "it cannot be noted too often that the spectacular worldwideincrease in human lifespans has come during the very period whenglobal use of synthetic chemicals, fossil fuels, high-yieldagriculture, and radioactive substances has increasedexponentially--a fantastic flowering of life coincident with thevery influences doomsday orthodoxy depicts as antithetical tolife."

Falling Fertility Rate

Over that same period, the total fertility rate (the averagenumber of children born per woman) fell everywhere. Worldwide, therate fell from 5 to 3.6. (The rate that produces populationstability, or replacement, is 2.1.) The developing world's ratedropped from 6.2 to 4.1--more than halfway to the replacement rate.East Asia went from 5.5 to 2.3, South America from 4.9 to 3.6. Thelaggard, again, is Africa, where the rate fell from 6.5 to only6.4.

Thus, the world's population has been heading towardstabilization for 30 years. The population controllers will creditthat to their efforts (while complaining that not enough is beingdone). But there is a simpler explanation: as economies develop andpeople become better off materially, they have fewer children. Thatphenomenon, known as the demographic transition, is wellestablished in demography. It explains what happened in the West,where today the fertility rate is 2.0 or lower--below replacementrate. The demographic transition makes perfect sense. Inpreindustrial, agricultural economies, children provide farm laborand social security (sons care for their elderly parents); childrenare wealth. In a developed economy, parents invest resources (foreducation and the like) in their children; they are an expense. Associeties become Westernized, and as modern consumer goods andservices become available, people find sources of satisfactionother than children. So they have fewer kids. A fallinginfant-mortality rate also reduces a society's fertility rate.

Thus, a low fertility rate, writes Peter Bauer, is an effect,not a cause, of development. Arguments for population controlprograms in the developing world, which shift child-bearingdecisions from couples to the state, are wrong. Those programs arealso an affront to human dignity, privacy, and liberty, whetherthey compel women to have abortions and to be sterilized (as theydo in China) or "merely" deprive people of income and vitalservices because they want more children than the governmentwishes.

No Obstacle to Development

The catastrophists' clich that a growing population is anobstacle to development is especially barren. Studies show a strongcorrelation between affluence and longevity; as the late AaronWildavsky liked to say, wealthier is healthier. The lengtheninglife expectancy in the developing world is evidence that populationgrowth cannot be increasing poverty.

History makes the same point. The West grew rich precisely whenits population was increasing at an unprecedented rate. Between1776 and 1975, while the world's population increased sixfold, realgross world product rose about 80-fold.

In our own century we have seen a replay of the IndustrialRevolution. After World War II the population of Hong Kong grewmore quickly than that of 19th-century England or 20th-centuryIndia--at the same time that resource-poor island-colony wasgrowing rich.

The increases in population and wealth have not been merelycoincidental. They are causes and effects of each other. Today,with few exceptions, the most densely populated countries are therichest. Any mystery in that is dispelled by the realization thatpeople are the source of ideas. The addition of peoplegeometrically increases the potential for combining ideas intonewer, better ideas. As the Nobel laureate and economist SimonKuznets wrote, "More population means more creators and producers,both of goods along established production patterns and of newknowledge and inventions." A growing population also allows for amore elaborate division of labor, which raises incomes. Those whowish to stifle population growth would condemn hundreds of millionsof people in the developing world to the abject deprivation thatcharacterized the West before the Industrial Revolution.

The initially plausible claim that more people deplete resourcesfaster has no more foundation than the catastrophists' otherarguments. Price is the best indication of relative scarcity. Forcenturies, resources of every kind, including energy, have beengetting cheaper. In 1990 energy on average was 46 percent cheaperthat it was in 1950; minerals were 48 percent cheaper, lumber 41percent cheaper, food 74 percent cheaper. As Carroll Ann Hodges, ofthe U.S. Geological Survey, wrote in the June 2, 1995, issue ofScience (pp. 1305-1312), "Yet, despite the specter of scarcity thathas prevailed throughout much of this century, no sustained mineralshortages have occurred. . . .Minerals essential to industrialeconomies are not now in short supply, nor are they likely to befor the next several generations." (The only thing getting moreexpensive is labor, an indication of the scarcity of people.)Technology enables us to find more resources and to use them moreefficiently. Doubling the efficiency of our use of oil would beequivalent to doubling the available supply of oil. Naturalresources, in other words, do not exist in fixed supplies.

Resources: Natural or Manmade?

Actually, natural resources do not exist at all. All resourcesare manmade. Something is not a resource until it can accomplish ahuman purpose. Before Benjamin Silliman, Jr., a Yale Universitychemist, discovered in 1855 that kerosene (a better illuminant thanwhale oil) could be distilled from crude oil, oil was not aresource. It was black gunk that ruined farmland and had to beremoved at great expense. Silliman turned oil into a resource notby changing its chemical composition but by making a discovery.Nature does not provide resources, only materials. A resource is amaterial that has been stamped with a human purpose.

The latest evidence of that truth is the information revolutionthat swirls around us. That revolution is made possible by siliconcomputer chips and threads of glass (fiber-optic cables). Both aremade from sand--one of the most abundant substances on the planet.Thanks to human ingenuity, a common substance that was merely partof the landscape has become a tool of revolutionary humanadvancement. People don't deplete resources. They create them.

Institutions Count

Nothing written here implies that population growth does notbring problems. Quite the contrary; but as Julian Simon says, italso brings problem solvers who apply their intelligence, discoverand invent solutions, and--here is the key--leave human societybetter off than it was before the problems arose. Doubters needonly study the quality of life on the pre-Columbian North Americancontinent, when several million Indians barely scratched out theirsubsistence amid the same "natural resources" that today enrich thelives of billions of people worldwide.

A caveat: human advancement is not automatic and cannotwithstand complacency. It has a precondition without which all thatis written here may be ignored. That precondition is liberty,specifically, the individual's right to think, to produce, totrade, and to profit from his achievements. In institutional terms,liberty consists in free markets, the rule of law protectingproperty and contracts, and strict limits on government power.Civilization's successes have another thing in common in additionto growing populations: capitalism.

S. 1029: Unconstitutional and Unnecessary

The foregoing evidence indicates that S. 1029, like theproposals of the UN's International Conference on Population andDevelopment at Cairo, is a bad solution in search of a problem.First, the powers that would be authorized under the act exceed thepowers granted Congress in Article 1, Section 8, of the U.S.Constitution. Second, the population is not in need ofstabilization by government intervention. As the world becomesricher and more Westernized, the fertility rate falls on its own.The growth in human numbers is accounted for by the plunging deathrate--a universal sign of progress. There is no population problemto be solved.

The Act's objective of forcing American taxpayers to financefamily planning, health, and education programs in the developingworld is ill-considered. The record of government-to-governmenttransfers is dismal for a simple reason. Providing cash to centralgovernments puts off the day when those governments grasp thenecessity of relinquishing power and letting the liberal marketorder--complete with women's rights--flourish. Foreign aidintensifies the politicization of society. When the state is theprimary cash cow in society, people will expend effort to curryfavor with rulers rather than set their minds to economicallyproductive activities. The whole society suffers as a result. If wereally want to help the developing nations, we can do so merely byopening our markets to them.

Government programs in the area of reproduction are particularlyfraught with danger. By now the horrendous cases of China, India,Bangladesh, and other nations that carry out population control byforce should have taught us that the state has no place in thismost personal area of life. We should not be reassured by the Act'sprohibition on the use of U.S. funds for coercive programs. Moneyis fungible. Any dollar furnished for a voluntary program frees upa dollar for compulsory one. Moreover, research shows that peoplein the developing world are already familiar with and have accessto Western contraceptive devices. That they don't use Westerncontraceptives as much as some Americans would like does not meanthey are deprived of them. A World Bank study found that whatmainly determines the fertility rates of developing countries isnot the availability of modern contraceptives but rather the wishesof couples. All manner of Western products are available in theThird World, including infant formula. If people want moderncontraceptives, private enterprise will (and does) provide it.Don't force the American taxpayers to provide subsidies.

It must also be pointed out that government-sponsoredreproductive health clinics are ethically dubious endeavors. Anagency cannot have two masters. If the clinic is funded bygovernment, it is not truly the agent of the women who use it. Thegovernment and the women may not have the same interests. A womanmight want another child, but state officials may be moreinterested in carrying out government population objectives. Whoshould prevail? Government clinics and education programs arelikely to be used to further an antinatalist agenda, which seespopulation growth as harmful. In terms of the bigger picture, whatif women's freedom, which the Act supports, and the UN's populationtargets are inconsistent? Which will be set aside, the targets orfreedom?

Of course, most people wish to see economic progress in thedeveloping world. But the truth is that U.S. government moneycannot produce it. The only things that can are the diminution ofgovernment power in those countries, the rule of law, and theexpansion of the private, productive sector of society--in a word,capitalism.

References

Ronald Bailey, ed. The True State of the Planet. New York: TheFree Press, 1995.

P. T. Bauer. "The Population Explosion: Myths and Realities," inEquality, the Third World, and Economic Delusion. Cambridge, Mass.:Harvard University Press, 1981.

Jacqueline Kasun. The War against Population: The Economics andIdeology of Population Control. San Francisco: Ignatius Press,1988.

David Osterfeld. Prosperity versus Planning: How GovernmentStifles Economic Growth. New York: Oxford University Press,1992.

Lant H. Pritchett and Lawrence H. Summers. "Desired Fertilityand the Impact on Population Policies." Policy Research WorkingPaper 1273. The World Bank, Office of the ice President,Development Economics, March 1994.

Sheldon Richman. "Population Means Progress, Not Poverty."Washington Post, Sept. 1, 1993.

. "Cairo's Faulty Assumption." The Christian Science Monitor,September 23, 1994.

Julian L. Simon. The Ultimate Resource. Princeton, N.J.:Princeton University Press, 1981.

. Population Matters. New Brunswick, N.J.: TransactionPublishers, 1986.

Sheldon L. Richman

United States Senate