- There is no population problem. Population growth is the result
of the plunging death rate and increasing life expectancy
worldwide. That is progress.
- The growth in human population has been more than met by
increases in the production of food and other resources, including
energy. Famine in the 20th century is a political rather than an
ecological phenomenon. We are not running out of resources, and
real prices of raw materials are lower than ever before. Only the
price of labor consistently rises. Population growth and economic
growth are compatible: Between 1776 and 1975, while the world’s
population increased sixfold, real gross world product rose about
80-fold. People are net resource producers.
- Countries are not poor because their populations are growing.
The England, United States, Hong Kong, and others became rich
during unprecedented growth in population. The most densely
populated nations are among the richest. What the poor nations
suffer from is not too much population but too much government. If
the developing world evolves into a liberal market order, it will
find that it can have both reproductive freedom and prosperity.
People are not problems; they’re problem solvers.
- While economic progress and the freedom of women in the
developing world are worthy objectives, S. 1029 is ill-conceived.
First, the powers authorized in the Act are beyond those granted
Congress 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 record
is so poor. The United States can help developing countries by
opening its market to their products. Trade modernizes society.
- Government involvement in the intimate matter of reproduction
is especially dangerous, as the documented horrors of such programs
in China, India, and elsewhere demonstrate. A prohibition on U.S.
funds to compulsory programs is meaningless because money is
fungible. Tributes to reproductive freedom are cheap. If freedom
conflicts with official population targets, which objective will be
- Private enterprise is capable of providing Western
contraceptives to those in the developing world who want them.
American taxpayers should not be compelled to subsidize
contraception. Moreover, research indicates that what primarily
determines the fertility rate is not the availability of
contraception but the wishes of couples. The ultimate issue is, who
will have the power to make decisions about reproduction, those
couples or the state?
- Believers in overpopulation should ask themselves this
question: What evidence would persuade you that there is no
- A central tenet of our time (and times before us) is that there
are too many people in the world. One cannot go through a week of
watching television, listening to radio talk shows, or reading
newspapers and magazines without seeing mournful references to
overpopulation. Everyone “knows” that the world has too many
people. But as somebody once said, it’s not what we don’t know that
hurts 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? We know that five and a half billion people walk the earth today. But that number by itself says nothing. Maybe it is too few. How can we tell?
The prefix “over” implies a standard. For example, “overweight” implies a standard linked to height. By what standard is the earth overpopulated? Certainly not living space. The world’s population could fit into Jacksonville, Florida, with everyone having standing room. Dense cities are often surrounded by nearly empty countrysides. For overpopulation to be real, there must be conditions that are undesirable and unmistakably caused by the presence of a certain number of people. If such indications cannot be found, we are entitled to dismiss the claim of overpopulation.
In arguing their case, the believers in overpopulation make vague, tautological references to a standard known as “carrying capacity” colorfully illustrated with stories about gazelle herds and bacteria (anything but human beings). When the verbiage is cleared away, what are adduced as the symptoms of overpopulation? Famine, deepening poverty, disease, environmental degradation, and resource depletion. Yet on no count does the evidence support the anti-population lobby’s case. On the contrary, the long-term trend for each factor is positive and points to an even better future.
The television pictures of starving, emaciated Africans are heartbreaking, but they are not evidence of overpopulation. Since 1985 we have witnessed famine in Ethiopia, Sudan, and Somalia. Those nations have one thing in common: they are among the least densely populated areas on earth. Although their populations are growing, the people there are not hungry because the world can’t produce enough food. They are hungry because civil war keeps food from getting to them. Moreover, the very sparseness of their populations makes them vulnerable to famine because there are insufficient people to support sophisticated roads and transportation systems that would facilitate the movement of food.
In the 20th century there has been no famine that has not been caused by civil war, irrational economic policies, or political retribution. Not one. Moreover, the number of people affected by famine compared to that in the late 19th century has fallen—not just as a percentage of the world’s population but in absolute numbers.
Food is abundant. Since 1948, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, annual world food production has outpaced the increase in population. Today, per capita production and per-acre yields are at all-time highs. Prices of agricultural products have been falling for over 100 years. The average inflation-adjusted price of those products, indexed to wages, fell by more than 74 percent between 1950 and 1990. While Lester Brown of the Worldwatch Institute and the noted butterfly expert Paul Ehrlich predict higher food prices and increasing scarcity, food is becoming cheaper and more plentiful. 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 obstacles to agricultural progress are the impediments created by governments. Imagine what the world would be like today if the fertile farmland of the former Soviet Union or China or India had been in productive private hands operating in free markets for the past several decades. Since permitting market incentives in agriculture, India has been come a net food exporter and agricultural production in China has boomed.
Catastrophists argue that the bright past does not imply a bright future; they arbitrarily assert that mankind has crossed some fateful threshold. But the earth is capable of feeding many more people than are now alive. The late Roger Revelle of Harvard University (whom Gore claims as a mentor) estimated that Africa, Asia, and Latin America alone, simply by using water more efficiently, could feed 35 to 40 billion people—seven to eight times the current world population. And that assumes no change in technology—a groundless assumption, to be sure.
Those who annually predict imminent famine (while urging readers to subscribe to next year’s publications) seize on any change as evidence that man’s alleged strain on the biosphere is finally beginning to show. Thus, if the price of seafood rises, they announce that the seas are nearing exhaustion. They never consider the myriad other possibilities, such as the shift in diet from meat to fish, the decline of the Russian fishing industry during the dissolution of the Soviet Union, or the “tragedy of the commons” associated with the lack of property rights in the oceans and lakes.
The most telling indication of the trend in food production is the presence of a farm lobby in every industrial capital. Those lobbies spend millions of dollars a year to persuade their governments to hold food prices up and food supplies down. They apparently don’t expect help from nature.
Plunging Death Rate
The catastrophists’ claim that the population explosion causes famine, poverty, disease, and environmental degradation founders on a single undeniable fact: the global plunge in the death rate. All over the world, people are living longer. More babies survive infancy than ever before, and more people are reaching old age. That cannot be squared with the assertion that living standards are falling, that food production is declining, and that the air and water are more dangerous to human life. “Human comfort,” wrote John Rickman, a contemporary chronicler of the Industrial Revolution, “is to be estimated by human health, and that by the length of human life.”
It should be unnecessary to emphasize the increase in longevity: without it there would be no population explosion for the catastrophists to complain of. The increase in the number of human beings has not occurred because women are having more children than before. The increase is chiefly the result of the falling mortality rate, which economist Julian Simon calls “man’s triumph over death.” It should be the occasion for celebration, but the catastrophists prefer sackcloth.
In the period 1950-55, there were 159 infant deaths per 1,000 live births in the developing world. By 1980-85, the number plunged by over 42 percent—to 92. In East Asia, infant mortality dropped 71 percent. In South America, the drop averaged 52 percent. Even in Africa, the world’s laggard, infant mortality dropped 38 percent. In the industrialized world, the rate fell more than 69 percent.
The increase in life expectancy at birth has been equally dramatic. Between 1950-55 and 1980-85, the average increase worldwide was 13 years, up 29 percent. In the industrialized world, life expectancy went from 65 years to 73 years. But the biggest news was in the developing world, where the increase went from 41 to over 56—a 38 percent increase. The most dramatic increases were in East Asia, where more than 25 years were added to peoples’ lives (for a total of 68 years), a 60 percent gain. In South America there was an average gain of almost 11 years, and in Africa the gain was over 12 years. “The increase in average life expectancy during the twentieth century,” the late David Osterfeld wrote in Progress versus Planning: How Government Stifles Economic Growth, “equals or exceeds the gains made in all the preceding centuries combined.” In A Moment on the Earth, Gregg Easterbrook points out that “it cannot be noted too often that the spectacular worldwide increase in human lifespans has come during the very period when global use of synthetic chemicals, fossil fuels, high-yield agriculture, and radioactive substances has increased exponentially—a fantastic flowering of life coincident with the very influences doomsday orthodoxy depicts as antithetical to life.”
Falling Fertility Rate
Over that same period, the total fertility rate (the average number of children born per woman) fell everywhere. Worldwide, the rate fell from 5 to 3.6. (The rate that produces population stability, or replacement, is 2.1.) The developing world’s rate dropped 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. The laggard, again, is Africa, where the rate fell from 6.5 to only 6.4.
Thus, the world’s population has been heading toward stabilization for 30 years. The population controllers will credit that to their efforts (while complaining that not enough is being done). But there is a simpler explanation: as economies develop and people become better off materially, they have fewer children. That phenomenon, known as the demographic transition, is well established in demography. It explains what happened in the West, where today the fertility rate is 2.0 or lower—below replacement rate. The demographic transition makes perfect sense. In preindustrial, agricultural economies, children provide farm labor and social security (sons care for their elderly parents); children are wealth. In a developed economy, parents invest resources (for education and the like) in their children; they are an expense. As societies become Westernized, and as modern consumer goods and services become available, people find sources of satisfaction other than children. So they have fewer kids. A falling infant-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 control programs in the developing world, which shift child-bearing decisions from couples to the state, are wrong. Those programs are also an affront to human dignity, privacy, and liberty, whether they compel women to have abortions and to be sterilized (as they do in China) or “merely” deprive people of income and vital services because they want more children than the government wishes.
No Obstacle to Development
The catastrophists’ clich that a growing population is an obstacle to development is especially barren. Studies show a strong correlation between affluence and longevity; as the late Aaron Wildavsky liked to say, wealthier is healthier. The lengthening life expectancy in the developing world is evidence that population growth cannot be increasing poverty.
History makes the same point. The West grew rich precisely when its population was increasing at an unprecedented rate. Between 1776 and 1975, while the world’s population increased sixfold, real gross world product rose about 80-fold.
In our own century we have seen a replay of the Industrial Revolution. After World War II the population of Hong Kong grew more quickly than that of 19th-century England or 20th-century India—at the same time that resource-poor island-colony was growing rich.
The increases in population and wealth have not been merely coincidental. They are causes and effects of each other. Today, with few exceptions, the most densely populated countries are the richest. Any mystery in that is dispelled by the realization that people are the source of ideas. The addition of people geometrically increases the potential for combining ideas into newer, better ideas. As the Nobel laureate and economist Simon Kuznets wrote, “More population means more creators and producers, both of goods along established production patterns and of new knowledge and inventions.” A growing population also allows for a more elaborate division of labor, which raises incomes. Those who wish to stifle population growth would condemn hundreds of millions of people in the developing world to the abject deprivation that characterized the West before the Industrial Revolution.
The initially plausible claim that more people deplete resources faster has no more foundation than the catastrophists’ other arguments. Price is the best indication of relative scarcity. For centuries, resources of every kind, including energy, have been getting cheaper. In 1990 energy on average was 46 percent cheaper that it was in 1950; minerals were 48 percent cheaper, lumber 41 percent cheaper, food 74 percent cheaper. As Carroll Ann Hodges, of the U.S. Geological Survey, wrote in the June 2, 1995, issue of Science (pp. 1305-1312), “Yet, despite the specter of scarcity that has prevailed throughout much of this century, no sustained mineral shortages have occurred… .Minerals essential to industrial economies are not now in short supply, nor are they likely to be for the next several generations.” (The only thing getting more expensive is labor, an indication of the scarcity of people.) Technology enables us to find more resources and to use them more efficiently. Doubling the efficiency of our use of oil would be equivalent to doubling the available supply of oil. Natural resources, in other words, do not exist in fixed supplies.
Resources: Natural or Manmade?
Actually, natural resources do not exist at all. All resources are manmade. Something is not a resource until it can accomplish a human purpose. Before Benjamin Silliman, Jr., a Yale University chemist, discovered in 1855 that kerosene (a better illuminant than whale oil) could be distilled from crude oil, oil was not a resource. It was black gunk that ruined farmland and had to be removed at great expense. Silliman turned oil into a resource not by changing its chemical composition but by making a discovery. Nature does not provide resources, only materials. A resource is a material that has been stamped with a human purpose.
The latest evidence of that truth is the information revolution that swirls around us. That revolution is made possible by silicon computer chips and threads of glass (fiber-optic cables). Both are made from sand—one of the most abundant substances on the planet. Thanks to human ingenuity, a common substance that was merely part of the landscape has become a tool of revolutionary human advancement. People don’t deplete resources. They create them.
Nothing written here implies that population growth does not bring problems. Quite the contrary; but as Julian Simon says, it also brings problem solvers who apply their intelligence, discover and invent solutions, and—here is the key—leave human society better off than it was before the problems arose. Doubters need only study the quality of life on the pre-Columbian North American continent, when several million Indians barely scratched out their subsistence amid the same “natural resources” that today enrich the lives of billions of people worldwide.
A caveat: human advancement is not automatic and cannot withstand complacency. It has a precondition without which all that is written here may be ignored. That precondition is liberty, specifically, the individual’s right to think, to produce, to trade, and to profit from his achievements. In institutional terms, liberty consists in free markets, the rule of law protecting property and contracts, and strict limits on government power. Civilization’s successes have another thing in common in addition to growing populations: capitalism.
S. 1029: Unconstitutional and Unnecessary
The foregoing evidence indicates that S. 1029, like the proposals of the UN’s International Conference on Population and Development at Cairo, is a bad solution in search of a problem. First, the powers that would be authorized under the act exceed the powers granted Congress in Article 1, Section 8, of the U.S. Constitution. Second, the population is not in need of stabilization by government intervention. As the world becomes richer and more Westernized, the fertility rate falls on its own. The growth in human numbers is accounted for by the plunging death rate—a universal sign of progress. There is no population problem to be solved.
The Act’s objective of forcing American taxpayers to finance family planning, health, and education programs in the developing world is ill-considered. The record of government-to-government transfers is dismal for a simple reason. Providing cash to central governments puts off the day when those governments grasp the necessity of relinquishing power and letting the liberal market order—complete with women’s rights—flourish. Foreign aid intensifies the politicization of society. When the state is the primary cash cow in society, people will expend effort to curry favor with rulers rather than set their minds to economically productive activities. The whole society suffers as a result. If we really want to help the developing nations, we can do so merely by opening our markets to them.
Government programs in the area of reproduction are particularly fraught with danger. By now the horrendous cases of China, India, Bangladesh, and other nations that carry out population control by force should have taught us that the state has no place in this most personal area of life. We should not be reassured by the Act’s prohibition on the use of U.S. funds for coercive programs. Money is fungible. Any dollar furnished for a voluntary program frees up a dollar for compulsory one. Moreover, research shows that people in the developing world are already familiar with and have access to Western contraceptive devices. That they don’t use Western contraceptives as much as some Americans would like does not mean they are deprived of them. A World Bank study found that what mainly determines the fertility rates of developing countries is not the availability of modern contraceptives but rather the wishes of couples. All manner of Western products are available in the Third World, including infant formula. If people want modern contraceptives, private enterprise will (and does) provide it. Don’t force the American taxpayers to provide subsidies.
It must also be pointed out that government-sponsored reproductive health clinics are ethically dubious endeavors. An agency cannot have two masters. If the clinic is funded by government, it is not truly the agent of the women who use it. The government and the women may not have the same interests. A woman might want another child, but state officials may be more interested in carrying out government population objectives. Who should prevail? Government clinics and education programs are likely to be used to further an antinatalist agenda, which sees population growth as harmful. In terms of the bigger picture, what if women’s freedom, which the Act supports, and the UN’s population targets are inconsistent? Which will be set aside, the targets or freedom?
Of course, most people wish to see economic progress in the developing world. But the truth is that U.S. government money cannot produce it. The only things that can are the diminution of government power in those countries, the rule of law, and the expansion of the private, productive sector of society—in a word, capitalism.
Ronald Bailey, ed. The True State of the Planet. New York: The Free Press, 1995.
P. T. Bauer. “The Population Explosion: Myths and Realities,” in Equality, the Third World, and Economic Delusion. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1981.
Jacqueline Kasun. The War against Population: The Economics and Ideology of Population Control. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988.
David Osterfeld. Prosperity versus Planning: How Government Stifles Economic Growth. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.
Lant H. Pritchett and Lawrence H. Summers. “Desired Fertility and the Impact on Population Policies.” Policy Research Working Paper 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.: Transaction Publishers, 1986.