Population Growth: Disaster or Blessing?
Bauer, Peter T., Independent Review
The twenty-third General Population Conference of the International Union for the Scientific Study of Population, which met in Beijing in October 1997, focused on overpopulation as a serious threat to human survival and a major cause of poverty. Warren Buffet, Bill Gates, corporations, governments, and international organizations are dedicating and promising to dedicate enormous resources to reverse the threat of overpopulation. But population density and poverty are not actually correlated.
Poverty in the Third World is not caused by population growth or pressure. Economic achievement and progress depend on people's conduct, not on their numbers. Population growth in the Third World is not a major threat to prosperity. The crisis is invented. The central policy issue is whether the number of children should be determined by the parents or by agents of the state.
Since the Second World War it has been widely argued that population growth is a major, perhaps decisive obstacle to the economic progress and social betterment of the underdeveloped world, where the majority of mankind lives. Thus Robert S. McNamara, former president of the World Bank, wrote: "To put it simply: the greatest single obstacle to the economic and social advancement of the majority of peoples in the underdeveloped world is rampant population growth .... The threat of unmanageable population pressures is very much like the threat of nuclear war." And many others have made similar statements.
The Apprehensions Rest on False Assumptions
These apprehensions rest primarily on three assumptions. First, national income per head measures economic well-being. Second, economic performance and progress depend critically on land and capital per head. Third, people in the Third World are ignorant of birth control or careless about family size; they procreate regardless of consequences. A subsidiary assumption is that population trends in the Third World can be forecast with accuracy for decades ahead.
Behind these assumptions and, indeed, behind the debates on population are conflicting views of mankind. One view envisages people as deliberate decision makers in matters of family size. The other view treats people as being under the sway of uncontrollable sexual urges, their numbers limited only by forces outside themselves, either Malthusian checks of nature or the power of superior authority. Proponents of both views agree that the governments of less developed countries (LDCs), urged by the West, should encourage or, if necessary, force people to have smaller families.
National income per head is usually regarded as an index of economic welfare, even of welfare as such. However, the use of this index raises major problems, such as demarcation between inputs and outputs in both production and consumption. Even if an increase in population reduced income per head, a matter to which I shall return later, such a reduction would not necessarily mean that the well-being either of families or of the wider community had been reduced.
In the economics of population, national income per head founders completely as a measure of welfare. It ignores the satisfaction people derive from having children or from living longer. The birth of a child immediately reduces income per head for the family and for the country as a whole. The death of the same child has the opposite effect. Yet for most people, the first event is a blessing, the second a tragedy. Ironically, the birth of a child is registered as a reduction in national income per head, while the birth of a calf shows up as an improvement.
The wish of the great majority of mankind to have children has extended across centuries, cultures, and classes. The survival of the human race evinces that most people have been willing to bear the cost of rearing two or more children to the age of puberty. Widely held ideas and common attitudes reflect and recognize the benefits parents expect from having children. …