People Aren’t the Problem, the System Is

Leftists always worry about population growth and the depletion of the planet's resources; they are wrong
By Michael Munger, American Institute for Economic Research
August 5, 2018 Updated: August 6, 2018    

One of the central “policy problems” faced in modern societies is population growth. I used the scare quotes because it’s not clear that population is a state issue at all, much less a problem.

Population, after all, is the sum of the consequences of millions of individual actions, some of them choices and some just actions. A woman has a certain number of children, for complex reasons. If we add up the results within a nation, the result is the growth in the overall population. Or, currently in many nations, decline.

The reasons vary substantially across the individuals involved. The availability of contraception, social norms, family pressures, or sexual violence and the problems of political stability all play a role. Thinking of the aggregate as a single variable factor—“population”—and as something that can be manipulated by changing policies is a strange conceit of central planners.

There has been a lot of famously breathless worrying about population growth. One of the first, of course, was Thomas Malthus, whose views were actually more complex than the “population crisis” claim we find in his followers.

Bad Predictions

Perhaps the most famous Malthusian doomsayer is Paul Ehrlich, who famously said: “The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s and 1980s, hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.” That was in his extremely influential 1968 book “The Population Bomb.” Ehrlich went on to predict:

“At this late date, nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate. … The train of events leading to the dissolution of India as a viable nation is already in motion. … If I were a gambler, I would take even money that England will not exist in the year 2000.”

That’s some serious hogwash. The population of India was 530 million when this “prediction” was made; India has more than 1.34 billion in 2018, and there is less poverty, not more.

Further, readers may recall that Ehrlich was a gambler; he foolishly took Julian Simon’s famous bet on commodity prices. Ehrlich lost, of course, but never came close to admitting that he was in any way mistaken.

Simon asked Ehrlich to pick a few commodities in 1980 whose supply would run out 10 years later, leading to skyrocketing prices. Ehrlich picked a few. None of them ran out, and prices were actually lower by 1990.

In 1969, Ehrlich predicted that life expectancy in the United States “will drop to 42 years by 1980 due to cancer epidemics.” I could go on; there are hundreds more very specific predictions of disaster that have been not only wrong, but qualitatively in the wrong direction.

Every time Ehrlich and other population alarmists have said “down,” the actual result has been “up”: The population has increased without causing major problems; the biggest problem of the poor in many countries is obesity, not starvation; and the world is less polluted and the air is cleaner (from everything except carbon dioxide, a problem Ehrlich never even mentioned) than it was in the 1960s. Things are better, not worse, and things are better, most of all, for the poor.

In a sense, Ehrlich has been consistent: Every 10 years or so, he just adds another decade to his fatuous “predictions” and cooks up a new batch of nonsense. And he has managed to get paid a fortune to do it.

The point: It’s not surprising that a seller of ideological snake oil would continue to sell the same useless concoction of nonsense, as long as people line up to buy it. But that raises the real question: Why would anyone buy this nonsense? How could a fake scientist continue to be listened to, and even respected, when not one of his specific predictions are even in the correct direction?

I have an answer. And I have to admit that I hope I’m wrong, because if I’m right, it’s a pretty horrible indictment of the moral impoverishment of the population alarmists. But hear me out, and see what you think.

Population Is a Problem Without Real Capitalism

The answer to population growth is free markets, competition, and making labor into a commodity. Yes, I went there—full on accepting the worst-case characterization of the left. Not “market system,” capitalism. Let’s own it.

The reason that capitalism solves the population problem requires a little explanation, though it’s not very complicated. Every society that has adopted a capitalist system has seen wages for labor rise sharply. As Benjamin Powell shows in his remarkable book “Out of Poverty,” countries that start out with poverty and out-of-control population growth see those problems solved in just two or three generations.

If you line countries up in “event time”—so that you are comparing countries at the point they adopt capitalism, even if that happened centuries apart—a striking parallel emerges: wages rise, poverty falls, and population growth shrinks to replacement.

It happened in northern Europe by 1975, in Japan in 1970, and in Korea and Taiwan in 1980. In several Latin American nations, the end of population growth has been seen in the past two decades. Some nations are still growing, but much of that growth is from immigration rather than births above the replacement rate.

Opportunity Cost

When do nations see their fertility rates, defined as births per woman, fall? When labor is priced. That’s what capitalism does: put a price on labor. If a woman is educated and allowed to work, the opportunity cost of her time skyrockets, and she becomes far more valuable to the society—and to herself—to have a child every 18 months or two years.

Nations that develop capitalist institutions see the median age of first children rise, and the total number of children fall dramatically. China’s birthrate had fallen below replacement by 1995 (though the “one child” policy was a big part of the cause), and India’s fertility fell from nearly 6 in 1960 to 2.3, or just above replacement, in 2015.

Since becoming wealthy also decreases infant mortality rates and increases life expectancy, it’s actually not surprising that the number of nations at or below replacement fertility is growing so rapidly. If more children survive, and people live longer, the replacement rate falls. But nonetheless, it’s true: Population growth is disappearing all over the world in nations that start to use the price system, bringing reproduction into a natural equilibrium.

This shows the real underlying problem with the “analysis” of Ehrlich and his acolytes. Ehrlich, to his credit, is quite clear about this, writing in 1969: “We’ve already had too much economic growth in the United States. Economic growth in rich countries like ours is the disease, not the cure.”

On the flip side, countries with population growth below replacement, like Russia, Japan, and much of Western Europe, often have too much state intervention meddling in family affairs.

Hating Prosperity

The alarmists’ real concern is not the growth of population; it’s prosperity. Their concern is that the resources of the earth will be used up and that humanity has to prepare by becoming fewer and poorer. But all the evidence points in the opposite direction.

The solution to the population problem is also the right thing to do, morally. In countries without capitalist institutions, patriarchal institutions oppress women and relegate them to reproductive slavery. This means that the opportunity cost of women’s time is too low.  Only capitalism values women, and only capitalism can end the population crisis.

The solution is deceptively simple: develop capitalism, and educate the female population to enable them to choose whether they want to join the workforce, or stay at home to raise children, or both.

All the countries in the world that have educated female populations and market institutions have fertility rates right around replacement. There is no population problem; the problem is that we don’t have enough capitalism.

Michael Munger is a professor of economics at Duke University and a senior fellow of the American Institute for Economic Research. This article was first published at AIER.org

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.