Matt Ridley writes in the Wall Street Journal about the recent U.N. projection of there being 7 Billion people living in the world as of Oct 31. Unsurprisingly, most media outlets mention in the same breath the challenges that such an “overbearing” population brings with it – pressure on food, water, prices, and natural resources, as well as augmenting poverty and economic hardship.
These fears stem from the classic Malthusian fear that population growth will outstrip production, reducing the world into poverty, misery, and death. Of course, technological innovation, capital accumulation, and market-price rationing of goods have allowed the world not only to avoid a Malthusian catastrophe, but to flourish with flying colors. Yet it is always more popular to be a pessimist, and Malthusian fears have always lived on, especially among the “Green” movement. Ridley tackles this pessimism head on in his book The Rational Optimist, arguing in a similar vein.
Even though we’ve seen rising globally food prices, riots over economic hardships, and a persistently uncomfortable level of human suffering, we ought not throw all the blame at population growth. Economist and Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen famously said that ”No famine has ever taken place in the history of the world in a functioning democracy,” (Democracy as Freedom, 1999: Anchor). Sen correctly highlights the fact that there is probably plenty of food to go around technologically, but the problem lies in its distribution. Sen credits “democracy” as the most successful institution for distributing food, but perhaps it would be better to extend it “markets.” Famine occurs when governments, corrupted by public or private rent-seeking, distribute and/or restrain distribution to certain groups for purely political reasons.
Ridley channels the spirit of these insights in his brief article, but rests his focus on more demographic concerns: He highlights an important recent phenomenon – that modern industrialized countries seem to be experiencing a slowdown in the rate of population growth. Summarizing the cause of this phenomena, he concludes:
Birth rates have gone down because of prosperity, not poverty.
This seems to suggest that as an economy industrializes, its population explodes, but once it reaches sufficient wealth, population begins to level off (and in some advanced economies such as Japan, it is actually predicted to decline due to “population aging”). As for explaining this trend:
The best guess is that modern society causes human beings to switch their reproductive strategy from quantity to quality. Thus, once child mortality drops and paid work becomes available to the children of subsistence farmers, parents become more interested in getting one or two children into education or jobs than in begetting lots of heirs and spares for the farm.
Whatever the explanation, history shows that top-down policies aimed directly at population control have generally proved less successful than bottom-up ones aimed at human welfare, which get population control as a bonus. The faster poor countries can grow their economies, the slower they will grow their populations.
The short end of the argument is that on average, we have no reason to fear 7,000,000 people on this planet. We just need to allow voluntary practices to optimize the level of population relative to our current level of technology and goods. When governments try to set the level of population, or influence technology and goods through coercive restrictions, only then should we fear the Malthusian catastrophe.