All Commentary
Wednesday, December 1, 1999

5,999,999,999 and Counting

Should We Be Worried About Population Growth?

Sometime this fall the world’s population was estimated to have reached six billion. The U.N. Population Fund, which “knows” precisely how many people there should be in the world, also “knows” precisely what day the world hit six billion: October 12.

In fact, no one knows precisely how many people there are on earth. One would have to have an exaggerated confidence in the record keeping of governments to make such a claim. How reliable are the records—birth and death—of, say, Rwanda?

The Population Fund’s perennial campaign to scare us about the number of people is another unfortunate use of taxpayers’ money. On its face the number six billion says nothing. In context it says nothing disturbing. The population’s rate of increase is slowing markedly. Fertility rates have been falling for decades. According to MSNBC, “Since 1992, the United Nations has had to push back its 6 billion estimate by almost two years.”

The Population Fund and its brooding boosters such as Paul Ehrlich and Lester Brown have been predicting disaster from population growth for decades. No set of predictions has been more forcefully falsified. Even Alex Marshall of the Population Fund had to concede that “No one in history thought it would be possible to reach this number with an intact planet; they predicted ecological collapse, famine, and nuclear war, but we are doing rather well and that’s an achievement.” Marshall is apparently unfamiliar with the work of P. T. Bauer, Julian Simon, and others.

Marshall could not resist adding: “But the other side is that so many people are living in desperate poverty and the population is still growing, mostly in the poorest countries to the poorest families.” In fact, people in most places are living longer, healthier lives than ever before. The population grows because the death rate falls.

One of the myths too many of us live by is that people cause poverty. This is worse than wrong. Poverty needs no cause or explanation.

It is wealth that must be explained. And by now we should know the cause of that: people!—more precisely, free and enterprising people living in a regime of private property.

Thus it is interference with private property, not population growth, that should be the cause of concern.

* * *

The countdown to the triggering of the infamous “Y2K bug” nears the zero hour. Whatever happens at midnight on the 31st, there is no gainsaying that people have spent a lot of money to make sure that computers and embedded chips read “00” as “2000” and not “1900.” Was it the work of dunderheads that necessitated all the expense, effort, and worry? Or is it only hindsight that permits condemnation of the programmers of decades ago? Bill O. Reitz puts himself in their place.

Ebenezer Scrooge is the Christmastime figure people love to despise. The oddly self-centered man who spent no money on himself is often taken as a foil for anticapitalism. But is Dickens’s A Christmas Carol really a brief against free markets and for the welfare state? Daniel Oliver goes to the text to examine this question.

The term “states’ rights” got a bad reputation because it was identified with slavery and later legally enforced segregation. Yet as Gene Healy argues, if one safeguard of liberty is the fragmentation of political power, then “states’ rights,” however unfortunate the name and some of its past applications, deserves another look from classical liberals.

Fans of activist government admire America’s quiet neighbor to the north for its “enlightened” public policy. In the interest of multiculturalism, Monte Solberg provides a tour of Canada’s political milieu.

What happens when the free market displaces central economic planning? James Madison strolls through Prague and samples the fruits of international investment.

Government regulation of business is sometimes mocked for its waste and occasional outright silliness. But the regulatory machine chugs on undaunted. Michael Catanzaro shows the myriad ways that regulation is bad for everyone’s prosperity.

By now it’s an old saw: no one takes care of someone else’s property the way he takes care of his own. George Leef found a supersized illustration of this principle: the North Carolina university system.

Economics is everywhere, even in the choice to go to the movies rather than stay home and read a book. Ninos Malek explores some of the economics of everyday life.

Economically, China was once among the most virulent of communist countries. Over the last 20 years some market reform has taken place. But Christopher Lingle shudders to think of that country’s next economic phase: old-fashioned Keynesianism.

People sometimes let their language fool them, as when they attribute features of individuals to groups. Mischief can come from such imprecision, as Tibor Machan demonstrates.

In columns this month, Donald Boudreaux dismantles statist slogans; Lawrence Reed reflects on the difference between government and everything else; Doug Bandow scrutinizes the Korean peninsula; Dwight Lee explains protectionism; Mark Skousen probes Robert Heilbroner’s biases; and Russell Roberts wonders if people get the politicians they want. Richard Timberlake reads a newspaper article claiming that the Federal Reserve sets interest rates and protests, “It Just Ain’t So!”

Our book reviewers chew over works on the philosophy of individualism, the libertarian-conservative divide, foreign interventionism, the diet gendarme, the New Deal, and the relationship between politics and culture.

—Sheldon Richman

  • Sheldon Richman is the former editor of The Freeman and a contributor to The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. He is the author of Separating School and State: How to Liberate America's Families and thousands of articles.