All Commentary
Friday, February 1, 1991

A Reviewers Notebook: Population Matters

“Life on earth is getting better, not worse.” So proclaims Julian L. Simon of the University of Maryland in a book called Population Matters: People, Resources, Environment, and Immigration (Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick, N.J., 577 pages, $34.95 cloth). This sounds like Emile Coué speaking back in the Twenties, but Simon depends on much more than facile inspiration for his optimism. He lists some obvious things. The improvement in the life expectancy figures is on his side. Pollution is probably more and more under control. We are getting more wealth for less work. Diseases such as typhoid and polio have ceased to be menaces.

The only trouble (and here Simon gives a personal twist to his writing) is that there are not enough people around to enjoy the better life. We have been listening to the likes of Paul Ehrlich, who wrote The Population Bomb. But Ehrlich’s own figures contradict his worries. We are not even producing two children per family in some nations of the West.

This fact sets things up for Simon’s theories about immigration. If we can’t reproduce ourselves, we can make up the deficiency by an immigration policy that would let people of talent and personal resources into the country. We can continue to wink at illegal entries. The Mexicans aren’t overwhelming, and besides, most of them go home again to put their newfound grubstakes into land. Simon thinks we should auction off entry permits and possibly use the money to do something about the national debt. If talented immigrants can’t come up immediately with the needed auction funds, they could be allowed to pay out of future income-tax deductions.

Talk about selling entry at Ellis Island may not sound very altruistic. But Simon says the famous Emma Lazarus poem about welcoming the refuse of a teeming shore is a phony anyway. Our immigrants of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were mostly in their robust 20s and 30s. They had brawny arms and a willingness to work without asking for welfare, in taking jobs, they began to earn money that paid more in taxes than was set aside for welfare.

Simon is extremely critical of what he thinks is a national commitment to family planning. The Ehrlichs want to keep families small. Simon’s own theory is that people should have as many children as they want, provided they can pay for their food and educate them. The limitation of family numbers cuts clown on the total citizenry that can be the source of new and creative ideas. Soichino Honda, founder of the automotive firm, put it aptly when he said, “Where 100 people think, there are 100 powers; if 1,000 people think there are 1,000 powers.”

In his interchange with Ehrlich, Simon does a job on those who hold, with the authors of the Global 2000 Report, that the future will bring scarcities. “About ‘loss of land’ and ‘desertification,’” says Simon, “some arable land surely is deteriorating. But Ehrlich and current news stories imply a more general proposition: that the world’s total supply of arable land is decreasing. Yet the truth is exactly the opposite: [Joginder] Kumar (1973) made a country-by-country survey of the changes in arable land from 1950 to 1960. His finding: there was 9 percent more total arable land in 1960 than in 1950 in the 87 countries (constituting 73 percent of the land area of the world) for which he could find data—a gain of almost 1 percent per year . . . . And the increase in effective crop area was greater yet, because of the increase in multiple cropping in Asia and elsewhere.”

Some of Ehrlich’s past prophecies now seem particularly ludicrous. In 1969 he wrote in a “scenario” of the future: “The end of the ocean came late in the summer of 1979,” and he went on to predict “the final gasp of the whaling industry in 1973”; “the end of the Peruvian anchovy industry in 1975”; a reduction of the fish catch to 30 million metric tons by 1977—all this contributing to “50 million people per year . . . dying of starvation” in 1977. These were crazy guesses. By 1977, for example, the fish catch was 73 million tons.

There is a valid criticism of Simon’s way of writing a book, which is to send his readers backward and forward to recapitulate material that should have been presented in simple chronological order even at the risk of repetition.

A final criticism: Simon doesn’t show how life for victims of socialism can be getting better.

  • John Chamberlain (1903-1995) was an American journalist, business and economic historian, and author of number of works including The Roots of Capitalism (1959). Chamberlain also served as a founding editor of The Freeman magazine.