Dr. Harper is Secretary of the Institute for Humane Studies at Stanford,
The population explosion in our country and around the world is commonly met with mixed emotions. On the one hand, there is the discomfort of being so pressed together that we stand on each other’s feet, elbow our way through crowded subways, become submerged in traffic jams, or find distant recreation forests about as peaceful as
The fact that the population has been rising rapidly during recent decades, and that more is in prospect for some time, seems beyond question. A common prediction is that the present world population of nearly three billion will reach nearly five billion by 1984.
Some authors in a Science article a few years ago reported that by extrapolating from past trends of recorded data, the world population will approach infinity on
Leaving these predictions for others to ponder, our present concern is with an economic notion which seems even more prolific than the human organism itself, namely that increasing population assures prosperity. To review the notion briefly, as any restaurant owner or storekeeper knows, his sales and profits are raised by more persons entering his store to buy. And they cannot enter his store without having first been born. Each birth today, then, means more persons in stores later; diapers will be bought at once, childrens’ clothes later, and adult needs on through life. The more the births, the more will have to be sold to meet the growing needs, ipso facto, according to this simple reasoning. But on further thought and analysis, is this reasoning sound?
Wants Are Insatiable
Let us begin to analyze it this way: Human wants, over-all, are insatiable. If a President of the
Any one person’s capacity to eat popcorn at one sitting may have its limits, but there is no known limit to his capacity to own more suits, cars, servants, servants for the servants…. So if there is any limit to human wants, it surely lies beyond the horizon of our imagination. This means that the limit on sales in stores, and the like, is set by something other than too few persons. By the same reasoning, more persons do not assure more sales and more welfare. What is it that sets the limit?
The limit to the satisfaction of wants is set by the quantity of things produced. Should some of production be wasted, fewer wants will be satisfied, but no miracle is available by which to satisfy wants with things not produced. Some persons may get more of the supply and others less, but that is a question separate from the one we are discussing; and in any event it does not make consumption any greater than production.
What Limits Production
The total quantity of goods and other services produced in the nation in a year depends on three things:
1. The number of persons working
2. The number of hours worked per person
3. The output of product per hour
We are considering prosperity, and the effect of an increase in population on prosperity. Our concern is with the welfare of the individual, not the nation.
The number of hours worked can also be largely ignored for our present concern. The change over time has not been drastic; it is minor as compared with other factors. We used to point, with pride that might be questioned in certain respects, to the reduction of about three-sevenths in the average hours worked in the
This leaves us only the last point as having much to do with our question, namely, the output per hour of work. What effect does an increasing population have on that?
Output per hour of work is almost entirely a matter of the tools at hand to aid the efforts of those who produce. They are of many types and forms. Some tools aid physical work, and others aid mental work or the processes of spirit, morals, and motivation. In the latter category, especially, there are negative as well as positive tools. Among the negative tools, 1 would suggest, are all those economic misconceptions which prevail and persist in the minds of most persons in our society. Among these misconceptions is the notion that increases in population assure prosperity—by which one would have to conclude that even illegitimate children are a contribution to national welfare and thereby worth the mounting costs of public aid to support them.
In our society in the
What Raises Production?
The question then resolves into the processes by which tools are brought to the aid of the average worker. In outline, these are the steps involved:
1. Basic discoveries
2. Innovations and adaptions of discoveries
3. Savings invested in tools
4. Effective use of tools
Nothing is so vital to the whole process of progress in the development and use of tools of production as is liberty of individual persons in society. Slavery in any of its varied forms and by any name is poison to the processes required. If slavery has any advantage anywhere over paying free-workers the prevailing wage, which is doubtful, it is for menial tasks like piling stones upon one another to build pyramids, and the like. Tools once produced can be enslaved, but enslavement of mankind is birth control at its worst for tool-creation.
Thinking now of a single newborn babe in the neighbor’s family, the question at its core can be tested by this simple question: Does the fact of his birth as one more census unit add one iota to any of these four parts of the job as compared with any other person previously born and already in our society? He may turn out to be a discoverer, but is there any reason to expect him to be more so than a random selection of a person already here? Any more an innovator or adapter than someone already here? Any more a saver and investor? Any more an efficient user of tools? I see no reason to expect him to be superior to another baby born yesterday.
The final and important fact is that at birth each addition to the population automatically reduces the tools available per person in the population. At birth, in other words, the little precious is clearly an economic parasite who dilutes rather than enhances welfare. The way it does this is clear from a simple analysis.
It may be noted, of course, that tools can be added to the pile in use. But whatever the original hundred persons invent, create, and add must not only replace the wear that goes on year by year, but must be shared with the immigrants. The additions to the population will add to the average tools per worker only after they have themselves saved and added to that society more than $20,000 worth of effective tools in use. Until their contribution reaches $20,000, they are in this sense economic parasites on the society they have joined.
How soon will it be until the neighbor’s newborn babe can add the required $20,000 to the nation’s tools-in-use? That is our question in its essential form. We could go on down the street to other neighbors’ newborn babes, but that merely compounds our question in magnitude rather than to change it in essence.
The merchant selling diapers may do quite well for a while when this goes on and on in the nation, but only at the even greater loss of business by someone selling other things which the parents cannot now buy instead. Soon, by reason of discouragement if not bankruptcy, they will have to close up shop and go into business selling diapers, or something. The advantage to the diaper salesman then disappears, and he is ready to read some dusty article like this to see why his forecast of hope from help by the storks went afoul. He is then ready to ponder the question which should have occurred to him at the outset: If population increases cause prosperity per se, why were countries like
In a country of extremely sparse population, special circumstances can exist whereby an increase in population can cause enough increase in the efficiency of use of tools they already have to result in rising welfare for a time. But this is not the situation in our nation, or perhaps any nation in the world today.
In summary we may, therefore, herald with goodwill the coming into our society of newborn babes, but the joy should not be because they will automatically bring with them any sort of economic welfare. When they come, they will not bring with them the $20,000 of capital equipment needed to carry their share of productive means now operating in our society. Each of them will dilute the ratio of tools to persons, which is the only real base for prosperity. Each of them, or someone else, will have to save and provide more than $20,000 of tools before their presence will have the effect of increasing the average prosperity of the nation.