The Inhumanity of Population Control

Christopher Lingle

Once again the Bush administration has come under fire for a decision that runs counter to conventional wisdom. Undeterred by widespread denunciations after opposing the Kyoto Protocol, it announced that funds appropriated by Congress to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) would be cut back. With all the hue and cry about the dangers of population growth in the world, it would seem that an agency that supports reproductive health in developing countries should be a sacred cow. Even so, it is fair to ask whether this indicates a sort of bullheadness or insensitivity on the part of the President and his team or whether many of the shapers of world opinion have their facts wrong.

Unfortunately, this issue has become wrapped up with the abortion controversy. Both sides have sought to occupy the moral high ground. For its part, the Bush administration points to the use of UNFPA funds to support compulsory abortions in China. This should be uncontroversial to anyone outside the policy-making corridors of Beijing. It beggars the imagination that pro-choice advocates would support the use of force to require abortions, contraception, or sterilization.

From their side, population planners and reproductive-rights advocates insist that cutting funds will harm the interests of many women, especially in developing countries. Funding cuts are paired with horrific images of millions of unwanted pregnancies, related medical complications, and an unabated spread of AIDS. (See Nicholas D. Kristof’s op-ed “Devastated Women,” New York Times, April 26.)

The Bush administration might have found itself on more tenable ground if it shifted the debate toward the persistent negative image associated with population increases per se. For herein lies a truly prickly question. Neglected in this debate is that having more human beings actually constitutes a net gain. Instead, supporters of population planning (both voluntary or involuntary) start with the assumption that there are already too many of us on our fair earth. And there is surprisingly little dissent to this view. Sharp declines in infant mortality and improved health care have increased life spans and contributed to the population’s nearly quadrupling within a century, from around 1.6 billion in 1900 to almost 6 billion in 2000. Worries about a global population explosion brought warnings of worldwide famine and immiseration. Happily, these predictions have not been borne out. One eloquent body of work that should be more widely heeded is that of the late economist Julian Simon, who had a remarkably undismal view of the world. His optimism is best expressed in his book The Ultimate Resource. Therein, he identifies human beings as being capable of resolving most problems that confront us.

Ignoring the view of thinkers like Simon, political leaders in both India and China were caught in the trap of a negative logic that allowed abusive acts against their citizens in the name of “sound” public policy. Clearly, the forced sterilization and abortions they pursued were a violation of the most basic principles of human dignity. Their actions reflect a disregard for the value-added potential that is inherent in each and every human being. Yet they are obviously not alone. Even conventional economic data calculation reflects a negative bias against population growth.

Consider the calculation of per capita income whereby national income is divided by the size of the population. This means that an additional person will increase the denominator and reflect a decrease in the material well-being of a community. However, a batch of new puppies born to a breeder will increase the numerator and reflect an enhancement in economic conditions. Such an anomaly comes from ignoring the imputed present value of the future flow of benefits from a newly born human.

Despite their likely denials of such, there is an implicit racism in the demands of population-control advocates. Since many Western developed countries have shrinking populations, insistence on limiting population growth involves holding back the numbers of black, brown, and yellow peoples.

Although considerable evidence refutes the dismal view of population growth, it persists. Consider the fact that the areas of highest population density are the most prosperous and often the most hospitable. Amsterdam, Hong Kong, London, Singapore, and Tokyo are prime examples of this. And even though Bombay and Cairo are heavily polluted, they are both certainly more prosperous and productive than the surrounding countryside.

Exaggerated Dangers

Interestingly, advocates of population control are subject to strong personal incentives to exaggerate the dangers. Concocting horrific images of overpopulation allows politicians to lay claim to more resources from taxpayers (whose numbers they paradoxically wish to see increase!). Similarly, “nongovernmental organizations” (NGOs) stand to gain funds by beating the same drum.

It turns out that population growth has internal checks. For example, people who are richer, healthier, and better educated tend to have smaller families. According to U.N. estimates, there will be little growth in the world’s population growth after 2100 and the population will be stable at just below 11 billion. This is because the population growth rate peaked at about 2 percent a year in the early 1960s and has been declining ever since. It is now 1.26 percent and is expected to fall to 0.46 percent in 2050. Countries where fertility rates are at sub-replacement levels constitute about 44 percent of the world’s total population and include many developing countries. On the one hand, high rates of economic development along with rising per capita income has heralded a declining pace of population growth due to rapid decreases in birthrates. On the other hand, it is troubling counterpoint that countries with lower levels of economic development are experiencing a discernible decline in life spans.

Many countries have population profiles that show increased aging. With progressive improvement in life expectancies and health conditions during long intervals of peace, the median age of many populations has increased. With more individuals able to better their lives, it can be said that the overall human condition has improved.

There are other ways to cope with local population growth. One of the simplest would be to allow more open immigration. However, populists mount opposition by invoking the fear of infiltration by terrorist organizations or the dilution of indigenous culture. These claims find eager support among trade unionists who want to keep out other workers who seek to improve their lot. Looking at it from a purely economic standpoint, there is considerable evidence that migration yields net benefits to receiving countries. Incoming migrants tend to be younger and healthier than the receiving population. And their choice to move away from the familiarities of their home country implies a high initiative to work. In all events, most economic migrants take up jobs that locals are unwilling or unable to fill.

The other way to offset the pressures of the peopling of the earth is to take steps to allow higher economic growth. There are various benefits from this. First, increases in average income tend to lead to declining birth rates. Second, higher levels of income provide both the desire and the means to solve a wide range of problems.

The perceived problems of global population growth are failures of governance. Instead of diverting resources toward population control, governments and NGOs should support open immigration and policies that promote economic growth.

Christopher Lingle is a professor of economics at Universidad Francisco Marroquín.

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