All Commentary
Monday, May 1, 1967

The Population Problem

Dr. Curtiss is Executive Secretary of the Foundation for Economic Education.

Planners the world over are pointing to the current and pend­ing population explosion and the dire consequences which will arise therefrom. The stories are truly frightening. It is usually contend­ed that population, especially in the developing countries, will far outrun the production of food, and mass starvation will result unless something is done about it. The “something” which must be done ranges all the way from sharing our agricultural surpluses, trac­tors, livestock, and hybrid seed to the use of the “pill” to cut birth rates. Is it any wonder that indi­viduals, if they view all this as a collective problem, feel helpless and frustrated in looking ahead into the next century?

Does history tell us anything about population problems and their solutions? Indeed it does. It tells us, for example, that individ­uals respond one way to freedom and responsibility and another way to socialism. So long as a fam­ily with freedom to increase its own numbers has the responsibil­ity of rearing its young and car­ing for its old should they become helpless, there is a very strong in­centive to (1) restrict its num­bers within manageable limits, or (2) increase the productivity of the family and its ability to care for increasing numbers. Both fac­tors are usually at work.

When there is freedom to add numbers to the family without re­sponsibility to care for them, we have a genuine problem. Nor are we lacking examples which bear this out. In the United States, fam­ilies on relief, with payments based in part on the number of children in the family, tend to be larger than where responsibility for child care rests with the parents. One need not be surprised at this man­ifestation of human nature.

A Strong Motivation

Responsibility toward one’s children — the desire to do well by them — is a strong motivating force. But if the opportunity arises, some parents are willing to shift this responsibility —whether to relatives, to friends, or to the state.

Even in our comparatively free economy, more and more of the responsibility for rearing children is being shifted to the state. Per­haps it began with “free” elemen­tary education. No matter how many children a family sends to a government school, the school tax rate on that family’s property is the same as on other property. The greater the number of chil­dren in a family, the lower that family’s tax per child. And for families with no property to tax, schooling is literally free.

Such “free” education also has been extended to high school and college levels; and increasing Fed­eral aid for education further dim­inishes parental feelings of re­sponsibility for rearing one’s chil­dren.

Another example of shifting the responsibility to the state occurs in the form of exemptions for children on one’s income tax re­turn. The more children, the less tax. Young parents, in announcing the birth of a baby, sometimes de­scribe it as a new exemption. The income tax exemption is compar­able to the practice in some coun­tries of paying family allowances. The more children, the greater the tax allowance or the benefit payment.

This is not to say that modest income tax exemptions for chil­dren or even “free” education and recreation are a great incentive to increase the size of families in an advanced economy such as ours. But such measures tend to work in that direction, and they illus­trate the shift of responsibility from parents to the state.

Changing Circumstances

In the early primarily agricul­tural economy of the United States, large families were com­mon. Not a high proportion of children reached maturity, but those who lived were an economic asset at an early age, both in the home and in the fields. Following the Industrial Revolution, with comparatively fewer engaged in agriculture and a higher propor­tion of the population living and working in urban centers, the in­centive for large families declined, and so did birth rates. Parents were presented with a choice be­tween a large number of children at a subsistence level of living, or fewer children with more of the so-called “advantages of life.”

In most of the advanced indus­trial countries today, we find lower birth rates and smaller families than in the developing, agricultur­al countries.


(Births for each 1,000 population)

Industrial Countries

Belgium (1965)


Denmark (1965)


Italy (1965)


Japan (1965)


Switzerland (1964)


United Kingdom (1965)


United States (1965)


Agricultural Countries

Brazil (1959-61)


Burma (1965)


Costa Rica (1964)


Ecuador (1964)


Guatemala (1964)


Mexico (1965)


Venezuela (1964)


Source: Statistical Abstract

of the

United States, 1966

Since World War II, Japan has been experiencing an industrial revolution. Prior to the War, Ja­pan had a very high birth rate, and planners were predicting a serious population situation as numbers outstripped the nation’s food production. But with the growth of industry in Japan, the birth rate has been cut in half.

When men have enjoyed sus­tained freedom long enough to develop an advanced industrial so­ciety, with parents responsible for rearing their own children, it would appear that there is a strong tendency to limit the num­ber of offspring. It should be noted that “rearing” as used here means more than just food, cloth­ing, and shelter. It includes medi­cal aid, education, religion, recre­ation, and whatever else parents think important for their children.

But, what if one’s religion or national customs or local mores in­terfere with a decision to limit the size of one’s family? These are some of the many factors which affect the decision of an individual. It is a personal and not a collec­tive problem. Parents truly re­sponsible for rearing their chil­dren are faced with many such in­dividual decisions.

Shifting Responsibility

The real problems with regard to population arise when the re­sponsibility for rearing their chil­dren is relinquished by or re­moved from the parents. This may happen in a number of ways.

Providing food free or at “bar­gain” prices to families is one way of reducing parental respon­sibility for children. Genuine fam­ine relief is not at issue here. The providing of free food, or gifts of any kind for that matter, whether to individual families or to entire nations, fails on at least three counts. First, it doesn’t touch upon their basic need for more capital to enable them to be­come more productive. Second, it may discourage developing coun­tries from seriously undertaking the job of increasing their own production of food. And third, relevant to this discussion, it eliminates economic pressures up­on individuals to curb population growth.

It has been demonstrated in some developing countries that, when people are given food and medical aid, population growth tends to push against the limit of these resources with no improve­ment whatever in per capita wel­fare. As long as the people of a nation consume their entire pro­duction each year, they cannot in­dustrialize. To become an indus­trial nation, at least some of the people must save to acquire the tools of production.

The Solution

Population becomes a serious problem to the extent that it is considered a responsibility of government. As a matter of fact, a great many problems originate in this manner, when government stands between willing buyers and willing sellers. Delivery of mails is a problem only because it is a monopoly of the state. If mail were handled privately and com­petitively in the market, the prob­lems would be solved. Agricultural surpluses are a problem only be­cause of government intervention. If left to the free market, supply and demand would tend to balance through price.

Transportation, especially in densely populated urban areas, is a problem only because govern­ment has stepped into the picture to regulate prices and to control transportation in many ways. La­bor problems are serious, chiefly because government has granted certain monopoly powers to or­ganized groups of workers.

So it is with population! If families individually can retain the freedom to decide how large that family shall be and, at the same time, have no choice but to shoulder the responsibility for rearing the members of the family, no population problem will exist.

If population expands faster than food supplies, the cost of food will rise and stimulate in­creased production or imports. If the price rises to a point where families feel it is too high, they will economize in different ways.

Some may take measures to avoid further increase in the number of mouths to feed. Some may search for better food bargains — per­haps less meat and more grains. In any case, self-responsible in­dividuals will feel the incentive and will make the adjustment.

Problems Stem from Intervention

But, if government comes into the picture — especially to take on part or all of the responsibility for rearing the children — a popula­tion problem is certain to result. And, if the state assumes both the responsibility for raising food and caring for children, two very com­plicated and interrelated problems will result.

The United States government, at taxpayer expense, has given away billions of dollars worth of food and other items all over the world during the past twenty years. The principal effects upon the recipients appear to be in­creasing enmity and increasing population. How much better if the people of the developing na­tions of the world could learn, in­stead, how we avoided our popula­tion problems by not creating them in the first place. They could learn, if they would, how we pro­gressed from a nation 90 per cent engaged in farming to fewer than 10 per cent; yet, we feed ourselves in a way that is the envy of the world. They might come to under­stand that all this happened be­fore government started to meddle with our agriculture and created our own farm problem.

The United States could con­tribute to the developing countries of the world in no finer way than simply serving as a model — an ex­ample — of how freedom made it possible for the people to emerge from a small, struggling, colonial nation to a level of living that astounds the world. The miracle of all this would need explaining to those who do not understand how it could happen. That under­standing is needed, not only by those of foreign lands, but by many of our own people who have come to believe that we can have more by doing less, that the state is supreme, that all the problems of production are solved, and all that remains is to divide the fruits between the public and private sectors. The great debate is whether the production of a na­tion is to be divided according to decisions in a free market by those who have something useful to trade; or, should government officials make the allocation ac­cording to what they think is best for all.

Yes, we could serve as an ex­ample for the newer countries. No doubt about it, they see our ac­complishments and admire them.

They would like to emulate them. But, when our emissaries go abroad to explain how we became so rich, what is the typical ex­planation?

Since these emissaries usually are government employees, they tend to explain our achievements in terms of what government is doing. And it comes out like this: “You must have a strong central government to control the actions of the people. You must have agrarian reform. Note how we built our agricultural surpluses! You must have minimum wage laws so that purchasing power of the workers can be high. You must organize your workers so they can defend themselves against monopolistic employers. You must build expensive roads and hospi­tals and schools and dams, and so forth, like we do.” It is fairly ob­vious that such explanations are failing to achieve the desired re­sults.

Our emissaries do not tell what really brought the United States from a poor, undeveloped nation to what it is today. Nor is this clearly revealed in the model we hold up before them. Unseen and untold is the need for a high de­gree of individual freedom in all walks of life — freedom to make mistakes and pay the price, as well as freedom to succeed and reap the rewards.

With freedom, people will work and produce. A few will save and create capital — tools of produc­tion that will multiply the bene­fits for all.

This is the lesson which devel­oping countries need. This is far more essential to them than gifts of food, drugs, and tractors for their governments to dispense. If a developing nation learns the freedom formula — rather than “from-each-according-to-ability, to-each-according-to-need” — many modern-day problems that plague the people of this and other na­tions will never arise. The “popu­lation explosion” is one of those unnecessary problems.



Freedom From Government

Economic freedom, in the American sense, is maximum freedom from government. Capitalism is fundamentally a system in which people as far as possible are free to mind their own business but not free to mind other people’s businesses.

HAROLD M. FLEMING, States, Contracts and Progress

  • W.M. Curtiss served as executive secretary of The Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) in Irvington, New York.