Warning: You are using a browser that does not support angularJS. Some site functionality will not be available to you. Please consider updating to a newer version.
FEE.org does not currently support Internet Explorer. Please use a supported browser such as Google Chrome or Mozilla Firefox.

The Population Question: Limited Government or Limited People?

Mr. Weber is a Chicago writer-photographer specializing in public relations. A graduate of Loyola University with an M.A. in Urban Studies, he is doing research for a book on U.S. population.

We, the people, founded the United States of America on the principle of limited government.

Now, the government is proposing to operate on the basis of a new principle: limited people.

The need for this complete inversion in the relationship between the American people and their government has been heralded by a seemingly endless outpouring of population-control propaganda and other "popullution" pap. Yet, the case for population control remains unmade. Consider these facts:

1) Population growth in the United States is not a problem. The more hysterical proponents of population control like to draw "runaway" population growth curves that go practically straight up. However, in the real world, population growth follows an "S" rather than a "/" curve.

We are nearing the end of this "S" curve which represents the demographic transition. Consequently, our population growth is now slowing down and in the future will begin to level out, causing a number of noted demographers to bail out of their exponentially rising projections.

The most prominent example to date is Donald J. Bogue, director of the Community and Family Study Center at the University of Chicago. In 1963, Dr. Bogue was among those shouting from the rooftops about the perils of overpopulation. At the time, estimates of U.S. population at the end of the century varied from 300 to 400 million.

Today, Dr. Bogue is predicting a U.S. population in 2001 of about 250 million people — only 42 million or 20 per cent more than in 1970. Bogue further predicts that there will be no more babies born annually in 2001 than there are today.

The President’s National Goals Research Staff recognized the lack of any population "explosion" in the U.S. when it stated in July, 1971, in a report entitled "Toward Balanced Growth: Quantity with Quality": "One decision which appears not to be urgent is that of over-all size of the population —even after the effects of a considerable immigration are taken into account."

2) Population growth in the United States is not a major cause of problems. Population growth has proved to be a boon to those in search of simple solutions to complex problems.

Pollution, crime, overcrowding, resource depletion, lower living standards, reduced governmental services, you name it, population growth causes it, according to these simplistic souls. But the accusations are not supported by the facts.

Technological Impact

Take, for example, pollution. According to Barry Commoner, the increase in population since 1946 accounts for only about 12 to 20 per cent of the various increases in total U.S. pollutant output. From 40 to 95 per cent of these increases were caused by new production technologies which resulted in increased output of pollutants per unit of production.

Commoner points out that it would have been necessary to reduce 1946 population by 86 per cent in order to prevent the rise in pollution which has occurred during the past 25 years. In other words, we would have to have a current U.S. population of 20 to 25 million people to maintain 1946 pollution levels at today’s level of technology. By contrast, a 30-per cent reduction in the environmental impact of technology would have accomplished the same result. The conclusion is that U.S. population growth has only a minor effect on the intensification of pollution. Conversely, immense reductions in population size would be required to materially affect pollution levels.

There is at the same time another side to the pollution coin, namely, that although people account for only 12 to 20 per cent of pollution, they form 100 per cent of the productive source of funds which must be used in the future to reduce many types of pollution. Lake Erie, for instance, will continue to be a problem regardless of future population trends. But it will be a problem that can be more easily resolved from a financial point of view by a growing population.

Crowding and Crime

Another favorite "problem" of populationists is crime. A classic example of this was a full-page advertisement in the New York Times sponsored by a group called the Campaign to Check the Population Explosion. Under the headline "Have you ever been mugged? Well, you may be" was a picture of a man grappling with a mugger. "Is there an answer [to crime in the cities]?" the ad copy asked. "Yes," it responded, "birth control is one."

Major central cities such as New York do, in fact, have the highest crime rates. But these cities are losing, not gaining, population. Shall we therefore conclude that crime increases as population decreases?

Of course, juvenile delinquency goes up disproportionately during a period of population growth because there are more young people around in relation to the rest of the population. The ad also calls attention to this fact with the statement: "City slums — jam-packed with juveniles, thousands of them idle — breed discontent, drug addiction and chaos."

Tongue-in-cheek-wise, population control is sort of, yes, an "answer" to the so-called "youth problem." But an answer which involves solving problems simply by eliminating people who have or cause the problems hardly merits serious consideration as a legitimate solution.

Population Density

What about overcrowding? At 55 persons per square mile, the United States is one of the least densely populated countries in the world. Holland, for example, has 975 persons per square mile; England, 588; Switzerland, 382.

Overcrowding in the U.S. is a function of population distribution, not population size. And people congregate, i.e., overcrowd, in metropolitan areas for their mutual advantage. This is what metropolitan areas are all about.

But even in these areas population density is decreasing with the continuing exodus of people from central cities to suburbs. This decentralization was initially made possible by improvements in transportation. It is now being further hastened by revolutionary improvements in electronic communications which are rapidly minimizing the need for centralized paper-shuffling and face-to-face contacts.

Nobody anticipates that the United States will run out of resources in the next 50 years due to population growth. Beyond that, it is difficult to speculate or, to put it another way, it is only possible to speculate because we are not sure of the full extent of existing resources or what new resources may be developed. Furthermore, many resources now being consumed and discarded will increasingly be reused in the future should prices rise due to growing scarcities and the addition of pollution charges to processing costs.

Meanwhile, those who weep because Americans constitute only 6 per cent of the world’s population but consume 40 per cent of the world’s annual resource output should dry their eyes. Economies of underdeveloped countries around the world are dependent for their survival on the income derived from this consumption. Reduce or eliminate it and we will really find out what problems are like.

It is a rote assertion of populationists that per capita income will not keep pace, i.e., we will be forced to accept lower living standards, as population increases. There is, of course, nothing in our previous economic history to indicate that increases in per capita income cannot proceed side-by-side with population growth; the exact opposite is the case. Nor is there anything in our present circumstances to support this supposition or its converse that per capita income will increase as population growth decreases, e.g., West Virginia whose population is declining is not noted for booming per capita income.

Per capita income is a function of productivity as well as population. A growing population makes possible improvements in productivity which are more than a match for population growth, thus resulting in increasing per capita income.

"Public Sector" Problems

It is also said by population control promoters that growing population will outstrip the capabilities of Federal, state and local governments to provide services to the people. But, if this is really the case, it can be more readily taken as a mandate for more efficient governmental operation and greater concentration on the provision of essential governmental services rather than a rationale for population reduction. The idea of eliminating people to make things easier for government is a rather grotesque perversion of the American political promise.

The lack of any major cause and-effect relationship between population growth and the problems it supposedly causes prompted Conrad Taeuber, associate director of the U.S. Census Bureau and director of the 1970 census, to observe: "Our population problem is one of tackling the agenda for improvement of our total environment. A lowered rate of population growth may facilitate the tackling of those tasks — but it would be only one small element in the programs which need to be developed."

3) Population control in the United States will not solve any problems. The purpose of population control is to reduce population growth. But population growth is not a major cause of any problems. Therefore, reducing population growth through population control will not solve any problems.

This is another way of saying that it is simplistic nonsense to suggest, as the report of The Corn-mission on Population Growth and the American Future does, that increases in the "quality of life" —the Commission’s favorite "buzz" phrase — can be achieved through decreases in the quantity of people. There is no automatic, inverse relationship between people quality and people quantity.

It is true, of course, that wherever there are people there are problems. But this is a description of the human condition, not a prescription for population control.

In a creative, free and rightly ordered society, people solve more problems than they make. This is the source of increasing life quality.

It is unlimited government of the type required to achieve the stated goals of population control that makes more problems than it solves.


Socialism’s Poor Record

Socialism has a poor record when it comes to eliminating problems: its answer adds up to eliminating people. In fact, one of socialism’s major and chronic problems is simply people. Socialism on the one hand destroys production, and, on the other, breeds up the least desirable elements. Its answer is to find the people at fault. Socialism always faces over-population; a free economy does not.

ROUSAS J. RUSHDOONY, The Myth of Over-Population 

See what we've been working on.   Network with FEE's sponsors and donors at FEEcon this June. Visit FEEcon.org.

Related Articles


{{relArticle.author}} - {{relArticle.pub_date | date : 'MMMM dd, yyyy'}} {{relArticle.author}} - {{relArticle.pub_date | date : 'MMMM dd, yyyy'}}