Dr. Livingston is Director of Freeman Services for The Foundation for Economic Education.
Doomsday projections made two centuries ago by Thomas Malthus were revived by grim-faced delegates at the U.N. Population Conference in Cairo last year. The consensus of those present was that a population bomb is about to explode unless there is governmental intervention on a global scale. If nothing is done, we are warned, world population will double by the year 2055.
The new doomsayers predict that population will grow geometrically without bound and food production will be slowed because of fixed technology and dwindling resources. But statistics reveal that economic status dramatically affects the decision to have children. As a nation’s per capita income increases, its birth rate declines. In addition, the world food supply is growing at a faster rate than population. This trend will likely continue because of technology changes in agriculture and continuing improvements in the ability to supply energy.
Malthusians say that governments must control reproductive habits of the poor because changes in childbearing practices have resulted in rapid population growth in developing nations. Not true: the average family size in Third World countries is virtually unchanged. World population is increasing because of lower death rates due to better nutrition and disease control. Another popular but misguided argument is that high population density adversely affects the ability of a nation to develop. But the data shows that densely populated nations, such as Taiwan and Japan, can be very prosperous. Conversely, some sparsely populated countries are among the world’s poorest.
The evidence is clear. The surest way for a nation to defuse its population bomb is to create a fertile environment for economic growth. Why, then, does the official Cairo plan ignore development issues while advocating government spending of $17 billion annually on programs such as healthcare, family planning, and gender equality? First, many bureaucrats who attended the meeting do not believe that free choices made by millions of free people can possibly have beneficial social results. Only the prescriptions of an informed few—paid for and sometimes brutally applied by a central authority—can cope with the “population juggernaut.” Second, many intellectuals who were in Cairo make a comfortable living from government subsidies that fund their policy proposals. Third, free economic development poses a threat to the raw political power exercised by the world’s petty tyrants. An effective way to spread the suffocating blanket of control over a nation’s citizens is to declare an emergency, which can be relieved only by enacting legislation to regiment and control people. The so-called crisis ends, but the new laws and institutions remain. Government expands; freedom contracts. The only antidote to arbitrary political power is the freedom which is built into the private property order.
“We cannot pry into the hearts of men,” said Dr. Johnson, “but their actions are open to observation.” While moral posturing and lofty rhetoric characterized the Cairo meeting, nothing advocated in its 113-page plan will banish the famine and material suffering that characterize the world’s developing nations. The real population problem affecting many Third World countries is their refusal to adopt the habits and institutions that foster private enterprise and entrepreneurship. Nations that do not enforce private property rights and that view the accomplishments of producers as antisocial suffocate the spirit of enterprise and eliminate the very conditions necessary for political liberty and economic prosperity. When people are free to pursue their economic interests in free markets, the so-called “population problem” will resolve itself.