TCS Daily


The Politics of Population Control

By Christopher Lingle - September 21, 2005 12:00 AM

One of the biggest casualties in the battle over democracy and demography is individual freedom. For their part, India and China fought this war using coercive policies to impose controls on population growth.

India's program of forced sterilization under Indira Gandhi in the late 1970's involved massive abuses of human dignity; China's "One Child" program was just as repressive. And both wrought perverse results representing worst-case examples of social engineering.

These policies have caused a large gender imbalance in both countries populations. Official reports in China note that as of 2000, the male-to-female ratio was between 117 to 119 boys for every 100 girls.

The United Nations Population Fund expends considerable energy on either bemoaning the fact that too many people occupy the earth or worrying about their impoverished conditions. For those that follow the UN's simplistic logic, these two are seen as related.

There are many good reasons to challenge the persistent and pervasive negative image associated with population increases, per se. Supporters of population control (voluntary and involuntary) assume there are already too many of us on Earth. And there is surprisingly little dissent to this view.

One eloquent dissenter was the late American economist, Julian Simon, who held a remarkably non-dismal view of the world. His optimism is best expressed in his book, The Ultimate Resource. Therein, he identifies human beings as the resource capable of resolving most problems that confront us.

Ignoring thinkers like Simon, political leaders in both India and China were trapped by 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 potential value-added that is inherent in each and every human being. Yet they are 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 increases the denominator and decreases the material well being of a community. However, a litter of puppies born to a commercial breeder increases the numerator and improves economic conditions.

This computation depicts the birth of an infant as a cost and ignores the imputed present value of the future flow of benefits that can be expected from a newly-born human. Only twisted logic portrays us as better off with more puppies and worse off with more humans.

Despite denials, there is implicit racism in the demands of population-control advocates. Most Western developed countries have shrinking populations that consist mainly of white people. It turns out that limiting population growth will inevitably restrict the numbers of black, brown and yellow peoples.

Somehow the dismal view of population growth persists despite considerable evidence to the contrary. For example, often the areas of highest population density are the most prosperous and most hospitable like Amsterdam, Hong Kong, London, Singapore and Tokyo. While Bombay and Cairo are heavily polluted, they are also much more prosperous and productive than the surrounding countryside.

Interestingly, advocates of population control face strong personal incentives to exaggerate the dangers of a growing population. Concocting horrific images of over-population allows politicians to lay claim to more resources from taxpayers (whose numbers they paradoxically wish to see increase!).

In all events, persistent and widespread poverty is mostly caused by bad government policies rather than too many fellow citizens. It is a simple fact that most able-bodied people that remain poor suffer from not having a job. Jobs are scarce since there is too little capital formation or investment in new businesses. The dearth of economic activity is usually caused by public policies that punish success with high marginal tax rates or that create bureaucratic obstructions to competition.

In all events, population control pressures can be offset by higher economic growth. This is because increased average income tends to lead to declining birth rates.

Another way to cope with global population growth would be to allow more open immigration. But populists invoke the fear of infiltration by terrorist organizations or the dilution of indigenous culture to mount political opposition. Such claims are eagerly supported by trade unionists seeking to limit competition from outsiders that seek to improve their lot.

From a purely economic standpoint, migration tends to yield net benefits to receiving countries since incoming migrants are frequently younger and healthier. And their choice to move away from their home country implies a high initiative to work.

Instead of diverting resources towards population control measures, governments and NGOs should promote free immigration and policies that increase economic growth. Once perceived problems with population growth are seen as failures of governance, the debate over population size and its racialist content are exposed as being truly inhumane.

Christopher Lingle is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Civil Society in New Delhi and Professor of Economics at Universidad Francisco Marroquin in Guatemala.

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1 Comment

Po****tion dilutes wealth
The professor from Guatemala suggests that increasing po****tion is good for per capita income using his "puppies" for sale argument. What naivete! Yes there is a multiplier in bringing in immigrants, yes they might be more productive than the average domestic po****tion, but they can dilute export income unless a particularly productive nation which is rare. Countries like Australia, Brunei and a host of resource rich countries, often have less than 10 per cent of the po****tion directly contributing to the majority of income which is derived from exporting domestic resources (eg LNG for Brunei). Clearly bringing in more people simply stimulates imports more than exports diluting per capita income.

Sure there are countries where the export sector is short of labour, but for each such country, there are dozens where imports, more than exports are stimulated.

It is the exception rather than the norm, for immigration to do anything but dilute a nations wealth even if there is some multiplier benefit or deferment of the impact of an aging po****tion as the case in most western economies.

I doubt Guatemala will be too enchanted by immigration.

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