More People Made Us Better Off

Culture - June 12, 2024

In 1968, Stanford University Professor Paul R. Ehrlich published The Population Bomb, which began with an unambiguous assertion: ‘The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate.’ Ehrlich’s book became a bestseller, receiving much media attention. But there was a dissenting voice. University of Illinois Professor Julian L. Simon in June 1980 wrote in Science that the evidence suggested ‘a long-run positive effect of additional people’. Ehrlich and his associates retorted in December 1980 that Science should not have published Simon’s article: It was not a scholarly piece. The controversy was really about whether the earth’s resources were dwindling as a result of population growth, and therefore becoming more expensive. Simon offered Ehrlich a wager: Ehrlich could choose any raw material he wanted and a date more than a year away. Simon would bet that their price would go down. Ehrlich chose copper, chromium, nickel, tin, and tungsten, and a period of ten years. Between 1980 and 1990, world population grew by more than 800 million. This was the largest increase in one decade ever. But by September 1990, the (inflation-adjusted) price of each of the five metals had fallen. Ehrlich had to send a cheque to Simon. He always refused however to engage in a discussion with him, haughtily remarking: ‘When you launch a space shuttle you don’t trot out the flat-earthers to be commentators. They’re outside the bounds of what ought to be discourse in the media. In the field of ecology, Simon is the absolute equivalent of the flat-earthers.’

Not Only a Mouth to Be Fed

Ehrlich was far off the mark. In 1968, about 3.5 billion people lived on the planet. By 2015, they were no less than 7.3 billion. (Today they are about 8.1 billion, with the rate of growth declining.) Nevertheless, poverty has been greatly reduced. In 1820, 965 million out of the world’s population of 1.1 billion lived in extreme poverty (defined as an income equivalent to $1.90 a day). By 2015, 734 million out of the 7.3 billion people on earth lived in extreme poverty, mostly in Africa. Extreme poverty had virtually disappeared in the West. In a remarkable recent book, Superabundance, Dr. Marian Tupy of the Cato Institute and Professor Gale L. Pooley at Brigham Young University, Hawai, tell the story of population growth, innovation, and human flourishing on ‘an Infinitely Bountiful Planet’. The two main theses of the book are: 1) that we need not worry too much about population growth because on average each additional person creates more wealth than he or she consumes; 2) that material progress is much greater than reflected in most statistics, because it should be measured not in money prices but in time prices, by which is meant the time required to work for various goods.

The former thesis was already suggested by Adam Smith when he observed that the division of labour was limited by the extent of the market. Other things being equal, in a population of 10 million there will be more competition and a more advanced division of labour than in a population of only 100,000. In 1972, the American economist David D. Friedman analysed the proposition that an additional human being was more of a burden than a blessing and concluded that this was by no means certain. There were positive and negative effects of population growth. The British economist Lord Peter Bauer devoted a perceptive paper to the myth that population growth was a problem. My intellectual mentor, the distinguished Austrian economist Friedrich A. von Hayek, wrote in the Fatal Conceit (1988, p. 133): ‘We have become civilised by the increase of our numbers just as civilisation made that increase possible: we can be few and savage, or many and civilised.’ But perhaps the most forceful refutation of the overpopulation thesis was put forward by Simon, reinforced now by Tupy and Pooley. Each new human being is not only an additional mouth to be fed, but he or she also has a brain able to acquire and transmit knowledge and a pair of hands with which to employ his or her skills and abilities. Each new human being is not only consuming, but also producing, even creating. He or she has to regarded as an additional resource, ‘the ultimate resource’ as Simon put it.

The intellectual fallacy on which the overpopulation thesis depends is that the resources of a society are like a fixed-size pie where one man’s larger portion implies another man’s smaller portion. There, a newcomer would take from the locals, a newborn baby from the existing population. This was perhaps the case in some backward societies of the past, but a modern economy is not a zero-sum game. It is dynamic, not static. It creates more than it destroys. The ‘population explosion’ of modern times was not because people suddenly started to breed like rabbits, they just stopped dying like flies. Thus it was the welcome consequence of economic progress. But Tupy and Pooley show, like Simon, that it was also a cause of economic progress, because it meant the addition of resources.

Time Price More Telling than Money Price

We usually measure the value of a good by its money price. A piece of bread costs $1, and that is it. Over time, the price is usually adjusted for inflation (or deflation). But what is really telling is what it takes for people to earn the money to buy this piece of bread. If you earn $10 an hours, it will cost you 6 minutes. If the price increases to $1.10 while your hourly income increases to $12, then this piece of bread will cost you 5 minutes and 24 seconds of work. It has become cheaper in terms of time price. Tupy and Pooley define time price as ‘the length of time that a person has to work to earn enough money to buy something. It is the money price divided by hourly income.’ For example, purchasing a pound of sugar required nearly three hours of factory work in 1850; in 2021, it required only 35 seconds. The authors then define abundance of a resource as occurring ‘when the nominal hourly income increases faster than the nominal price of a resource’. One of the most interesting (or illuminating, I should perhaps say) facts in the book is about light. In 1800, one hour of light cost 5,37 hours of work. Today, it costs less than 0.16 seconds. This is a 12.082.400 per cent increase in abundance. The Dark Ages indeed were dark.

It is instructive to look at the development since 1960 when world population has grown from three to eight billion. Meanwhile, resources have become much cheaper. The global time price of rubber, tea, tobacco, palm oil, coffee, and cotton has fallen by 90% or more. On average, the time price of commodities has fallen by 83 per cent. This means that a typical worker could double his or her consumption of commodities every 22 years. This is truly astonishing. There is a wealth of other intriguing facts in this book. For example, agricultural efficiency has improved so much that only 2 per cent of the population of the United States are farmers. If the rest of the world’s farmers would become as efficient, 146 million hectares of cropland could be returned to nature. Indeed, economic growth is usually not about more of something. If anything, it is about less of something because efficiency means that cheaper ways have been found to produce things. It releases resources which can then be put to better use, including a cleaner environment, reduction of poverty, elimination of deadly diseases, increased longevity, and greater safety not only of workers but also of travellers. In the book I noted the striking fact that between 1968 and 1977, there was one death for 350,000 boardings of aeroplanes, whereas between 2008 and 2017, there was one death for 7.9 million boardings.

Economic Growth Requires Economic Freedom

What about the overcrowded and desperately poor places we have all seen on television or read about in books? The answer is that economic progress requires certain institutions and traditions of which the rule of law and economic freedom may be the most important, as Tupy and Pooley convincingly argue. If more people are to produce more ideas, leading to inventions, they must be free to think, speak, associate, disagree, and crucially, to test their inventions in the marketplace where the useful is separated from the useless. The authors mention Steve Jobs of Apple fame. He was adopted at birth by an American couple, but his father was a Syrian Muslim. What would have happened if Steve Jobs had been born and brought up in Syria? Probably he would have been killed in the civil war which has long raged there, but it is also fair to say that even as a survivor in Syria he would have had little opportunity to employ his special skills—so special that Apple had to bring him back after he had left the company. Another cogent example the authors mention is that of Queen Anne of Great Britain and Ireland. She had seventeen pregnancies, but died without surviving issue. Even monarchs of the past could not rely on the advanced medical care we now take for granted.

It is truly horrifying to read about the recent Chinese attempt to limit population growth. In 1980, the Chinese Communist Party held a conference to discuss the population issue. One participant, aerospace engineer Song Jian, had just read two influential books, The Limits to Growth and A Blueprint for Survival. Both warned in no uncertain terms against an impending overpopulation disaster. Song convinced his fellow communists that China’s population had to be drastically reduced. The same year, the one-child policy was officially adopted. It was harshly enforced. Adults were sterilised, pregnancies aborted, single-parent families outlawed. Women were fitted with devices that made pregnancies impossible, and children conceived illegally were denied registration which meant that they could not study, marry, or have children themselves. Some illegal children were put up for adoption internationally. Many newborn children were exposed, mostly girls. The one-child policy caused untold suffering. But when it was finally relaxed in 2015, Professor Ehrlich was incensed. He tweeted (in capital letters): ‘GIBBERING INSANITY—THE GROWTH-FOREVER GANG.’

Education and the Enlightenment

There is very little with which to take issue in Tupy’s and Pooley’s timely and useful work. I would myself however not use ‘environmentalism’ about today’s aggressive and intolerant creed, because we are all environmentalists in the sense that we want a clean and healthy environment. I would use another term which Professor Rognvaldur Hannesson has suggested, ‘ecofundamentalism’. I noticed however one correct but slightly misleading fact about my own country, Iceland. The authors quote numbers on progress in public education. By 1820, 85 per cent of Danish children had enrolled in a primary school, and 81 per cent of Swedish children. This was then the highest rate in the world. For Norway it was 49 per cent, for the United States 41, for the United Kingdom 13, and for Iceland 12. But at the time in large, thinly populated Iceland children were usually taught not in formal schools, but by their parish priest at his farm. Indeed, at the end of the eighteenth Iceland had probably the highest literacy rate of all the Nordic countries. One reason the Nordic countries are relatively successful today is undoubtedly that they have over centuries accumulated much cultural capital, including nearly complete literacy early on. Moreover, I would suggest that the main explanation for the great historical achievements of the Jews is accumulation of cultural capital over centuries and indeed millennia, as the authors indeed acknowledge. As Disraeli retorted in the House of Commons in 1835, when Daniel O’Connell, the Irish Roman Catholic leader, disparaged his Jewish ancestry, ‘Yes, I am a Jew, and while the ancestors of the right honorable gentleman were brutal savages in an unknown island, mine were priests in the temple of Solomon.’

I would only express doubts about (but not a total rejection of) two ideas presented in this book. One of them is that real material progress was somehow caused by the European Enlightenment. It is true that significant economic growth only started in late eighteenth century, with unprecedented advances in science, technology, and industry, and an extension of international trade. But the accumulation of human, social and cultural capital which was a necessary condition of material progress started much earlier. Arguably, in the West it may be traced to the forests of Germany, as Montesquieu suggested, where popular assemblies defined and developed the law which was in turn supposed to bring about the peaceful and mutual adjustment of individuals.  Slowly, liberties became liberty. In Volume I of Law, Legislation, and Liberty, Hayek comments: ‘The only country that succeeded in preserving the tradition of the Middle Ages and built on the medieval ‘liberties’ the modern conception of liberty under the law was England.’ Although royal absolutism became for a while stronger in the Nordic countries than in England, they largely maintained their legal tradition from the Middle Ages. Icelandic legal scholar Sigurdur Lindal remarks: ‘Kingship asserted itself but was, in one way or another, forced to recognise and to compromise with the older Germanic scheme.’ Thus, the British Isles and the Nordic countries eventually provided a more fertile ground for the seeds of economic progress than many other places, and to this day these countries are freer than most.

Doubts about Moral Progress

The other idea about which I would express some doubt is that there has been real moral progress in the last few centuries, not only material progress. The authors rightly point out (p. 318) ‘the near disappearance of once common practices such as cannibalism, executions for witchcraft or heresy, dueling, bear baiting, cockfighting (and other animal combat sports), legally sanctioned wife-beating, and the exposure of unwanted infants’. They therefore reject the pessimism of Professor John Gray (my supervisor at Oxford in the 1980s) that it is a myth ‘that the progress achieved in science and technology can occur in ethics, politics, or more simply, civilisation’. But do their examples hold? People are still being executed for ‘heresy’ in many countries, not only in yesteryear’s communist countries, but also in some Muslim countries today. Arguably, also, people did not stop to burn witches because they had become better persons, but because modern science had established that there was no causal connection between witchcraft and social evils such as bad harvests, famines or epidemics. Witches were usually (or at least sometimes) burned in self-defence, not necessarily out of malice. It should not be forgotten, either, that the Holocaust took place only eighty years ago. Bullfighting is still legal in some countries. It is also a good question what the difference is between exposing a newborn child and to abort it during the latest stages of a pregnancy when it has become a real, albeit very small, person. I fail to discern any great moral difference between the two actions. Yet some feminists advocate abortion almost up to the moment of birth (and apparently 10 per cent of abortions happen after 12 weeks).

The authors see the disappearance of slavery as one sign of moral progress. But in the Soviet Union, slavery was reintroduced already in the 1920s in the prison camps where potential opponents of the regime were kept and sometimes worked to death. Millions of people were thus enslaved. North Korea practises renting out to Russia workers who are for all practical purposes treated as slaves. For a while, Cuba practised renting out to Brazil doctors whose salaries went mostly to the Cuban state. Even in the West, there is some human trafficking, as the police never tire of warning us. When the Hamas terrorists attacked Israel on 7 October 2023, savages were seen raiding a civilised country, raping women, killing children, plundering and pillaging, just like the hordes of Genghis Khan did in the thirteenth century, the only difference being that they had access to modern machinery so that they could brazenly record their crimes and upload them to the internet. I would not necessarily deny that there has been some moral progress in the world, but it seems to be confined to Western countries, in Europe, North America, and Oceania. Consider the Nordic countries. They were at war against one another for centuries, and as late as 1814 Sweden sent her army into Norway to suppress the Norwegian independence movement. Now however a war between the Nordic countries would be almost unthinkable. But Barbarians are still around, and in some places they are even at the gate.