Posts tagged with: Overpopulation

I and Jordan Ballor have already commented on Ender’s Game this week (here and here), but the story is literally packed with insightful themes, many of which touch upon issues relevant to Acton’s core principles. Another such issue is that of the problems with Neo-Malthusianism, the belief that overpopulation poses such a serious threat to civilization and the environment that population control measures become ethical imperatives.

Such a perspective tends to rely on one or both of the following fallacies: a zero-sum conception of economics ignorant of the last 200 years of sustained economic growth, which have allowed humankind to escape the Mathusian trap; or a belief that people are the problem when it comes to poverty.

In Ender’s Game, the story begins (more obviously in the book) with the fact that Ender Wiggen (Asa Butterfield) is a “Third,” a third-born child in a time when the international government of Earth had adopted a two-child policy. His parents had received special permission to have a Third because their first two children, Peter (Jimmy Pinchak) and Valentine (Abigail Breslin), had shown so much promise. Unfortunately, Peter had proven too aggressive and Valentine too compassionate. The government hoped that Ender would be a happy middle. (more…)

“Our world is overpopulated.” If you repeat something often enough, it becomes “truth”. In 1968, Paul Ehrlich wrote The Population Bomb, warning that we’d all soon be fighting over food, space, and power as the earth sagged under the weight of all those darned people.last book

He was wrong, of course, and not just wrong: spectacularly wrong. It didn’t keep him from being a celebrity or from his ridiculous notion from being believed. But he was still wrong.

In What to Expect When No One’s Expecting: America’s Coming Demographic Disaster, author Jonathan V. Last attempts to point out the fallacies of Ehrlich and his ilk. Last is clear: our world is not overpopulated; we are vastly under-populated, and it’s a problem. He goes so far as to say that America has a self-imposed “One-Child Policy” that is leading us to demographic disaster.

Last is chiefly concerned with the problems under-population will cause America, but he uses several other countries to illustrate where we are headed. There are a lot of numbers in this book: financial figures about the costs of raising children, population numbers, fertility rates, the changing age of marriage. The conclusion doesn’t get lost in all the numbers: we don’t have the ability – population-wise – to take care of ourselves. That is, with programs like Social Security and Medicaid requiring a vast army of workers to keep them propped up and paying out, we can’t keep up. And if there aren’t enough workers to pay into these systems, there certainly aren’t enough people to take care of Grandma and Grandpa as they age and need more and more care. (more…)

[Thanks to RealClearWorld, ThePulp.it, NewsBusters and PewSitter.com for linking to this commentary.] Over at the American Spectator, Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg points to Europe’s “perceptible inability” to acknowledge some of the deeper dynamics driving its financial crisis. And these are primarily a “slow-motion population implosion” complicated by the exodus of young European Union citizens and the return of hundreds of thousands of immigrants to their homes in developing nations. That is an ominous development for a region where the dependency rate — the ratio of retirees per member of the labor force — has ratcheted up as the welfare state has ballooned over several decades.

Gregg:

These facts have made some Europeans willing to ponder the necessity of labor-market and welfare reform, not least because those countries that have weathered the crisis better than others (e.g., Germany and Sweden) actually implemented such changes in the 2000s. Getting Europeans to talk publicly about the continent’s population-trends and their economic consequences, however, is a different matter.

Why? One reason is that many Europeans have long been in thrall to the over-population gospel. Long before Paul Erhlich’s The Population Bomb (1968) — whose doomsday future-scenarios of a world devastated by famines, mass disease, and social unrest unleashed by overpopulation never materialized — numerous European economists had bought into this thesis.

In 1798, the Anglican vicar and one of the first modern economists, Thomas Malthus, published his Essay on the Principle of Population. This argued that growing populations would produce an increasing labor-supply. The result, Malthus insisted, would be lower wages and therefore mass poverty. “The power of population,” he claimed, “is so superior to the power of the Earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race.” Another English philosopher-economist, John Stuart Mill, was so convinced by Malthusian arguments that he actually spent time in London parks distributing birth-control pamphlets to bemused onlookers.

Read Samuel Gregg’s “Europe in Demographic Denial” on the American Spectator.

Take at look at Jonathan Last’s very good piece in the Weekly Standard about the real population problem that is confronting the world–people aren’t having enough babies. In America’s One Child Policy, Last explains how fertility throughout the entire world is declining and what the impact will be on society and the economy.

During the last 50 years, fertility rates have fallen all over the world. From Africa to Asia, South America to Eastern Europe, from Third World jungles to the wealthy desert petro-kingdoms, every country in every region is experiencing declines in fertility. In 1979, the world’s fertility rate was 6.0; today it’s 2.6. Industrialized nations have been the hardest hit. America’s 2.06 is one of the highest fertility rates in the First World. Only Israel (2.75) and New Zealand (2.10) are more fertile.

Mr. Last addresses a host of reasons for declining fertility, including some of the politically delicate reasons like education, abortion, and egalitarian social policies that many don’t want to address.

He explains how the one-child policy in China and other small-family campaigns in places like Singapore and Japan have not created the promised “bright future” but serious demographic challenges. And new government policies to reverse the trends are not working.

The Japanese government has been trying to stoke fertility since the early 1970s. In 1972, when Japan’s fertility rate was still above replacement, the government introduced a monthly per-child subsidy for parents….In the face of 35 years of failed incentives, Japan’s fertility rate stands at 1.2. This is below what is considered “lowest low,” a mathematical tipping point at which a country’s population will decline by as much as 50 percent within 45 years. This is a death spiral from which, demographers believe, it is impossible to escape. Then again, that’s just theory: History has never seen fertility rates so low.

As Last and others have reminded us, no country with declining population has ever created widespread prosperity. Perhaps we would do well to remember that the factors of production include not just land and capital, but labor–and labor means people. Decline in fertility will have serious social and economic consequences. Last writes:

At the same time, the average age in China will rise dramatically. In 2005, China’s median age was 32. By 2050, it will be 45, and a quarter of the Chinese population will be over the age of 65. The government’s pension system is almost nonexistent, and One-Child has eliminated the traditional support system of the extended family—most people no longer have brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces, or nephews. It is unclear what sort of havoc this atomization will wreak on their society. China will have 330 million senior citizens with no one to care for them and no way to pay for their upkeep. It is, Eberstadt observed, “a slow-motion humanitarian tragedy already underway.”

By 2050, the age structure in China will be such that there are only 1.6 workers—today the country has 5.4—to support each retiree. The government will be forced to either: (1) substantially cut spending (in areas such as defense and public works) in order to shift resources to care for the elderly or (2) impose radically higher tax burdens on younger workers. The first option risks China’s international and military ambitions; the second risks revolution.

Though people still promote Malthusian nightmares of over-crowded planets the real demographic disaster not over-population, but the opposite–not enough babies. This decline in fertility is a prime example of why incentives matter–summed up well in Henry Hazlitt’s definition of economics:

“The art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the long effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of the policy not merely for one group but for all groups.”

Acton’s Rome office will be hosting a conference on health care and aging on December 2 at the Lateran Pontifical University in Rome. Get more information here