Nothing brings out the inner Malthus like a newborn baby.
That's especially true when that baby is born to a mother somewhere in Africa or Asia. According to the United Nations Population Fund, some time this coming Monday, probably in India, the world will welcome its seven billionth person. Well, maybe welcome isn't exactly the right word.
At Columbia University's Earth Institute, Prof. Jeffrey Sachs tells CNN "the consequences for humanity could be grim." Earlier this year, a New York Times columnist declared "the earth is full," suggesting that a growing population means "we are eating into our future." And in West Virginia, the Charleston Gazette editorializes about a "human swarm" that is "overbreeding" in a way that "prosperous, well-educated families" from the developed world do not.
The smarter ones acknowledge that Malthus's ominous warnings about a growing population outstripping the food supply were not borne out in his day. The track record for these scares in our own day is not much better. Perhaps the most famous was Paul Ehrlich's 1968 The Population Bomb, which opened with these sunny sentences: "The battle to feed all humanity is over. In the 1970s, the world will undergo famines – hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now."
The book was wildly popular, and the assertions large. India was so hopeless he advocated a policy of "triage" that would just let them die. In fact, the mass starvation he predicted never materialized, and the Indians whom he thought could never feed themselves are now eating better than ever despite a population more than twice the size it was when The Population Bomb appeared.
The record, alas, doesn't seem to matter. Like so many other articles on population, one in the New Yorker this month concedes that the predictions Malthus made "proved to be wrong." Like so many other articles too, it goes on to conclude that "the premise of [his] work – that there must be some limit to population growth – is hard to argue with."
The truth is that the main flaw in Malthus is precisely his premise. Malthusian fears about population follow from the Malthusian view that human beings are primarily mouths to be fed rather than minds to be unlocked. In this reasoning, when a pig is born in China, the national wealth is thought to go up, but when a Chinese baby is born the national wealth goes down.
Behind this divide between those who worry about limits put on human exchange and those who worry about limits to growth are two very different views of the human person. The former believe that so long as people are free to trade and use their talents, the more the merrier. The latter treat people as a great mass of more or less interchangeable cogs, hence the worries about "sustainability" and "carrying capacity" and the like.
This latter is a highly static view, one that grossly underestimates the power of an individual to improve life for millions. Perhaps the best example of that power is Norman Borlaug, whose scientific work introduced high-yield varieties of wheat and rice that helped farmers greatly increase their food production. In so doing, the "father of the Green Revolution" helped poor nations feed their people, and give the lie to all those predictions of hopelessness and starvation from Mr. Ehrlich and Co.
In this reasoning, when a pig is born in China, the national wealth is thought to go up, but when a Chinese baby is born the national wealth goes down.
The static view of the human person underestimates the dynamism of ordinary men and women going about their business in a free economy. The young people "occupying" Wall Street may decry capitalism, but societies open to risk and initiative and free exchange have always done better by the "99%" than those that do not. That is why a place like Hong Kong, with no natural resources, has prospered while many other countries rich in natural resources (some in Africa) have not.
Matt Ridley, author of The Rational Optimist, suggests that human progress is driven when people connect with one another and exchange ideas as well as goods. In our own day, he believes, this interaction has been accelerated by the revolution in technology that has made distance largely irrelevant. It's one reason he takes a generally benevolent view of population growth.
In a line bound to seem extravagant to the doom and gloom set, he offers his own prediction: "I would go further and say that the mixing of ideas made possible by the Internet makes the drying up of innovations almost impossible to achieve, even if we wanted to, and the improvement in living standards almost inevitable."
In short, it all comes down to your conception of the human person. Another way of putting it is this: Instead of looking for ways to reduce the number of people at the banquet of life, we would do better to look for ways to lay a better and more bounteous table.
William McGurn. "And Baby Makes Seven Billion." The Wall Street Journal (October 24, 2011).
Reprinted with permission of the author and The Wall Street Journal © 2011 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.
William McGurn is editorial page editor of the New York Post. He was the chief speechwriter for President George W. Bush until February 8, 2008. Formerly an executive with Newscorp, McGurn also served as the chief editorial writer with The Wall Street Journal. From 1992 to 1998 McGurn served as the senior editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review. Prior to this he was the Washington bureau chief of National Review. McGurn is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame and Boston University. He is the author, with Rebecca Blank, of Is the Market Moral?.Copyright © 2011 Wall Street Journal
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