Optimal Population?

by Don Boudreaux on April 12, 2008

in Complexity & Emergence, Environment, Innovation, Myths and Fallacies, Standard of Living, Technology, The Future

In his new book, Common Wealth, Jeffrey Sachs expresses his concern about population growth.  Worried by a U.N. prediction that global population will rise to 9.2 billion by the year 2050, from 6.6 billion today, Sachs says (on page 23 of his new book) the following about these additional 2.6 billion persons:

I will argue at some length that this is too many people to absorb safely, especially since most of the population increase is going to occur in today’s poorest countries.  We should be aiming….to stabilize the world’s population at 8 billion by midcentury.

(HT Karol Boudreaux)

Eight billion.  I’m not sure where Sachs got that number.  And, to be frank, I’m not curious about where he got it.  He could have dreamed it up in his sleep, or taken it from a multi-year study conducted by a lavishly funded committee made up of the world’s most accomplished economists, demographers, environmentalists, statisticians, physicians, and other Very Smart Experts.  No matter where the number comes from, it’s worthless.  There is simply no way to know how many persons the earth can "support" in the year 2050 (or any other year, for that matter).

First is the question: support at what standard of living?  Even if we grant the validity of the resources-are-very-tightly-limited supposition (upon which fear of population growth chiefly rests), there is no objective, scientifically determinable "optimal" number of people who can be alive at any one time.  According to the resources-are-very-tightly-limited supposition, the less that people consume, the greater are the amounts of resources that will be left for the future — the greater is the earth’s carrying capacity.  In this view, resources are simply ‘out there,’ waiting to be gathered, processed, and consumed by humans.  So more humans (or the same number of humans consuming more) will deplete resources faster than will fewer humans (or the same number of humans consuming less).

So on this resources-are-very-tightly-limited supposition, as people decrease their material standard of living, the earth can sustain a larger population.

How do we know today at what average standard of living persons alive in 2050 will seek to achieve?  We don’t.  It’s conceivable that the typical person alive in 2050 will have become so devoted to saving the earth that the prevalent culture and norms will dictate that most persons settle for material living standards lower than those that ordinary Americans enjoy today — or, perhaps even lower than ordinary Americans enjoyed in 1950.  If so, then surely the "optimal" global population in the year 2050 will be lower than it would be if most persons alive in 2050 will seek to achieve living standards much higher than ordinary Americans now enjoy.

A much deeper problem with Sachs’s eight-billion number is that, in calculating it, there is no way to predict how human creativity will alter the world during the next 42 years.  It’s ludicrous to pretend that we can know now what, say, the average MPG will be for internal-combustion engines in 2050.  Hell, we don’t even know if automobiles and lawnmowers and the like will still use such engines then.

Will another Norman Borlaug arise, between now and 2050, to spark another green revolution?  Will someone invent a way to efficiently power automobiles with air?  Will someone develop new and better techniques for defining and enforcing private property rights in ocean-going fish stocks so that the tragedy of the commons called "over-fishing" is eliminated?  Will an enterprising entrepreneur invent a means for ordinary households to power their homes with mulch or autumn leaves or small fragments of fingernail clippings?

Think back 42 years to 1966.  Who in that year imagined personal computers in nearly every home in America?  The Internet?  Digital cameras?  Cell phones?  Quality wines sold in screw-top bottles?  Buying music with literally the click of a button (and not having to burn fossil fuels in driving to the record store).  Aluminum cans that contain only a fraction of the metal that cans contained back then?  The Kindle (that will reduce the number of trees cut down to enable people to read books)?  Medical advances that make hip-replacements about as routine as getting cavities filled by the dentist?  Microfiber?

There is no way — literally, no way — to know how technology and social institutions will change between now and 2050.  Given this impossibility — and given the fact that we can nevertheless predict with confidence that technology will advance and that social institutions will change — to assert that "optimal" population in the year 2050 will be eight-billion persons is ludicrous in the extreme.  It’s faux-science, and deserves only ridicule.

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Sam Grove April 12, 2008 at 8:15 pm

It's faux-science and fiat economics.

M. Hodak April 12, 2008 at 8:19 pm

Consider Sachs ridiculed.

M. Hodak April 12, 2008 at 8:20 pm

And next week, a doctor with a flashlight will illustrate where these forecasts come from.

The Dirty Mac April 12, 2008 at 8:40 pm

"And next week, a doctor with a flashlight will illustrate where these forecasts come from."

IMHO, that is the best post I have read on this site.

indiana jim April 12, 2008 at 9:09 pm

The problem with success is it tends to go to people's heads. Physiological changes accompany becoming an alpha wolf, ape, or human. So although I would join in the riducule of the prediction that Sachs made, I would also suggest that Sachs be challenged to rise above his animalistic tendencies and be more intellectual.

Speedmaster April 12, 2008 at 9:11 pm

I'd be willing to contribute money to buy a couple Julian Simon books for Mr. Sachs. ;-)

Eric April 12, 2008 at 9:45 pm

I agree with Dr. Boudreaux — Sachs' number is ridiculous. The most frightening part of his statement, however, is:

"We should be aiming….to stabilize the world’s population at 8 billion by mid-century."

We should be aiming to stabilize the world's population? And how might WE do that, Mr. Sachs? Forced abortions? Sterilizations? One-child policies? It is my understanding that China's one-child policy has resulted in the above and more.

I'd like to pass along Arnold Kling's "How to Be a Masonomist" advice to Jeffrey Sachs: Lose the "We."

Barney April 12, 2008 at 10:44 pm

Government begs for high birthrates by subsidizing one of the most expensive costs of raising a child- education. Publicly financed education creates an overpopulation problem. The more kids you have, the better value you get for your tax dollars. Maybe there was a period in time when free education was a good idea, but that time is long gone now.

Russ Nelson April 12, 2008 at 10:53 pm

Whenever I hear someone proclaim that we would be better-off with fewer people, I want to ask them to pick a valued friend to never contact again. Why should they be exempt from the suffering?

Devin Snead April 13, 2008 at 1:46 am

The question of how to stabilize the world population is easy:

One World Government. Slavery like the world has never seen. In case you haven't noticed, population control is alive in well in the US.

The optimal world population according to many eugenists I've seen is around 1 billion people (~80% reduction by today's numbers). If you ask Ted Turner, he'd say the optimal world population is 300 million (95% reduction).

brotio April 13, 2008 at 2:13 am

Devin,

The interesting thing about Mr Turner is that he hasn't chose to lead by example. Just like His Holiness The Divine Prophet Algore I.

John V April 13, 2008 at 2:29 am

excellent. blogged.

Gil April 13, 2008 at 6:33 am

So is gist of this issue is that more people equals more wealth or something? I do believe that those who in the '60s predicted famine in the '80s or so were technically correct. If the technical efficiency of feeding people hadn't changed then there would've been famine.

But then is this also a NIMBY issue? As long as I don't have to deal with more traffic congestion, don't see apartment complexes going where houses used to go, higher real estate prices, longer queues, etc? Somehow I can't help but feel that the places with the greatest population and population densities seem to be poorer.

If more population therefore equals more wealth why does Australia (>:P)have a higher standard of living than India and China despite both having a population 50x greater?

Deryl G April 13, 2008 at 7:19 am

If more population therefore equals more wealth why does Australia (>:P)have a higher standard of living than India and China despite both having a population 50x greater?

Posted by: Gil | Apr 13, 2008 6:33:37 AM

Really?

Gil April 13, 2008 at 7:28 am

I mean as in that 20 million x 50 = 1 billion.

Deryl G April 13, 2008 at 7:43 am

You really think someone is claiming that population is the best proxy for wealth?

shawn April 13, 2008 at 10:39 am

"I don't wanna talk to you no more, you empty headed animal food trough wiper! I fart in your general direction! Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries!"

That's the best ridicule I could think of on such short notice.

John V April 13, 2008 at 11:29 am

Gil,

The "gist" of the issue was right here:

There is no way — literally, no way — to know how technology and social institutions will change between now and 2050. Given this impossibility — and given the fact that we can nevertheless predict with confidence that technology will advance and that social institutions will change — to assert that "optimal" population in the year 2050 will be eight-billion persons is ludicrous in the extreme. It's faux-science, and deserves only ridicule.

Not sure what you were looking at….

Jason April 13, 2008 at 12:09 pm

Don, you're a professor and you don't know the optimal population formula? They teach it on the first day of Sustainability 101.

Po < Pc
where
Po = optimal population
Pc = current population
(works for projected population also)

Strangely, the optimal tax rate and optimal size of government formulas looks similiar: To > Tc, Go > Gc

"why does Australia (>:P)have a higher standard of living than India and China"

Oppressive communist governments, but that is changing and I believe the results are evident.

Richard Sprague April 13, 2008 at 3:00 pm

One perspective I never hear in these discussions is that a lot depends on WHO constitutes those 8 Billion (or 9 billion or whatever) people.

Like, suppose everyone on earth is just as enlightened and well-educated as Dr. Sachs. Surely we could accommodate a few extra of THAT kind of person, right?

On the other hand, presumably Dr. Sachs would insist we can accommodate far fewer people like you or me.

Bob in SeaTac April 13, 2008 at 3:06 pm

Good idea Speedmaster. Scientific American (how its standards have fallen in the last few years) has a monthly column by Sachs. The Paul Ehrlich worshippers are switching to Sachs and his monthly foolishness. How we need another Julian Simon type bet with Sachs. But, Ehrlich losing the first bet, and the subsequent bet had NO influence on the Ehrlich worshippers.

TSowell Fan April 13, 2008 at 4:56 pm

Environmentalist and Greenpeace co-founder Paul Watson is one who calls for a 1 billion world population. Calling human beings the 'AIDS of the earth', this fanatic nevertheless expects the fatal human virus to "radically and intelligently" reduce its numbers — by a mere 85%. He and his followers have created a fantasy world in which he plays God — complete with Mein Kampf-type prescriptions, including who can be parents. Check it out here: http://www.seashepherd.org/editorials/editorial_070504_1.html.

At least one of Canada's national newspapers is not impressed with this cult leader who recently claimed that the lives of the seals being harvested were more important than those of four sealers who died when their ship capsized. Check it out here: http://network.staging.nationalpost.com/np/blogs/fullcomment/archive/2008/04/06/the-post-editorial-board-taking-sides-against-mankind.aspx.

Dallas Weaver, Ph.D. April 13, 2008 at 6:28 pm

We can assume with great certainty that the laws of thermodynamics and physics will still be valid in the future. That being the case, there are real limits on what miracles science can pull out of the hat to avoid major problems with the projected population increase of another 3 billion mouths. No, we won't have another "green revolution" with the high crop yield increases in the 100+% range that bailed humanity of population bomb going off from the last 3 billion increase. Having already shifted a high % of the photosynthetic energy of the plants to producing food instead of fiber and giving the plants optimal nutrition, we hit the limits of photosynthetic efficiency. These limits are from thermodynamics and are not easily bypassed without a fundamental redesign of plants that will be way beyond what we can achieve by 2050 or possibly ever — nature that done more experiments in optimizing photosynthesis that man can even dream of.

I could go onto air powered cars which would violate the first and second laws of thermodynamics. Don try's to "say all is possible" by stating that the impact of computers shows the creativity induced changes. Yes, we will have creativity induced changes, but there are no indications that the creativity won't be constrained by physics and thermodynamics. Computers, etc. are all within these limits, but making food out of thin air is not.

Therefore, there is an optimal population and J. Sachs is correct.

vidyohs April 13, 2008 at 7:30 pm

Dallas Weaver PHD (Piled higher and deeper),

Even a dumb 'ole country boy like me has heard this crap before:

"These limits are from thermodynamics and are not easily bypassed without a fundamental redesign of plants that will be way beyond what we can achieve by 2050 or possibly ever — nature that done more experiments in optimizing photosynthesis that man can even dream of.

I could go onto air powered cars which would violate the first and second laws of thermodynamics. Don try's to "say all is possible" by stating that the impact of computers shows the creativity induced changes. Yes, we will have creativity induced changes, but there are no indications that the creativity won't be constrained by physics and thermodynamics. Computers, etc. are all within these limits, but making food out of thin air is not.
Therefore, there is an optimal population and J. Sachs is correct.
Posted by: Dallas Weaver, Ph.D. | Apr 13, 2008 6:28:06 PM

Isn't that the same kind of certainty with which flight by mankind was dismissed?

Nuclear fisson as well?

Space flight?

I think so.

PHD or not, my friend, you are a fool to say as a positibve statement that this or that will be impossible in 2050, or 2100, or even 2020.

Sam Grove April 13, 2008 at 8:09 pm

No, we won't have another "green revolution" with the high crop yield increases in the 100+% range that bailed humanity of population bomb going off from the last 3 billion increase.
………….
These limits are from thermodynamics and are not easily bypassed without a fundamental redesign of plants that will be way beyond what we can achieve by 2050 or possibly ever — nature that done more experiments in optimizing photosynthesis that man can even dream of.

First, plants did not evolve with any purpose other than survival and reproduction. I don't know what's possible with the application of biotechnology and directing the purpose of plants to our own utility and neither do you.

No doubt you are informed by the state of the art, but that, too, is a dynamic.

I doubt there is an optimal population, but I also doubt that, sans government interference, population will continue to grow unchecked. As the developing world catches up with the west, they also will find that the need for large families is reduced and we'll hear similar complaints about fertility rates falling below 'optimum'.

shawn April 13, 2008 at 9:25 pm

The notion that people will just keep having kids at the exact same rate, should resources decline, is unbelievably foolish, and yet that is exactly what is necessary to come up with these doomsday scenarios. People don't have to understand economics or subscribe to any population bomb theories to innately respond to incentives.

Methinks April 13, 2008 at 9:32 pm

I'm so sorry if this was mentioned above and what I'm going to say is redundant as I only skimmed the comments section.

There seems to be a resurrection of the panics of my childhood. Running out of oil (oil is infinite, but not at a given price), overpopulation and the destruction of the environment (although, the air is cleaner than it was in my childhood).

The earth can't become overpopulated. Full Stop. In addition to the professor's points, here are some thoughts.

Starvation doesn't happen overnight. A billion people aren't born overnight. If we can't grow enough to feed ourselves, women will drop to a weight too low to either get pregnant or will not get enough to eat to maintain a pregnancy. Birth rates will drop to a sustainable level. The mass famine scenario is BS because it assumes a.) no world food market and b.) that the population boom happens overnight and the food and water runs out suddenly. Total BS. But these are sort of old population controls that happen in underdeveloped countries.

Prosperity seems to be a natural population control. Prosperity raises the opportunity cost of bearing children. Prosperity is correlated with lower birth rates, much smaller families, consequently slower population growth.

Developed countries are characterized by smaller families and long lives while underdeveloped countries are characterized by large families and short lives.

Higher population does not equal more wealth. Higher productivity equals more wealth, but, it seems to have the side effect of slowing population growth and creating better technology to sustain that population.

Methinks April 13, 2008 at 9:46 pm

One more point. These bastards who claim to want a smaller population on earth continue to reproduce. Then, they encourage their "cancer of the earth" children to give them grandchildren. Um….what? Lead by example and stop sowing your seed, for chrissake!

Gil April 13, 2008 at 11:51 pm

But the main gist of arguing against more babies is that more population must equal greater wealth. Why else would there be people claiming that 'technology will solve everything'? I mean there could be a world population of 100 billion or more provided everyone only drank water and ate bugs. I'm still thinking certain posters here are of the NIMBY kind – as long the population growth happens in the poor parts of the world whereby if more babies outstrip the food supply they all die whilst I can stay at home in comfort.

Raker Tooth April 14, 2008 at 12:21 am

"Government begs for high birthrates by subsidizing one of the most expensive costs of raising a child- education. Publicly financed education creates an overpopulation problem. The more kids you have, the better value you get for your tax dollars. Maybe there was a period in time when free education was a good idea, but that time is long gone now."

Barney, I'm not buying it. The people I know with large families all home school, and want nothing to do with public education. If anything, public education makes people think they have a free babysitter, which encourages mothers to have jobs.

********************

As far as laws of science go, there is also the business of efficiency. I think we've just scratched the surface of the efficiency issue. There are a lot of things one can do around your house to that end. Here's one I thought of while sitting here: (probably already on the market) how about a device that sends the electric meter reading into the house? That is, the meter reader guy still reads it outside, but inside, you could click on an icon, and your monitor would display how many kilowatts are being used. Everytime the oven or waterheater goes on, you know exactly how much power was used, and the actual cost calculated in dollars and cents. To me, being cheap is a game, good thing too, since I do it all the time :) Why just this afternoon, I made a super low tech water heater that will certainly lower my electric bill.

************************

Mr. Boudreaux, great blog and all, I really like it. In fact, just last night, I was on a rare date with the wife, and stopped by the huge used book store, before getting a bite to eat at the Ali Baba Deli. Yeah so any way, I found this interesting looking book, "The Age of Uncertainty" by Gilbraith. I heard the name mentioned here. Seven bucks, hey what a deal!
All this to again say that this is a great blog, but, um, has "faux science" ever stopped the current crowd of scientists from more absurdum ?

brotio April 14, 2008 at 12:27 am

Gil,

I can't remember a single famine in the last 100 years that wasn't caused by government. Can you?

It's unfortunate that you wrote your post of Apr 13, 2008 11:51:02 PM after Methinks' excellent posts on the subject.

Gil April 14, 2008 at 3:22 am

Aw go on brotio & methinks have a go at my NIMBY assertion. Would you like to see the U.S. of A. have 1 billion people would you like to deal with 3 1/3 more people in your day-to-day life? Would you see it as greater growth and productivity or greater congestion and annoyance?

Well you know famines occur due to a sudden shock don't they, be they artificial or natural? Likewise, well of course human population peaks due to the natural and technological constraints of the day. People in the 1500s made losta of babies but most of them didn't see adulthood such that the world population hovered around the 500 million mark. But is a famine a kind of synchronous starvation? People enmass starving at once? Constrast against an era of 'no famine' or 'asynchronous starvation' where people drop dead at different times as not to cause any disruption in status quo of their country and no one would complain of a 'famine'?

Maybe all in all I'm agreeing with pointlessness of a certain population being more or less. 3 billion people would be considered a population explosion for the people in the 1850s. Whereas nowadays 3 billion would mean a large population slump making us wondering what would cause 3.5 billion or so people to drop dead. Hence the notion that x billion people is heaps or not is arbitrary. But I'm certainly on the sceptical side that more people equals more wealh.

Marcus April 14, 2008 at 7:23 am

Gil,

Are there any positive sides to human beings? You focus on the negatives, on the resource consumption, but do people contribute anything?

If so, do they contribute more or less than they consume?

If the contributions exceed the consumptions than it would seem to follow that more people equals more wealth.

But first, you have to answer that question.

Marcus April 14, 2008 at 7:23 am

Gil,

Are there any positive sides to human beings? You focus on the negatives, on the resource consumption, but do people contribute anything?

If so, do they contribute more or less than they consume?

If the contributions exceed the consumptions than it would seem to follow that more people equals more wealth.

But first, you have to answer that question.

gappy April 14, 2008 at 9:34 am

The "Carrying Capacity" of the planet is a persistent pseudo-scientific myth invented by Paul Ehrlich. Although Paul Ehrlich has been wrong on essentially every count of his predictions, many still stick to them as if they were confirmed by fact. Very depressing.

Methinks April 14, 2008 at 9:41 am

But I'm certainly on the sceptical side that more people equals more wealh. – Gil

Gil,

You seem to suffer from the muirpid syndrome – an inability to process information and an inability to write in English (despite being a native speaker). concentrate for a minute.

One more time:

More people does not equal more wealth. If that were true, India and China would have the largest economies on earth. Productivity equals more wealth ("productivity" is not synonymous with "population"). And don't point to Marcus' post as as proof that someone here is arguing that more population equals more wealth. Marcus' post argues that more population equals more wealth only if that population is more productive ("….the contributions exceed the consumption…").

Further, while there may be non-manmade food shortages on a regional basis, the ability to transport food from one country to another will solve that problem. Mass worldwide starvation is the stated fear of the overpopulation alarmists. That can't happen, barring a catastrophic worldwide event. But then, starvation won't be due to overpopulation but due to the catastrophic worldwide event.

John Dewey April 14, 2008 at 9:55 am

Dallas Weaver, Ph.D: "That being the case, there are real limits on what miracles science can pull out of the hat to avoid major problems with the projected population increase of another 3 billion mouths."

Dr. Weaver, I suppose that I might add the PhD after my name and speak authoritatively on all "science subjects" if I did possess such a title.

Is it your expertise in the production of tropical fish that enables you to write with such confidence on a subject as complex as the future of agriculture production? I'm sure that scientific insights about the care and feeding of salt water life must be related to the production of grains, though I'm not sure I understand exactly how.

Is it the knowledge you gained from agriculture professors at UC Davis back in the late 1960's that enables you to make such pronouncements? Wasn't that about the same time that the Club of Rome and Paul Erlich started preaching about the limits of our Mother Earth to support the human population? Do you think perhaps the researchers at UC Davis and at other world-class agriculture schools have advanced knowledge of crop production a little bit over the past 40 years? Do you feel confident that you have kept abreast of such changes to the extent that you can now inform the rest of us of the bleak future we face?

One other thing I wonder about, Dr. Weaver: is it possible that the economic and political advancements over the next century might be more important to the production of food than are the scientific advancements – advancements which of course you know are all played out? Perhaps an economics professor such as Don Boudreaux is at least as qualified to write on the economics of food production as is an expert on zebrafish and water treatment systems.

Dr. Weaver, might I suggest that placing the title PhD behind your name on a blog should also be accompanied by an explanation about how such an academic acvhievement is relevant to the topic on which one implies, through his pronouncements, to be an expert?

Hammer April 14, 2008 at 10:02 am

Gil, you make a few very poor assumptions:

"I do believe that those who in the '60s predicted famine in the '80s or so were technically correct. If the technical efficiency of feeding people hadn't changed then there would've been famine."

Technically, were it "correct" it would have been accurate. Saying "Well, if all my assumptions proved to be true, I would have been right" does not make you "correct," it makes you an idiot with poor assumptions.
Humans are remarkably good at making due with a situation, adapting their habits and devising new activities to allow them to flourish. We refer to this universal tendancy as "the invisible hand of the market." We find ways to improve our situation quite rapidly, and always have. Assuming we will suddenly cease to do this is about as sensible as assuming we will stop having wars with each other.

Now, as to feeding say 9 billion people, let's borrow a page from PJ O'Rourke's "All the Trouble In the World" (I think) and update it. His basic argument was that if all the people in the world lived in a 4 person family, they could all live in Europe and have the population density of Pennsylvania. (Pennsylvania is pretty damn empty, for those of you that don't live here.)So in today's argument's terms we have 9 billion people, that is to say 2.25 billion house holds, living in the EU, which Wikipedia says is 2,515,200,000 acres or so. That is 1.118 acres per house hold if I round to the ten-thousandth, with the rest of the world devoid of human life. So everyone lives in a suburb and has a yard slightly bigger than mine, or alternately lives as normal people with some in apartments and some in the middle of no where.
Now, by my calculations, 4 people in 1.118 acres is about 2290 people per square mile, rounding to the nearest person. Ten times the density of PA (PJ was using current pop numbers, not 9 billion, please note, and twice the density of New Jersey, the most dense state (also the nation's leader producer of egg plant!)So at first blush that is a little scary. But let me reiterate: the rest of the world would be devoid of human life. Now, I don't like Jersey much, but wow, it is not ALL chemical and urban wasteland, not by far! And toss in the lower 48 states, and you can lower that density by somewhat less than half, putting you right at the level of the Garden State. One could make the entirely of Asia one giant farm, and be done with it.

In other words, the world is a very big place, so big that there is very little chance of us filling it up.

And lastly, what does one really suggest we do to prevent population growth? I mean, seriously, what? Should we nuke all the places that have lots of people? Wipe India and China off the map? Those two countries seem to be strongly in the 20% group that cause 80% of the population issue, so do you suggest we "fix" them en masse?

Of course not. However, if you REALLY feel as though there are too many people, I invite you to move to say Tamaqua, PA, or really any other town in North PA, somewhat remoter even than Scranton. You will feel as though you are the only human for miles, and you will be largely correct.

Marcus April 14, 2008 at 10:26 am

And don't point to Marcus' post as as proof that someone here is arguing that more population equals more wealth. Marcus' post argues that more population equals more wealth only if that population is more productive ("….the contributions exceed the consumption…").
– Posted by: Methinks | Apr 14, 2008 9:41:01 AM

I don't disagree with anything you've written.

Concerning India and China, both countries in the past have been extremely socialist, protectionist and down right isolationist. Their people were hardly free to innovate.

As both countries have opened up their markets, as they both have started to participate in the greater community of man through trade, as the people of both countries have been allowed to innovate for themselves, the standard of living in both countries has been increasing dramatically.

Methinks April 14, 2008 at 10:38 am

Marcus,

We are in complete agreement. In the case of the Chinese, "their people were hardly free to innovate" could be changed to "their people were not free in any way – full stop." It's just amazing what happens when you free the slaves from the shackles of such "smart" central planners, isn't it?

Dano April 14, 2008 at 10:56 am

"I can't remember a single famine in the last 100 years that wasn't caused by government. Can you?" Brotio

In agreement with Brotio, I had read an interview with someone discussing the famine in Zimbabwe which mentioned that famines do not co-exist with a free press. I haven't found the sourse of that but a quick search leads me to this quote from Amartya Sen:
"Famines are easy to prevent if there is a serious effort to do so, and a democratic
government, facing elections and criticisms from opposition parties and
independent newspapers, cannot help but make such an effort. Not surprisingly,
while India continued to have famines under British rule right up to
independence …they disappeared suddenly with the establishment of a multiparty
democracy and a free press." (Democracy as a Universal Value).

Gil: "Aw go on brotio & methinks have a go at my NIMBY assertion."

Well I'm not Brotio or Methinks, but it's not an issue of NIMBY. Yes, the "population crisis" (if there is one) is a problem of the developing countries not the developed ones. But it's not an issue of keeping the starving masses out of our neighborhoods. It's an issue of helping them develop. Malthus wasn't as negative as often portrayed. The positive check (population outstrips food supply) would only happen if the preventative checks did not occur. If I remember right preventative checks consist of the rule of law, private property rights, education, and the existence of luxury goods. Unfortunately, the recommendations by the Club of Rome, etc., are exactly the opposite — command and control, no trade.

Gil April 14, 2008 at 11:23 am

I thought I did mention technical efficiency means more people without stagnation nor starvation. But the undercurrent I keep getting is that people here like more and more people. It's as if to say most people here came from large families and have large families and are stumped to see to people from small families and have little to no children. And no, Socialist strawmen slavers, I'm not about to go around starting wars nor hand out sterilisation pills to African women let alone make crop circles. Sheesh!

Methinks April 14, 2008 at 11:59 am

"Socialist strawmen slavers"

Do you mean "socialist straw man slayers,/i>"?

But the undercurrent I keep getting is that people here like more and more people.

Gil, that is an undercurrent in your own mind. The point people here are trying to make (and I will be swiftly corrected if I'm wrong) is that nobody can determine the optimum earth population size, since nature has some natural and non-catastrophic population controls of her own, we're all for letting people decide the size of their families without outside interference.

Methinks April 14, 2008 at 12:05 pm

turning off italics

John Dewey April 14, 2008 at 12:46 pm

gil: "But the undercurrent I keep getting is that people here like more and more people."

I think that people here like fewer and fewer people who want to control the lives of the rest of us. Central planning – and the coercion required to implement their plans – leads to lower standards of living. Freedom – to buy, to sell, to live where we wish, to procreate as we wish – leads to prosperity. The evils that socialists invent – global warming, overpopulation, economic inequality, etc – are generally just means to an end, the end being their dominance of human beings.

Dano April 14, 2008 at 2:03 pm

"I thought I did mention technical efficiency means more people without stagnation nor starvation."

I do hope that's true.

"But the undercurrent I keep getting is that people here like more and more people."

Personally, I'm neutral on more and more people. And, my point is I think it is a non-issue. As the developing world develops, my guess is that the population growth will slow just like it has in developed countries. So if you're concerned about overpopulation, in my humble opinion, the best solution is to help lesser develop countries develop.

"And no, Socialist strawmen slavers, I'm not about to go around starting wars nor hand out sterilisation pills to African women let alone make crop circles."

Good I'm glad you're not. If you feel overpopulation is a problem, what is you're solution? I mentioned mine. It is not my intention to create a straw man, however, the solutions put forth by Sachs, etc.as Methinks and John Dewey put more eloquently than I, involve command and control socialistic policies.

Sam Grove April 14, 2008 at 3:22 pm

The premises of socialism are mined from the same vein as the premises of mercantilism.

The idea of wealth as a product of the human mind is a notion that escapes those who operate on these unexamined premises.

This is seen in the idea of a socialist paradise, the assumption being that wealth is that stuff dug out of the ground or gown in same. They (economic collectivists) thought that getting rid of 'the wealthy' meant that everybody else would be able to share the ensuing abundance.

Very slowly the idea is working its way into the world that abundance is created by people that are free to do so.

Our problem with muirgeo is that he was unable to release the mercantilist view that wealth is something that is taken from the ground or from other people.

roystgnr April 14, 2008 at 3:37 pm

Right now the air outside my window is 70 degrees with 20% humidity, meaning that a car "powered by air" with a square meter of intake driving at 25 meters per second will naturally take in about a kilogram per second of water, including about 100 grams per second of hydrogen which includes about .015 grams per second of deuterium. Fusing that deuterium would yield hundreds of megawatts of power, much more than your average car needs, even on the highway. ;-)

Are we going to have "Mr. Fusion" on the backs of our cars in 40 years? I wouldn't bet on it. Are we even going to have cheap energy-positive D-D fusion in huge power plants by then? You'll have to give me better than even odds before I put down my money. I can't even say I'm sanguine about the odds of any new energy technology in my lifetime being as cheap and convenient as "get flammable stuff out of the ground and burn it" used to be. But those odds are going to come down to what the laws of engineering and economics say is practical; we're nowhere near the limits of what the first and second laws of thermodynamics say is possible. The laws of thermodynamics are happy with squeezing ridiculous amounts of energy out of the most common element in the universe; just go outside some day when it's not cloudy and you can see for yourself.

brotio April 14, 2008 at 5:37 pm

Gil,

It's not a NIMBY issue. Please reread Methinks' post of Apr 13, 2008 9:32:54 PM and if you disagree with her assertion that prosperity equals lower birthrates, then please present your argument.

Now then, to directly answer your question: If the US government doesn't do anything to deter productivity (any more than it already has), then this country can prosper with a billion people and I won't have a problem with that. There are nearly ten million people in Los Angeles County (2000 sq. mi.) and nearly five million in the State of Colorado (104,000 sq. mi.) I function quite nicely in either area.

"But I'm certainly on the sceptical side that more people equals more wealh."

I think libertarians are arguing that the assumption of the Left that 'more people equals less wealth' is fundamentally flawed. That it isn't the population of the planet inhibiting wealth, but the lack of liberty. At least that's what this libertarian is arguing.

Dirck Noorman April 14, 2008 at 11:24 pm

I humbly submit, no mention of Norman Borlaug is complete without a reference to his ideological foil (and contemporary) Paul Ehrlich. Some choice Ehrlich quotes:

http://tinyurl.com/2wae7j

Also, check out a great 2003 speech by Michael Crichton, touches on some of the same themes Prof Boudreaux does here:

http://tinyurl.com/33wbk2

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