Some Big Facts

by Don Boudreaux on September 22, 2009

in Complexity & Emergence, Cooperation, History, Myths and Fallacies, Population

Economist.com reports favorably U.C.-Berkeley researcher Malcolm Potts’s claim “that slowing population growth is essential if poverty is to be eradicated.”

On what basis do the Economist.com reporter and Mr. Potts believe that a larger population is necessarily incompatible with the eradication of poverty?  The standards of living of at least 4 billion of the approximately 6.8 billion people alive today are incomparably higher than were the standards of living for nearly everyone who lived prior to the industrial age – and the living standards of today’s other 2.8 billion are not obviously worse than were those of the great majority of our pre-industrial ancestors.  Yet world population until the industrial age was no higher than one billion.

Empirically, it appears as if poverty eradication is quite compatible with population growth, and perhaps even a result of this growth as much as it is a cause of growth.

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{ 29 comments }

Anonymous September 22, 2009 at 12:49 pm

And I think an important point is this one that you make: “and the living standards of today’s other 2.8 billion are not obviously worse than were those of the great majority of our pre-industrial ancestors”Nothing will eradicate poverty because our understanding of “poverty” has always been relative. Even as standards of living do improve what we think of as an insufficient standard of living will change as well. And that’s fine – it’s fine to be concerned about relative deprivation. Setting standards that increase over time seems to be a good thing to me – it’s a sign that we’re never going to be satisfied with a given quality of life, that we’ll always strive for better. But the point is, don’t worry too much about eliminating a relative measure – it’s impossible! Worry about growth.

Anonymous September 22, 2009 at 1:58 pm

I take back that comment that I made a few weeks back.

David September 22, 2009 at 1:04 pm

They must be forgetting that larger markets create more opportunities for specialization, which increases efficiency and raises everyone’s standard of living.

Miko September 22, 2009 at 1:08 pm

Based on a comparison of population growth in developed and undeveloped parts of the world, it’d be more accurate to say “that eradication of poverty is essential if population growth is to be slowed.”

Anonymous September 22, 2009 at 1:11 pm

Although more recent research is challenging even that once air-tight relationship: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/graphic/2009/08/10/GR2009081000274.html?sid=ST2009081000275

MikeP September 22, 2009 at 1:13 pm

It’s not even that poverty is a relative measure. Poverty is the wrong measure.

If having 20% more people around means that the average person is 5% less well off, the total well being of humanity is still greater.

I happen to believe that free procreation maximizes total well being just as free trade and free migration do, but even if you believe more people make poverty eradication more difficult, you have to look at the total happiness, not the total poverty.

Anonymous September 22, 2009 at 1:13 pm

Yeah but.

There is all the wealth created since the industrial revolution and it is being shared by all of those 6 billion plus in unequal amounts.

It makes perfect sense that if 3 billion off themselves or are offed in socialist re-education camps aka Pol Pot’s method, why Gosh all that wealth could then be shared by half the people, and obviously that half would be twice as rich…….wouldn’t they?

It could be done, couldn’t it, huh?

Just ship my Nobel to my postal box, I can’t be bothered going to the ceremony I’ll be too busy counting my new lucre.

Anonymous September 22, 2009 at 1:25 pm

Watch me get attacked here …

Right now, you could fit the entire world’s population in the state of Texas and have them live at a population density similar to … Beacon Hill outside of Boston. I do not know many people from Beacon Hill who would find this intolerable. That means the rest of the world could be used for producing food and other resources, including open spaces, parks, etc. Do we not believe that economies of scale here could provide comfortably for even twice the population?

In any case, it is startling to see in the article the lack of connection between income and population growth. As we move from a Classical World to a Modern World of population dynamics (see Becker and Solow) something changes about our fertility decisions. The “enlightened” view is that we need to take measures to stop people from reproducing without recognizing that there are natural “checks” on this sort of thing if we rely on an economic system guided by prices and alienable property.

Anonymous September 22, 2009 at 1:38 pm

I think Julian Simon addressed this issue some years ago. Population growth without freedom is a drag on ecoomic activity. However, population growth with freedom and individual property rights are a powerful forces for economic growth. In other words, socialism means poverty, free market capitalism means prosperity.

Anonymous September 22, 2009 at 1:38 pm

I think Julian Simon addressed this issue some years ago. Population growth without freedom is a drag on ecoomic activity. However, population growth with freedom and individual property rights are a powerful forces for economic growth. In other words, socialism means poverty, free market capitalism means prosperity.

Anonymous September 22, 2009 at 1:50 pm

Also David, but more importantly, the fact that more people/larger markets provide bigger incentives for the development of new ideas and the execution of those ideas. Since ideas can be spread at zero marginal cost, more people == more gain from more ideas.

Seth September 22, 2009 at 1:50 pm

That’s odd. I thought poverty eradication (or positive shifts in standard of living) slowed population growth.

MWG September 22, 2009 at 2:59 pm

Nothing odd about it. Rising living standards result in lower population growth. BUT, lower population growth does not result in rising living standards.

JohnK September 22, 2009 at 1:59 pm

They don’t care about poverty, they care about controlling the ability to reproduce.

Coming up next, the return of Positive Eugenics….

Gil September 22, 2009 at 3:51 pm

The only real reason Don Boudreaux can mean population control equates to technological growth (though I find it a spurious one) is that having more and more babies in step with food science creates incentive for more food science. It’s what Julius Caesar would describe as “burning your bridges” or as Ray Bradbury would say “jump off a cliif and build your wings on the way down” or some guy who said “throw your hat over the fence”. In other words create a problem where failure is not an option and you’ll discover the solution in no time.

However, why is it the parts of the world with the highest birth rates are usually the most backward? Why is that the parts of the world with high standards of living have below-replacement rates and are now relying on immigration? If birthrates equals success will Europe flourish with Muslims and will the U.S.A. flourish with Hispanics? Then again what of the fact when women around the world get access to birth control and get to have a choice in how many babies they want to have they will choose to have fewer?

Anonymous September 22, 2009 at 8:31 pm

Perhaps you just missed that class of development economics where a link between population growth and other factors was explained.

You could have heard of the example of one of the poorest places on this earth, the Indian state of Kerala.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kerala#Demographics

Reason? it appears to help a lot if you educate the girls.
so the society is less patriarchal…

Anonymous September 23, 2009 at 1:15 am

Might as well ask why the USA developed high standards of living from 1783 all the way through to the 1960s, and did so with higher than replacement rates of birth?

It is called freedom. Freedom from oppression be it the national, the state, or the tribal. It is because for whatever else we can say about the USA we have had stability enough over that time we don’t have to worry about our neighbors running amok at night and killing us in our beds by hacking us to death with machetes because they resent us for a plethora of reasons. It is the answer not only for the USA but for most of the first world.

Gil September 23, 2009 at 6:20 am

Was Western Imperialism ‘freedom’ then? Western Imperialism wouldn’t have got as far if it weren’t the high birthrates of the Old World. There a quaint 1800s statistic where huge emigration from the Old World to the New World saw no drop in the population of the Old World because of very high birthrates. The Western country that saw any drop in population then was Ireland.

Anonymous September 23, 2009 at 1:16 am

Furthermore there is an ignorance in the world, still alive in socialist dominated areas, that says that if Amal has more, then Ashad must have less.

Gil September 23, 2009 at 2:12 am

Actually decent land is limited, more and more babies will simply mean greater population density or to occupy land with low population density will be very expensive. Yes, the U.S.A. could house 2 billion people but who would want to live there?

John September 22, 2009 at 7:15 pm

We just need more great people like Norman Borlaug.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Norman_Borlaug

Gil September 23, 2009 at 2:07 am

What for? He improved food technology to feed another 1 billion but then over 1 billion more are born so we need another Borlaug to figure how to feed another billion on top of the current population? What’s the point?

Anonymous September 23, 2009 at 3:39 am

We need more people like Margaret Sanger.

Gil September 23, 2009 at 6:30 am

Why not voluntary sub-replacement birthrates? What’s to say lower population increases wealth as fewer people invites mechanisation. Suppose you can’t appliances to the middle- to upper-class people in tradition societies because the well-to-do already don’t do their own washing – they hire people to do all these things because labour is dirt-cheap. Didn’t the Plague cause a burst of freedom for the remaining lower classes and start the Renaissance for the West? Labour was suddenly expensive and workers had more options and were less easily controlled thus inviting exploration into the science of mechanics?

Anonymous September 24, 2009 at 4:48 am

I agree: Why not? I’m sure not going to tell you that you must procreate. I doubt Borlaug would have, either.

In virtually every part of the planet where hunger or famine is an issue, it’s been caused by government.

Borlaug’s breakthroughs have provided us with the means to feed every human on the planet. Eradication of socialism would make it happen.

Tom P September 23, 2009 at 4:44 am

Why don’t living people start a cartel to keep potential people from being born and competing against them? If the government restricts the supply of people in this way, it seems like people’s wages would remain artificially high. So that’s one reason to believe population growth would slow per capita income growth.

Gil September 23, 2009 at 6:16 am

If you want to knee-deep in anklebiters all you would have to do is ban birth control and abortion. However, why people feel obliged to make umpteen babies for the sake of keeping labour artificially cheap?

deweaver September 23, 2009 at 5:56 pm

Another 3 billion people being added at a rate that is equal to our declining rate of increase in crop yields could force us all to become vegan wimps.

Note that the rate of increase in crop yields is hitting a point of diminishing returns, where you are pushing basic thermodynamics and biochemistry that you can’t get around. Even the ultimate GMO of changing C3 rice into a C4 (has to do with how many carbon atoms are fixed per photon in photosynthesis) plant like corn will only by about 25% yield increase.

If all wealth was just software, population is no problem, however the planet is finite with a finite amount of fresh water and that, combined with the laws of physics, provides population limits, if we want to continue to eat and drink.

Gil September 24, 2009 at 7:02 am

“In virtually every part of the planet where hunger or famine is an issue, it’s been caused by government.”

Uh oh! Non-sequitor time! No, a lot of ongoing poverty seems to be caused by cultural traditions especially that the measure of a Man and a Woman is how many anklebiters you can churn out.

Borlaug also complained about the Malthusian actions of poor nations and cultures – more food production means more babies will be born negating the improvements in food production.

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