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She’s the Anti-Julian Simon

This essay in that ran last Saturday in the Boston Globe is… well, I thought it was a trick played on someone who didn’t treat on Halloween.  But I believe that its author, philosopher Sarah Conly, quite seriously believes her unreconstructed and unqualified Malthusian fears of a growing human population, as well as her case (built upon these fears) for government policies to shrink over time the size of human population.

That Ms. Conly is completely unfamiliar with economic history and with economics, including with the role of prices,* cannot be doubted by any reader of her piece who knows some economics and basic economic history.  But it is not my purpose here to address her naive Malthusianism.  Instead, I direct your attention to another bit of jaw-dropping naivete on her part:

Lastly, if we ever did discover that we needed sanctions to get people to refrain from having an unsustainable number of children, they wouldn’t be physical in nature. Fines may be the best way to go, and again, there is reason to think suitable fines, fixed on a sliding scale relative to income, can be effective — not 100 percent effective, which no regulation ever is, but effective enough.

Get it?  If changing cultural attitudes is insufficient to dissuade couples from having two or more children, government must (according to Ms. Conly) resort to sanctions – in particular, to fines.  But these won’t “be physical in nature“!  What does she mean?  Does she mean that the fines will be merely requests issued by government to offending couples that they pay to it a certain sum of money – requests that, if ignored, will never be followed by attempts by government to force the payments?  (If this is her meaning, then she has redefined the word “fine” to mean something closer to “suggested donation.”)

I’m pretty sure, though, that Ms. Conly means by “fines” what we all mean by “fines”: a government-imposed monetary penalty the payment of which is mandatory.  When a payment of a fine to government is mandatory, it is backed up – always and unavoidably – by the threat of physical force.  And unless it is so backed up, it’s not a fine.  In short, a fine is a government-imposed penalty that is indeed “physical in nature.”

I’m left to wonder if Ms. Conly honestly believes that credible threats of government force are not “physical” – and, hence (from the context of her remarks), also not objectionable – because they themselves are not “physical”?  Does she honestly believe that the justified objections that many people have to Beijing’s long-standing policy of ordering the Chinese people to limit the sizes of their families will be, or should be, set aside if governments only “fine” couples for disobeying their diktats?  Does she think her readership so daft as to suppose that a government that orders couples to have no more than one child is not ultimately using physical force to bend its subjects to its commands?

Or, asked differently, what does Ms. Conly think is the nature of government diktats?


* This claim isn’t strictly true.  She understands the role of the price called “a fine.”  By raising, with the use of fines, the costs to couples of having multiple children, governments will indeed discourage at least some couples from having multiple children.  And the higher the fine, the greater the discouragement.  (Social engineers such as Ms. Conly seldom understand the role of market prices such as the wages of labor, the prices of milk and laundry detergent, the rents on apartments in Brooklyn and Haight-Ashbury, and the interest charged by credit-card companies and payday lenders.  But these social engineers do always seem to understand – correctly – the role of fines.)


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