… is from page 81 of Julian Simon’s 1993 essay “In Favour of Immigration,” as reprinted in the excellent 2000 collection Population: The Ultimate Resource (Barun S. Mitra, editor):
A key characteristic of a high level of economic civilisation is that it contains the capacity to resolve newly arising problems more quickly than did lower economic civilisations. For example, the incidence of famine has declined sharply in the past century because of modern roads and transportation systems. Food scarcity as a result of rapid population growth took much longer to remedy in 1300 AD than now, because we have systematic ways of finding and applying new knowledge that will meliorate the scarcity. There are not natural or “physical” limits that are an increasing constraint on our powers. The improvement that has occurred in the world’s resource availability would not have taken place if population density had remained at the lower levels of the past.
I thought about Julian yesterday when listening to Terry Gross’s Fresh Air interview with Mei Fong about China’s one-child policy. Starting at around the 23:20 mark, Ms. Gross asks Ms. Fong if China’s economic boom over the past 35 or so year was caused in part by the one-child policy. Ms. Fong’s answer is pretty good; she insisted – quite correctly, I believe – that China boomed because of its move toward being a more open and more market-oriented society. The fact that the boom started at about the same time as the one-child policy began (1980) is only coincidental.
I haven’t read Ms. Fong’s book, so I dare not speculate on the details of any further views that she has on the connection between China’s post-Mao economic boom and the one-child policy, but it’s clear from this interview that she doesn’t believe that any positive connection exists. She might well – as I do – believe that any connection that does exist is a negative one. As Julian Simon taught better than anyone else, people are productive assets to the society of which they belong – a truth that is manifest when those societies are market-oriented. (It’s true that some people become predators – burglars, bandits, politicians – but this fact is true regardless of population size or the type of economy that society has.) China’s one-child policy not only was a grotesque and cruel violation of individual rights, it has caused the stock and variety of that ultimate resource, human creativity and effort, to be artificially smaller in China. One consequence is that all of humanity, including the Chinese, are poorer than we would otherwise be.