Bryan Caplan  

The Expected Human

Audio on the Crisis... John Quiggin on Macro...
The day my latest son was born, I quoted Julian Simon:
One spring day about 1969 I visited the U.S. AID office on the outskirts of Washington, D.C., to discuss a project intended to lower fertility in less-developed countries. I arrived early for my appointment, so I strolled outside in the warm sunshine.  Below the building's plaza I noticed a road sign that said "Iwo Jima Memorial."  There came to me the memory of reading a eulogy delivered by a Jewish chaplain over the dead on the battlefield at Iwo Jima, saying something like, "How many who would have been a Mozart or a Michelangelo or an Einstein have we buried here?" And then I thought, Have I gone crazy? What business do I have trying to help arrange it that fewer human beings will be born, each one of whom might be a Mozart or a Michelangelo or an Einstein - or simply a joy to his or her family and community, and a person who will enjoy life.
When I was googling for this quote, I came across Herman Daly's review review of Simon's The Resourceful Earth.  This passage jumped out:
A further reason adduced by Simon for population growth is the "genius argument." With 4,000 births there is a better chance of getting an Einstein or a Mozart than with only 40 births. Inept as this argument is in ignoring the unique combination of nature and nurture underlying genius, it should at least have occurred to Simon that the chances of getting another Hitler or Caligula likewise increase.
There are two arguments here.  The first is ludicrous: Genius is a "unique combination of nature and nurture"; therefore, it's "inept" to think a larger population increases the chance of getting more geniuses?!  But Daly's second argument - that a bigger population will have more monsters as well as more geniuses - is one that any economist can appreciate. 

What should we make of this argument?

1. The existence of human civilization shows that on average, human beings' capacity for creation exceeds their capacity for destruction.  History's Hitlers and Caligulas have taken big bites out of progress, but look around.  The non-monsters have created far more than the monsters have destroyed.  Otherwise, we wouldn't be here to ponder this question.

2. What about the marginal human?  It's admittedly conceivable that the average human adds value, but the marginal human reduces it.  How would you measure the contribution of the marginal human?  The simplest approach: Check whether the marginal human is, over his entire lifetime, self-supporting in present value terms.  A small fraction of people - such as violent criminals, long-term welfare recipients, the chronically sick, and politicians - probably don't pass this test.  But even people who earn minimum wage probably do.   If you average the good and the bad, the expected value of the marginal human remains comfortably positive.

3. What if you adjust your calculations to account for the externalities of the marginal human?  Simon would remind us that the marginal human creates both positive and negative externalities; he might even add that the existence of civilization suggests that positive externalities greatly outweigh the negatives.  Still, the laws of diminishing marginal utility of goods and increasing marginal disutility of bads provide some reason to think that the marginal human adds less than the average human.  But is it plausible that this effect is large enough to turn the value of the expected human negative?

In his review, Daly resents Simon's suggestion that critics of population growth are misanthropists: "neoMalthusians would agree with Simon that ten billion people are better than two billion -- as long as they are not all alive at the same time!"  Yet on reflection, misanthropy has two slightly different meanings.  A misanthrope could be someone who wishes that people had never been born.  But that's a rather extreme form of misanthropy.  The more common version, perfectly captured in Moliere's greatest play, is simply having a low opinion of people.  In this sense, neoMalthusians are indeed misanthropists - they expect the marginal human to be more trouble than he's worth.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (13 to date)
Brandon Berg writes:

[I]t should at least have occurred to Simon that the chances of getting another Hitler or Caligula likewise increase.

I suspect that this is not true. To do the kind of damage Hitler or Caligula (Surprise! Who would have guessed that a writer for a publication called the Social Contract Press would pick Caligula over more obvious examples like Mao, Stalin, or Pol Pot?) did, you generally need to be a head of state. The number of head-of-state positions is probably more or less invariant with respect to population.

The odds of a monstrously evil person filling one of these slots is a function of the number of such slots and the odds of a person who has what it takes to be chosen for a head-of-state position being monstrously evil. I suspect that the latter is also more or less invariant with respect to population.

While it may be true that increasing the population slightly increases the odds of another holocaust (little "h"), it probably isn't a linear function of population, whereas the number of geniuses probably is. Serial killers may be a linear function of population, but the damage they do is orders of magnitude less.

Steve Sailer writes:

How are Dr. Simon's theories working out in California these days?

Nathan Goldschlag writes:

"...such as violent criminals, long-term welfare recipients, the chronically sick, and politicians - probably don't pass this test."

I just wanted to say that the politicians part cracked me up.

Peter writes:

Steven Landsburg discusses this subject extensively. He quotes Ted Baxter (the dim and pompous newscaster from the Mary Tyler Moore show) as saying "I'm going to have six children in hopes that one of them would grow up to solve the world's population problem", and he agrees.

See also here

Robbie writes:

Daly's argument is seriously flawed.

Regardless of the total population it is the number of gifted people that matters.

For people like Hitler it is the proportion that counts, twice as many monsters also means twice as many people to disagree with them.

If Hitler hadn't existed then it's entirely possible that Goebbels or someone similar would have taken the lead and caused just as much destruction. But if Einstein hadn't existed then perhaps someone like Erwin Schrödinger would have spent his lifetime coming up with relativity, depriving the world of his work on quantum mechanics.

Joe Cushing writes:

All one has to do is take a road trip through the corn belt to see an argument for less people.

Anowrast writes:

All one has to do is look at a mountain sunrise in Tibet to see an argument for less people.

Stupid "argument."

Daniel Kuehn writes:

Robbie -
RE: "Regardless of the total population it is the number of gifted people that matters."

I'm not so sure about this, which is why I wouldn't jump on Dalley's admittedly problematic response as quickly as Caplan did. When it comes to a Mozart, his genius can be copied quite easily and so absolute numbers are what matter.

But what about doctors or good parents? These sorts of geniuses are important not in their absolute numbers, but in their numbers relative to the total population. And THAT is the sort of situation where I think Dalley's points make a whole lot more sense. If genius is a combo of nature and nurture (which I think we've all stipulated), then if greater child production puts pressure on nurture provision, then the RATE of doctor or good parent production may indeed decrease with fertility in this case.

The fundamental, point, though, is that a lot of these so called "population control" initiatives are putting contraception and abortion and education in the hands of men and ESPECIALLY women in the third world. Giving THEM the choice over their own destinies can't be that bad.

My argument is no excuse for some kind of alarmist position on population growth. I'm not a Malthusian in this case by any means. I just think Dalley's point has more to it than Caplan gives it credit for - but only in specific cases.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

RE: "When it comes to a Mozart, his genius can be copied quite easily and so absolute numbers are what matter."

I should clarify - I mean digitally copied, redistributed, enjoyed, etc. You only need one Einstein to get relativity. The proportion of Einstein's to the population doesn't matter. My wider point is that this is not true of all "successes" (and perhaps I'm just saying Caplan needs to define success more broadly). When it comes to Einstein's, the absolute number matters. When it comes to doctors, the number as a share of the population is what matters.

guthrie writes:


Fewer people mean fewer brains working on how to create a material that repels water but allows air to pass (gortex) so that you can stand in the crisp mountain air without having had to raise and slaughter a yak.

Fewer people mean fewer eyes on creating maps that help you reach your plateau, instead of having to relay on word of mouth by locals who may or may not be alive.

Fewer people mean fewer ideas on how heaver-than-air vehicles might fly, getting you to Lhasa in far less time it might take you to walk/ride to the coast, to catch a boat that may or may not have been fabricated for operating on the high-seas...

Fewer people mean fewer farmers efficiently producing the low-cost nuts in your affordable granola.

The sunrise will still be there, regardless of how many people there are.

Zac Gochenour writes:

Steve Sailer wrote: "How are Dr. Simon's theories working out in California these days?"

Well, with a GSP of $1.8 trillion (larger than all but 8 countries in the world, similar to Italy) I would say his theories are working out quite well. The large concentration of people has given rise to some of the world's greatest cities and many of the most influential companies. Los Angeles is the world's largest producer of entertainment - its influence over the world's culture is completely unmatched. California is the birthplace of many of the world's greatest artists, businessmen, and inventors. It is home to the world's largest cradle of technological innovation. It contains several of the world's premier universities. And over 36 million residents get to enjoy its natural beauty year round, with many more visiting to get a glimpse. Yes, I think California is doing okay.

Somehow they manage to do all this even with all those immigrants for whom you have so much disdain!

Fran Smith writes:

It might be useful to inject a further quote from Simon -- he really wasn't talking about the need to produce "geniuses." Here's what he says -- right after his lead quote in this article:

"The most interesting reason for having additional people, however, is this: If the Davises and Ehrlichs say that their lives are of value to themselves, and if the rest of us honor that claim and say that our lives are of value to us, then in the same manner the lives of additional people will be of value to those people themselves. Why should we not honor their claims, too?"

nicole writes:

Fran Smith:

But isn't that really the most problematic claim? How are we supposed to honor the value of life of people who don't exist and therefore don't value their lives?

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top