Bryan Caplan  

Liberty, Population, and Cognitive Dissonance

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My target essay at this month's Cato Unbound is up.  From the intro:

People have been fretting about the "population problem" for at least fifty years. But over those five decades, the perceived problem has practically reversed. From the sixties to the eighties, the problems on people's minds were overpopulation and the "population explosion."...

During this period, libertarians were predictably quick to oppose government action and defend individuals' right to have as many children as they wished.[2] But they also developed a more intellectually creative response. Under the seminal influence of Julian Simon, libertarians embraced the view that high and growing population is good. The title of Simon's most famous book became a leading libertarian slogan: People are the ultimate resource.[3]

Over the last two decades, the perceived population problem has radically changed. Fertility has sharply fallen all over the world. It fell in less-developed nations, deflating long-standing Malthusian fears. But it fell in developed nations as well. Except for the United States and Israel, every modern economy now has fertility below the replacement rate...

Libertarians could celebrate these changes as proof that the problem of overpopulation solves itself whether or not governments do anything about it. But if Julian Simon and the intellectual tradition he inspired were right, libertarians should be experiencing severe cognitive dissonance. People with zero appreciation of Simon now worry about low birth rates and falling populations. How can those of us who long maintained that "people are the ultimate resource" fail to see anything amiss?

How indeed?

P.S. Coming up: Replies by Greg Clark, Matthew Connelly, and Betsey Stevenson.

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COMMENTS (9 to date)
Jesper writes:

We are still going to be 2-3 billion more humans in 40 years, and what's more - the proportion of productive adults with good educations will keep rising. The people resource probably won't start to decline for at least a century. Let's wait a few decades more before we start to worry, lest we once again fret over a problem that sorts itself out.

For instance, culture and societal change seems to have won over the evolutionary urge to multiply. But that should logically be temporary. Eventually, the genes that are able to overcome such cultural barriers will start dominating, and then the race might be on again.

David C writes:

That fertility rate statistic surprised me, so I looked it up. You maybe could've included Saudi Arabia, but there it is.

But this part:
"Over the observed range, people and good outcomes go hand in hand—and there’s no sign of anything else on the horizon."
No sign? Mass extinctions on the horizon due to global warming, ocean acidification, or deforestation? At a local level, overfishing? You're using a purely retrospective argument to refute a predictive argument, which doesn't entirely work.

David Friedman writes:

"At least fifty years."

I've been rereading Orwell's four volume letters and essays. People were seriously worried about the population problem--declining population--from the 1930's on.

John Fast writes:

@Bryan Caplan wrote

How can those of us who long maintained that "people are the ultimate resource" fail to see anything amiss?
Productive people are the ultimate resource. People who are not productive are not a resource. This would be welfare recipients, criminals, government bureaucrats, politicians . . . wait, I'm repeating myself.

Anyway, someone -- I think it was Charles Murray -- said that Europeans don't really feel a sense of purpose or fulfillment in life, they want to go from cradle to grave with as much physical comfort and security as possible, while avoiding any sort of hardship, and so they also aren't interested in having children.

If European culture weren't so full of anti-liberalism, I'd mourn for its passing. Instead I'll mourn for old Europe, i.e. pre-1914.

Nick Bradley writes:

I expected to see the role the size of a network has on value, but you didn't.

Metcalfe's Law here: n(n − 1)/2

So, the more participants you have in a network, the greater the value. Greater interaction in a network increases information-sharing and the proliferation of ideas (Caplan's source for wealth).

The more interaction you have in a network, the greater the division of labor.

As a result of all this, simply increasing n will increase value. But you could also increase actual connections between actors by liberalizing trade and immigration. Furthermore, you can increase the quality of links by deregulating and allowing price signals to function.

Fructose writes:

Bryan: You forgot about Iceland. 2.14 Children per woman puts the Icelanders slightly above replacement.

Greg Bailey writes:

Arguing that overpopulation is overly fear-driven is callous. Rich nations consume a disproportionally large share of resources compared to poorer countries. Climate change has been inextricably linked to human activities. As developing countries adopt Western-style consumption patterns, we will continue to strain environmental support systems that directly impacts the standard of living we currently enjoy.

Our replacement rate should be going down. Having one less child far outstrips our best conservation methods. One person will represent approximately 80 years of consumption and who will in turn procreate more persons who will consume further. Having one less child would be the most noble sacrifice a person could do for humanity and our ecosystem.

The population level will plateau at approximately nine billion by 2050. Let's do everything possible to make that less. Encourage families to consider two children or less. The concept of quality versus quantity cannot be discounted.

GNZ writes:

Increasing the size of the network that participates in the development of ideas, and achieving greater economies of scale in the world economy, both sound like good ideas. But we can do these things by improving education and connectedness and by reducing inequalities (eg thorugh a decent level of quality education for the poor) - it doesn't require a bigger population.

Bryan's argument is that the best solution to global warming is correct carbon pricing, but we seem to be a long, long way off getting that due to the extremely powerful ideological and economic forces ranged against the (globally) rational policy. We don't have time to wait to take action.

In developing countries, promoting health and development policies that tend to reduce population growth rates has to be a good thing.

In the West, you want to encourage relaxed parenting? Great. But please don't insist that the best use of the resulting spare energy is to burn it off by having more kids. There are plenty of other worthwhile projects that parents and their (small number of) kids could engage in that would make them them just as happy.

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