In his book The Great Escape, Nobel laureate Angus Deaton (see here David's excellent article) argues that
The misdiagnosis of the population explosion by the vast majority of social scientists and policy makers, and the grave harm that the resultant mistaken policy did to many millions, were among the most serious intellectual and ethical failures of a century in which there were many.
Two days ago China's government announced it will relax the one-child policy, allowing families to have two. This is a very significant decision and will have a huge impact on the lives of millions. But, as Nick Eberstadt argues on The Wall Street Journal, the Chinese Communist Party has "no plans to relinquish authority over its subjects' birth patterns; rather, Beijing has simply changed the ration. Now two children per family will be permitted".
Eberstadt's article is a must read. He digs into the unintended consequences of the one-child policy. Here's a passage:
The one-child mandate is the single greatest social-policy error in human history. After Mao Zedong's death in 1976, his legatees were horrified to discover how little they had inherited. Despite almost three decades of "socialist construction," China was still overwhelmingly rural and desperately poor. More than 97% of the country lived below the World Bank's notional $1.25 a day threshold for absolute poverty, according to recent Chinese estimates. With a population still rapidly growing, China seemed on the brink of losing the race between mouths and food.
In their attempt to process these facts, Chinese leaders stumbled into an elementary neo-Malthusian misdiagnosis. Rather than focus solely on undoing the crushing inefficiencies of their Maoist economy, they blamed abysmal productivity on the childbearing patterns of their subjects. The outcome was involuntary birth control, promulgated through a vast scheme of quotas and an army of family-planning agents.
This was Socialist "scientism"--ideology masquerading as science--of the highest order. The broad outline was established on calculations by a Moscow-minted engineer in China's nuclear program. These computations bore no relation to the actual ways in which Chinese men and women thought about family life. As soon as the policy was rolled out in 1980 and 1981, it collided with human realities.
First came alarming reports that female infanticide, an ancient practice, had once again erupted throughout the countryside. China's 1982 census, released some years later, showed an unnatural imbalance in the sex ratio for birth-year 1981 on the order of hundreds of thousands of missing baby girls.
Infanticide was then replaced by mass sex-selective abortion, made possible in the late 1980s by increased rural access to ultrasound machines. China's sex ratio climbed to nearly 120 baby boys for every 100 baby girls, where it plateaued around 2000. Although a war against baby girls is evident in other countries--India and Taiwan among them--leading Chinese demographers have suggested that half or more of China's imbalance may directly result from the one-child policy.