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Too Many People?

As might be expected, some who are sympathetic to Simon’s views have convinced themselves that declines in population, especially in the industrial democracies of the West, pose a greater problem than “overpopulation.”

In an article in an American Enterpirse Institute symposium on the consequences of population decline, Benjamin Wattenberg and Karl Zinsmeister claim that “the geopolitical security and potency of America and its Western allies are likely to be threatened by a variety of population trends now under way around the world.”8 The average number of children born to a couple in the Western nations, for example, is 15 percent below the minimum number of children a couple needs to replace itself. (According to Allen Carlson, a participant in the symposium, “the fertility collapse has hit particularly hard in West Germany, where in the decade after 1966, the number of families with three or more children declined by two-thirds”; in Sweden in 1976, he adds, “deaths actually exceeded native births for the first time.”9 )

Wattenberg and Zinsmeister argue that in the West there may soon be an increasingly aged population and fewer young people to come up with innovations and do hard work, as well as more dependents, fewer workers, and contracting industries and markets. They worry also that countries like the US may not be able to fulfill their already enormous social security obligations. Richard Perle, the assistant secretary of defense for international security, claims in the symposium that “in countries like the Federal Republic of Germany, it is already becoming increasingly difficult to maintain the minimum size military force necessary to provide a reasonable prospect of conventional defense of German and allied territory.”

At the same time, Wattenberg and Zinsmeister argue, “the nations of the Soviet bloc” have “higher fertility rates than Western nations” and the less developed countries are “growing very rapidly.” These developments, they say, may soon make it difficult for the US to maintain what they call its “great-power status.” They recommend that the US continue to provide family-planning aid to LDCs to help bring down high population growth rates in those countries; they also believe that Western nations should accept a larger number of productive immigrants. Steps should also be taken, they say, to reverse the causes of low fertility in the US and other Western countries. These causes include “improved contraception, delayed marriage, more divorce, legal abortion.” In their view more women should stay home and have children instead of competing for jobs. Western governments should consider giving tax credits or exemptions to large families, in order to encourage people to have more children.

Critics of Wattenberg and Zinsmeister’s view could respond that while it is true that an aging population is less energetic and less able to learn new technologies, older workers may be more reliable and experienced than younger ones. If their medical care and nutrition are improved, they may be able to work much longer. The negative economic consequences of population declines in Western countries may also be offset by immigration and by greater participation in the labor force by women with smaller families. And even if we accept the arguable conception of “great-power status,” it is not clear that the Western democracies are losing that status because of population declines. What declines have already occurred may eventually be reversed by new attitudes toward having children on the part of young couples, as may be occurring in the US already. Furthermore, in an age of nuclear weapons it seems strained to suggest that military power primarily depends on numbers of soliders.

Whatever gains in fertility that have occurred in the Soviet Union in recent years have mostly taken place in its Asian populations, so that ethnic Russians will soon no longer be a majority; this may do more to increase conflicts among Russia’s different ethnic populations than it will to improve Soviet “great-power status.” Moreover, as Murray Feschbach of the Center for Population Research at Georgetown University has argued, in the years between 1964 and 1984 the crude death rate in the Soviet Union increased by over one half, and life expectancy for males may have declined by as much as six years since the middle 1960s. Even if Wattenberg and Zinsmeister are right that population declines in the West are a serious problem, it is far from clear what to do about them. Policies designed to influence people to have more children have rarely worked, or have only worked where unacceptable means have been used, as when Romania outlawed abortion and banned the import of contraceptives in 1966 and succeeded, if only temporarily, in doubling the birth rate.10


Simon’s “supply-side demography” is not a new view—suggestions of it are found in the work of the seventeenth-century economist Sir William Petty, and in recent economists and demographers like Colin Clark, Albert Hirschman, and Ester Boserup. It has helped to show how exaggerated were many of the claims of the alarmists. But Simon’s argument is almost equally exaggerated in its own way. For example, he claims that as a population grows in size it is more likely by that fact to contain minds that will solve important “problems of scarcity.” But it should be obvious that simply counting the numbers of people in a group is not a reliable way to assess their value as workers or entrepreneurs. Moreover, if (as is true in many parts of the world) people are weakened by diseases like malaria or by protein deficiencies that cause malfunction of the brain and the central nervous system, it seems unlikely that adding new members to their groups will increase the number of ideas. And even if people with the inventiveness of Huyghens or Descartes were born into an aboriginal tribe, and happened to hit on a brilliant idea, it would probably be ignored. What we regard as a problem is largely set for us by the society in which we live; the ideas that might be solutions to these problems come to little unless there are institutions—research groups, copyright laws, means of disseminating information—that help us to develop and criticize these ideas in an organized way.

Again, is it true, as Simon claims without qualification, that “additional children influence the LDC economy by inducing people to work longer hours and invest more, as well as by causing an improvement in the social infrastructure, such as better roads and communication systems”? There is no reason to believe that this occurs as a matter of course in poor societies. The National Research Council has recently issued a report on population growth and economic development which claims that “while there are many examples of successful adaptations to high labor/land ratios, there are other examples where intensification of agriculture has apparently led to reduced labor productivity, sometimes accompanied by soil depletion, exhaustion, and even abandonment,” as may have been true of Mayan civilization.11 The report suggests that Bangladesh, for example, may not be able to adopt technological innovations in response to population pressures because labor there is already “extremely intensively used.”

It therefore seems clear that population growth does not always offer the opportunity to adopt innovations. Nor is it true that people always make use of innovations when the opportunity arises. The Dutch sociologist W.F. Wertheim has given an account of a pioneer settlement in the largely uncultivated island of Sumatra by people from the densely populated rural areas of Java. Far from shifting to extensive agriculture, as their new conditions allowed, they instead constructed precise replicas of their old villages and farms. Their behavior, Wertheim claims, resembled “the ways of colonies of ants who by instinct know how to construct new communities but ignore the outward factors which may endanger the existence of the community.”12

In general Simon assumes that all people respond as “economic agents” in the same way to opportunities. He suggests that people, as rational economic agents, will modify their reproductive habits when it is in their economic self-interest to do so. This implies that people generally want the children they have. But while it is an exaggeration to suppose that there is an enormous untapped demand for contraceptives in the poor countries of Africa and Asia, it is also true that there are unwanted children—for example, those desired only by the father, who insists the mother have them. When asked, many women around the world claim that they wish to limit the size of their families.

Nor does Simon adequately take into account the institutions that largely determine the way people perceive opportunities. For example, in every society there are common attitudes about who should get married, or the age at which people should have children, or the number of children they should have. In many societies, there are specific institutional arrangements that support high or low birth rates, such as property rules, family law, government economic policy. A clear example is the pattern of marriage that prevailed in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europe, where most people married only at a late age (and many not at all); newly married couples had to make their own households and therefore postponed marriage until they were financially independent. This contrasts with the marriage pattern found, say, in many parts of south Asia today, where marrying early and having many children are ways by which women can deal with the insecurities of their lives and where couples can begin married life in the households of the husband’s parents.

We need not enter here the dispute whether people are really the “rational agents” of economic theory beneath these variances in behavior and social setting; in fact, very little except a definition hinges on the matter. We need only claim that customs, beliefs, and traditions can displace economically self-interested motives, and that they certainly help to define what people think of as a “benefit” and a “cost.” In many instances, no doubt, culturally determined attitudes toward children coincide with economically rational behavior. For example, in many rural societies of the world, it not merely conforms to cultural tradition to have many children but it is economically rational to do so. Children help about the house, deliver meals, bring fodder to draft animals, and when they grow up they provide physical security for their parents and help to support them. They are a kind of old age insurance in societies where pensions and bank accounts do not exist.

It would be an exaggeration to suggest that Simon is unaware of the importance of institutions. When he was asked why, since India and China have the largest populations in the world, they are not much better off than other countries, he replied that their cultural history and institutions were at fault. These, he said, had prevented the problem solvers born into the society from inventing ideas or the society adopting them. But he does not consider the implications of this claim for his own arguments. For example, while social institutions are only rarely explicitly designed by people, they can be improved by people. Why, then, haven’t many large populations not “induced” the problem solvers in them to invent and adopt improvements in their institutions?

  1. 8

    Public Opinion, Vol. 8, No. 8, (December/January 1986).

  2. 9

    The Washington Post (April 13, 1986), p. C-1.

  3. 10

    For further discussion of issues concerning population decline, see Michael Teitelbaum and Jay M. Winter, The Fear of Population Decline (Academic Press, 1985).

  4. 11

    National Research Council, Population Growth and Economic Development: Policy Questions (National Academy Press, 1986), pp. 21–22.

  5. 12

    W.F. Wertheim, “Inter-Island Migration in Indonesia,” East-West Parallels (The Hague: Van Hoeve), p. 205.

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