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Too Many People?


The more subtle experts on population trends have rejected or have never held either the alarmist or the benign view of population. Such writers, who include the late Frank Notestein and prominent contemporary demographers like Ansley Coale, do not think that the mere presence of more people is “the cause” of poverty or other evils. Notestein, for example, argued nearly a quarter of a century ago that “extremists who suggest that mortality should not be cut until birth rates are reduced are ignorant of the processes at work as well as immoral.” At the same time “those who counsel reliance on the productive powers of modern technology to avoid the necessity of curtailing population growth are giving very dangerous advice.” He argued that there was a “need for lower birth rates, not as a substitute for modernization, but as a means of hastening the process of modernization.”13

Whether a problem of overpopulation or underpopulation exists, according to such writers, can only be determined by carefully examining the balance between births and deaths in a population, the resources available to sustain it (including the skill, energy, and education of its labor force), and the standard of living desired by the population. The issue is not whether new people can be added to the population notwithstanding the costs, or whether doing so will cause a catastrophe. No doubt it is true that some societies have managed to prosper even though they had high rates of population growth and scarce natural resources and capital. The question, however, is whether it is possible for populations to grow without unduly compromising such social objectives as the improvement of schooling, health, or, more generally, the average standards of living. In this sense there are genuine problems of population in the world today.14

According to United Nations projections, population in the world is expanding rapidly in absolute terms even if the rate of growth is declining. In 1980, when the global population was 4.5 billion, 75 million were added; in 1990, nearly 85 million are likely to be added, so that world population is expected to be about 6.1 billion by the year 2000 and 8 billion by 2025. According to the UN projections, during the next half-century India will double its current population size and will be larger than China is now. Mexico will also double in size; Bangladesh will triple in size; and Kenya will grow five times as large as it is now.

Such projections, of course, are not predictions; they only provide the logical implications of assumptions about how people will plan their family size in the future. The assumptions are often based on how people behave now, and, as such, they are fallible and become increasingly so as they concern events in the distant future. Famines, epidemics, or major wars may undermine them. Conversely, population projections may turn out to be wrong if fertility does not decline with the speed that demographers have assumed it will. Still, there is no reason to reject such projections in principle. The reduction in the global population growth rate in recent years shows what many have believed all along: there is no universal problem of overpopulation. Indeed, in some parts of the world there might be a need for higher birth rates, as may be the case in Mongolia, for example.

But of course the decline in the global growth rate has not occurred evenly across the world. In the less developed countries of Africa, Latin America, and Asia, there are currently some 3.6 billion people. The population of these regions as a whole is growing at the rate of more than 2 percent. As noted earlier, most of these people are not living in conditions that promote entrepreneurship or Simon’s “induced innovations.”

For an example of a region in which growing population may be said to pose a genuine problem, consider sub-Saharan Africa. While there are large “under-populated” regions of the continent, a high proportion of its population is concentrated in the coastal states of West Africa, around Lake Victoria, and in Ethiopia. There is little industry in tropical Africa. On farms, many Africans still use simple tools—axes, machetes, digging sticks—and use of tractors and harvesting machines is unusual. (The plough was unknown in tropical Africa before 1900.) Nor is irrigation extensively used. Across much of the continent there is a lengthy dry season and very high temperatures, which reduce the moisture available to crops, and large regions are infested with the tsetse fly, which transmits trypanosomiasis to cattle and people.

While the world as a whole has increased its food output faster than population has grown since 1950, food production declined per head in most countries in tropical Africa in the 1960s and 1970s. According to the World Bank Development Report of 1984 the FAO claimed that of forty sub-Saharan countries, fourteen, including Botswana, Uganda, Burundi, and Kenya, “do not have enough land—assuming subsistence level farming—to support on a sustainable basis populations as large as those already reached in 1975.15 As a group, these countries account for one third of the land area of sub-Saharan Africa and about half of its 1981 population. Throughout the continent, moreover, food consumption is inadequate, disease is widespread, and life expectancy is low. Average annual GNP declined between 1960 and 1982 in many African countries, including Chad, Zaire, Uganda, Ghana, and Somalia. The region is divided into a large number of small political units, cutting across tribal groupings and often containing feuding ethnic groups; as a result, political and economic organization in many countries is weak and ineffectual. Africa has the poorest people in the world, and as The Economist recently reported, “the average African is now poorer than in 1960.”16

Africa also has the fastest growing population in the world. Kenya, for example, has an annual population growth rate of 4 percent, a rate that would double the population every seventeen years. Most of the land that has been cleared in Africa is used for subsistence agriculture, which makes use of the labor of children and thus encourages people to have many of them. Moreover, many Africans live in areas with tribal land tenure instead of private property: they therefore seek to acquire wealth through having many children.17 But the children they have are often diseased, or of the wrong sex, or die in their infancy, and so they have more children. The result is that Africa is expected before the year 2000 to add thirteen persons for each one added to the population of Europe. Very few African countries, moreover, have policies explicitly addressing the need to reduce population growth, let alone supporting family planning. Under such circumstances it is unreasonable to claim that there is no need for concern about population, or that children born in such circumstances can be relied on to provide the innovations that will solve the problems of poverty.

Still, it is not clear what can be done, ethically and effectively, to solve such grave population problems, especially if the local governments are not much concerned about them. Simon is correct to say that both the identification of population trends as a “problem” and the choice of policy to resolve it are a matter of “our values.” It cannot be determined in a “value-free” way that population rates are too high or too low or that they pose a threat to human welfare. These claims are evaluative and moral. Even if we could confidently claim on empirical grounds that population growth in a region diverts resources from being used to improve the living standards of the population, this would not in itself be a serious problem unless we also assume that whatever advantages are gained by people having the number of children they want are outweighed by the general benefits of having a greater income per person. Many people and many heads of government make this assumption, but many people who are having children do not.

Again, many of us assume without argument that a government is justified in taking steps to curb population growth if the problem is serious enough. Many couples, we are likely to argue, do not foresee the consequences of their reproductive behavior for society at large. Governments may be justified in taking action because in most modern societies parents do not fully bear the costs of caring for their children—costs measured in the effect these children have on the availability of land, or jobs, or places in schools. There can therefore be a gap between the benefits children bring to their parents and those they bring to society and future generations. In making these claims we tend to assume, however, that the government in question is legitimate and that people can have a voice in determining whether population policies are introduced and what policies will be used. But in most of the countries in which population growth causes problems today citizens have little control over government policies. What is the ethical status of a population policy, however mild, introduced by a dictator in a country whose economy he has severely damaged through inept and corrupt economic measures? The answers to such questions are rarely as simple as they can be made out to be.

For example, many people have flatly judged the Chinese limit of one child to a family and other population policies as “unethical” on the ground that they are “coercive”; they also condemn efforts by the US to persuade poor countries to take steps to lower their population growth rates as “ethically unjustified” (or, once more, “coercive”). Such charges are frequently flawed by a failure to distinguish among several questions. One of these is whether we have a clear idea of the conditions under which a legitimate government can intervene in people’s decisions to have children or other intimate matters affecting reproduction. (How justified, for example, are our own public officials in imposing a minimum age of marriage or limiting each person to one spouse at a time?) A second question is whether a government is justified in promoting its view of population trends abroad. A third is whether it should help to subsidize or otherwise support the introduction of policies in other countries, if these policies would be regarded as unethical in our own country or if they are introduced by leaders without obtaining the consent of those affected by them.

The public debate over abortion in the US demonstrates that there is no general agreement about the first question. For example, Representative Jack Kemp of New York and Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah recently sponsored legislation to stop federal funds from going to family-planning clinics where women are advised of the availability of abortion or referred to abortion clinics. Kemp and Hatch wish to abolish the Family Planning Services and Population Research Act (Title X), which allocates about $140 million a year to family-planning aid for low-income women. None of this money is supposed to go to abortion, but family-planning workers insist that they must inform their clients of the full range of methods that are available for avoiding unwanted children.

Opponents of the Kemp-Hatch Bill point to the large number of teen-age pregnancies that take place in the US each year—nearly one million in 1985—and claim that the US leads all developed countries in pregnancies in girls between the ages of fifteen and nineteen. They note also that such pregnancies occur most often among very poor girls. According to Time magazine, nearly one half of black females in the US are pregnant by the age of twenty—a rate of pregnancy in the fifteen to nineteen age group that is twice that of white girls—and nearly 90 percent of babies born to blacks in this age group are born out of wedlock. The Reagan administration has supported a constitutional amendment to ban nearly all abortions and has reduced appropriations to provide nutritional supplements to low-income expectant mothers; it also supports the Kemp-Hatch Bill. Despite its efforts, however, opinion surveys reported in Family Planning Perspectives, a journal published by the Alan Guttmacher Institute in New York, show that most Americans do not support a constitutional amendment to ban abortion and believe that women should be able to have one if they choose to do so. Making abortions illegal, they believe, would not prevent them from occurring. Such a ban, they think, would create a black market in abortions, so that only the rich would be able to obtain safe abortions, and would also result in more unwanted children.

Is the government justified in intervening in population problems abroad? Simon believes that the answer to that question is no; as we saw earlier, Simon and Kahn claim that recommendations to other countries to create population policies are “unjustifiable” because “such policies must necessarily rest upon value judgments.” But it is hardly clear that making recommendations is an “imposition” (unless these are not genuine recommendations, but disguised threats, for example, to withhold aid unless they are accepted), especially if, as is often the case, the US is requested by other countries to help assess the consequences of population growth or decline in these countries. Even if we should not assume that people or governments abroad share our values, these values remain ours and do not necessarily cease to apply beyond our borders. If we believe a serious population problem (as we define it) to exist in some country or region, and if we believe that problem will affect American economic and political interests, we must try to justify its presence to the people of that country or to officials of its government. But if, as Simon and Kahn suggest, we ceased to promote in other countries any policy based on our “value judgments,” we would be barred from doing this. Indeed, we should have no foreign policy at all.

This implies a negative answer to the third question, whether we are justified in supporting population policies abroad that we would find unethical here—or that would be imposed on foreigners without their consent. But much of what passes for moral condemnation of population policies in other countries does not make clear what would be “unethical” if practiced in the US. No doubt Americans are reluctant to endorse policies like that of the Chinese one-child family as a means of reducing population growth. But judgments such as these often suffer from a kind of moral myopia or failure of imagination. Our eye firmly fixed on what we should regard as ethically unacceptable in our present circumstances, we do not consider what we would regard as unacceptable if our circumstances were radically different.

It is difficult to flatly judge China’s policy as “unethical” without projecting ourselves in imagination into their situation and closely considering the reasoning that has led Chinese leaders to adopt their policy. China suffered the largest famine in human history between 1958 and 1962, which took some thirty million lives; Chinese leaders are worried that food production in the country may not be able to cover the needs of the more than one billion people now in China, let alone hundreds of millions of children. Whether their fears are justified is a complicated judgment that I suspect few who have pronounced the Chinese policy immoral have tried to make. But if they are, then doing nothing and allowing the birth rate to rise in China might be more ethically objectionable than the strong measures to control population growth now being taken.


It should be clear that there are indeed grave population problems and it is not in principle unethical for the US to support population policies in at least some countries where trends have had adverse results. But it is still not clear what can actually be done to effectively change these trends. I noted earlier that specific policies to encourage population growth have rarely worked. As for policies to limit population growth, since the desire to have children derives not only from biological pressures but also from a wide variety of traditional beliefs and institutional arrangements, distributing contraceptives and information about family planning may be useful but is unlikely to ensure a major change of reproductive behavior unless the beliefs and institutions conducive to high birth rates have previously changed. This has suggested to some observers that the most effective population policies are those that change the people’s motives to have many children, not just provide the means of controlling family size. Accordingly, they have said that “economic development” is the best way to reduce population growth.

The reasoning behind this view is known as the theory of the “demographic transition.” It has long been known that the decline in mortality that occurred after the Industrial Revolution brought higher incomes to people in the West during the nineteenth century. This was shortly thereafter followed by a decline in births (even though labor unions, churches, and other institutions opposed contraception, and the means used to avert births were often primitive, such as abstinence or abortion). The inference that many demographers have drawn from this and other evidence is that economic development will take care of the problems of population growth because higher incomes and improved levels of living lead to fewer deaths, to “modern” attitudes (since more people aspire to higher incomes or to being better educated), and eventually to the use of birth control.

There are exceptions to this view: in some countries there has been economic development and no subsequent fertility decline, as in parts of the Soviet Union; in other countries, the birth rate has fallen without previous economic growth.18 In addition, some social changes that fall short of general economic development might have an effect in lowering fertility, such as an improvement in literacy, or better health, or an increase in female employment. Furthermore, even where the transition occurs, it does not seem to occur in the same way, or at the same pace, in all social settings. In some places, for example, fertility declines before mortality does or follows it only much later, and fertility may even rise again after the transition is completed.

Still, even if the theory of the demographic transition has little predictive value and cannot be mechanically applied to all countries, it roughly suggests why family-planning programs, which often consist of little more than brochures about human reproduction and free diaphragms or pills, are rarely effective except in countries like South Korea, Taiwan, or Singapore, where a decline in fertility has already begun under conditions of rising prosperity, or in countries like China which have introduced an expensive, centralized, and militant campaign against growth that many would find ethically unacceptable. In regions of the world where living conditions have not improved, such as parts of Africa, policies to alter reproductive behavior do not work well. It is often difficult to tell whether this is because people are not interested in birth control, or because family-planning programs are inefficient. In many poor countries, women must travel too far to find a clinic or wait too long before they are admitted once they get there; the contraceptives they are offered may be too expensive or may have unpleasant side effects. But the central reason for the failure of these programs is no doubt that people do not wish to change their decisions to have many children.

The view that “development is the best contraceptive” tells us rather less than we should like to know about what steps to take if population seems too high. It simply repeats the dull truth that if a couple becomes better off—has better housing, a higher income, better health care—it will probably have fewer children than it would when it was poorer. The emphasis on development replaces the problem of population by another which is equally complicated ethically and empirically: how to create economic growth, that is, to increase the total output of goods and services desired by a population in a region or country. The conditions that most economists believe are necessary for such growth are not present in most of the poor countries today. No doubt material advance begins when some people voluntarily take up opportunities that are open to them, for example, through engaging in trade, and when their behavior is imitated by others. Similarly, people have fewer children when they see that it is in their interest to do so. Their way of life and reproductive habits may then be copied by others, thus beginning a decline in fertility in the population at large. The question, of course, is how to get this process started. Thus far, not-withstanding the vast literature on population and development, we can confidently say little more than this: creating the conditions in which people decide to have fewer children has usually been a matter of improvisation and is likely to remain so.

  1. 13

    Frank Notestein, “Population Growth and Economic Development,” a lecture delivered to the Ceylon Association for the Advancement of Science in 1964, reprinted in Population and Development Review, Vol. 9, No. 2 (June 1983).

  2. 14

    See Geoffrey McNicoll, “Consequences of Rapid Population Growth: An Overview and Assessment,” Population and Development Review, Vol. 10, No. 2 (June 1984).

  3. 15

    The World Bank, Population Change and Economic Development (Oxford University Press, 1984), p. 125.

  4. 16

    The Third World Smiles” (April 12, 1986), p. 13.

  5. 17

    Ester Boserup, “Economic and Demographic Interrelationships in sub-Saharan Africa,” Population and Development Review, Vol. 11, No. 3 (September 1985).

  6. 18

    For example, Paul Demeny has pointed out that between 1921 and 1938 the Bulgarian birth rate went down from forty-one per thousand, to twenty-one per thousand, a decline that took place even though no modern contraceptive technology was available, no governmental policy advocating lower fertility was in effect, levels of income were low, and income distribution was not egalitarian. See Paul Demeny, “Population Policies,” in Just Faaland, ed., Population and the World Economy in the 21st Century (St. Martin’s, 1982), the proceedings of a Nobel symposium on population growth and world development held in 1981; and also Demeny’s comments on pp. 251–252.

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