Between 1949 and 1973 the population of China increased 64 percent and today it is over one billion. The Deng regime claims that high rates of population growth, lower rates of death caused by modern medicines, and a generally poor and badly educated population have forced China to spend too much on housing, food, and employment. The resources drained for these purposes could be used, Chinese officials argue, to develop and “modernize” the country. To arrest population growth, the regime has created a program of mass “ideological education” and a system of economic incentives to encourage people to have fewer children (in many cases, according to guidelines set by the Ministry of Health, just one).

The government has set targets for each province, which in turn allocates birth quotas among its counties. County officials pursue the process down through communes and production teams or cadres. Slogans, posters, radio broadcasts, public exhibits, and editorials are used to encourage smaller families; contraceptives and sterilization are provided by the government free. Couples who have only one child are rewarded by supplementary payments, preference in housing, free education for their child, and higher retirement pensions, among other measures. Those couples who have more children than is recommended can become ineligible for job promotion or suffer a reduction in their monthly wages.

Critics of this policy in the United States claim that it is “coercive” and that forced abortions and sterilizations, as well as cases of infanticide, have been condoned by Chinese authorities. The Chinese government has responded that these critics have seized upon isolated instances, reported in the Chinese press, of “overzealous” behavior by family-planning workers and have treated them as representative of the policy as a whole. They say the key to the Chinese program is “education,” and that while there have been mistakes, as might be expected among so large a population, “coercion” could not be responsible for the remarkable declines that have been observed in the Chinese birth rate in recent years. Hundreds of millions of families could not, they say, be forced to have fewer children; they have seen, rather, that it is advantageous for them to do so. Moreover, they say, the success of the Chinese population program has helped the Chinese to enjoy a better standard of living and to devote resources that might have gone to the feeding and training of children to projects that would help the Chinese economy to grow.1

There is, however, evidence of increasing opposition to the one-child policy, especially among the rural population. Peasants claim they have a duty to have sons, who continue the male line, contribute to the family economy through work on the land, and support their parents in old age. Under the current policy, fewer than one half of Chinese couples are likely to have a surviving son.2 The one-child policy also appears to conflict with state policies allotting the use of land to families on the basis of their size, thereby giving them an incentive to have more children. Corruption and bribery have occurred in enforcing the policy. People tamper with records or move to other parts of the country if they want more children. If the policy is reversed as a result of resistance, China’s population could grow considerably once again.

Still, in the US, critics of Chinese policy persist in their claims. For example, last autumn Senator Jesse Helms disagreed with all of his colleagues on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and acted to hold up the confirmation of President Reagan’s choice for ambassador to China, Winston Lord. According to Helms, by giving money to the United Nations Fund for Population Activities, which supports in part China’s population program, the Reagan administration is violating US law, which forbids US support of foreign population programs that permit coercive activities, which Helms insists take place in China today. Helms threatened to filibuster the Senate unless he received assurances from the administration that all funding of such programs would stop. In early November, he apparently received such assurances from President Reagan.

As is evident, such disputes depend in some considerable part on moral values like personal liberty and the “sanctity of life.” But they also depend upon difficult empirical questions, the most important of which is whether a rapidly growing population adversely affects human welfare, as the Chinese and many others argue. If this claim is false, then the central reason for creating a population policy is removed and the moral argument against interfering in people’s lives by preventing them from having as many children as they wish becomes, if anything, more forceful.

The American Enterprise Institute pamphlet under review, which includes an edited transcript of a symposium on world population trends held at the institute in Washington, DC, in December 1984, discusses the debate on this question, which has gained in intensity in recent years.


Do additional people cause valuable resources such as land, minerals, and capital to be exhausted, as is widely supposed? Or, on the other hand, should we see children and migrants as good investments because they might more than pay their way in the future? Depending on how one looks at the matter, the “population problem” can be desperate or not a problem at all. One view holds that the problem is serious enough to warrant government intervention in people’s decisions to have more children in many parts of the world. Another view—prominently associated with Julian Simon, a professor of economics at the University of Maryland, and a contributor to the AEl symposium, contends that there is no population problem in the world today because a growing population can contribute to the prosperity of a nation, adding as it does not merely more consumers but also more producers.

Simon’s views are taken seriously in Washington. He and his allies deride efforts by the US and other rich countries to “impose” on poorer countries the view that their rates of population growth should be reduced through measures that go beyond voluntary family planning. During the past quarter-century, many countries have created family-planning programs, which provide information and services so that couples can restrict the size of their families as they wish. Other countries have gone further and encouraged lower birth rates through the use of mass media or through economic incentives, such as payments given to couples who delay having children. In view of this and of the familiarity of the “population explosion” to the general public, the dismissal of the problem by Simon and his followers has been a source of intense controversy.

Such a dispute would hardly have been conceivable during the late Sixties and early Seventies. During the Johnson and Nixon administrations, an alarmist view of population trends was linked to a constellation of popular social concerns, such as conservationism, and backed by powerful institutions such as the World Bank. At the first World Population Conference, held in Bucharest in 1974, the US delegation was the leader of those countries that saw population as a threat to economic growth and improved standards of living. During the past few years, however, Simon’s benign view of population growth has gained wide attention, not only for its startling assertions, but also because many of its proponents have endorsed the Reagan administration’s political philosophy.

They have, for example, emphasized the family’s right to freedom from government interference; they have opposed abortion and argued that government has no business advocating population control but should instead ensure that production outpace population growth through economic growth. In a striking reversal of its view in 1974, the US delegation at the second World Population Conference in Mexico City in 1984 argued that there is no global population problem and that governments have tended to inhibit people’s efforts to better themselves through ill-advised policies; free enterprise and economic development, they argued, will take care of pressures created by increased population.

That the benign view has pushed aside the alarmist one need not be taken as a victory of objective social science. It is, rather, more the achievement of those who used it to promote ideological views having very little to do with the causes or consequences of population growth. But this was also true of the way in which the alarmist view succeeded in capturing the public’s imagination in the late Sixties. And in any case, a great many demographers who have studied these questions hold that both views are wrong.


A human population may grow because people in it die less quickly, or because new members are added to it when they move from another place, or because people in it have more children. During the late 1950s it was noted by demographers and economists that among the world’s many populations modern drugs such as sulfa and antibiotics and the use of modern technology in agriculture (through insecticides and chemical fertilizers) had led to a fall in mortality. Moreover, in contrast to earlier periods of human history, there was no longer an open frontier—as there was when millions of people left Europe for North and South America and Australia in the nineteenth century—so that people could not relieve the pressures of a greater population by moving to another place. In addition, people in many countries were having more children.

When the population scare began in the Sixties, the global rate of population growth was 2 percent, i.e., 2 percent of the population is added each year to the existing population, which itself consists of the previous year’s population enlarged by 2 percent. A population grows at zero rate if it replaces itself, whereas one that grows at a rate of 2 percent doubles in thirty-five years. The global population during the late Sixties was more than 3.5 billion, twice as large as it was at the beginning of the twentieth century.


The prospect that it would double again by the end of the century gave rise to the idea of a population explosion. Influential spokesmen of the alarmist view such as the ecologist Paul Ehrlich formulated a comprehensive picture of the effect a large increase in population has on existing resources and institutions. They saw themselves as presenting a modern version of the ideas of the eighteenth-century economist Thomas Robert Malthus, who argued that population growth is a major cause of poverty. Human populations, he wrote, reproduce themselves up to the limits set by their environment; the poor, in particular, reproduce and create a surplus of labor, thus forcing wages down, in effect creating their own poverty. “Neo-Malthusians” subscribed to the view that birth control and family-planning programs should be introduced to stem the growth of population in the poorer regions of the world.

As more and more children are born, they wrote, and many more people live longer because of modern medicine, it becomes increasingly difficult to feed them: food supplies, available croplands, and fisheries, are used up more quickly and farmers must make do with smaller and smaller plots. Greater demands are made on energy, fuel, metal ores, and other resources; the demand for firewood, for example, becomes so great that trees are cut down faster than they can be replaced. Moreover, they argued, a greater population leads to crowding, psychological pathology, congestion and pollution, and to the degradation of the environment.

A similar argument was used to show that more people impose a strain on political and economic institutions. As more people are born, and later enter the labor force, either productivity per head falls or there is greater unemployment. Furthermore, each new child added to the population lowers the average income of everyone else. As the number of dependent children grows, savings are reduced, which in turn reduces the amount available for investment in farms, factories, and housing. Government revenues are spread more thinly on social services like public schooling, hospitals, parks, and police protection.

According to the alarmist view, the number of people in a population is not the sole problem; the way they are distributed is also important. For when there are no jobs or social services, people leave their homes in search of opportunities; in poor countries, especially, people leave the countryside in search of city jobs, creating crowded, polluted concentrations like Shanghai, São Paulo, or Mexico City. Moreover, since people everywhere have a fear of being outnumbered by others belonging to different ethnic, political, or religious groups, the relative size of populations may create tensions, both between and within countries, as seems suggested by the conflict between Christians and Muslims in Nigeria or Lebanon, or the problems created by the growing differences in birth rates between the Jews and Arabs in Israel, or by the growing Muslim minority in Soviet Russia. Poor countries that add millions to their population each year, moreover, may have continually to divert resources they might otherwise have used to improve their economic performance or pay back their debts to rich countries, and must spend them instead on feeding, housing, and schooling additional people. Desperately poor countries might be prompted by the enormous size of their populations to expand their borders by force.

These and other apocalyptic visions were expressed in heated language by alarmists in the Sixties. Julian Simon has collected a number of inflammatory passages in his book The Ultimate Resource.3 Kingsley Davis, for example, claimed that “in subsequent history the Twentieth Century may be called either the century of world wars or the century of the population plague.” Robert McNamara, then the head of the World Bank, argued that “excessive population growth is the greatest single obstacle to the economic and social advancement of most societies in the developing world.” Simon has even unearthed a pair of authors who claimed that

at the present rate of world population increase, overpopulation may become the major cause of social and political instability. Indeed, the closer man approaches the limit of ultimate density or “carrying capacity” the more probable is nuclear warfare.

By the 1960s, the alarmists had succeeded in persuading the US government to regard population growth as a problem. Under the Johnson administration the State Department’s Agency for International Development (AID) began to spend large amounts of money to urge other countries to take their growing populations as a cause for alarm. Much of this money was channeled through international organizations like the World Bank and the United Nations Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA); other funds came from nongovernmental organizations like the Ford or Rockefeller foundations. The US has given more money than any other country to efforts of this kind.

Population programs were also considered a cheap and easy way to contribute to economic growth—a view President Johnson expressed when he told the United Nations in 1965 that “less than five dollars invested in population control is worth a hundred dollars invested in economic growth.”4 By the early Seventies belief in the need to reduce global population growth had become so widespread that, as Simon notes, even Ronald Reagan (then governor of California) said that “unless major efforts are made to reduce population growth, vast numbers of people will face severe famine and misery.”

In recent years the alarmist view has been in retreat, in part because of the growing influence of Simon’s views, but also because the predictions of the alarmists did not prove true. For example, instead of growing rapidly the global population growth rate fell back from 2 percent to 1.7 percent. There are, however, still many who believe that rapid population growth has serious adverse consequences. The Nobel Prize-winning economist Jan Tinbergen recently wrote that population growth “constitutes a threat to humankind’s welfare” and that “it is also highly desirable—in fact inescapable—that population growth be stopped as soon as possible.”5 And Robert McNamara has written that population growth will be stopped by “humane and voluntary measures taken now, or because of the old Malthusian checks. Or perhaps even more likely, in tomorrow’s world, it will occur as a result of coercive government sanctions and the recourse by desperate parents to both frequent abortion and clandestine infanticide.”6


Why are Simon and his followers so optimistic? For him, the most important determinants of economic progress are innovations produced by human beings:

It is your mind that matters economically, as much or more than your mouth or hands. In the long run, the most important economic effect of population size and growth is the contribution of additional people to our stock of useful knowledge. And this contribution is large enough in the long run to overcome all the costs of population growth.

Babies don’t create knowledge while still in their cradles; society must pay for the costs of feeding, housing, and educating children until they reach maturity. If we take a “short-term” view, therefore, children are a poor investment, since they are a burden on savings, resources, and social services. But from a more generous perspective, they are not, according to Simon, since innovations may be created by these children when they grow up.

More people mean more minds at work on social problems, he writes, and “it seems reasonable to assume that the amount of improvement depends on the number of people available to use their minds.” As in any investment, the short-run costs are necessary if we are to enjoy a larger long-run gain. Once we recognize the long-run gains of having children, the Malthusian view that our reproductive behavior creates demands for resources that grow faster than nature takes to provide us with these resources is invalidated. These demands may grow rapidly, but the amount of resources in nature is not fixed, since human beings create new resources through their ingenuity.

In part, Simon’s argument depends on the statistical claim that a genius who will resolve social problems is more likely to be found in a population of one million than in a population of one thousand. But he also thinks that a greater population creates pressures that impel human beings to use their ingenuity. For example, he thinks that greater pressure on available land leads to greater effort by farmers to increase their crop yields. People use “successively more ‘advanced’ but more laborious methods of getting food as population density increases”; they turn from hunting and gathering to “migratory slash-and-burn agriculture, and thence to settled long-fallow agriculture, to short-fallow agriculture, and eventually to the use of fertilizer, irrigation, and multiple cropping.” There is no such thing, he thinks, as a “fixed supply of farmland”: when people need more land they “make” it by using such techniques as diking, draining, and irrigation, or by using new soil technology. The principle that scarcity induces invention is also true, he says, in the case of resources other than land. When gas or coal run out, people look for substitutes or invent them.

Moreover, Simon believes that “a larger population implies a larger total demand for goods; with larger demand and higher production come division of labor and specialization, larger plants, larger industries.” The presence of more people encourages the creation of more “roads and railways and airlines, which carry agricultural and industrial products as well as persons and messages,” more “irrigation and electrical systems, which transport water and power.” These are necessary for economic growth, for they allow farmers and businessmen to deliver their products to markets at reasonable cost. It would not, however, be in anyone’s interest to create these things for a sparse population separated by great distances. Simon even writes that we should

welcome the scarcity problems that are caused by increasing population and rising incomes, because if problems do not arise, solutions will not be evoked. And the entire process of scarcity problems arising and then getting solved almost always leaves us better off than if the problems had never arisen.

Even if a greater population could cause a drain on resources, there is no evidence, in Simon’s view, that it has done so in history, since “all of the evidence for hundreds and even thousands of years shows natural resources to be getting more available—that is, less costly, even as population has multiplied and resource use has multiplied even faster.”

Simon and the late Herman Kahn complied an enormous book7 designed to refute views like that of the Global 2000 Report, which was sponsored by the US government and presented to President Carter in 1980. The report to Carter argued that by the end of the century the strain on global resources will deprive many millions of people of “basic needs for food, shelter, health, and jobs, or any hope for betterment,” and that “if present trends continue,” the world will be “less stable ecologically, and more vulnerable to disruption than the world we live in now.”

In their book, Simon and Kahn argue that “mineral resources are becoming less scarce rather than more scarce.” The availability of land “will not increasingly constrain world agriculture in coming decades.” Although “many people are still hungry,” Simon and Kahn claim that “the food supply has been improving since at least World War II, as measured by grain prices, production per consumer, and the famine death rate.” One of the contributors to the book cites a 1981 Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) study which claims that the growth rate of total agricultural production in the world has consistently outpaced population growth rates during the past twenty years. In addition, Simon and Kahn argue that we need not be worried that forests will be depleted soon, or that fisheries will cease to keep up stocks. “Water does not pose a problem of physical scarcity or disappearance,” they write, and “threats of air and water pollution have been vastly overblown.”

Simon and Kahn argue that “the government should not take steps to make the public more ‘aware’ of issues concerning resources, environment, and population,” or “attempt to influence individuals’ family-size decisions in any fashion.” Recommendations to other countries or pressure upon them—such as that made by AID, which spent more than $200 million in 1985 on population activities—to reduce population growth rates are not warranted, for Simon and Kahn, by any facts about resources and population, and “constitute unjustifiable interference in the activities of other countries, because such policies must necessarily rest upon value judgments.” Simon calls his own position “pro-abortion-freedom and pro-population-growth.” In his own view, birth control is a “human right” and disseminating birth control methods and information is “one of the great social works of our time.” Although he would “vote against any overall US policy that would coerce people not to have children,” he is willing to “accord to a community the right to make such a decision if there is a consensus on the matter.” But he does not think it is in our “national interest” to promote population control in other countries in part because “there is zero evidence connecting density with the propensity to engage in war, or even fist fights.”

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?


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.

This Issue

June 26, 1986