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Making the Case for Population Growth

In April, a distinguished assembly of some forty Catholic officials and lay people met in Mexico City with several experts on demographic issues. There they were to discuss substance and strategy related to the United Nations’ 1994 decennial conference on population in Cairo. It is widely expected that the Cairo conference will once again call for large scale population control programs and planned development. In the vanguard of this push is the environmental movement and groups such as the International Planned Parenthood Federation and the United Nations Population fund, which believe that a growing population is a threat to human welfare and to the biosphere, and that one way or another governments should control population growth.

The Mexico City meeting was sponsored by the Pontifical Council on the Family, the National Pro-Life Committee of Mexico, and the Latin American Alliance on the Family in an effort to preempt the antinatalist establishment as it prepares for the Cairo meeting. And after three days of lectures and discussions, the Mexico City participants drafted a declaration opposing, on religious, moral, economic, and environmental grounds, government control of family size.

Currently, many people of good will are prone to accept the need for population control on the ground that a growing population imperils the earth and its inhabitants. Overcoming the antinatalist establishment, then, will require an untiring effort to engage and debunk misplaced fears, among these that the earth cannot support any more people.

First and foremost, the antinatalists’ solution to alleged environmental problems must be seen for what it is–a threat to the poor. “We changed the world. Now it’s time to change it back” read the slogan of Earth Day 1990. Although “turning back the clock” has been almost universally rejected in other areas of human endeavor, calls for limitations on family size and restriction of economic initiative continue to be heard. Should the clock be turned back, the poor, not the rich, will suffer the most.

In 1650, for example, the earth could barely support half a billion people. Today, five and one-half billion are living longer, healthier lives than ever before. In other words, the efficiencies gained in the creation of wealth over the centuries and decades are responsible for keeping five billion people alive. “Turning back the clock” denies the earth’s resilience and ignores the fact that man and his productive activities are more often than not in harmony with the world. Deny man the appropriate use of the tools of production and the poor will become poorer yet.

Second, the pro-environmental, anti-development argument is fraught with questionable scientific theories and bad economics–each of which limits the development of authentic human freedom. Should the world be deprived of fossil fuels and chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) because of the fear of global warming and ozone depletion, the developing world will be condemned to continued poverty. Moreover, the market management of resources encourages owners to act as stewards because present prices are derived from expected future value. State management, by contrast, creates the tragedy of the commons and gives resource control to short-sighted politicians and self-aggrandizing bureaucrats.

Still another “impediment” that must be overcome in the antinatalist argument is its skepticism of the market. This skepticism has its provenance in two critiques–private property and “poverty of the spirit.”

The anti-market argument fails to appreciate that the institutions indispensable to a growing, flourishing population are the rule of law, property rights, and the price system. Indeed, there is no conflict between a growing population and the freedom of families on the one hand, and a sound environment on the other, as long as the social system is appropriate to man’s nature. That system is free-market capitalism.

Hostility to liberalism on the grounds that it leads to a “poverty of the spirit” is similarly misplaced. For although the market is not a sufficient condition for a life appropriate to man, it is a necessary condition. Ludwig von Mises, for instance, noted that spiritual values are too important to be left to the state. However, if they are, the welfare state and government education that inevitably follow have perverse consequences for individuals and families. Finally, this critique underestimates the contribution of the entrepreneur, who, while pursuing profit for himself and his family, provides goods and services that make people’s lives better.

Indeed, the free market is the only means capable of generating the economic growth necessary to support a growing population. It was capitalism that made the idea of “surplus population” obsolete. Still, even within the pronatalist camp, many officials remain critical of what they call “neoliberalismo.”

Two such examples of this criticism could be found in the presentations of Rev. Michel Schooyans and Ingeniero Gonzales Robles. Early in the Mexico conference, for example, the Rev. Schooyans, professor of political science at the University of Louvain in Belgium, spoke on “Population and Development in the Social Doctrine of the Church.” He made the surprising concession that there were “demographic problems” to be solved and that growing population can impede economic growth. A northern European, Schooyans’ remarks were laced with anticapitalist rhetoric about how the rich exclude the poor from the marketplace. In praising the welfare state he lauded “distributive justice” and later equated political power with economic power.

Quite often, however, “demographic problems” are actually problems with public policy. For example, Third World policies that depress farm incomes by subsidizing city dwellers attract people to cities. The subsequent urban overcrowding is not the result of market decisions. If high population growth blocked development, no nation would be rich today. The problems with a “distributive justice” economic model are documented by Hernando de Soto in The Other Path. He shows that it is political power that excludes poor people from the marketplace, not economic power. Political power and economic power are as vastly different as the power of the gun and the power to offer goods and services.

Ingeniero Gonzalo Robles of Monterrey addressed the developed world’s victimization of the developing world. He noted that the pope condemns the concentration of wealth in the United States, Japan, and Western Europe. Robles said that this situation has led to the marginalization of the “FourthWorld”–the small, poor countries, such as Nicaragua and Vietnam, which are “irrelevant” to the world economy. In Robles’ opinion, neoliberalism was no solution because it has no ethical component and therefore is flawed in the eyes of the Church.

As it was pointed out to Robles, liberalism does indeed have an ethical base, namely the recognition of the rights of all individuals. It was liberalism that had liberated man from absolute monarchy and had unleashed the creativity that has enabled the population to grow and thrive. So-called “irrelevant nations” could do much to change their status simply by liberalizing their economies. After World War II, for example, Japan and Hong Kong were poor, but capitalism quickly changed that. Indeed, the United States once had an “irrelevant” economy.

Robles responded by arguing that Ludwig von Mises, F. A. Hayek, and Milton Friedman believed that man was naturally and automatically good and that these economists subscribed to a determinism generated by the laws of the market. Robles defined the free market error as similar to the error of Marxism, which he said consisted of the belief that man was naturally bad and that historical laws determined the course of events. In contrast, he added, the church believed that man combines the divine spark and original sin, and has free will.

Mises, Hayek, and Friedman, of course, did not believe man was automatically and always good. They advocated the rule of law to protect people precisely because human beings are capable of doing evil. Also, the Austrian view is not deterministic and explicitly believes in free will.

Overcoming antinatalists arguments requires opponents of that position to offer a countersolution to the limitation of freedoms. That solution is freedom.