Skip to main content
Listen to Acton content on the go by downloading the Radio Free Acton podcast! Listen Now

Acton University 2024 Mobile Banner

Religion & Liberty: Volume 5, Number 2

Population Growth Benefits the Environment

    R&L: You have written extensively on the subject of population growth. Could you explain the thesis of your argument that population growth and density are beneficial for countries in the long run.

    Simon: Population growth does not have a statistically negative effect upon economic growth. We know that from 30 years of careful quantitative scientific studies-just the opposite of what the public believes. Because human knowledge allows us to produce more finished products out of fewer raw materials, natural resources are becoming more available. The air and water in rich countries are becoming cleaner. Most importantly, human beings are living much longer than ever before.

    R&L: Yet we hear the fear that if there are too many people who consume the resources of a given society, life there will become untenable.

    Simon: You say this while we are here in Cannes, a densely populated city, measured by the number of persons per square mile. But if we were to look inside those hotel rooms to see how much space those people have, we would see that they are living with luxurious amounts of space. People have more and better living space than ever before. If we array the countries of the world according to population density, and then look at the rate of economic growth, we see that it is the more densely-populated countries-such as Hong Kong, Singapore, Holland, Japan-that are growing faster, and that the less-densely populated countries-such as those in Africa-are growing at slower rates.

    The view that I have expressed to you thus far is precisely the view held by experts on these topics. Every agricultural economist knows that people have been eating better since World War II, the period for which we have data. Every resource economist knows that natural resources have become cheaper rather than more expensive. Every demographer knows that life expectancy in the wealthy countries has gone up from under 30 years at birth 200 years ago to over 75 years at birth today. And life expectancy has risen in the poor countries from perhaps 35 years at birth only 50 years ago to 60-65-70 years at birth today. Those are the facts which are known by the economists and demographers who study these subjects.

    R&L: If that is the case, then how do you explain the popular view on that subject?

    Simon: For the past 25 years, whenever I would give people the facts about population and resources, they would say, “Well then, why do we hear so much bad news?” And for 25 years I have been struggling to work out the answers. The question is extraordinarily complex. The influences range from a genetic propensity deep in human nature to prophesy bad news to a lot of everyday factors such as the media's tendency to seek out and report bad news.

    R&L: Share some thoughts on your debate with Paul Ehrlich, who made the “population bomb” thesis popular.

    Simon: I remember my reaction in 1970 when seeing Ehrlich for a full hour on Johnny Carson's television show. Carson said something like, “Paul, explain the population problem to me.” And Ehrlich answered, “Johnny, it's really very simple.” At that time I was not sure exactly what the answer to the problem was, but the one thing I was absolutely certain of was that it is not simple. As a result of that debate I began to see that part of the problem is our “common-sensical” approach to problems which inevitably over-simplifies a complex problem like this.

    Malthusian common sense is a very attractive idea. But the heart of the growth of civilizations and economies is the non-Malthusian adjustment process that is inevitably complex, and indeed counter-intuitive. The common-sensical Malthusian view sees only the short term rather than the long term. But in the long term these adjustment processes tend to produce opposite results to what the short term results happen to be. Here we should note that science is only interesting when it produces results which are the opposite of common sense. Otherwise you wouldn't need scientists at all.

    R&L: It is rather similar to the difficulty of making classical liberal ideas popular as compared to statist or socialist ideas. The latter seem more easily condensed to a bumper sticker.

    Simon: Absolutely. That is one of the reasons for their great success. The underlying ideas of socialism are marvelously attractive-for example, the idea of economies of scale that bewitched Marx: Remove the waste of having six competing steel mills and the advertising and marketing which accompany them. Combine them sounds good. But the opposite results occur. Yet this simple-minded idea bewitches people such as Andre Sakarov, Albert Einstein, Bertrand Russell and others who are marvelously clear and penetrating thinkers in other spheres of life. But in this sphere-if you will permit me-they are just plain stupid.

    R&L: What indications of coercion in family planning do you find in the official Cairo Conference documents?

    Simon: The UNFPA people have learned over the years to be extremely careful to frequently mouth platitudes such as “everything is voluntary.” At the same time, they espouse goals in population growth. The idea of goals and the idea of voluntarism are fundamentally contradictory. If you are attempting to require some level of population growth, whether it be zero population growth or two percent population growth, inevitably you will have to do something to people to get them to that stage, unless they will do it themselves. If they will do it themselves, then you do not need a population conference or UNFPA. So inherent in the idea of stabilization of population, or any positive growth rate, is the idea of coercion.

    R&L: In China there have been coercive family planning policies in place for some time, including forced abortions. What kind of arguments do you give against state efforts to coerce couples into having families of a certain size?

    Simon: The first reason I oppose these coercive policies is because they are morally wrong. They deny individual liberty in one of the most important choices a couple may make-the number of children they will have. So I would be against this coercion even if there were an economic rationale for it. The most tragic aspect of the matter is that there is no economic warrant for forcing people to have fewer children.

    It may be true that under socialism or communism, as in China, it takes longer for additional people to receive benefits, and the benefits of additional people are less than those in a capitalist system. It would be better if China would shift to a system where people were free in all ways, including economically free. Additional children then would more quickly benefit others then now. Still, there is no economic warrant to limit population growth even in contemporary China.

    R&L: What are the main causes of poverty in developing nations if population growth is not a major factor?

    Simon: By 1994 we have solid statistical evidence about the determinants of economic development. What could only be said on economic faith 30 years ago, we can now document scientifically. We now know statistically that what David Hume wrote on the subject in the 1700s was exactly right. When identifying why Holland was the richest country in Europe, Hume said that “Liberty, necessity, and a multitude of people” were the causes.

    A free society with social rules enables people to exercise their talents for their own sakes. This inevitably benefits others by bringing forth prodigious productive efforts which cause growth. And each generation creates a little bit more than it uses. Hence each new generation is richer than the previous generation.

    This process is made more rapid by a free society. We frequently hear in the press how people in rich countries, such as the United States, constitute only five percent of the population and use up 40 percent of the resources. That may be true, but people in rich countries make available even more than 40 percent of the resources.

    R&L: Give us an overview of your thoughts on immigration policy.

    Simon: Immigrants are human beings above all, and more human beings are beneficial because of their minds and the goods their minds produce. Immigrants also have additional beneficial properties because they usually migrate when they are young and strong. Therefore, in a welfare society such as the United States which taxes some and gives others benefits, immigrants are large net contributors to the public coffers. Thus we benefit greatly from immigrants.

    R&L: Tell us how important the Sabbath is to you. Does it have a connection to the contents of this interview?

    Simon: Though in no sense am I a conventional orthodox Jew, I do observe the Sabbath by refraining from all work, and by celebrating the Sabbath in life. And almost every Sabbath when weather permits-nearly half the Saturdays in the year in Washington-I sit outside in the garden behind my house, amidst both the glories of nature, and the beautiful homes of others. I admire and am thrilled by how both the natural and the man-made come together to make our dwelling place a more beautiful spot than wild nature alone.

    Most Read