The problem of overpopulation gets a lot of media attention and we’re all familiar with the argument: the world population is growing at an alarming rate, there are over 7 billion people on this planet and, unless we do something to reduce that number or at least drastically reduce its growth then, soon, we won’t have much of a planet left to live on. However, once you get past the initial arguments and start paying attention to what actual interventions are being proposed in practice it becomes obvious that virtually no one wants to reduce “world overpopulation” but African overpopulation. The fact is that most of Western Civilization is in danger of something called “Demographic Winter.” That is, their fertility rates are so low that they cannot maintain a stable population. A fertility rate of 2.1 is necessary for maintaining a stable population and economy. Germany, Austria and Hungary have fertility rates of 1.41, Greece is 1.39 and Poland is 1.31, just to name a few. The United States’ fertility rate is barely sufficient at 2.06. The only thing protecting these graying nations from economic collapse are immigrants from the Middle East, Africa and, in the case of the United States, South America who come from countries where the fertility rate is above 2.1, sometimes as high as 6 or 7.
The real problem, from the perspective of western society, really seems to be that there are about enough of us, maybe even not quite enough in some places, and too much of them. Put a humanitarian spin on it and we have a classic example of the White Man’s Burden: We’re rich and not having babies, they’re poor and having lots of babies; obviously the rich, smart westerners must save them from themselves and stop all that baby making.
Tod Preston, Senior Advisor at Population Action International frames the problem in a Washington Post letter to the editor:
The number of malnourished people there [sub-Saharan Africa] has skyrocketed from 88 million in 1970 to more than 200 million now. In this same period, the region’s population has more than doubled to 750 million.
With nations such as Ethiopia and Niger projected to double in population in the next 30 years, significant progress in reducing hunger will remain elusive unless more resources are devoted to family planning.
In other words, we can help starving children in Africa by preventing children in Africa in the first place. However, this approach simply sidesteps the problem instead of solving it. We cannot help already existing poor people by trying to stop more poor people from being born in the future. The problem with the contraception plan of action is that it defines the people themselves as the problem. They are the victims of poverty but they are simultaneously the problem and the solution is to remove the problem. Eliminate the “problem” (human beings) and, ta-da! No more victims (because we eliminated them all).
But the contraceptive mentality is wrong. The solution to a poverty-stricken existence is not no existence at all. The answer to suffering is not to eliminate life.
The real problem is not people but poverty. Therefore the solution is not to distribute the proverbial pie between less people but to make the pie bigger. Consider this: as alluded to above, the wealthier a nation the lower its fertility rate. Its a correlation that the pro-contraceptive crowd recognizes. In fact, they argue that it is the high fertility rate that leads to poverty – and that is why they advocate contraception in the first place. I argue that causation goes in the opposite direction. Wealth and prosperity, at least at the high levels experienced by Europe and the United States, causes the lower fertility rates. I think that this is the case because, when approached from an economic perspective, it makes far more sense.
Economics deals with value, not moral values but value none the less. So first, I want to ask a simple question: do human beings have value? Most people would say, yes. Some philosophers might not but every economist would say yes: that’s why we hear them use terms like “human capital.” Human beings are not merely capital but in addition to everything above and beyond that they are indeed capital: in fact, they are the most valuable resource in the world. Does it makes sense that an increase in such a valuable resource would, in and of itself, make everyone worst off? Quite the opposite.
The economic truth is that poor countries have less prosperity than their rich counterparts, not because they have too much human resources, but because they are experiencing the following circumstances: either first, they have less physical resources or, second, they are not utilizing their resources (human or otherwise) which leads to the same consequences as the first.
Consider the following: who can produce more and who can do it more efficiently? An African woman who weaves rugs by hand every day in order to make some kind of living or an American woman who works in a rug factory? The American woman produces more and at a lower cost and as a result she receives a higher rate of compensation than her African counterpart and the economy in which she works is better off with more rugs, probably at a higher quality and a lower price. An economy like the United States relies very heavily on capital investment: our workers are highly educated and employ the use of expensive, sophisticated machinery. But poor nations in Africa don’t have the capital or the education to be as efficient.
So, what do you do to increase production if you can’t increase your efficiency? Simple: you increase the number of producers. If you can’t outperform then perhaps you can outnumber. Poor, agrarian economies require a high fertility rate in order to survive because they need young laborers to work the family farm for example. This need not be a conscious choice made by individuals in poor nations but it is the dynamic experienced by society at large.
The solution, then, is not to reduce Africa’s population with contraception, abortifacients or sterilization which may or may not have any effect on anyone’s quality of life. If the overpopulation crusaders really want to help Africans they can do so by investing in African economies, donating to charities that do and by advocating for a strong, stable rule of law in African nations that defend property rights. With more capital investments to work with African nations will be able to unleash more of the untapped potential of their workforce and rise out of their poverty at an accelerated rate. With the increase in prosperity those African nations will be less dependent on as many unskilled laborers and their fertility rates will likely eventually decrease to more stable levels as well. Increase prosperity and you decrease overpopulation. And that’s what the overpopulation crusaders want, right? . . . right?