A specter is haunting the globe — the specter of overpopulation. Or maybe under-population. Or perhaps “demographic decline.” Whatever it is, all the powers of old Earth have entered into various holy alliances to exorcise it.
The panics started way back when with Thomas Malthus, but came to new prominence in 1968 with Paul and Anne Ehrlich’s book The Population Bomb.
“The battle to feed all of humanity is over,” the Ehrlichs wrote. “At this late date, nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate.” The only chance of saving humanity was for governments to embrace population control measures ranging from “free” contraceptive distribution to mandatory sterilization, which they enthusiastically did (see, for example, China’s “one child policy”).
World population has continued to grow anyway … but since the book’s publication, the world death rate has fallen from 13.5 people per thousand to 7.7 per thousand. We got better at feeding people and treating their illnesses instead of everyone just lying down and dying.
On nearly every re-reading more than half a century after its publication, The Population Bomb discredits itself further. Nobody gets everything completely wrong, but the Ehrlichs came close.
Now, all of a sudden, the concerns run in the other direction. Fertility rates are falling.
China’s government is begging people to have as many children as they can instead of forcibly limiting couples to one with measures up to and including forced abortion.
The US government continues to look for ways to put its “child tax credit” on steroids, not just because Democrats love handing out checks (although they do), or because Republicans realize lower birth rates mean smaller work forces demanding higher wages (although they do), but because plain old racism is back in vogue.
It seems that those with lighter skin are having fewer babies than those with darker skin. Horror of horrors! America’s complexion might change if something isn’t done to get those “white” people back on the baby-making treadmill!
Do population growth and shrinkage have consequences? Well, of course they do.
But population growth and shrinkage are also becoming more and more self-regulating in what basically amounts to a global marketplace.
With both contraception and fertility assistance widely available, increasingly large swathes of the population can decide, based on their own circumstances, whether or not it’s “profitable” to have children and, if so, how many and when.
The trend seems to be toward fewer and later, and that’s understandable. Increased human productivity ended the days when most of us were farmers, and every farmer needed ten helpers, and got them by siring rather than by hiring.
The real specter isn’t population growth or population (or “ethnic”) decline. The “market” has that in hand a la Darwin and Mill and naturally selects for how to make most people most happy.
The real specter is the threat to government’s control over individuals’ choice to reproduce or not. If the politicians can’t plan your future, they doubt their own. That’s a feature, not a bug, in freedom.
Thomas L. Knapp (Twitter: @thomaslknapp) is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org). He lives and works in north central Florida.