The Population Myth

This is the 37th installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

Government of India websites can be a hoot sometimes. If you visit the website for the department of family welfare, you will find the flashing slogan, “Have fun with one!!! Control population!!!” Had there been a place to leave comments on that site, I would have written, “Have fun with one! Control exclamation marks!”

When I was a schoolkid, I was taught that a key reason for the poverty of countries like India is their population. This is almost considered axiomatic in India today—and in much of the world, in fact. The thinking behind this is simple: there are a limited amount of resources on our planet, and if there are too many people, there won’t be enough resources to go around. We’ll run out of food. We’ll run out of natural resources. We’ll soon run out of land, and there will be “standing room only”. Harrison Brown once worried about the population increasing “until the earth is covered completely and to a considerable depth with a writhing mass of human beings, much as a dead cow is covered with a pulsating mass of maggots”.

It’s been a while since Brown’s prediction, and the earth isn’t a dead cow yet. If his kind of alarmist thinking was true, we’d have seen two trends over the last few decades: one, population density would be an indicator of poverty, and people would want to migrate away from cities, and not to them. Two, resources would have become scarcer and the quality of life would have gone down wherever populations have risen. In reality, quite the opposite has happened.

A recent study by Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute, titled ‘Too Many People?’, looks at the impact of population on the world. First, Eberstadt finds no link between population density and poverty: he points out that Monaco, with a population density almost 40 times that of Bangladesh, is doing well for itself. So are Bermuda and Bahrain, which are more “overcrowded” than Bangladesh and India.

Eberstadt’s report also points out that over the last century, the real prices (deflated by the value of manufactured products) of wheat, maize and rice have dipped sharply, as have the real prices of non-renewable resources such as metals. Life expectancy has shot up in this time. Eberstadt concludes that while the natural resources of our planet might be limited, we are “now experiencing a monumental expansion of a different type of resource: human resources. Unlike natural resources, human resources are in practice always renewable and in theory entirely inexhaustible.”

Indeed, these human resources are the most valuable of all. All human beings, if allowed to express their creativity, add more value to the world than they consume. When two people exchange goods or services, both benefit, and more people means more trade. More people also means more specialization and division of labour —one theory holds that England’s industrial revolution was enabled by this.

Economist Julian Simon, in his book The Ultimate Resource, points out that historically, spurts in world population have coincided with leaps in productivity. The first one happened at around a million BC, at the time of the tool-making revolution. The next spurt came at about 10,000 BC, when we began to cultivate the earth. The latest one began about three centuries ago, and continues today, as the growth of technology has led to vastly higher standards of living, and longer lifespans than ever before.

If population growth was undesirable, why would people migrate to cities in such large numbers? In cities, we become part of economic networks that are larger than what we would get in smaller places, with more opportunities, and a greater chance to specialize. Across history, the prosperity of a nation has gone hand in hand with increasing urbanization. India’s cities may have much that is wrong with them—they are congested, polluted and lack all sorts of infrastructure—but still people flood in every day.

Government authorities insult us when they say that India’s problem is too many people. On the contrary, India’s problem is an inept and bloated state. It does not allow free markets that would enable the entrepreneurship and creativity natural to all humans. It has a monopoly on building infrastructure, and has failed utterly, leading to the crises we see in all our major cities, and the absence of roads in the hinterlands that would allow more urban centres to come up. In areas essential to unleashing our “ultimate resource”, such as education and health care, it has constrained private enterprise while itself being incompetent. In short, the cause of India’s poverty is not its people, but its system of government.

But look where the sanctimony comes from!

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You can browse through all my columns for Mint in my Thinking it Through archives.

My thanks to Gautam Bastian for pointing me to the department of family welfare website, and to the cartel for their inputs.