by Benjamin Marks, editor
It is amusing to see the lack of substance by both the political parties and the media on the issue of how many Australia’s population should be. One minute we are told that Australia has an unsustainable population of too many people, the next we are told that the production of babies should be subsidised, and subsidised even more. No doubt these must be completely unrelated issues, and issues where economics — the study of human action under conditions of scarcity — does not apply.
It is also amusing to hear politicians complain that Australia has too many people. Politicians, most people forget, are people too, and we certainly do have an unsustainable oversupply of those gluttons. They have such concern for the size of the Australian population, and, at the same time, such disregard for the size of the Australian government. My “Deport Government to Solve Immigration Problem” solves many of these issues.
But there is another way of approaching it. Supposing: (1) Australia is or will be overpopulated; (2) babies, already in existence, need to be looked after; and (3) government is right to intervene — what other options for government interference are there? Is subsidising babies really the best method? H.L. Mencken’s proposal to sterilise the male population of those who can’t support a family is surely a much better option. For the first time since its original publication in 1937 I have republished it here. He suggests that by offering a monetary handout to anyone to be sterilised welfare problems will decrease. Since sterilisation is a one-off procedure, there is no danger of welfare dependency, although there is the significant possibility that families have lots of kids so as to reap the rewards of sterilisation payouts. Mencken does consider more drastic options.
So far I have addressed the superficial contradictions arising out of the lack of principle by all sides of the population debate. But what about the underlying principles themselves? From what I can tell there is an assumption that there exists a perpetual tendency for life to increase beyond the means of subsistence.
Australia’s own David Stove did away with this assumption with such observations as:
Human populations, once they reach a certain size and complexity, always develop specialized orders, of priests, doctors, soldiers. To the members of these orders sexual abstinence, either permanent or periodic, or in “business hours” (so to speak), is typically prescribed. Here, then, is [a] fact about our species which is contrary to what one would expect on the principle that population always increases when, and as fast as, the amount of food available permits.1
The mathematical principle contrasts the rate at which population tends to increase, with the highest rate at which food can increase. But the contrast makes no sense, because food, or at any rate the food of animals, consists of organic populations. The food of humans, for example, consists of parts or products of populations of cattle, wheat, fruit trees, bees, milking cows, etc. So if population tends to increase geometrically in all species, then that is true not just of human populations, but of cattle and wheat populations too: that is, of human food. 2
The application of the theory of the perpetual tendency of humanity to increase beyond the means of subsistence is often masked by the terms: “carrying capacity,” which is the number of individuals that a unit of area can hold; and “ecological footprint,” which is a measure of how many units of area an individual uses — literally an inversion of carrying capacity. In practice, ecological footprints have very amusing results. For example, if we all wanted to live like Bill Gates, at current resource levels we would need multiple planet Earths.
These concepts, as they are commonly used, are devoid of economic sense. Subjective individualism is ignored; uncertainty of the future is ignored; impossibility of quantification of human action is ignored; and government intervention is always put forward as the solution. It is nothing more than the flip side of the free-rider problem: we can exclude others, therefore we should not increase the rate or take more than our fair — i.e., equal — share in which we exclude others; otherwise, there will be nothing left for others.
What they fail to realize is that, as William Godwin nicely pointed out, “possible men do not eat, though real men do.”3 What they will eat in the future and exactly how it is grown cannot be deduced, no matter how elaborate the equations are. Arguing that there is already proof of overpopulation by citing a problem, like poverty, is no argument at all: it is to consider proof of overpopulation as its theorized result.
Any numbskull can find statistics to show that if the resource base stays the same and population increases then all hell will break loose. Based on this sophisticated doctrine, believers go around telling people that we should desist from further folly, for the impending threat of doom is ever looming. And government, of course, is our only hope. Another silly use of this method is finding out that the population of Italy is decreasing, hence, they project that after a while there will be no Italians left.4
But as with most empty arguments, now that we have taken away the veneer of respectability, all we see is a plain faith in government and disbelief of the market. Where is it that there is congestion? Roads and public transport are common examples, and who controls them? Where are the supply and demand imbalances? Is it in areas where government intervenes? Who has more incentive to plan for the future: a politician who’ll be out of office in a few years, or a businessmen who’ll pass the business on to his kids? Who knows better how much business they can handle: an entrepreneur who acts on price signals, and whose very livelihood depends on interpreting it correctly, or a politician/faux-economist who acts on graphs, and whose makeshift job depends on interpreting graphs to make them look like they are doing good?
Who should population questions should be decided by? Perhaps the blind assumption that population decisions should be made by the government is mistaken, since government is the same group who do not allow competitors in the services they admit they struggle to provide. If you struggle to provide something effectively, it does not follow that you should blame those who use the service; perhaps you should reconsider whether you are the one who should be providing the service, especially if you have failed to do so effectively despite having the unfair and unjust arrangement of being funded through taxation and coercively limiting competition.
- David Stove, Against the Idols of the Age ,ed. Roger Kimball (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers, 2001) p. 247. ↩
- David Stove, Darwinian Fairytales (Aldershot, UK: Avebury, 1995), p. 68. ↩
- William Godwin, Of Population (New York: Augustus Kelley, 1964) p. 480, bk. 5. ↩
- Some of this article was originally published here. ↩
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