The Population Boom

WALL STREET JOURNAL

More people means more prosperity.

"How will we house the next hundred million Americans? . . . How will we educate and employ such a large number of people? How will we provide adequate health care when our population reaches 300 million?"
- Richard Nixon, 1969     

President Nixon didn't live to see his questions answered, but this week the U.S. population surpassed the 300 million mark. And surprisingly, given the tenor of the reaction to the last hectomillion milestone, reached in 1967, the 300 millionth American was not greeted with the same wailing and gnashing of teeth as the 200 millionth. Call it progress.

Around the time the country's population hit 200 million, biologist Paul Ehrlich, always good for a bit of doom and gloom, compared "America's pride in her growing population . . . to a cancer patient's pride in his expanding tumor," according to Time magazine. Stewart Udall, a former Secretary of the Interior, thought 100 million sounded like a better number than 200 million. Messrs. Ehrlich and Udall are still among our 300 million, but their population bomb has conspicuously failed to explode, which may go some way toward explaining why, in the popular imagination at least, this week's milestone did not prompt widespread anxiety about the future.

In Japan and Western Europe, population implosion has become the crisis of the moment. Birth rates in most Western European countries are now so low that governments are busily looking for ways to avoid a very different kind of demographic catastrophe. The problem posed by Europe's aging population is exacerbated by its reliance on intergenerational transfer payments to support its public pension systems; America, with both a greater emphasis on wealth accumulation and a higher birth rate, is comparatively better off. Demographics and Social Security are on a collision course here as well, but Europe's difficulties in this regard make America seem fortunate by comparison.

China, thanks to its draconian one-child policy, also faces a demographic challenge, embodied in the oft-heard refrain that the Middle Kingdom risks becoming the first country ever to grow old before it grows rich. Population-control measures have resulted in a shortage of women and girls, one of many unintended consequences of the population-control hysteria of the 1960s and 1970s.


At bottom, the debate over population revolves around a single question: Are human beings a burden, or a resource?



At bottom, the debate over population revolves around a single question: Are human beings a burden, or a resource? The former view is embodied by the Ehrlich and Nixon quotes above. More bodies mean more mouths to feed, house and provide for. At a certain point, in this perspective, you run out of stuff.

The latter view holds that people don't just consume things. They make them too. More bodies means more minds, more innovation, more dynamism and more progress. The history of the world as America went from 100 million or 200 million to 300 million lends a lot more support to the humans-as-resource view than the humans-as-burden view. In the middle of the last century, the fathers of the population-control school of thought warned darkly that when world population reached seven billion, the "carrying capacity" of the planet would be reached. Mass starvation and political upheaval would be the inevitable result. Well, we're getting right up there, but the bread lines are getting shorter, not longer.

Simply put, the reason is prosperity. For decades, economic growth has easily outstripped population growth, giving the U.S., and much of the rest of the world, both more people and more prosperity, something presumed to be impossible by the Malthusians. Meanwhile, the slowdown in population growth brings a whole new set of challenges. To meet them, America and the world will need more minds generating new ideas. Four hundred million, here we come.

 


ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

The Editors. "The Population Boom." The Wall Street Journal (October 21, 2006).

This article reprinted with permission from Opinion Journal of The Wall Street Journal editorial page.

Copyright © 2006 Wall Street Journal




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