Overpopulation Scaremongering Never Gets Old

Neo-Malthusianism in the Sunday New York Times



The tiny land-locked African country of Lesotho is the poster child for the impending population explosion in the mind of journalist Eugene Linden.

In "Remember the Population Bomb? It's Still Ticking," an op-ed in the Sunday New York Times, Linden repeats a 40-year-old refrain: "Lesotho's biggest problem probably was, and is, the obvious: too many people."

That's far too simple a story. Malthusian conditions continue to exist only where people are not free. Overpopulation is not the main problem. Lack of liberty is.

Linden harkens back to his 1976 book, The Alms Race: The Impact of American Voluntary Aid Abroad, in which he presciently focused on how foreign aid often failed to actually lift poor people in developing countries out of poverty.

In addition to reporting on how economic development aid bureaucracies screw up, Linden's op-ed blames Lesotho's impoverishment on fast population growth.

How does Linden know that Lesotho is inhabited by "too many people"? The country's population density is 176 people per square mile. But compare that to Malthusian hellholes like the United Kingdom (694 people per square mile); Germany (601 people); or the deities forfend, the Netherlands (2,852 people). In fact, the population density of the entire European Union is more than 300 people per square mile.

Linden observes with alarm that since 1974, when the average woman in Lesotho gave birth to six children, Lesotho's population rose from 1.2 million to 2.14 million today. It would have risen faster but for the massive HIV/AIDS epidemic that has kept average life expectancy hovering at around 45 years.

Given that most demographers expect high fertility rates to persist when life expectancy is low, it is nigh unto amazing that the average number of children a woman in Lesotho has over the course of her lifetime (total fertility rate) has fallen from six to just above three kids now.

Linden recites the standard Malthusian zero-sum creed. "Even in 1974, many development experts knew their programs might worsen Lesotho's population pressures, but hoped in vain that economic growth would outweigh the burden," he writes.

Let's compare Lesotho to the trends during a period in which the population of the United Kingdom doubled. The U.K.'s population in 1861 was just over 20 million nearly doubling to 38 million by 1901. During that 40-year period, per capita GDP in the U.K. increased in real terms by nearly 70 percent. By the way, the U.K.'s total fertility rate in the mid-1800s averaged about five children per woman.

Even as Lesotho's population climbed, per capita GDP more than tripled from $399 in 1975 to $1,370 in 2015. Obviously people in Lesotho remain desperately poor, but their situation has improved considerably.

Linden also identifies 20 other countries where the "Malthusian concerns come back with a vengeance." It is true that their populations have substantially increased over the past 40 years, but they also have something far more deleterious in common: very low levels of intangible capital.

Intangible capital is the level of education of a population combined with the social, political, and economic institutions through which people work and live. These include the rule of law, democratic accountability, honest bureaucracies, a free press, strong property rights, and so forth.

With the exception of a couple of petroleum potentates, if a country lacks intangible capital its people will be poor. Each citizen of overcrowded Britain has access to about $350,000 of intangible capital, according to the World Bank, which has measured the intangible capital of most of the world's nations. Germans enjoy $425,000; institutions in the Netherlands afford its citizens an average of $350,000 in intangible capital.

U.S. citizens, by the way, average $418,000.

In contrast, the citizens of the 20 countries on Linden's list have access to less than $8,000 of intangible capital per capita. In fact, Nigeria's institutions were so bad when the calculations were made that it had negative intangible capital of $2,000 per capita.

On the Heritage Foundation's annual economic freedom index, 18 of the countries on Linden's list fall either into the mostly unfree or repressed categories.

As I have earlier reported, in my column on "The Invisible Hand of Population Control," Seth Norton, a business economics professor at Wheaton College in Illinois, published a remarkably interesting study in 2002 on the inverse relationship between prosperity and fertility.

Norton compared fertility rates of over 100 countries with their index rankings for economic freedom and another index for the rule of law. He found that the fertility rate in countries that ranked low on economic freedom averaged 4.27 children per woman while countries with high economic freedom rankings had an average fertility rate of 1.82 children per woman.

His results for the rule of law were similar: Fertility rates in countries with low respect for the rule of law averaged 4.16, whereas countries with high respect for the rule of law had fertility rates averaging 1.55 children per woman. When people are free, they choose to have fewer children.

Ultimately, expanding liberty is the solution to Linden's neo-Malthuian fears of overpopulation.