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Making Economic Sense
by Murray Rothbard
(Contents by Publication Date)


Chapter 41
Population "Control"

Most people exhibit a healthy lack of interest in the United Nations and its endless round of activities and conferences, considering them as boring busywork to sustain increasing hordes of tax-exempt bureaucrats, consultants, and pundits.

All that is true. But there is danger in underestimating the malice of UN activities. For underlying all the tedious nonsense is a continuing and permanent drive for international government despotism to be exercised by faceless and arrogant bureaucrats accountable to no one. The Fabian collectivist drive for power by these people remains unrelenting.

The latest exhibit, of course, is the recent Conference on Population, to be followed next year by an equally ominously entitled "Conference on Women." The television propaganda by the UN for this year's conference anticipates next year's as well, best encapsulated in one of the most idiotically true statements made by anyone in decades: "Raising the standard of living for women will raise the standard of living for everyone." Substitute "men" for "women" in this sentence, and the absurd banality of this statement becomes evident.

The underlying major problem and fallacy with the Population Conference has been lost in the fury over the abortion question. In the process, few people question the underlying premise of the conference: the widely held proposition that the major cause of poverty throughout the world, and at the very least in the undeveloped countries, is an excess of population.

The solution, then, is the euphemistically named "population control," which in essence is the use of government power to encourage, or compel, restrictions on the growth, or on the numbers, of people in existence. Logically, of course, the anti-hu-man-being fanatics (for what is "the population" but an array of humans?) should advocate the murder by government planners of large numbers of existing people, especially in the allegedly overpopulated developing world (or, to use older term, Third World) countries. But something seems to hold them back; perhaps the charge of "racism" that might ensue. Their concentra tion, then, is on restricting the number of future births.

In the palmy days of anti-population sentiment, cresting in the ZPG (Zero Population Growth) movement, the call was for an end to all population growth everywhere, including the U. S. Models based on simple extrapolation warned that by some fairly close date in the future, population growth would be such that there would be no room to stand upon the earth.

Indeed, the peak of ZPG hysteria in the U.S. came in the early 1970s, only to be put to rout when the census of 1970 was published, demonstrating that the ZPGers had actually achieved their goal and that the rate of population growth was already turning downward.

Interestingly enough, it took only a moment for the same people to complain that lower rates of population growth mean an aging population, and who or what is going to support the increasing number of the aged? It was at that point that the joys of early and "dignified" death for the elderly began to make its appearance in the doctrines of left-liberalism.

The standard call of the ZPGers was for a compulsory limit of two babies per woman, after which there would be government-forced sterilization or abortion for the offending female. (The Chinese communists, as is their wont, went the ZPGers one better by putting into force in the 1970s a compulsory limit of one baby per woman per lifetime.)

A grotesque example of a "free-market . . . expert" on efficiency slightly moderating totalitarianism was the proposal of the anti-population fanatic and distinguished economist, the late Kenneth E. Boulding. Boulding proposed the typical "reform" of an economist. Instead of forcing every woman to be sterilized after having two babies, the government would issue to each woman (at birth? at puberty?) two baby-rights. She could have two babies, relinquishing a ticket after each birth, or, if she wanted to have three or more kids, she could buy the baby-rights on a "free" market from a woman who only wanted to have one, or none. Pretty neat, eh? Well, if we start from the original ZPG plan, and we introduced the Boulding plan, wouldn't everyone be better off, and the requirements of "Pareto superiority" therefore obtain?

While the population controllers seem to have given up for advanced countries, they are still big on population control for the Third World. It's true that if you look at these countries, you see a lot of people starving and in bad economic shape. But it is an elementary fallacy to attribute this correlation to numbers of the population as cause.

In fact, population generally follows movement in standards of living; it doesn't cause them. Population rises when the demand for labor, and living standards rise, and vice versa. A rising population is generally a sign of, and goes along with, prosperity and economic development. Hong Kong, for example, has one of the densest populations in the world, and yet its standard of living is far higher than the rest of Asia, including, for example, the thinly populated Sinkiang province of China.

England, Holland, and Western Europe generally have a very dense population, and yet enjoy a high living standard. Africa, on the other hand, most people fail to realize, is very thinly populated. And no wonder, since its level of capital investment is so low it will not support the existence of many people. Critics point to Rwanda and Burundi as being densely populated, but the point is they are the exceptions in Africa. The city of Rome at the height of its empire, had a very large population; but during its collapse, its population greatly declined. The population decline was not a good thing for Rome. On the contrary, it was a sign of Rome's decay.

The world, even the Third World, does not suffer from too many people, or from excessive population growth. (Indeed, the rate of world population growth, although not yet its absolute numbers, is already declining.) The Third World suffers from a lack of economic development due to its lack of rights of private property, its government-imposed production controls, and its acceptance of government foreign aid that squeezes out private investment. The result is too little productive savings, investment, entrepreneurship, and market opportunity. What they desperately need is not more UN controls, whether of population or of anything else, but for international and domestic government to let them alone. Population will adjust on its own. But, of course, economic freedom is the one thing that neither the UN nor any other bureaucratic outfit will bring them.

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