Sunday, April 5, 2009

Population and Wealth

Matthew Yglesias is still on my list of must-read blogs--whereas several others have fallen off. On global warming I am convinced he has simply drunk the Kool-Aid, but he has lots of bright and well-informed things to say.

In recent days he has posted a few times on the issue of population and wealth. Why do we tend to take for granted that more people is good, fewer people is bad? Isn't having fewer people a way to ensure more wealth per person? Some of the anti-immigration people, including Steyn and others at National Review, stir up worries about the loss of "our way of life," and being taken over not only by foreign others but by "their way of life." This is to be feared, it seems, especially if the way of life happens to be Muslim. This generally has some racist clap-trap mixed in with it. Of course it will be hard for modern society to accommodate anyone who absolutely refuses to become modern, but there is no evidence that whole groups such as Moslems, and even more (mostly) non-Moslems like South Asians or Chinese, will bring some crazy non-modern way of life with them. The great novel The Children of Men presents the horror of a British population which has ceased to produce children altogether, but another part of the horror (emphasized in the movie) is foreigners in refugee camps, fighting to get in to this land of plentiful resources, but very few people. Why not let them in?

So Yglesias raises good questions. If Western countries, Russia and Japan all go into population decline, what is bad about this? He admits that in post-Malthusian or modern economies, it is no longer true that a suddenly growing population basically means dividing the same pie into smaller pieces, and hence poverty. A growing population can also enjoy a growing pie--Yglesias doesn't quite say, because of capitalism. But he says that in pre-modern societies, Malthus was right: population would grow,causing a lot of poverty, until something happened to kill a lot of people, like war or plague, at which point the survivors would be richer. Growing population bad, shrinking population good. Today, this is at least partly reversed: growing population is not necessarily bad. However, even if it's true that a growing population need not cause poverty today, does it follow that a declining population is bad?

Modern political philosophers, especially those anticipating or recommending capitalism, suggest that a growing population, other things equal, is a sign of success, and a source of pride, but as Malthus and Yglesias suggest, it only remains good if there is an economy to support it. To embrace capitalism was to embrace the possibility that a growing population might always, or almost always, be greeted as an unmixed blessing. All pre-capitalist societies, by comparison, are doomed to subsistence.

The ancient political philosophers recommend that good or decent cities remain small, and they discourage anything that resembles capitalism because of its limiting effect on the soul. Real-life ancient communities probably thought, without thinking ahead very much, that a growing population meant your city was successful. Locke tweaks the churches of his day by reminding readers of the injunction "Go Forth and Multiply," while also suggesting that the rules imposed by Christian leaders doomed the multiplying people to poverty. (A similar thought, of course, is expressed in the famous "Every Sperm is Sacred" scene in Monty Python's The Meaning of Life). Only capitalism, as it were, which probably routinely encourages a deadly sin or two, allows us to fulfill the Biblical injunction in the confidence that more population is good, not bad.

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