We should not fear population growth
Renowned economist Jeffrey Sachs recently suggested something very simple in "The Economist": People from developing countries, especially sub-Saharan Africa, should have ready access to cures for malaria, tuberculosis and AIDS. Sachs suggested that if people are sick and die in their prime, nations cannot become prosperous. If children are malnourished, they cannot become responsible and productive global citizens. It is an idea that makes sense: People should be plentiful and strong because we are an essential ingredient to the production of nearly everything.
On the other hand, people are consumers. Malthusians instill in us the horrible fear of running out of things because we cannot make them as fast as we breed. If there are too many of us, then teachers, doctors, transportation and energy will be insufficient.
Our current technologies will fall short of our needs. And every improvement in health and agriculture makes things worse because healthier and better nourished people become more numerous.
This fear has been proven unfounded, decade after decade. Each time that we appeared to be close to running out of something, we came up with something else. This is just what Julian Simon told us: Simply put, necessity is the mother of invention (See his book, "The Ultimate Resource.") Technology, instead of being something mysterious and out of our control, is the result of forces within society. Supply and demand: If more people demand a certain technology, there are incentives for scientists and the people who fund them to supply it.
Think of a baby boom as a large increase in demand. If so, it makes sense that somebody, somewhere, stands to make a buck by supplying new ways of making food, new ways of curing diseases, more cost-effective ways of building roads and producing energy.
Of course, improvements in technology are not instantaneous, but they take time, money and effort. More importantly, they take human resources: Scientists, assistants, research subjects. They take a whole intellectual community. In general, adding another scientist to a department does not make it less productive, but more. Therefore, more populous countries not only have a larger need of new technologies but they also have a larger ability to supply the solutions.
In summary: Having a higher population density on the one hand makes countries poorer by putting more strain on their resources. On the other hand, having more people makes countries richer by increasing the demand for technology and the ability to supply it (and everything else).
Telling the direction of causality is trickier than it looks. For example, note that Congo, with a sixth of Nigeria's population density, has a third of its income per person. The reason is not the number of people, but political and economic instability. The United States has about the same population density as Tanzania, but about 250 times as much income per capita. The reasons are probably historical and institutional. Ideology aside, population does not appear to be well correlated with wealth.
OK then, but why are Nigerians so poor? Why don't they come up with better ways of producing food and other necessities?
The answer: Because too many Nigerian scientists work in first-world laboratories. Asians, Latin Americans and Africans study and stay in the United States and in Europe because back home people are too poor to pay for their talents. Indian and Chinese geniuses produce the medicines for developed-world diseases because they feel they would not earn the fruits of their efforts if they worked on developing-world diseases.
And here is where Sachs' proposals come in. First-world development policy and financial aid should be directed at creating a market for the technologies that the Third World needs.
We need pharmaceuticals to produce cures for malaria; biotechnology firms to produce better tropical crops; Silicon Valley to produce poor people-friendly information technology. Sachs suggests that rich-country governments can offer to pay the R&D costs, while the goods are sold at production cost. It will happen only if it makes financial sense to do so because a loss-making firm is one that goes broke.
In short: Don't be afraid of people. Don't fear population growth. Somewhere in the world, there is enough for everybody. Just make sure it is well distributed.
Gabriel Xavier Martínez is a graduate student in his fourth year in the economics department. He is from Ecuador, and, yes, they have regular cities and all. He is one of those who believe in the inherent and unalienable dignity of the human person because he believes in God.
All Viewpoint Stories for Thursday, September 23, 1999