Malthus, the Dismal Prophet, Is Still Wrong

GREGORY MILLMAN

January 12, 1993|By GREGORY MILLMAN

For the past three decades a war has been waged agains the poor of the world. The aggressors are birth-control advocates, environmentalists and bureaucrats who buy into the idea that the world needs to fight poverty by eradicating the poor.

Robert McNamara, president of the World Bank from 1968 to 1981, argued that the best way to help the poor was to decrease their numbers, if not by bombs as in Vietnam then by birth control as in Bangladesh.

Margaret Sanger's disciples, Third World bureaucrats and captains of capitalism tried to stem the growth of ''them'' for ''their'' own good. Before long, television news reports from India showed screaming men being carried bodily off to sterilization clinics. The United Nations decorated a senior Chinese official for a population program made effective by a big-sister police force that examined menstrual clothing and reported on the pregnant, who faced forced abortions.

At first, the anti-population warriors justified all this by arguing that the population explosion in poor countries would cause global economic collapse. In fact, there is no reason to fear for the global economy. Population is not a problem. The economic doomsday models count hungry mouths but can't count arms and legs and brains.

The 1980s came -- the ''decade of greed'' -- and showed predictions of economic catastrophe to be as ridiculous as the specter of Soviet dominance. The global economy hummed along so fast that central bankers had to tighten the reins. Latin America started easing its way out of the debt crisis. Even the Peoples Republic of China discovered that free economies could support more people than closed ones.

The government planners did not anticipate this. It is a common problem with economic models. The Rev. Thomas Malthus, whose pessimism tagged economics ''the dismal science,'' had met the same fate in the 19th century. He forecast that surging populations of the poor could only be controlled by disease and famine, but didn't anticipate something the world had never before seen: the industrial revolution.

Larry Heligman, chief of estimates and projections at the population division of the U.N. Secretariat, says, ''So far, the history of mankind has continued to be that technological change and the ability to find and extract resources more cheaply has meant we've been able to surmount any perceived limit to how many people a country can hold.'' The sons of the impoverished in Europe built the cities and industries of America. Malthus never lived to see it.

Those who mobilize today against the poor population have this much truth on their side: If the poor are not free to work, they will either be doomed or dangerous. It is no accident that in China, for example, the population controls are enforced through the old, state-run arm of the economy. Birth quotas are awarded to work-units in state industries. The unit leader decides, on the basis of the unit quota, who would have children, and when.

Population controls fare less well in the private sector of the economy, where the boss couldn't give a damn about how many children a worker has, so long as the work is done well. Indeed, the private economy can support many more people than the state economy. That is why the ''floating population'' -- the private-sector population -- grows and frustrates state planners.

China reflects the world at large. Population is not the real threat -- freedom is. Freedom becomes inevitable as the population grows. A growing population challenges the structures of power, not only to invest in education and infrastructure, but to destroy privileges that sap opportunities for people to work. Freedom means competition. It means that the powerful lose power, and favored groups lose favor, not only in Beijing but in the capitals of the West.

Freedom to work means freedom to trade, but that means abolishing the restraints that rich countries enforce against the industries or poor countries. Freedom to trade means freedom to compete for jobs,freedom for the workers of Mexico, even, to compete with members of the AFL-CIO. No wonder organized labor in this country prefers ''aid'' -- including, of course, family-planning assistance -- to ''trade.''

Freedom to work means abolishing the specious distinction between ''economic'' and ''political'' refugees, opening borders and letting everybody vote with their feet. Freedom means freedom to migrate.

No wonder money pours in to population-control activities, even though there's no real evidence that population is a problem anywhere, or ever has been. The problem is that power corrupts. Those who favor population control make an implicit judgment that people exist to serve the powerful. The alternative, that power exists to serve the people, is still too revolutionary for the world's bureaucrats.

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