Recently, the population of the United States reached an estimated 300 million, according to the Census Bureau. In four decades, it is projected to reach 400 million, with immigration the biggest factor driving that growth. More people means greater strains on the environment, and potentially greater strains on the economy. Given that the immigration juggernaut seems politically unstoppable, how can the United States absorb more people while maintaining its quality of life?
The key is to increase our land's carrying capacity - the population level that a particular geographic area can support.
Unlike animals, humans have the ability to boost the carrying capacity of the land on which they live. It requires extracting, modifying and distributing the earth's resources on a mass scale. Industrialized societies, because they can produce vastly more goods and services, are able to support populations many times denser than those of agricultural or hunter-gatherer societies.
Although humans have an extraordinary ability to modify raw materials to sustain their numbers, sometimes this process is not quick enough to keep up with rapid population growth. If the U.S. population increases faster than the amount of goods and services produced and distributed, the overall standard of living will decline. So the nation needs to produce more to feed, clothe and house (among other things) an increasing number of people.
What we need to achieve that objective can be broken down into three broad areas: better technology, better education and better trade.
Adopting more sophisticated technology enables our farms, factories, mines, laboratories, processing plants, distribution networks and service industries to become more efficient, producing more with fewer hours of work.
But people need incentives to adopt new technology, as well as to establish new production facilities in the first place. This demands pro-market economic policies. Some regulation is good, but too much is a disincentive to produce. Likewise, some taxation is necessary, but too-high tax rates dissuade people from producing more by denying them much of the fruits of their production.
Greater use of technology in the workplace requires a more educated work force. Fortunately, it is getting easier to become educated, thanks to distance-learning programs, training DVDs and abundant, easily accessible information on the Internet. But traditional public education needs a shake-up. Throwing more money at the system is not nearly enough; what's needed are incentives to get teachers and administrators to deliver a better-quality product. A way to do that is to introduce competition into the school system, such as through school vouchers.
There also need to be fewer restrictions on transportation/distribution networks, in order to get enough goods and services to the people. That means free trade.
In hunter-gather or even agricultural societies, people could be self-sufficient. Not so in industrialized societies, which require specialized skills and production methods. U.S. residents are totally dependent on other people and other geographic regions for their sustenance.
Providing for our population requires importing goods from abroad. But tariffs and other barriers to trade prevent many resources from entering (and leaving) the country. Reducing those barriers is essential to adequately provide for the coming millions of additional people.
There is no getting around the fact that a larger population will cause harm to the environment, both in terms of pollution and depletion of resources. More people means more buildings and cars, more-crowded parks, more mines and factories, and more waste.
Of course, certain regulations can improve the environment or at least mitigate the impact of more people (such as zoning laws, green space provisions and anti-pollution measures). But one has to be careful not to go overboard on regulations, as this could reduce our carrying capacity by erecting disincentives to produce more goods and services. The key is to find the right balance between environmental regulations and pro-business policies.
It is no coincidence that, though the topic is population growth, the above reads like a manifesto for free-market capitalism. The only economic system that can adequately expand our land's carrying capacity is capitalism, because it provides the incentives to produce the food, clothing, shelter and other goods and services necessary to enable highly dense populations to enjoy a decent quality of life.
Gumming up capitalism with too many taxes, regulations and trade barriers impedes the production and circulation of the things that sustain our lives. And with additional lives constantly being added to the United States, that is something we cannot afford.
Patrick Chisholm is a freelance writer based in Chantilly, Va. His e-mail is email@example.com.