Too Many People? Not by a Long Shot
Wall Street Journal
February 10, 1997
Confounding the doomsayers, world population growth is slowing dramatically. The U.S. Census Bureau recently reported that the globe's population grew by only 79.6 million in 1996. This is seven million fewer than the 86-plus million in 1994, the high-water mark of population growth. It is a round 20 million less than the 100 million figure population-control alarmists like Vice President Al Gore were tossing around until recently.
The immediate reason for this decline, which has since been confirmed by the United Nations Population Divisions, is shrinking family size. The Census Bureau reports that the world's total fertility rate-the number of children born per woman during her lifetime-has declined to 2.9, its lowest level ever. In 1985 the world-wide total fertility rate was 4.2. In many countries, couples commonly stop at one of two children.
There are now 79 countries-representing fully 40% of the world's population-with fertility rates below the level necessary to stave off long-tern population decline. The developed nations are in the worst straits. Already 15 of them, including Russia, Germany and Italy, each year fill more coffins than cradles. Virtually all the others will soon follow suit. Efforts by anxious governments to arrest this looming demographic disaster have proved largely futile. In Germany and Japan, for example, despite hefty financial rewards to women willing to welcome more children into the world, the maternity wards remain empty.
But this "birth dearth," as Ben Wattenberg has called it, has now spread well beyond the developed world. There are now 27 "developing" countries where women are averaging fewer than 2.2 children. These include such unlikely candidates as Sri Lanka and Thailand. The human face of this population implosion is melancholy-villages bereft of children, schools closed for lack of students-and the economic consequences are grim: Labor shortages cramp production, the housing market grows moribund, and this in turn creates a drag on real estate and other sectors of the economy. How much of Japan's continuing economic malaise can be directly traced to a lack of young people to power the economy?
While the population of portions of Africa, Asia and Latin America will continue to grow for several more decades, the rest of the world will soon be in demographic free fall. The bottom line: Population will peak at seven billion or so in 2030, and then begin a long descent. (This is essentially the U.N. Population Division's Nov.13 "low variant" prediction, with African, Asian and Latin American total fertility rates adjusted to converge on those of present-day Europe, or 1.35 children per woman.)
How have those in the population-control crowd taken all this "good" news? Their response has been curiously schizophrenic. On the one hand, they are quick to claim credit for progress made and ask for money "to finish the job." But in the same breath, they hotly deny that they are principally interested in reducing human fertility at all, claiming they have other laudable goals in mind, such as reducing maternal and infant mortality, improving reproductive health care, "investing in women," and the like.
Anyone who has seen the checkered path of other countries' family-planning programs will find it hard to take either claim seriously. Something over two-thirds of the world's fertility decline can be accounted for by simple modernity, as women marry later, have greater educational opportunities and work outside the home. The only population-control programs that have enjoyed conspicuous success have relied on the more or less compulsory sterilization of large numbers of women. The most notorious example is China, where for a decade and a half the government has mandated the insertion of intrauterine devices after one child, sterilization after two children, and abortion for those pregnant without permission.
But the use of force in family-planning programs is not limited to China. Doctors in Mexico's government hospitals are under orders to insert IUDs in women who have three or more children. This is often done immediately after childbirth, without the foreknowledge or consent of the women violated.
Perhaps the practice in Peru, where women are offered 50 pounds of food in return for submitting to a tubal ligation, cannot properly be called coercive. Still, there is something despicable about offering food to poor, hungry Indian women in return for permission to mutilate their bodies. And the potential for direct coercion is ever present, given that Peruvian government doctors must meet a quota of six certified sterilizations a month or lose their jobs.
So tainted with coercion is the whole nation of population control that many of its strongest advocates have quietly reinvented themselves, and are now posing as social reformers eager to help women. The whole process resembles the strange metamorphosis of Soviet communists into Russian social democrats after the U.S.S.R. collapsed. It deserves the same level of credence.
But let us, for the sake of dialogue, take at face value all the fine words about improving health and saving lives of Third World women and children. Let us then agree to redirect the $385 million to be spent on population control programs this year into bona fide health-care programs run by bona fide health-care agencies (not family planning groups in disguise). Let us save the 2.1 million children each year who, according to UNICEF, are dying from vaccine-preventable diseases. Let us provide Vitamin A supplements to poor children, averting one to two million deaths each year.
Humanity's long-term problem is not going to be too many children, but too few: too few children to fill the schools and universities, too few young people entering the work force, too few couples buying homes and second cars. In short, too few consumers and producers to drive the economy forward. The imploding markets of Europe and the economic sluggishness of Japan will spread soon enough to the U.S. and the rest of the world. Why spend hundreds of millions of dollars a year on contraception and sterilization that will only bring that day closer?
Steven W. Mosher is the President of Population Research Institute