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Commentary

“Surplus Population”? Sorry, Mr. Scrooge, But You’re Mistaken


     
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“If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”—from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol

These were very cold words from a very cold character that has come to epitomize callousness and indifference in the popular mind. Ebenezer Scrooge the money-lending, usury-gouging skinflint was, contrary to popular belief and in spite of his sour disposition, a great benefactor of those around him (I’m guilty of defending him on this point, as are Michael Levin and Steven Landsburg). Scrooge the critic of the “surplus population” was mistaken. Nonetheless, if public debate about “overpopulation” is any indication, we condemn Scrooge for his virtues and agree with him (whether we acknowledge it or not) on population.

Scrooge, and by extension Charles Dickens, can be forgiven because they and their contemporaries did not notice the transition to incredible wealth that we associate with the modern world. We can’t. The last two and a half centuries have shown us our dizzying capacity for innovation. When our minds—and our minds what economist Julian Simon called The Ultimate Resource—are free from political oppression, and when innovation is afforded the dignity it deserves, we have an unbounded ability to solve problems and enrich those around us.

This is the thrust of the research projects being pursued by Deirdre McCloskey, most recently in her newest book Bourgeois Dignity, and Matt Ridley in his book The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves. The themes they discuss give the lie to the notion of an inevitable “surplus population.”

Under the right conditions, there is no such thing. History has seen its share of crises and famines, but not merely because of overpopulation. Rather, this has largely been because of our failure to adopt the kinds of institutions, rules, and norms that would allow us to do more with less. If there are limitations to what we can do with natural resources—and what makes something a “resource” if not our ability to conceive of a way to direct it toward the accomplishment of some goal?—they are limitations imposed by rules and institutions that prevent us from taking full advantage of our innovative capacity.

Julian Simon’s fundamental contribution was to show that innovation drives prosperity. He made the still-controversial argument that availability of natural resources is not a constraint on prosperity because, whenever we start to run into barriers and boundaries, we find ways to innovate around them. Even though short-run increases in resource prices inevitably bring out legions of prophets claiming that we must repent because the end is near, long-run evidence on resource prices support Simon’s claims.

Poverty and starvation remain, but not because of inherent resource limitations or because of overpopulation. As McCloskey writes in her 2006 The Bourgeois Virtues, “The laggards have been the countries experimenting with socialism or fascism or mere violent cronyism . . . [t]hey have suffered mainly by their own bad politics, not through some internal contradiction of capitalism or through imperialist aggression.” I would hasten to add (1, 2) that American immigration policy does the world’s poor no favors by preventing them from leaving such environments, but it is important to note that the causes of poverty are institutional, not environmental.

Every new child brings another mouth to fill, to be sure, but every child also brings another brain that has almost unlimited capabilities. When they are free, more people mean more ideas and more innovation. Scrooge’s most blameworthy attribute is, unfortunately, shared by many self-styled humanitarians. The evidence in support of the thesis that more people leads to more wealth is clear and nearly overwhelming. Rather than waiting for people to die so that they can decrease the surplus population, we should be looking for better ways to align incentives so as to encourage more innovation.

 


Art Carden is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute in Oakland, California, and Assistant Professor of Economics at Samford University.
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