“But that makes no sense!” the Malthusians cry. It doesn’t matter. That’s what the data say, and science is about accounting for reality. So how can we explain the fact that, as the number of human beings on the planet has grown, we’ve nearly all become much better off? Why should there be more of everything to go around, when there are more of us to feed, clothe, and house?
There are a number of very good reasons why this should be so. As economist Julian Simon noted in his indispensible book, The Ultimate Resource, a larger population can support a larger division of labor, so it is more economically efficient. (Simon’s book is the best systematic refutation of Malthusian theory written by anyone, ever. I recommend it strongly.) Ten people with ten skills, working or trading together, can produce far more than ten times as much as one person with one skill. A larger population also provides a larger market that makes mass production and economies of scale possible.
This is extremely important, as we can see by comparing the price of an RL-10 rocket engine with that of a small car. The RL-10, a reliable thruster which has been in production since the 1960s, contains less metal (about 500 pounds) and is significantly less complex than a typical small car. Yet RL-10s sell for around $3 million each, while a new compact car can be obtained for less than $10,000. This is because there is only a market for a few RL-10s per year, while cars are sold by the million. Because they represent a larger market, larger populations drive investment in new plants and equipment much more forcefully than small populations. If the market for an item is small, no one is going to build a new factory to produce it, or spend much money on research to find ways to improve it. But if the sales opportunity is big, the necessary investment will occur instantly as a matter of course. A larger population can much better justify and afford transportation infrastructure, such as roads, bridges, canals, railroads, seaports, and airports, all of which serve to make the economy far more efficient and productive. A larger population can also better afford to build other kinds of highly productive economic infrastructure, including electrification and irrigation systems. It also can better afford the infrastructure necessary for public health, including hospitals, clean water, and sanitation systems, and act far more effectively in suppressing disease-spreading pests. It takes a large-scale effort to drain a malarial swamp, a reality that puts such projects beyond the capability of small highly dispersed populations such as still persist in many parts of Africa. Furthermore, human boots on the ground are necessary to patrol the regions in which we live to prevent ponds and puddles from being used as breeding grounds by mosquitoes and other disease carriers. A thin population will thus in many cases tend to be a much sicker population than a dense population, which enjoys the safety that only numbers can provide against humanity’s deadly natural enemies. And again, a healthy population will be more productive than a sick population, and reap a much better return on the investment it chooses to make in education (and thus be able to afford more education), since more of its young people will live to employ their education, and to be able do so for longer life spans.
That said, it is clear that the actual causative agent for higher living standards is not population size itself, but the overall technological development that it allows. The average living standard is defined by GDP available for consumption per capita, which is equal to the production per capita, which is determined by technological prowess.
If we choose to be mathematical, we could even write this down as an equation. Let L = Living standard, P = Population, G = Gross Domestic Product, and T = Technology. Then we have:
L = G/P Living standard = GDP/Population (1)
G = PT GDP = Population X Technology (2)
Putting equations (1) and (2) together, we find, simply that:
L = T Living standard = Technology (3)