The Corner

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Population and the Wealth of Nations


In First Things a few years ago, a reader writes to remind me, William McGurn addressed the question of population and economic growth at some length.  Having just re-read the article, I’d add that he did so brilliantly, eloquently, and—the really important point for readers of this happy Corner—decisively.  (Now chief speechwriter to the President, Bill lived in Asia for ten years, half of his career at the Wall Street Journal.)  A pertinent extract:

By any measure, the future for this Asian country looked bleak. Enormously overcrowded, its normal population had skyrocketed, increased not just by a naturally high birthrate but also by revolution in a neighboring country-forcing thousands of desperate refugees upon its borders. Lacking natural resources and utterly dependent upon its unpleasant neighbor for water and food, the country’s situation had deteriorated so badly that a local UN official declared the only way for it to survive would be with massive Western aid. An American newspaper proclaimed the country to be “dying,” and the government itself inclined to despair. Its own annual report painted a graphic picture:

Virtually every sizable vacant site . . . was occupied, and when there was no flat land remaining, [people] moved up to the hillsides and colonized the ravines and slopes which were too steep for normal development. The huts were constructed of such material as they could lay hands on at little or no cost-flattened sheets of tin, woodened boarding, cardboard, sacking slung on frames. . . . Land was scarce even for the squatters and the huts were packed like dense honeycombs or irregular warrens at different levels, with little ventilation and no regular access. The shacks themselves were crowded beyond endurance. . . . Density was at a rate of two thousand persons to an acre in single-story huts. There was, of course, no sanitation.

“The problem of a rapidly increasing population,” the government lamented, “lies at the core of every problem facing the administration.”

These words might describe dozens of countries around the world today. In fact, they were written in the 1950s about Hong Kong….

In the dismal abacus of our day, when a pig is born in China, national wealth goes up; when a child is born, it goes down. Almost all the fervor for population control traces back to this premise, which reflects a theological confusion as much as an economic one, and it derives from the historical tendency of Western experts to see Asian peoples as mouths and not minds.