Monday, December 04, 2006
Champions of death
Ehrlich’s work is being carried forward today by Al Gore and the other purveyors of half-baked global warming science. Their unfounded claims that the small amount of global warming experienced over the last century is man-made are used to convince Western left-elites that we need fewer people, and especially, fewer Westerners. Ehrlich’s formulation is that it is economic activity that is harmful, and hence that what matters is to curtail population in those countries with high per-capita GNP. This formulation works the same whether the bogey man is the general consumption of resources (Ehrlich’s focus) or fossil fuel burning (Al Gore’s global-warming focus). Both correspond to GNP, hence both call for less population in the high per-capita-GNP West.
Anti-population environmentalism is the religion of the Western secular-left. In scale, it is as much a player on the world stage as the growing imperialistic aggression of the Islamic world and the liberty-loving Christianity of the Western right. This anti-population religion is the real cause of the demographic suicide of the Western left. There is a lot of comment from astute people like Mark Steyn and Melanie Phillips about loss of civilizational confidence: that the new ideology of multi-culturalism fails to understand the achievements of liberty and responsibility and rationalism that make Western societies far superior to other societies in progress and prosperity, and in the morality of our institutions.
That loss of confidence is real, but the force that makes the left positively hostile to child-bearing and to modernity (instead of leaving the left merely adrift) is the conviction that the natural world is in a life and death struggle with capitalist, industrial, economic man. The left sees the resources of the natural world as being systematically eaten up by economic forces that don’t look beyond the next profit statement, and hence will eat the natural world ever more rapidly and down to the very last bite, with economic man reaching a peak of prosperity just as the world dies and we all die with it.
They really believe this. Many times the left has made clear that they see capitalism and global warming as a bigger threat than terrorism. They have zero conception of how economic liberty really works: that it leads in-effect to ever expanding natural resources, as we rapidly learn how to do more with less. Julian Simon had Ehrlich’s number exactly. He understood precisely where the anti-population environmentalists were parting from reason, and just how fundamental their mistake was: that as a consequence, they get absolutely everything wrong.
Thus it isn’t just ignorance that keeps Western elites from celebrating Borlaug’s achievements in saving human life. It is doubt whether saving these lives is a good thing. This is an easy enough mistake to make. I too once presumed that “the population explosion” was a terrible threat, and maintained that view through a couple of years of graduate school in economics, until I finally understood just where Malthus had gone wrong.
“The iron law of wages”
Malthus noted that if more farmers are added to a given land supply, each one will produce a smaller contribution to total output than the last, because each additional farmer will mean that each farmer has a smaller share of the land to work with. At the same time, so long as productivity is above subsistence, the population of farmers will continue to multiply. Thus Malthus stated his “iron law of wages”: that population will always grow until the marginal productivity of labor (the wage) was driven down to the bare subsistence level, insufficient to feed additional mouths.
Malthus himself eventually realized that his theory about population causing poverty had to be wrong, since the historical record showed the opposite: that increasing populations and increasing prosperity go together. But why was the "iron law" wrong?
It is wrong because an additional person on average raises the production function of society by more than he moves society out along the production function. A given production function exhibits diminishing marginal returns to labor input. Add more people, and marginal productivity (the wage) will continue to fall. But people are also inventive. They figure things out that raise everyone’s productivity (raising the production function).
Malthus had only looked at the diminishing marginal productivity caused by adding labor to a fixed production function (a fixed amount of land, in his example), but the fact that wages and population actually tend to rise rapidly together implies that on average an additional person must raise marginal productivity by raising the production function more than he lowers marginal productivity by moving total labor input out along the production function.
Save the planet: have children
In his great book The Ultimate Resource, Julian Simon showed that this positive relationship between population and prosperity is observed pretty much always and everywhere. So robust is the effect that even in impoverished and resource poor countries, a rising population raises per-capita GNP. What makes countries poor is not too many people, but the lack of institutions of liberty that allow people to make contributions and get paid for them.
Most importantly for the West, the positive economic effect of population growth is robust enough that even when all external costs are internalized (so that the health of the environment is fully figured in) the net effect of population growth is still easily positive, and since the health of the environment is a luxury good (a good that people spend more on as they get richer), the actual way to save the environment turns out to be to have children.
Against a background of anti-population mania, that may sound counter-intuitive, but the underlying process is quite simple. Children born to a society that is rich enough to value the environment are going to figure out ways to get more out of the environment while doing it less harm. Indeed, this has been happening at such a rapid rate that it is hard to believe anyone could miss it.
Norman Borlaug and Julian Simon, our two greatest champions of life. Paul Ehrlich and Al Gore, the West’s two foremost champions of death.