In this editorial for CNN, Ted Turner frets over the world’s growing population. He shows that over the past 70 years, the population has increased three fold, and is on track to exceed 10 billion by 2100. Readers are charged to consider that by century’s end, the global population could swell by 50%, and each will be “competing for the same food, water, space and attention.”
Turner’s numbers suggest that while the population is increasing, the rate at which it is growing has slowed. If it tripled in the last seventy years, but will only grow by half in the coming 90, then such growth is far from unsustainable, as he implies. Even if it is true, that rapid increases are in our future, it would be a wonderful thing, provided that markets were allowed the freedom to accommodate newer generations.
The same dire warnings were sounded more than two hundred years ago. Near the end of the 18th century, an increasing population was believed by many to be unsustainable. A prominent intellectual of the time, Thomas Malthus, feared that poverty would result from too many children being born. Essentially, his belief, though not original, was that population increases would outstrip productive capacity, and famine would be widespread. Of course his predictions never came to pass.
Murray Rothbard, in An Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought, vol. 1, Economic Thought Before Adam Smith, shows that historically, it is increases in production that drive increases in population.
This rise in population generally comes in response to falling death rates caused by the better nutrition, sanitation, and medical care attendant on higher living standards. The dramatic declines in death rates lead to accelerated population growth (roughly measured by birth rate minus death rate).
Rothbard refutes Malthus’ thesis by showing that production and population do not operate under separate economic laws. And, he shows that it’s possible for the opposite to be true. That is, that a greater population would allow for more investment. A larger population allows for expansions in the division of labor. In turn, greater production is possible. Labor is much like other resources, and to worry over surpluses in labor is akin to fearing an overabundance in say, fuel, lumber, or food.