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Matt Ridley is the author of provocative books on evolution, genetics and society. His books have sold over a million copies, been translated into thirty languages, and have won several awards.

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Irrational pessimism about population

pologists for China's one-child policy make bizarre economic arguments

My son, aged 16, is cleverer than me and knows more about economic theory, which interests him. He has his own views on the world. So I invited him to write a blog post on a topic of his choosing. Here it is:

by Matthew Ridley

Janice Turner provided an amusing dose of irrational pessimism in The Times on 21 August (behind a paywall) with an argument for population control. Talking of China's efforts to control population, she says that:

That one-child policy, you have to concede, certainly works

Her only evidence for such a startling proposition is that she went to Beijing and discovered that it didn't feel very crowded. I can't say for sure but I think the `hundreds and thousands of girls and disabled children abandoned each year' in China, or the millions of Chinese women who have suffered from forced abortions under the policy (well worth reading the full post), may not find such an argument very convincing. According to one writer,

China's one-child policy causes more violence to women and girls than any other official policy on earth.

Sadly the rest of the Times article does not improve much on this bad start. Janice Turner's arguments become increasing economically questionable. For example, there is this gem:

The one-child policy also aids the economy since, having to fork out less on child-raising, [Chinese parents] can afford more consumer goods, [such as] a car

This is an example of a classic economic fallacy recently debunked in an excellent article by the FT's John Kay. The resources spent on making a consumer good such as a car are economic costs rather than benefits; the "benefit" is the value the consumer gets from owning said car. If some parents would have derived more value from a second child than from a car, but are forced to buy a car thanks to the one-child policy, that is a loss to them and to the economy.

Then she says this:

In a world with ever greater strain on natural the number of children in a family only a private concern?

Well, yes, actually it is, because the child's parents pay (whether through prices or taxes) for all the resources used to care for their children. If we think the production of those resources imposes external costs on others, then we should increase their price, not ban babies. Equally, if such resources start to run out, then market forces will raise their prices, which in turn will encourage people to innovate around such resource shortages.

It is said that we need new workers to support an ageing population. But we expect our old to stay in work even longer, which, if we continue to breed at this rate, will mean more young unemployed.

This is a classic illustration of the depressingly common "lump of labour" fallacy, which assumes there is a fixed amount of work to be done in the economy which needs to be divided up among the population. No good economist believes this to be true: more work in the economy will stimulate economic growth and consumption, which in turn creates more jobs for others. Countries with higher populations do not have higher unemployment rates.

In fairness to Janice Turner, she does not advocate a one-child policy for the West. Instead she proposes more moderate 'solutions' such as financial incentives for having fewer children. But frankly she has failed to convince me that population needs to be controlled at all. A rational optimist would recognise that there are many benefits to a larger world population, such as more minds to think up new innovations and add to the store of collective intelligence. Sure, we should probably not subsidise new births, as the UK Child Benefit does, but we shouldn't restrict them either. Let's remember that world per-capita income increased massively over the past century even as population skyrocketed, and that population is set to level off in mid-century by itself anyway (see chart below from World Resources Institute)

The most violent official policy in the world towards women and girls is not what the West should be emulating now.