Population and Poverty

George Orwell wrote, "We have sunk to such a depth that the restatement of the obvious has become the first duty of intelligent men." That's an admonition I was reminded of reading some of the ugly mail in response to my recent column about population. In 1798, Thomas Malthus wrote "An Essay on the Principles of Population." His predictions about population growth and starvation were dead wrong but he has followers who are with us today and are just as wrong. By a considerable measure, poverty in underdeveloped nations is directly attributable to their leaders heeding the advice of western "experts." Nobel Laureate and Swedish economist, Gunnar Myrdal said (1956), "The special advisors to underdeveloped countries who have taken the time and trouble to acquaint themselves with the problem . . . all recommend central planning as the first condition of progress." In 1957, Stanford University economist Paul A. Baran advised, "The establishment of a socialist planned economy is an essential, indeed indispensable, condition for the attainment of economic and social progress in underdeveloped countries." Topping off this bad advice, underdeveloped countries sent their brightest to London School of Economics, Berkeley, Harvard University and Yale to be taught socialist nonsense about economic growth. They had Nobel Laureate economist Paul Samuelson teach them the nonsense that underdeveloped countries "cannot get their heads above water because their production is so low that they can spare nothing for capital formation by which the standard of living could be raised." On its face this "vicious cycle of poverty" theory is ludicrous. If it had validity, all mankind would still be cave dwellers because poverty is inescapable. In 1776, we were an underdeveloped country. How did we grow without IMF, World Bank loans, foreign aid and other programs "experts" say are critical for development?

Today's bad advice going to poor countries calls for population control. Experts caution about "population exceeding a country's feeding capacity." Despite abundant evidence that faster population growth is not correlated with slower economic growth, poor countries are advised to lower their birth rates.

Let's look at some of the evidence between 1950 and 1983. West Germany had a higher population density and population growth rate than East Germany. The same can be said about: South Korea vs. North Korea; Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore vs. China; U.S. vs. USSR. Japan compared to India had a higher population density but a slightly lower population growth rate. Despite higher population densities (more crowding), West Germany, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, U.S. and Japan experienced far greater economic growth than their counterparts with lower population densities and lower population growth rates. By the way, Hong Kong has virtually no agriculture sector but its citizens eat well.

As a result of bad weather and China's Great Leap Forward plan, roughly 30 million of its citizens starved to death between 1959 and 1961. However, between 1979 and 1985, China's per capita food production doubled and continues to increase with no end in sight. China's population continues to grow, but not as rapidly as the past. It's not population control that explains China's new found food abundance. In 1979, China changed its agricultural policy. By 1982, 700 million people in its agriculture sector shifted from collective farms to individual enterprise.

The U.S. spends hundreds of millions of dollars annually for family planning and other population control programs for poor countries. This is misguided and it focuses attention away from what's really needed. In order to have economic growth, poor countries need market economies, private property rights, rule of law and democratic institutions. In other words, they must help themselves by creating the institutional framework for growth.

Walter E. Williams


April 3, 1999

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