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Population Controllers Got It Wrong

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World population is estimated to be nearing the six billion mark. The UN Population Fund, which “knows” precisely how many people there should be in the world, also “knows” precisely what day the world will hit six billion: October 12.

In fact, no one knows precisely how many people there are on earth. One would have to have an exaggerated confidence in the record keeping of governments to make such a claim. How reliable are the records-birth and death-of, say, Rwanda? Has anyone counted all the Chinese? Population numbers are soft, to say the least.

The Population Fund’s perennial campaign to scare us about the number of people is another unfortunate use of the taxpayers’ money. On its face and out of context, the number six billion says nothing. It is no more scary than saying the sun is 93 million miles from earth. In context the number says nothing disturbing. The population’s rate of increase is slowing markedly. Fertility rates have been falling for decades. According to MSNBC, “Since 1992, the United Nations has had to push back its six billion estimate by almost two years.”

The Population Fund and its brooding boosters such as Paul Ehrlich and Lester Brown have been predicting disaster from population growth for decades. No set of predictions has been more forcefully falsified. Even Alex Marshall of the Population Fund had to concede, “No one in history thought it would be possible to reach this number with an intact planet; they predicted ecological collapse, famine, and nuclear war, but we are doing rather well and that’s an achievement.” That optimistic outlook stands in stark contrast to the “authoritative” pronouncements of recent decades. But the statement is flat wrong. Several people knew it was possible for the population to grow without harm: P. T. Bauer and the late Julian Simon are two of them. They told us all along that the idea of the earth’s “carrying capacity,” which was supposed to make population growth dangerous, failed to take into account the power of human intelligence. With roughly six billion people, the world is a far richer place than it was when the population was one billion. The population catastrophists were just plain wrong.

Alex Marshall could not resist adding to his upbeat statement: “But the other side is that so many people are living in desperate poverty and the population is still growing, mostly in the poorest countries to the poorest families.” In fact, people in most places are living longer, healthier lives than ever before. Life expectancy has grown more in the 20th century than in all previous centuries combined. One reason the population grows is that the death rate falls.

One of the myths too many of us live by is that people cause poverty. This is worse than wrong. Poverty needs no cause or explanation. Mankind is born into poverty. It is wealth that must be explained. And by now we should know the cause of that: People!- more precisely, free and enterprising people living in a regime of private property. Thus it is interference with private property, not population growth, that should be the cause of concern.

The poverty that remains in the world is the result of one thing: government barriers to private property and enterprise. Where people are free to produce wealth, they do so. When government plans, regulates, taxes, mandates, and otherwise meddles with peaceful citizens, it impedes the production of wealth that benefits all. We have too much experience not to realize that.

But political rulers, UN bureaucrats, and anti-population activists insist that population growth is the evil underlying all other evils. To their applause, the dictators of China still force women to have abortions and be sterilized under its one-child policy. Rulers routinely distract attention from their own bad policies by condemning innocent people for having too many children.

There is no limit to the wealth that free people can produce. There is no good reason for governments’ interfering with the individual’s right to have children. No one who claims to favor human rights can also favor population control.

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.