October 12, 1999
Fear Bigger Governments,
Not Bigger Populations
By Richard L. Stroup and Matthew Brown
The world's population surpasses the six billion mark this month, on or about October 12, according to the United Nations. Alarmists are using this milestone to call attention to the dangers of growing population.
A study from Cornell University warns that at the turn of the next century the world could have "12 billion miserable humans." Zero Population Growth (ZPG) claims that "unless population growth is slowed, food production shortages . . . will persist."
Media magnate Ted Turner, whose recent billion-dollar commitment to the United Nations is directed in part to population control, told E Magazine that he would like to return population levels closer to those that existed "back before the advent of farming." That was when the entire world had between 40 and 100 million people. Conceding that this is impractical, Turner says he would settle for about two billion "the way it was in 1930," before "all these problems that have occurred since the population has built up."
But looking back at periods when population was lower, such as the 1930s that Turner prefers, we find that the human condition was worse, not better. Deaths due to famine reached unprecedented levels in the 1930s. Then, as now, the reason was not overpopulation, but politics.
Roughly seven million peasants starved to death in the Soviet famine of 1932-33, according to economic historian Alec Nove. The official explanation was bad weather. But the sad truth is that Stalin's purges of better-off farmers (dekulakization), his farm collectivization, and his exploitation of ethnic hatred had horrible results that, unfortunately, would be repeated many times later.
Even Stalin took fewer human lives than Mao's Great Leap Forward, which began in 1958. Although he knew the human toll that Soviet policies had taken, Mao pursued his own "mad agricultural policy that made Stalin's collective farms seem mild in comparison," says George Mason University economist Bryan Caplan. All told, as many as 30 million Chinese starved in the ensuing famines.
In the 1980s political struggles and ethic hatreds led to famine in Ethiopia as the Soviet-backed government made war on minority Eritreans and Tigreans. The forcible relocation of peasants contributed to the famine, while Soviet-built MiGs bombed food convoys. Similar tragedies occurred in Somalia and Sudan .Even in the mid-1990s, when there was no longer an overt war, government control of agriculture meant that Ethiopia could barely feed itself. Yet Ethiopia has ten times the amount of farmland per capita as does the Netherlands, which, under a market system, produce at the same time nearly $1000 per person in net agricultural exports.
Today in the "socialist utopia" of North Korea, according to Sally Leist of World Vision U.S., 23 million citizens make do with roughly one quarter of the rice supplies necessary to sustain life. The government controls the most closed economy in the world.
This history makes it hard to fathom how some environmentalists can continue to blame starvation on overpopulation. The fact is that no famine this century has occurred in an open, market-oriented society.
A free economic systemone in which people can make their own decisions about what they want to produce and sellis what controls hunger. We see this by comparing the agricultural productivity of the most economically free countries with the least free, as measured by the index developed by a group headed by James Gwartney, the chief economist for the congressional Joint Economic Committee. The 20 percent of countries rated most free (that is, with the fewest governmental restraints on actions) have cereal crop yields almost two-and-a-half times as high as the 20 percent of countries rated least free. They produce nearly 35,000 pounds of grain per acre compared with less than 15,000 pounds per acre.
If population pressures alone caused famine, places like Hong Kong, Japan and Singapore, which allow economic freedom, would be seeing disastrous human suffering. But just the opposite is true. They have achieved high standards of living, while neighboring countries with less dense populations but less economic freedom experience perpetual hunger.
The United Nations puts population growth at 1.33 percent per year. Food production worldwide has outpaced this growth. Says Hudson Institute economist Dennis Avery, "We're feeding an extra 3 billion people on the same amount of land we farmed in 1950." A major United Nations study reports that food production is "not a major obstacle" in meeting the world's growing needs.
Given the lessons of the last hundred years it seems that growing governments, not growing populations, will be the real threat to the quality of life in the coming century.
Richard L. Stroup and Matthew Brown are economists at the Political Economy Research Center--The Center for Free Market Environmentalism in Bozeman, Montana, USA.