An excellent article from one of today’s great Catholic thinkers from Catholic World Report.
Back in the early 1970s, in the heyday of unceasing rancor over Humanae Vitae, a great number of books were published that prophesied disaster for the human race. Among the most famous was Paul Ehrlich’s widely read The Population Bomb. At that time, we were given various apocalyptic scenarios about the end of things caused by our own uncontrolled breeding. We were soon to starve to death. The world, then with a population of around three billion, was running out of food, clothing, gas, and just about everything else. Things could only get worse. Resources were “limited”; no more new ones were imaginable. The Catholic Church was often singled out as contributing to this approaching demise of the human race since she taught that the world was made for man. Her weird stance on human breeding was “irrational”. Her views on marriage and children were said to go against the principles of, you guessed it, “modern science”.
The main group that did not readily buy these forebodings were the economists, or at least the free market ones. (See, for example, John Mueller’s Redeeming Economics and John McNerney’s The Wealth of Persons). Not a few farmers and agrarian biologists also thought that perhaps increasing populations was not such a bad thing. Increased yields in many grains were shown to be quite feasible and soon put into production. India, once a basket case became a bread basket, an exporter of grain and not just an importer of it. Children and youth meant new markets and incentives. They also meant more potential workers who would be both producers and consumers. They were also provided some assurance to the elderly, as the Japanese and Europeans were to find out when they had too few of them. Some folks seemed to know how to respond to these so-called scarcities; others did not. It was something that needed to be both learned and encouraged.
World population proceeded to reach four billion, then five, and now approaches eight billion. If anything, we are better prepared to deal with eight billion than the world was prepared to meet its needs when the population of the planet was less than half a billion. This is counter-intuitive; many would expect the opposite, especially if they do not really think about it. In fact, the whole socialist agenda was largely a thinking about it in a way that never worked and usually made things worse. The solutions based on empowering governments to deal with it always backfired. Instead of inciting growth and increased quality in things, government control of resources to insure justice invariably produced stagnation and inefficiency. Such a seemingly sensible solution produced something worse; good intentions did not produce good results.
At that time, I wrote two books, Human Dignity & Human Numbers and Welcome Number 4,000,000,000 (more recently, there is On Christianity & Prosperity). My thesis was that the birth of new human lives was not a disaster. It was something to rejoice about. This welcome was not merely in a family sense, but also in an economic, political, and cultural sense. This approach seemed to be the way things were supposed to work. Earlier writers such as Locke and Rousseau had understood this value of population long before Malthus came along with his calculus of a world with standing room only. Subsequent writers have often been amused to point out that we could put the whole present eight billion population of the earth into the state of Texas with about as much space between folks as present day New Yorkers enjoy in their neighborhoods. Increasing populations were in fact good, but this possibility depended on what we thought of the family, of children, and of the human ability to meet its own needs by means that actually work and were not intrinsically immoral. Man was not created with all the answers, but with the capacity to find good answers, and this process required a rejection of what did not work.
At the time, I knew the late Julian Simon, whose books, The Ultimate Resource and The Ultimate Resource 2, proposed (along with George Gilder and Herman Kahn) that wealth was not a matter of supposedly available resources based on contemporary estimates of their quantities. Rather, the human mind was the only real source of wealth in the universe. The Arabs sat on pools of oil for centuries with no idea what to do with it. Oil or anything else is only valuable if some use can be found for it. It seemed odd at first sight that people would think that unused raw material was of any value at all. The American Indians, who were said to have had ten square miles of territory for each person when the colonists arrived, actually were not surviving well merely on what they could garner from unimproved nature. An intimate relation is found between human culture and nature. Contrary to some recent sentiments, the world was not intended just to sit there in order for us to admire it or to leave it alone.
At the time, everyone was amused when Simon made a bet with Ehrlich that in the future more—not fewer—resources of every type would be available than when the bet was made. Ehrlich assumed we were rapidly running out of most everything. As I read later, Ehrlich lost and paid the bet. Adequate resources become available when we need them—if we are permitted to figure out how to do so and are allowed to sell them in the market at a profit. Simon’s point was that resources are not merely things in the ground, sea, or air. They are products of mind that only come about when we have need of them.
This point is why the economist Joseph Schumpeter’s famous “entrepreneur” is so important. If someone does not know what to do or how to do something, nothing much will happen. Moreover, to understand the world as a place designed for what man is, we need to have a correct philosophy about what nature and man are in themselves and in their relation to each other. Poverty is mostly caused by bad ideas and lack of virtue, not lack of resources. Many cultures and societies are indeed stagnant because they never learned or never wanted to learn how to be otherwise. This is why cultures ought not simply to remain what they are. They ought to be open to what is the right order of things. Sometimes a little preaching helps.
After the seventies, the population issue seemed to die down. It became clear that resources were not the real problem, nor were babies. Governments, religions, and ideologies were the problem if they did not know or did not want to know how to deal with increasing human numbers. If there is a population problem, it is almost always the result of ideas and government controls that had other purposes than human well-being. In addition, the countries we thought to be the poorest, China and India, suddenly became richer, though with many a dubious anti-human policies still in place. The places where we were told people were starving, were in fact busy coping with smog from their new cars and industries. They had learned how to become rich by imitating enough of those systems that did know how to succeed in improving themselves.