Religion & Liberty Online

Three fallacies behind population control

One of the constant refrains in economic development—and now environment issues—is the topic of population control.   Evidence notwithstanding, the claim that population causes poverty and that the planet is facing a population explosion is taught as settled science—even in the face of serious population decline in some countries.

We hear this over and over from the UN and popular media, in schools, and from people like Jeffrey Sachs to professional doomsday peddler Paul Erlich.  Even the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Social Sciences has invited staunch population control advocates Sachs and Erlich to speak at their conferences.  Perhaps Thanos will get an invite soon.  Over the last decades Western governments and international organizations have spent billions of dollars promoting population control throughout the world.

There are a number of good books to read on this subject.  For a basic overview Juilian Simon’s The Ultimate Resource and Jaqueline Kasun’s The War Against Population are a good start.  I also recommend Obianuju Ekeocha’s Target Africa for a look into how anti-natalist, population control organizations operate.

Fallacies that Persist

But why is it that so many people believe that there is an over-population problem, even in the face of evidence to the contrary?  One reason of course it the consistent ideological propaganda of about  population and population control that goes on in schools, universities, and the media.

But there are also a number of fallacies that underlie our view of population.  These include fallacies of intuition, the zero-sum game, anthropological fallacies, and the fallacy of correlation–e.g. we see that women in wealthy countries have fewer children than women in poor countries and conclude that this must be the cause of our wealth so we encourage women in poor countries to have fewer children, not thinking that wealth might be the cause of fewer children, not vice versa.

While there are number of things going on that lead people to unquestionably accept the idea of overpopulation, I want to consider here (at least briefly) three key fallacies that shape the way we think about population and poverty.

Fallacy of Intuition

In his book Thinking Fast and Slow,  Nobel Prize winning behavioral economist, Daniel Kahneman gives examples of how we can reach conclusions without reflection. We give an intuitive answer because it seems correct, and we follow what he calls the “law of least effort.”   He sets out the following problem and tells the reader to solve it quickly within a matter of seconds. Here you go, read it quickly whisper the answer to yourself.

A bat and ball cost $1.10

The bat costs one dollar more than the ball.

How much does the ball cost?


The answer is quite obvious—

10c. Right? Well, actually, no.

It appears correct on intuition, but with further analysis we find our intuition is incorrect.  Don’t worry if you answered incorrectly, you’re not alone.  Professor Khaneman has given this test to lots of people including Harvard and MIT undergraduate students who also got it wrong—and these are students with high SAT scores and for whom math is not ancient subject from the dimly lit past.

If you haven’t already figured it out look at the problem again.   The answer is not $ 0.10 but $ 0.05.  The bat is 1.05 and the ball is .05 for a total of $1.10.  If the ball cost $.10 the total would be $1.20.

What is this have to do with population question of population and poverty?

Well, when we go to the developing world what often happens when we encounter a lot of  poor, barefoot children running around begging.  And we engage in fast thinking. We come to an intuitive conclusion that fits with conventional thinking: “if there were fewer children, there would  more to go around. That appears to be correct and thoughtful,  but is incorrect.

It’s important to note that his example of “fast thinking” doesn’t happen on its own.  It is  highly influenced by a number of sources including predominance of everything from Malthusian assumptions, popular ideas, and propaganda.   Our intuition is never blank-slate but influenced by a host of things that we may or may not be aware of.

Economic Fallacy of Zero Sum Game

A second fallacy that leads us to conclude that population is a cause of poverty is the fallacy of the zero-sum game.  This is the idea that the economy is like a pie and if one person has a big piece there is less to go around for everyone else.  So if there are a lot of people, then that means there is less to go around for everyone.  But this is an error on a number of levels. First, economies can grow, which means the pie can grow so the amount of wealth and goods and services are not fixed.  Second, and this relates to the third fallacy below, when given the chance people can produce more than they consume.  The problem with poverty is not the number of people, but the lack of access to institutions of justice and inability to participate in productive economic exchange.  

Anthropological Fallacy

A third fallacy is what I call the anthropological fallacy. We misunderstand the nature and dignity of the human person in society and the economy. One element of the anthropological fallacy I noted above is to view people simply as consumers. But people are not simply consumers; they are not simply burdens. People are also innovators and inventors and producers.

But even if they are burdens, it doesn’t matter. The deepest anthropological fallacy that underlies population control theory is that it misses the dignity and destiny of the human person that goes far beyond what they can produce or consume.  People have value because they are; not for what they can produce.  A person’s value is not limited to or defined by his or her utility.  Economics is part of life, but it is not the all of life.  People are more than statistics.  They are mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, and friends.  The social engineer who advocates for population control sees persons simply as things or resources or statistics, but this is deep fallacy that undermines the dignity of the person.  It is a neo-colonialist attitude of hubris that does not trust people in the developing world to make decisions for themselves.  Again—read Target Africa for a detailed account of the hubris of population social engineers.

Ultimately, the population control advocates get population wrong because they get people wrong. People are not a burden—in fact, when given the opportunity, they are the solution to poverty since humans have creative capacity to generate new wealth and opportunities using their God-given ingenuity and problem-solving capacity.

Michael Matheson Miller

Michael Matheson Miller is a Senior Research Fellow at the Acton Institute