Too Many People?

While most Americans are celebrating Thanksgiving, I’ll be in London, giving the annual Hayek Memorial Lecture sponsored by the Institute of Economic Affairs. Topic: Is the World Over or Under Populated, and How Would We Know? Tickets are required but free, and are available here. If you come to the talk, don’t leave without saying hello!

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17 Responses to “Too Many People?”


  1. 1 1 David R. Henderson

    Congrats, Steve.

  2. 2 2 Bennett Haselton

    I hope the room is overcrowded, partly so that more people hear what you have to say, but also because that would be pretty funny.

  3. 3 3 Roger Schlafly

    I am assuming that we will know that the world is overpopulated when we start getting political issues like immigration, global warming, peak oil, trade, high housing costs, refugees going to a different continent, and billionaires scheming to move to another planet.

  4. 4 4 Josh Hunt

    Interesting question. My first thought it that while the world as a whole might not have “too many” people, certain countries (mini worlds, like China) could. But yes hard to know really?

  5. 5 5 nobody.really

    “Landsburg has suggested one way that you CAN influence the existence of talent: Have more kids! In Fair Play, Chap. 13, pp. 143-60, Landsburg acknowledges that productivity is not evenly distributed throughout the population. Rather, a few geniuses provoke a disproportionate amount of growth. And the best way to achieve geniuses is – ta da! – have more people.

    This argument demonstrates that genius is not a function of INDIVIDUAL initiative and hard work; it’s a function of a POPULATION. If genius occurs once in every billion people, then the world has to produce, on average, a billion people to generate one genius. Now, out of the one billion people required to produce that genius, what are the odds that the genius also happens to be the one who takes the most initiative and works the hardest? (I’ll wait while you do the math.)

    Bottom line: Geniuses do not create themselves. They are created by others – arguably, by vast societies.”

  6. 6 6 iceman

    3-4: Immigration = people fleeing bad politics and resulting economics. Even China is not literally over-populated IMO, it just looks that way from the massive cities where everyone migrates because central planning made rural subsistence miserable.

    5: Arguably, but not convincingly. Although a creative new take on your tireless “you didn’t built that” theme. Is the idea that every innate personal characteristic is to be credited – thereby creating a debit — to society at large? At least each genius can perhaps solve the problems created by the other billion…you must be a big fan of martingale betting too. (This probably reads as sarcastic but is all in fun.)

  7. 7 7 Roger Schlafly

    China is over-populated. It has some of the best farmland on Earth, and yet it cannot feed itself. It has millions of ppl who are eager to move to a less populated country.

    Ancient Athens created a few geniuses with a relatively small population. Increasing population to create more geniuses has never worked.

  8. 8 8 The Original CC

    SL, one thing I always liked about your argument about overpopulation was that you nicely spelled out the assumptions. One consequence is that you can see clearly what would “break” the argument.

    For instance, some people think that a larger population will put a strain on resources. I won’t have as much real estate available to me, for instance, if the population goes up by 10%. You point out that this ignores the fact that the “new people” have to *trade* with me to get access to the land I own (or whatever else I own). So it should be a net gain.

    Great argument!

    But you can also see what breaks this argument: Let’s say the next generation has trouble making it on its own, and they depend on welfare, gov’t subsidies of education/medicine/whatever. In other words, they’re not able to just trade with me to get some of my stuff. They have to get it allocated to them via gov’t.

    I’m not placing blame on them (maybe we have inefficient/non-market-based allocation schemes of different resources or terrible education) but this does suggest that you can no longer argue that they are trading with me to make a living, and maybe the world really is overpopulated.

    Have we reached that point? I’m not sure but it seems plausible. At the very least, it’s something we should watch out for.

  9. 9 9 Daniel R. Grayson

    Congratulations!

  10. 10 10 Mike Sproul

    Here’s a workable definition of overpopulation: Draw a community production possibilities curve CPPC. It’s done by turning A’s PPC upside down and placing it tangent to B’s PPC at an arbitrary point. Then hold an imaginary pencil at A’s origin, and slide A’s PPC up and down along B’s PPC, keeping them tangent. Your pencil will trace out the CPPC.
    Now start adding people by sliding additional PPC’s along the existing CPPC. Normally, each additional person shifts the CPPC up and out, but sometimes you get someone whose PPC lies below the origin. This would be a thief, a welfare queen, etc. When you add that person the procedure explained above results in moving the CPPC down, and you have overpopulation.

  11. 11 11 Paul Ralley

    Ticket booked – will definately come and say hello!

  12. 12 12 Roger Schlafly
  13. 13 13 Bob Murphy

    I hope you conclude we want more people, because we already know that more sex==>safer sex and therefore we could get stuck in a downward spiral if we already have too many people…

  14. 14 14 iceman

    Roger S
    p1 – you don’t think that has anything to do with the fact that they destroyed their economy for decades?
    p2 – ++. IMO best we can actively do is preserve an environment / culture where creative & entrepreneurial minds are free to flourish

  15. 15 15 Will A

    To me the more interesting question is what statistic would you point to show the world is over crowded.

    If you measure over/under population by whether the same percentage of the world’s population dies from hunger as did in the late 1800′s to early 1900′s, the world isn’t over populated.
    (Well it could be over crowded if you though it was over crowed in 1900)

    Standards of living continue to grow on average in the world. Especially in the developing world.

    If you believe over population is the cause of global warming and that global warming is dire, then you should care less whether the U.S. pulls out of Paris, Kyoto, or any other treaty that doesn’t impose restrictions on the number of kids people have on all countries.

    If you believe global warming could be mitigated if there was a concerted world wide effort on behalf of the world to drastically change how energy is produced now, then I can understand thinking there is a over population of people who don’t take global warming as seriously as you do.

  16. 16 16 Enrique

    How would we know what the “optimal” population level is?

  17. 17 17 Eric

    I’m reminded of my favorite saying about overpopulation: what comes with every mouth? Two hands.

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