Too Many People?

It was both an honor and a pleasure to deliver the annual Hayek Lecture at the Institute for Economic Affairs last week. Here’s the video:

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42 Responses to “Too Many People?”


  1. 1 1 David R. Henderson

    Steve,
    I watched it all after Don Boudreaux posted it. Beautifully done. Not a wasted word or fact. No “uhs.” Very nice analysis.
    I have been using that Ted Baxter line for years. I’m not sure where I got it. Maybe from you years ago. I think, IIRC, that he wanted 6 children, not 12. :-)
    Best,
    David

  2. 2 2 Jimbino

    He forgot to put “BAD IDEAS” like religion, communism, and nazism in large font in the negative externalities slot. He also failed to pursue the situation where there’s great interaction between the breeder field and the childfree field, with the breeders sucking up wealth from the childfree while supplying noise and crime in exchange.

    He also doesn’t account for the disappearance of flora and fauna. I’m still waiting for realization of the BIG IDEA of creating new and better life forms to replace all those we’re rapidly losing.

  3. 3 3 Gabe

    How is religion a bad idea? Abrahamic religion is the backbone of western morality.

  4. 4 4 Will A

    Gabe #3

    Not sure if you are being serious, but pantheistic Greek philosophy is probably more the backbone of western morality.

    Maybe the code of Code of Hammurabi.

  5. 5 5 blink

    This is a great talk! The analysis is clear and compelling and the presentation first-rate. My only quibble echoes Jimbino #2: I would like to see some acknowledgment that *some* ideas are bad. I believe the overwhelming case is favorable for ideas — just as individuals are more likely to my trading partners than thieves. But the favorable conclusion does not follow from theory alone; this requires empirical assessment.

  6. 6 6 Bennett Haselton

    Most amazing to me is the stat that the average household still spends 1.5 hours a day on housework. Makes me feel like there’s some stuff around the house that I should probably be doing.

  7. 7 7 Daniel

    Steve, great video. Jimbino, bad ideas usually collapse under their own weight, sometimes they persistent but are crushed by the overwhelming benefits from good ideas (so far).

    “He also failed to pursue the situation where there’s great interaction between the breeder field and the childfree field, with the breeders sucking up wealth from the childfree while supplying noise and crime in exchange.”

    He did address this. He talked specifically about government assistance being in the cost column but he forgot to add it and talked about thievery which you could extend to all kinds of other criminal activities (murder being the biggest thievery of all). Also how do you know the breeder field as you so called it isn’t providing enormous wealth to the childfree field at no cost to the childfree field? I’m sure there are childless people that enjoy tacos, their trash being picked up on time, the cops protecting them, firefighters being available when called, plays, musicals, music, fine arts, gourmet cakes, and so on. I bet the diversity from the increased population vastly outweighs anything the “breeder” field takes away from the childfree field.

  8. 8 8 Scott F

    Great talk!

    A lecture akin to this one on the first day of your Econ 102 course was what got me to study economics in the first place.

    Re the prospect of bad ideas going in the bottom-right corner. If ideas are essentially just memes whose survival function is in some way dependent on how demonstrably true and useful they are, then I suspect that ideas are a long-term benefit. The unfortunate observation that the survival function seems to be in part dependent on the charisma/power of those imparting them (regardless of underlying truth/value), seems to be what makes the overall short-term value of ideas somewhat… chaotic.

  9. 9 9 Fat Bob

    Another way to think about it is to recognize that birth rates go down substantially when birth control becomes available.

    Maybe that indicates that a lot of the children born prior to the birth control weren’t born due to such rational choices as detailed in the video.

    Or maybe it means that the joy of sex should be included in the chart somewhere…:)

  10. 10 10 Harold

    #8 “If ideas are essentially just memes whose survival function is in some way dependent on how demonstrably true and useful they are, then I suspect that ideas are a long-term benefit. ”

    You link true and useful. I think an idea can be useful while not being true.

    #3 and 4. Religion is one such idea. It is essentially not true but very useful for cohesion and cooperation in large societies. It may be far from a bad idea, as it could be essential for societies to grow to the size where we can benefit from all those other people.

  11. 11 11 The Original CC

    Great talk. Was the Q&A recorded too?

    Btw, when I read about this in MSISS, I thought your strongest point about “resource depletion” was that new people had to *trade* with people who already hold resources (e.g. land) in order to get their own resources. That’s how we know that resource depletion isn’t a “problem”.

    The argument breaks down (as you acknowledge) when the new crop of young people are mostly on gov’t assistance. It seems like we could be there soon though. For example, it seems like unless you have a college degree and a good job, it’s tough to get your own health care without gov’t subsidies.

    Finally, I’ll take year 2000 medicine at y2k prices rather than year 2017 medicine at today’s prices. That’s got to be at least a 50% savings. Does anyone agree with me on that?

  12. 12 12 David E. Wallin

    I have read all your books, so there was nothing new for me in the presentation (though I think the every-can-live-in-France example might have come from Thomas Sowell’s observation with France instead of Texas). This is no complaint, as I watched the whole thing intently. It was put together beautifully. And, I very much loved the starting observation: if you simply assert there is a limit to the number of people that the Earth can support, you have added nothing to the discussion. Of course there can be too many people (or too much pollution), and there can be too few (or too little). Now let’s move on to the important part.

  13. 13 13 Biopolitical

    #2 Jimbino, people have created new life forms through artificial selection, hybridization, genetic modification and synthesis. We have also created new species assemblages and ecosystems, and new forms of cooperation with the rest of the living world. We have probably gained more from all this novelty than we have lost through species extinction, habitat transformation, etc.

  14. 14 14 Biopolitical

    Steve, I liked your talk a lot. Just to nit-pick, you say that “not just income” but also choice and quality have increased. I would say that choice and quality are part of income.

  15. 15 15 Roger

    This talk seemed to be largely tongue-in-cheek. You seemed to be serious when you were celebrating the benefits of rising per capita income, but then you talk about stacking bodies in the Grand Canyon! You as might as well talk about putting bodies on the Moon.

    The arguments that more people mean more ideas, friendship, love, etc seem very unlikely. Ancient Athens had lots of ideas, but not many people. We just don’t need a lot of people to get a lot of ideas. More people just bring more bad ideas.

  16. 16 16 Josh Hunt

    For the spillover benefits piece, I still think it’s important WHERE the extra people are born. Sadly, if they’re born in war torn or impoverished areas, they are probably much less likely to come up with a great idea that spills over to the rest of the world.

  17. 17 17 Daniel

    @Roger,

    Grand Canyon was just an illustrutive example. Bad ideas don’t persist, good ideas stick around until they are replaced by better ones. Clearly ideaa are more than just a function of number of people and may be a function also of culture or educational investment. Do you really believe ideas are unrelated to population size?

  18. 18 18 Roger

    @Daniel, I think good ideas are inversely related to population size. The USA had a lot more good ideas when our population was less. The more overpopulated countries produce remarkably few good ideas.

    Personal income is also inversely related. Per capita income is national income divided by population, and higher population leads to lower per capita income.

    The Grand Canyon is illustrative, but only of the non-seriousness of the argument. No one lives in the Grand Canyon. We cannot supply electricity or basic services there. There are no roads. Talking about putting people in the Grand Canyon is like talking about putting them in a cemetery.

    But it is always fun to hear a contrarian argument for some ludicrous objective. I enjoyed the talk.

  19. 19 19 Daniel

    @Roger,

    “The Grand Canyon is illustrative, but only of the non-seriousness of the argument. No one lives in the Grand Canyon. We cannot supply electricity or basic services there. There are no roads. Talking about putting people in the Grand Canyon is like talking about putting them in a cemetery.”

    Do you actually think Steve was suggesting we put people in the Grand Canyon? No, he was using it for scaling, to illustrate how we are NOT running out of room (he also used France, as another illustrative example, again not actually suggesting we put everyone there, just to give people some perspective). How you don’t understand this is somewhat disturbing.

    Where’s your proof that our idea generation is inversely related to population? I see more or less increasing progress in many fields from the early 1900′s until now. IF you’re looking cross-sectionally comparing us to other larger countries, that’s ignorning the part where I admitted that idea generation isn’t a strict function of population, also related to culture, etc.

    “Personal income is also inversely related. Per capita income is national income divided by population, and higher population leads to lower per capita income.”

    HAHAH. Okay, here’s where you’re just being silly. The US today has a larger population than it’s ever had before, it also has a larger income per capita than it’s ever had before. Human labor is an input in national income function, so the numerator here grows naturally with the denominator assuming the capital to labor ratio stays constant and there is no new idea generation. Since income is growing faster than population we must assume there’s some new idea generation (or at least new capital accumulation based on already generated ideas). Again, I must assume you are comparing cross-sectionally the US to larger countries or countries with higher fertility rates, ignoring that they may have less capital infrastructure or put less hours of labor in per person.

  20. 20 20 Roger

    I guess you are admitting that the France argument was non-serious also. It is only an argument for the world being over-populated.

    You realize that correlation is not causation, right? If you see wealthy people driving fancy cars, it does not mean that buying the fancy cars made them wealthy.

    Yes, the US increased its wealth, and that has made people want to come here. Steve didn’t really make any argument that population increase was making anyone wealthier.

  21. 21 21 Daniel

    @Roger

    I never said population increase made people wealthier necessarily (it very may well increase idea generation which makes people wealthier, it also might increase infrastructure for thin markets which makes people wealthier). You said it made people poore, which is a very simple fallacy (one that I’d expect econ 101 students not to make).

  22. 22 22 Daniel

    @Roger,

    On France, I guess you just don’t understand abstraction, pity for you.

  23. 23 23 Roger

    @Daniel: I am ignoring your ad hominem attacks.

  24. 24 24 Daniel

    @Roger,

    They refer to very specific parts pf your argument that you continue to ignore instead of addressing the very specific rebutalls I’ve made to your arguments.

    When you said per capita income was National Income divided by population and believed for some reason that this meant that per capita income will go down as population goes up, this IS a very simple common fallacy that students who haven’t yet taken econ 101 tend to make. It assumes that national income is FIXED w/ respect to population which is clearly false as I pointed out labor is an input into national income. You never attempted to address this, instead continuing along like you were somehow still in the right.

    You then assumed that me saying that Steve wasn’t suggesting we put everyone in France is me admitting he was being non-serious. The only assumption I can make from that statement is that you’re bot understanding that Steve was abstracting away from the difficulties of putting everyone in France to rebut an argument that we’re “running out of room” from zero populationists. And yet every human could put a middle class size plot on France! You see, France makes up only 0.4% of the total land area in the world. As Steve astutely pointed out this means that there is a lot of space, bot currently occupied by humans! This should succesfully rebut the “we’re running out of land” argument made by zero populationists. Which part of this argument suggests to you that the world is actually overpopulated?

  25. 25 25 RichD
  26. 26 26 Roger

    A population increase could make the national income go up or down. Import slaves, and income goes up. Import welfare cases, criminals, and schoolchildren, and income goes down. Steve side-steps this issue. Any assumption that income would go up is just an unwarranted assumption.

    Steve says that he accepts the fact that over-population could exhaust resources, and then gives this France example. This would only rebut the “we’re running out of land” argument, if France had enough resources to support the world’s population. It does not. So it is really just an example of how people can suffer from over-population.

  27. 27 27 Daniel

    @Roger,

    I’m going to ignore your misdirection about slaves and immigrants.

    You’d agree that an increase in the population that follows the distribution of current Americans will only raise income right?

    The France example only rebuts the land resource argument. Steve was not attempting to say that it means all resources are abundant, just the resource of avaialble space upon which to live.

    If there was a constraint on general resources in the world you’d see a decline in world income per capita, in fact we see in general an accelerating increase: https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GDP.PCAP.CD

  28. 28 28 Roger

    No, I do not agree that an increase in the population will raise income, under realistic assumptions. I guess its possible, and you might find some data for that, but it does not seem likely to me.

    Your chart says World GDP per capita has been increasing. That does not mean that increased population is a cause. Maybe it would have increased faster if population were declining.

  29. 29 29 Daniel

    @Roger,

    That wasn’t the point of showing you per cap world gdp. The point was if there was a contraint on resources then world incomes would be declining with increases in population. The increasing population is not pushing against any hard limits on natural resource use.

    I accidentally linked you to the wrong data. There is constant, not increasing world GDP per capita over this time period.

    https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GDP.PCAP.KD

  30. 30 30 Roger

    So now you are claiming that there are no constraints on resources?! If you really believe that, then I guess that there is no problem moving everyone to France.

  31. 31 31 Daniel

    @Roger

    You keep ignoring my actual words and making up your own narrative of what I’m saying. I was saying if there was some hard contraint on natural resources (as in we don’t have enough of some resource as a world to produce more well-being than we currently are, then you’d see world incomes declining as population increases, not increasing as they are.

    At no point did I say there was no constraint on natural resources. And at no point is anyone actually suggesting we move everyone to France! Stop caricturing the people you are arguing with and actually try to understand their argument for once.

  32. 32 32 Roger

    Most resources are constrained, if not all. If more population creates more demand, then the price goes higher than what it would be otherwise. We see that in oil and a lot of other resources.

    All other things being equal, higher oil prices would make us poorer.

    There are other factors that have led to higher incomes, such as advancing technology. But technology would be advancing without the population increase, and maybe it would be advancing more.

  33. 33 33 Daniel

    @Roger,

    “If more population creates more demand, then the price goes higher than what it would be otherwise.”

    :(, more population also creates more supply as labor is a big input in production. Labor share of income is approximately 60%, implying that it is the most likely constrained resource at the moment. Idk how you’re not getting this.

    “We see that in oil and a lot of other resources.”
    We don’t see that in oil.
    http://www.macrotrends.net/1369/crude-oil-price-history-chart

    “There are other factors that have led to higher incomes, such as advancing technology. But technology would be advancing without the population increase, and maybe it would be advancing more.”

    Or maybe it would be advancing less. You agree if there were 10 human beings on earth technology would not magically be increasing at the same rate it is now, right? If you agree then there must be some optimal level of population that leads to technological growth. Perhaps you think we’ve reached the limit and for some as of yet unspecified reason (you haven’t really offered any rationale for why increased population would hinder technological increase). Perhaps there’s a diminishing marginal return to population on idea creation. Again by what rationale? Steve’s basic setup is very simple and you’ve yet to offer any mechanism to rebut his basic premise that more brains, leads to more ideas. How can this not be the case? For example, if Steve Jobs & Steve Wozniack’s parents had decided not to have babies, do you reckon we’d be at the exact same place we are now in terms of technological progress?

  34. 34 34 Roger

    I guess you consider the Apple II a big technological advance. It was a very nice home computer product, but there were a lot of similar products at the time. The Apple II was not that big a deal.

    If you want to maximize technological growth, then the best way might be to start wars. A lot of important innovations came out of fighting wars. However, war also involves killing a lot of people, and so is not so desirable.

  35. 35 35 Daniel

    Lol, okay Roger I guess you agreed with a lot of what I said in my last post since you haven’t disagreed with anything in particular. I do think the personal computing revolution and the marketing around it, helped in large part by Steve, Steve and Bill’s ideas has sparked a lot of other innovation and that we’re still realizng productivity gains from it. They are just one example pf people who had they not been born I believe the world would be a lpt worse for it.

  36. 36 36 Roger

    Nope. I don’t agree with any of it. America produces enough ideas to keep the world economy humming. Ideas from the other 95% of the population can be ignored. Greater population is just not useful for generating ideas.

    I am not sure Apple has helped much either. If Apple disappeared tomorrow, I do not think that there were be any adverse effect on the world economy.

  37. 37 37 Harold

    “I was saying if there was some hard constraint on natural resources (as in we don’t have enough of some resource as a world to produce more well-being than we currently are, then you’d see world incomes declining as population increases, not increasing as they are.”

    This is surely not the case, as at some point an essential resource could run out, with ensuing disaster. I am not suggesting this is imminent, but it is in principle quite possible for populations and incomes to rise steadily until the crunch.

    ” America produces enough ideas to keep the world economy humming. Ideas from the other 95% of the population can be ignored.”

    This is wrong. No idea can be ignored and certainly not the majority if them.

  38. 38 38 Daniel

    @Harold,

    My point isn’t that there is no limit ln population. My point is that if we were close to the point where resources were so constrained that we risked collapse, per person incomes in the world would be declining as prices for critical resources would be rising quickly. Obviously there is some physical limit as there is a finite amount of matter on the earth (and solar system, assuming we become a multi-planetary resource user).

  39. 39 39 Daniel

    @Harold,

    Also for incomes to rise until the crunch, everyone would have to be oblivious of the coming crunch, since market would be valuing the critical resources at very high prices if they knew it was coming. I’m unaware of a critical resource (one that can not be replaced by another) that meets this criteria. Perhaps global warming will induce this parobolic event but we haven’t reached that point and it’s uncertain that we will anytime soon.

  40. 40 40 Harold

    “I’m unaware of a critical resource…”
    Indeed. My point is that increasing per capita incomes is not proof that one does not exist.

  41. 41 41 Daniel

    @Harold,

    Of course, there’s always the possibility for some unobserved low probability event. Should we act only based on the possibility that there’s some unobserved shortage coming? No, we should act based on all the available evidence we have (summarized well by per capita incomes rising per person even as the population increases).

    It could also be that by not having enough children we forgo someone that could invent technology that could replace a critical resource that suddenly dissapears.

  42. 42 42 Harold

    “Should we act only based on the possibility that there’s some unobserved shortage coming?”
    What we should not do is assume that rising per capita incomes mean that there is not one coming so we do not look for it.

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