In Praise Of Fewer People

If true, this Foreign Affairs essay about an abrupt reversal in the world population trend, from boom to bust, is one of the most significant things I have read this year, even this decade; and it seems to me to justify far more optimism than the writer allows himself.

I don’t see any fundamental problems with a shrinking population, nor with a shrinking and ageing population.

True, older people produce less, but — to the extent this matters at all — they can easily be induced to consume correspondingly less across most categories of goods, if they do not already do so, because they have less attachment to novelty. And, in any case, the share of human energy in the production of goods is diminishing. Workers will age out of jobs instead being automated out of jobs.

If real scarcity is an essential feature of capitalism, as the writer implies, and which I do not accept, then we can count on supply and demand, greed and ingenuity, to maintain appropriate levels of scarcity, but concentrated in different parts of the economy, primarily in status goods and in service industries. Capitalism is nothing if not adaptive.

Another upside of an ageing population is that older people are generally less aggressive and more law-abiding, at least in their day-to-day lives. Societies will have fewer criminals, fewer prisoners, fewer guards. These are very large considerations with many positive externalities.

I score population bust as a win for the wisdom of crowds. Confronted with the ruin of the planet, and the disappearance of jobs, humanity elects to downsize.

We had generally thought until now that Malthus was wrong because he failed to foresee how technology would increase the supply of essential goods; now we can conjecture that Malthus was also wrong because he (and we) failed to foresee that people are instinctively wise enough not to populate to the point of extinction.

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