China’s Population Mistake

 

Western progressives have fretted since the late ’60s about the population explosion. Paul Ehrlich (the most famous population scaremonger) and John Holdren (Obama’s science czar) wrote articles proposing dosing the water with sterilization drugs to prevent mass starvation. In 1970 Ehrlich predicted that 65 million Americans would starve to death during the 1980s.

China did something about this in the late 1970s. Their One-child Policy severely punished violators, and prevented births by forced abortions and sterilizations. It was monstrous, but it fit the prescriptions of western progressives.

And it was a mistake.

China’s problem was not population, but socialism. Every person is born with one mouth to feed, but also with two hands to feed it. When socialism binds those hands in order to, as Churchill said, “spread misery,” starvation often results. It is ironic that the disastrous policy was implemented under Deng Xiaoping, the man who said, “socialism does not mean shared poverty.” Deng saw the benefits of freedom in making market decisions, but not when making decisions in areas not usually classified as markets–such as child-bearing.

Over the next decades, couples aborted, killed, or abandoned girl babies so that their one child could be a son who could support them in their old age. The sex ratio tilted too far male. Twenty-five years later, young men could not find marriage partners and, like young men everywhere who do not have a wife and family to domesticate them, they became sources of civil unrest, with riots becoming common in the countryside. And the birth rate fell further.

Though the one-child policy was loosened in the past few years, the legacy will remain with China for decades to come, with an aging population supported by too-few young productive families. The linked article says that after the restrictions were lifted the birth rate did not increase as hoped. Perhaps socialism affected the culture in ways that cannot be undone quickly–or at all.

We can never count all the wonderful things that come from freedom or the bad things that come from restrictions on freedom (regulation). Those of us who have an ideology of freedom could have predicted that the One-child Policy would result in misery beyond its monstrous enforcement.

Not Paul Ehrlich, who is still a true believer. And not many progressives, like one of my good friends, a highly intelligent, creative, retired web designer. When I told her that I had arithmetically verified Sowell’s claim that all the world’s population could fit in subdivision-sized lots in Texas, she said, “Yes, but much of our land is not good for farming” and predicted future starvation.

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  1. Henry Racette Contributor
    Henry Racette
    @HenryRacette

    Thank you. It’s unfortunate that so much of this will be new to so many people (though not, I hope, here on Ricochet). It needs to be said, again and again.

    I was a guest on a podcast a few months ago in which I had a discussion with a young woman who left Google to start her own D.C.-based Climate Change advocacy group. She’s a nice young lady, concerned about the world, very well educated, intelligent, successful, and committed to her cause. When I mentioned Paul Ehrlich, she said she didn’t know who he was: she’d never heard of The Population Bomb.

    For those who wonder what happens to prognosticators with a track record as bad as Ehrlich’s: he’s currently President of Stanford’s Center for Conservation Biology.

    As for the tragedy of Chinese family planning, I am a beneficiary of that, blessed with a daughter born in Guangzhou and now home from college and talking to her dog in the other room.

    Another great post, John.

    • #1
  2. JohnVonEcon Coolidge
    JohnVonEcon
    @John Scott

    Henry Racette (View Comment):

    Thank you. It’s unfortunate that so much of this will be new to so many people (though not, I hope, here on Ricochet). It needs to be said, again and again.

    I was a guest on a podcast a few months ago in which I had a discussion with a young woman who left Google to start her own D.C.-based Climate Change advocacy group. She’s a nice young lady, concerned about the world, very well educated, intelligent, successful, and committed to her cause. When I mentioned Paul Ehrlich, she said she didn’t know who he was: she’d never heard of The Population Bomb.

    For those who wonder what happens to prognosticators with a track record as bad as Ehrlich’s: he’s currently President of Stanford’s Center for Conservation Biology.

    As for the tragedy of Chinese family planning, I am a beneficiary of that, blessed with a daughter born in Guangzhou and now home from college and talking to her dog in the other room.

    Another great post, John.

    It’s early in the morning for me, since I don’t have a real job. So I’ll blame the rush of emotion on hearing about your daughter on the hour.

    • #2
  3. Dr. Bastiat Member
    Dr. Bastiat
    @drbastiat

    Henry Racette (View Comment):
    a young woman who left Google to start her own D.C.-based Climate Change advocacy group. She’s a nice young lady, concerned about the world, very well educated, intelligent, successful, and committed to her cause. When I mentioned Paul Ehrlich, she said she didn’t know who he was: she’d never heard of The Population Bomb.

    That is amazing.  She dedicates her life to a field without considering any work that has been done in that field up to this point.  Wouldn’t she start her quest by researching the field?  In some detail?  Why dedicate your life to something you don’t understand?

    That is how modern leftists can promote socialism.  They’ve never considered what has happened in the past.

    • #3
  4. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Dr. Bastiat (View Comment):
    That is how modern leftists can promote socialism.  They’ve never considered what has happened in the past.

    Bingo.

    Hey, Russia has a surfeit of women, since the men drink themselves to death. Maybe China could ship spare young men up there.

    • #4
  5. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter
    @Seawriter

    I wrote an essay on the topic which appeared some years ago, but is no longer on the web. I am reproducing it below:

    The Plague 

    by Mark Lardas

    Play a thought experiment.

    Imagine that a plague hits the United States this year.  Like a Biblical plague it affects only a chosen few, and none of those that catch it escapes death. 

    This plague only kills people that have not and will not ever have children – inside or outside marriage.  Do not ask how it does this.  That is the Biblical nature of the plague.

    One morning the country wakes up and discovers every of these have died in their sleep.  It could be as few as 50 million or as many as 125 million.  They are gone.  We may not even understand the common thread that bound the victims.  One day there were 300 million Americans; the next day there are only 200 million.

    All other things held constant, One hundred years from that date would there be more, fewer, or roughly the same amount of Americans as would have been without the plague?

    The answer?  The population of this country would be roughly the same.

    One hundred years from now most of those alive today will be dead.  Those then living will be the descendents of those now alive.  Since this plague only took those without descendents – no children, and therefore no grandchildren or great-grandchildren – there is no change in the number of those born, if everything else is held constant.

    Redo the experiment. 

    Instead of the childless dying overnight it is those that will produce two or more children.  Everyone that is going to father or give birth to two children vanish.  This is also between 50 and 125 million people.  Again, one hundred years from that date what would be the effect on the American population? 

    The effect would be more ominous.  The only people to have more than one child following that plague are those born after it.  If birth patterns went back to normal afterwards, there would still be a generation without siblings.  For at least two decades, births would be down by at least two-thirds. 

    It may not pick up after those children mature.  Having grown up in a one-child society, they may think that having a second child is somehow “wrong.”  In that case, with every couple having just one child, the country would play a full-scale game of “Ten Little Americans.” Within 200 years there would be only one little American – produced by the last couple in the United States.

    The point?

    Children are the future.  Not only their parents’ future – everyone’s future.  Even children that are not yours become the workers that take care of you in retirement.

    A society that cherishes children safeguards its future.  One that despises them dooms itself. 

    This is why Christianity places such importance on family and children.  It is the reason we foster and cherish marriage – it is less about the couple that unite than it is about the fruits – the children – of that union.

    When you next see a family, say a prayer for them.  It is a prayer for your future, as well.

     

     

    • #5
  6. GLDIII Temporarily Essential Reagan
    GLDIII Temporarily Essential
    @GLDIII

    Dr. Bastiat (View Comment):

    Henry Racette (View Comment):
    a young woman who left Google to start her own D.C.-based Climate Change advocacy group. She’s a nice young lady, concerned about the world, very well educated, intelligent, successful, and committed to her cause. When I mentioned Paul Ehrlich, she said she didn’t know who he was: she’d never heard of The Population Bomb.

    That is amazing. She dedicates her life to a field without considering any work that has been done in that field up to this point. Wouldn’t she start her quest by researching the field? In some detail? Why dedicate your life to something you don’t understand?

    That is how modern leftists can promote socialism. They’ve never considered what has happened in the past.

    Because this time we will do the planning with AI driven super computers, which are clearly superior than mere men…  😂

    • #6
  7. Henry Racette Contributor
    Henry Racette
    @HenryRacette

    GLDIII Temporarily Essential (View Comment):

    Dr. Bastiat (View Comment):

    Henry Racette (View Comment):
    a young woman who left Google to start her own D.C.-based Climate Change advocacy group. She’s a nice young lady, concerned about the world, very well educated, intelligent, successful, and committed to her cause. When I mentioned Paul Ehrlich, she said she didn’t know who he was: she’d never heard of The Population Bomb.

    That is amazing. She dedicates her life to a field without considering any work that has been done in that field up to this point. Wouldn’t she start her quest by researching the field? In some detail? Why dedicate your life to something you don’t understand?

    That is how modern leftists can promote socialism. They’ve never considered what has happened in the past.

    Because this time we will do the planning with AI driven super computers, which are clearly superior than mere men… 😂

    Unfortunately, I really do think that is the belief of the young, smart, well-educated technocrats. Inspired by the ease with which we solve simple problems that seem hard — indexing the internet, landing a rocket on a floating platform, flying a helicopter on Mars — they believe that every problem is amenable to brilliant management and the relentless application of petaflops. History and complexity theory tell us otherwise. But they don’t know history, and the unplanned nature of emergent behavior is too unstructured for them to place any faith in it: just add another fifty thousands blades to the server farm and they’ll sort it all out.

    Hubris is a killer.

    • #7
  8. DonG (2+2=5. Say it!) Coolidge
    DonG (2+2=5. Say it!)
    @DonG

    Capitalism leads to prosperity.  Prosperity leads to people having fewer kids.    China has had a lot of prosperity in the last 30 years. 

    There is no “correct” or perfect population size.   That is Lefty thinking. 

    • #8
  9. JohnVonEcon Coolidge
    JohnVonEcon
    @John Scott

    DonG (2+2=5. Say it!) (View Comment):

    Capitalism leads to prosperity. Prosperity leads to people having fewer kids. China has had a lot of prosperity in the last 30 years.

    There is no “correct” or perfect population size. That is Lefty thinking.

    Probably with freedom things work out well. For instance, I believe that there’s nothing wrong with high market-driven wages. But I believe there is something wrong with a policy that artificially raises minimum wages drastically.

    As a society gains in productivity, it gains in wealth and does not need so many people to support those who are not so productive, since the ones that are productive are really productive.

    But if China institutes policies that end up giving them (exaggerating the case) 80% population over 70, hence, low productivity, and 20% population under 70, that’s a terrible population size.

    • #9
  10. DonG (2+2=5. Say it!) Coolidge
    DonG (2+2=5. Say it!)
    @DonG

    JohnVonEcon (View Comment):
    But if China institutes policies that end up giving them (exaggerating the case) 80% population over 70, hence, low productivity, and 20% population under 70, that’s a terrible population size.

    No, that is not a population size problem, it is a population demographic “challenge”.  There will be less stuff to go around (per person), but there will be more hugs and wisdom.  Life is more than what money can measure.

    • #10
  11. Jim McConnell Member
    Jim McConnell
    @JimMcConnell

    Dr. Bastiat (View Comment):

    Henry Racette (View Comment):
    a young woman who left Google to start her own D.C.-based Climate Change advocacy group. She’s a nice young lady, concerned about the world, very well educated, intelligent, successful, and committed to her cause. When I mentioned Paul Ehrlich, she said she didn’t know who he was: she’d never heard of The Population Bomb.

    That is amazing. She dedicates her life to a field without considering any work that has been done in that field up to this point. Wouldn’t she start her quest by researching the field? In some detail? Why dedicate your life to something you don’t understand?

    That is how modern leftists can promote socialism. They’ve never considered what has happened in the past.

    Like a two-year-old toddler, everything is new to them. They are discovering totally new truths that have never before been considered (they think).

    • #11
  12. GLDIII Temporarily Essential Reagan
    GLDIII Temporarily Essential
    @GLDIII

    Henry Racette (View Comment):

    GLDIII Temporarily Essential (View Comment):

    Dr. Bastiat (View Comment):

    Henry Racette (View Comment):
    a young woman who left Google to start her own D.C.-based Climate Change advocacy group. She’s a nice young lady, concerned about the world, very well educated, intelligent, successful, and committed to her cause. When I mentioned Paul Ehrlich, she said she didn’t know who he was: she’d never heard of The Population Bomb.

    That is amazing. She dedicates her life to a field without considering any work that has been done in that field up to this point. Wouldn’t she start her quest by researching the field? In some detail? Why dedicate your life to something you don’t understand?

    That is how modern leftists can promote socialism. They’ve never considered what has happened in the past.

    Because this time we will do the planning with AI driven super computers, which are clearly superior than mere men… 😂

    Unfortunately, I really do think that is the belief of the young, smart, well-educated technocrats. Inspired by the ease with which we solve simple problems that seem hard — indexing the internet, landing a rocket on a floating platform, flying a helicopter on Mars — they believe that every problem is amenable to brilliant management and the relentless application of petaflops. History and complexity theory tell us otherwise. But they don’t know history, and the unplanned nature of emergent behavior is too unstructured for them to place any faith in it: just add another fifty thousands blades to the server farm and they’ll sort it all out.

    Hubris is a killer.

    I know, I hope you understood my barely contained sarcasm above.

    As I dwindle down to my exit after 42 years at NASA, I find half my time is spent telling the younger engineers that their fabulous ideas have already be attempted, and what were the results, and what shoals to avoid.

    The tools to do what I have been doing have greatly improved (faster, better, cheaper….), however they do not impart the lessons learned.

    • #12
  13. Henry Racette Contributor
    Henry Racette
    @HenryRacette

    GLDIII Temporarily Essential (View Comment):

    Henry Racette (View Comment):

    GLDIII Temporarily Essential (View Comment):

    Dr. Bastiat (View Comment):

    Henry Racette (View Comment):
    a young woman who left Google to start her own D.C.-based Climate Change advocacy group. She’s a nice young lady, concerned about the world, very well educated, intelligent, successful, and committed to her cause. When I mentioned Paul Ehrlich, she said she didn’t know who he was: she’d never heard of The Population Bomb.

    That is amazing. She dedicates her life to a field without considering any work that has been done in that field up to this point. Wouldn’t she start her quest by researching the field? In some detail? Why dedicate your life to something you don’t understand?

    That is how modern leftists can promote socialism. They’ve never considered what has happened in the past.

    Because this time we will do the planning with AI driven super computers, which are clearly superior than mere men… 😂

    Unfortunately, I really do think that is the belief of the young, smart, well-educated technocrats. Inspired by the ease with which we solve simple problems that seem hard — indexing the internet, landing a rocket on a floating platform, flying a helicopter on Mars — they believe that every problem is amenable to brilliant management and the relentless application of petaflops. History and complexity theory tell us otherwise. But they don’t know history, and the unplanned nature of emergent behavior is too unstructured for them to place any faith in it: just add another fifty thousands blades to the server farm and they’ll sort it all out.

    Hubris is a killer.

    I know, I hope you understood my barely contained sarcasm above.

    I did.

    As I dwindle down to my exit after 42 years at NASA, I find half my time is spent telling the younger engineers that their fabulous ideas have already be attempted, and what were the results, and what shoals to avoid.

    One of my least favorite phrases begins “Why don’t you just…?”

     

    • #13
  14. JohnVonEcon Coolidge
    JohnVonEcon
    @John Scott

    DonG (2+2=5. Say it!) (View Comment):

    JohnVonEcon (View Comment):
    But if China institutes policies that end up giving them (exaggerating the case) 80% population over 70, hence, low productivity, and 20% population under 70, that’s a terrible population size.

    No, that is not a population size problem, it is a population demographic “challenge”. There will be less stuff to go around (per person), but there will be more hugs and wisdom. Life is more than what money can measure.

    Would you agree that

    DonG (2+2=5. Say it!) (View Comment):

    Capitalism leads to prosperity. Prosperity leads to people having fewer kids. China has had a lot of prosperity in the last 30 years.

    There is no “correct” or perfect population size. That is Lefty thinking.

    Would you agree that the difference between lefty and righty thinking is ends vs. means? Here is what I mean.

    I don’t think righties would have any problem, for instance, if economic freedom in a particular country somehow resulted in everyone’s income being equal.

    But righties would have a problem with a government policy that, in another country, equalized incomes that would have, otherwise been unequal.

    Similar, righties would not have a problem if freedom resulted in an older population. But righties would have a problem if a government policy (humanely in execution, somehow) resulted in an older population and lowered the standard of living.

    • #14
  15. Tex929rr Coolidge
    Tex929rr
    @Tex929rr

    Here is my conversation about being assailed by an Ehrlich true believer while trying to smoke a cigar in Luchenback, TX.

    https://ricochet.com/505016/archives/paul-erlich-dunce-of-the-century/

    • #15
  16. Ed G. Member
    Ed G.
    @EdG

    DonG (2+2=5. Say it!) (View Comment):

    Capitalism leads to prosperity. Prosperity leads to people having fewer kids. China has had a lot of prosperity in the last 30 years.

    There is no “correct” or perfect population size. That is Lefty thinking.

    I agree that there is no “correct” population size just as there is no “correct” global temperature. However, there are also non-economic truths about the correlation between living conditions and which moral view of humanity is dominant, between population size and risk of foreign conquest. 

    Chicago is the third largest city in the US. Wuhan is just about the same size but is the ninth largest in China. No I wouldn’t want to live in a densely populated city, but I also wouldn’t want my country to be so sparse that we could be overrun with ease because history tells us that such places get overrun eventually. 

    Does that mean I want to force people to do this that or the other in order to achieve my preferences? No. It does mean, though, that when there are policy decisions to make then it’s legitimate to keep the dominant morality, culture, and preferences in mind when setting policy. High value on individuals, ownership, space, production, savings, thrift. Low value on collectives, dehumanizing, overcrowding, consumption, debt. How do we get closer to the preferred scenario? Not by force – we know that from history and morality too. 

    • #16
  17. Henry Racette Contributor
    Henry Racette
    @HenryRacette

    I read recently an analysis that suggested that by the turn of the century China could have a population no larger than our own at that time.

    While I wouldn’t wish demographic catastrophe and poverty on anyone, the Chinese government is horrible and I do not want it to have the backing of an enormous economy. I would like us to be, and remain, the only hyper-power.

    • #17
  18. DonG (2+2=5. Say it!) Coolidge
    DonG (2+2=5. Say it!)
    @DonG

    JohnVonEcon (View Comment):
    Similar, righties would not have a problem if freedom resulted in an older population. But righties would have a problem if a government policy (humanely in execution, somehow) resulted in an older population and lowered the standard of living.

    People on the Left think they should control things just because they can.  People on the Right are careful to limit intervention, knowing that “less is more” when it comes to regulation.  That said, I don’t think very many people (Right or Left) would be against the current government policies that transfer a *lot* of money from younger workers to older retired folks.  Those transfers result in an older population and a lower standard of living.  Surveys say, most people are OK with that.  (Personally, I am not OK with young-to-old inter-generational transfer.)    

     

    • #18
  19. JohnVonEcon Coolidge
    JohnVonEcon
    @John Scott

    Tex929rr (View Comment):

    Here is my conversation about being assailed by an Ehrlich true believer while trying to smoke a cigar in Luchenback, TX.

    https://ricochet.com/505016/archives/paul-erlich-dunce-of-the-century/

    “I know, but he’s right, now.”

    That’s what PE thinks, as well.

    • #19
  20. JohnVonEcon Coolidge
    JohnVonEcon
    @John Scott

    DonG (2+2=5. Say it!) (View Comment):

    JohnVonEcon (View Comment):
    Similar, righties would not have a problem if freedom resulted in an older population. But righties would have a problem if a government policy (humanely in execution, somehow) resulted in an older population and lowered the standard of living.

    People on the Left think they should control things just because they can. People on the Right are careful to limit intervention, knowing that “less is more” when it comes to regulation. That said, I don’t think very many people (Right or Left) would be against the current government policies that transfer a *lot* of money from younger workers to older retired folks. Those transfers result in an older population and a lower standard of living. Surveys say, most people are OK with that. (Personally, I am not OK with young-to-old inter-generational transfer.)

     

    Are you more in favor of individual freedom or democracy?

    • #20
  21. Tex929rr Coolidge
    Tex929rr
    @Tex929rr

    JohnVonEcon (View Comment):

    Tex929rr (View Comment):

    Here is my conversation about being assailed by an Ehrlich true believer while trying to smoke a cigar in Luchenback, TX.

    https://ricochet.com/505016/archives/paul-erlich-dunce-of-the-century/

    “I know, but he’s right, now.”

    That’s what PE thinks, as well.

    I’m trying to imagine making assertions and having them proven false time and time again, and not suffering the least bit of self doubt.  Then again, that’s the entire left nowadays. 

    • #21
  22. Henry Castaigne Member
    Henry Castaigne
    @HenryCastaigne

    JohnVonEcon: “Yes, but much of our land is not good for farming” and predicted future starvation.

    According to the Golden Bough there were wide spread beliefs that the world would end hundreds of years before Christ. It’s not surprising that people are the still the same. For some odd reason or other, we always think things are so bad that we all going to die.

    • #22
  23. American Abroad Thatcher
    American Abroad
    @AmericanAbroad

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Dr. Bastiat (View Comment):
    That is how modern leftists can promote socialism. They’ve never considered what has happened in the past.

    Bingo.

    Hey, Russia has a surfeit of women, since the men drink themselves to death. Maybe China could ship spare young men up there.

    I think that is one of the unstated goals of China’s Belt and Road Initiative–to create Chinese man camps in distant territories in hopes of getting rid of some spare men.

    • #23
  24. JohnVonEcon Coolidge
    JohnVonEcon
    @John Scott

    American Abroad (View Comment):

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Dr. Bastiat (View Comment):
    That is how modern leftists can promote socialism. They’ve never considered what has happened in the past.

    Bingo.

    Hey, Russia has a surfeit of women, since the men drink themselves to death. Maybe China could ship spare young men up there.

    I think that is one of the unstated goals of China’s Belt and Road Initiative–to create Chinese man camps in distant territories in hopes of getting rid of some spare men.

    And what’s going on with the Uighur women? They’re taken from their husbands and given to Chinese men. That kills two birds with one stone. (1) Get rid of the Muslim religion that they hate at least as much as other theistic religions and (2) Population increase!

    What’s a little lifelong rape between tyrants and their subjects?

    • #24
  25. Old Bathos Moderator
    Old Bathos
    @OldBathos

    It is diagnostic of how sick our academia/intelligentia are that malignant clowns like Holdren and Ehrlich are still given deference when Julian Simon and Herman Kahn who quite literally refuted their doomsaying in detail were ignored. 

    Back in the last century, had my high school students do that everybody-can-fit-Texas computation after they refused to believe that their suburban home county (then still with lots of farmland and open space) was several times more densely populated than mainland China.

    I met a demographer from Connecticut who talked about the fact that no one ever considers that high birth rates are more the result of life-threatening conditions than a cause of such conditions–people make more babies because more babies are dying.  The dogmatic belief that birth rates cause poverty and not the other way around is practically a religious fixture for some people who regard themselves as sophisticated.  And when lifespans are short and family and clan ties are all that matter when larger political organization collapses that also makes extra baby-making entirely rational.   

    Export of agricultural technology and the rule of law is always vastly more likely to improve lives and stabilize birth rates than tanker ships full of condoms and UN brochures.

    • #25
  26. JohnVonEcon Coolidge
    JohnVonEcon
    @John Scott

    Old Bathos (View Comment):
    Export of agricultural technology

    Norman Borlaug is the unsung hero of the last century. He received the honors, but his name is not well known at all, compared to someone like Jonas Salk.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Norman_Borlaug

     

    • #26
  27. RushBabe49 Thatcher
    RushBabe49
    @RushBabe49

    I wonder where Communist China would be today, if Deng Xiao-ping had not existed.  Might they look more like Russia does today? 

    • #27
  28. Henry Castaigne Member
    Henry Castaigne
    @HenryCastaigne

    RushBabe49 (View Comment):

    I wonder where Communist China would be today, if Deng Xiao-ping had not existed. Might they look more like Russia does today?

    I think it would be similar, more and more arguments are made that Den Xiao-Ping went to capitalism because the Chinese people just practiced Irish democracy and ignored the rules that inhibited capitalism.

    • #28