The Population Implosion

For years, we were told to worry about a “population bomb.” Well, it’s finally going off, but it’s not an explosion. It’s an implosion. In defiance of the Malthusian world view, the real population problem is not too many people, but too few.

China has deliberately induced a population implosion with its “one child policy.” That is a brutal legacy of Communism which is based on the premise that starvation in China was not caused by inadequate production of food—thanks to Mao’s disastrous legacy of collective farming—but was instead caused by too many people. So China’s dictators set out to reduce the number of people.

They are now, finally, succeeding, and the implosion is hitting faster than expected. Gordon Chang explains:

On Friday, Beijing’s National Bureau of Statistics announced that China’s ‘working age’ population—the 15 to 59 segment—totaled 937.27 million last year. That number, as large as it is, represents a decline of 3.45 million from 2011. Moreover, the workforce in 2012 comprised 69.2% of the population, 0.6% less than in 2011.\

“In 2012 for the first time we saw a drop in the population of people of working age,” said Ma Jiantang, the NBS chief. “We should pay great attention to this.”

We certainly should. Cai Fang, the widely followed Chinese demographer, thinks the workforce actually peaked in 2010, and he is probably correct. Yet whoever is right, the NBS announcement highlights the acceleration of Chinese population changes. Beijing’s official demographers were saying, as recently as 2009, that the workforce would continue growing until 2016.

Chang points out how this will disrupt an economy that has been based on constant migration of young people from the countryside into the cities.

Some Chinese scholars believe the supply of workers in the under-35 cohort—the so-called “golden age group”—has already been exhausted in rural areas. Others disagree, but even those who think there is still a pool of workers on the farm acknowledge that not many of them want to move to the cities, where conditions can be bad and pay low. And in the middle-aged portion of the rural workforce, again, not many more of them want to leave home.

Geoffrey Norman describes how this is the leading edge of a global trend.

The conventional wisdom has long held that the world is running out of everything except people of which there is an insupportable and growing surplus. The planet, in short, is doomed by the inevitable over breeding of the human race. Everyone from Thomas Malthus to the Club of Rome agreed on this.

Now, according to Jeff Wise, writing in Slate, “the rate of global population growth has slowed. And it’s expected to keep slowing. Indeed, according to experts’ best estimates, the total population of Earth will stop growing within the lifespan of people alive today.”

A consensus view on the perils of overpopulation led, logically, to proposals and programs aimed at saving us from its consequences. Government was, of course, the answer. More and bigger government. Government of a kind and scope that we had not seen before. And, in the meantime, more aggressive action by the governments that we already had. As for instance, China’s one-child policy.

Now, it seems, a lack of population growth is the problem and it is possible that a “demographic shift toward more retirees and fewer workers could throw the rest of the world into the kind of interminable economic stagnation that Japan is experiencing right now.”

Julian Simon famously argued, against the Malthusian/environmentalist world view, that more people means more workers, more minds, and more prosperity. More people, he argued, are not just more mouths to feed. They are more Isaac Newtons and Thomas Edisons and Henry Fords, so the last thing we should want is a stagnant or declining population. Unless current trends change (and they often do), we are about to see a global demonstration of Simon’s point.


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