Are More People Better?

From the purely economic perspective, are more people better than fewer people?

Imagine a society with a population of 5 million, who achieve an average ING (individual net gain) of 50 health units per day.

Over time, the population doubles to 10 million people. Economic conditions remain the same, so the average ING stays at 50 units per day.

However, the social health aggregate has doubled from 250 million to 500 million units per day. Is this more populous society in some sense better off than the original one?

According to many economic thinkers through history, the answer is an emphatic "yes". Economic historian Joseph Schumpeter points out that,

With rare exceptions [economists] were enthusiastic about 'populousness' and rapid increase in numbers. In fact, until the middle of the 18th century, they were as nearly unanimous in this 'populationist' attitude as they have ever been in anything. A numerous and increasing population was the most important symptom of wealth; it was the chief cause of wealth; it was wealth itself — the greatest asset for any nation to have.1

This longstanding attitude ignores both the ecological dangers of excessive population levels and the concrete facts of people's lives, especially the poor.

For the most part, people experience their individual states, not social aggregates. People who are going hungry will hardly rejoice that the aggregate health of their society has increased because its population has multiplied. What matters to them is whether they and their families have enough to eat and a decent place to live.

From the perspective of lived experience, population — or any other aggregate — is an abstract and largely meaningless notion.

Although other factors were undoubtedly at play, a major driving force for higher populations over the past several centuries has been the economic logic of capitalism. The system requires a growing number of people both as workers and as consumers to maintain profits at an acceptable level.2

Much of the enthusiasm for expanding populations among conventional thinkers clearly derives from this fact.

Based on these considerations, ENL's goal of sustainable well-being does not refer to the maximization of aggregate health, but of average individual health. To achieve this end it is frequently necessary to deal with social aggregates, but these aggregates themselves are not the goal.

Thus, a higher population that achieves nothing more than an increase in total health does not constitute economic progress. Progress is achieved only when average ING rises in a sustainable manner.

In other words, ENL does not recognize population increase as an end in itself, but rather as a means to the end of maximum individual health for all members of a society.

<prev linear thread next>

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 License