Overpopulation, either locally or globally, is often blamed on a number of apparent problems from the shortage of particular (usually “essential”) resources all the way up to the outright poverty of entire continents. Although few governments, most notably the Chinese, have enacted any strict policies in order to control their populations (except with regards to immigration), factoids such as the allegation that, if every single human wanted to enjoy a Western lifestyle we would need something like a dozen earths, attempt to create an unwarranted degree of hysteria.

The myth of overpopulation rests on the belief that humanity is akin to some kind of cancer which, as it grows exponentially, devours a fixed or arithmetically growing pool of resources that must be shared between everyone who has been unfortunate enough to have been born. This would have been the case in a hand-to-mouth society that preceded capitalism and the division of labour. There was effectively no production and the birth of each individual person constituted merely another mouth to feed. In other words, an increase in population led to an increase in demand for consumption without any corresponding increase in production, thus putting pressure on the existing stock of resources that had to be shared by everyone. Nevertheless, when it comes to shortages of goods in local markets today we can surmise that even if there was a fixed or otherwise relatively limited pool of resources that everyone had to share we couldn’t pin the blame for shortages on such a fact. In a free society, a particular good might be very expensive but it should never be the case that we cannot find anything. As the population increases the price of resources would rise and thus choke off demand for the least valuable uses. Shortages, rather, are always the result of government price controls that try to create the illusion of abundance without the reality, decimating the current supply and obliterating any incentive to produce more. That aside, however, the blatant reality for a capitalist society marked by the division of labour is that there is not a fixed or arithmetically growing pool of wealth and resources, and that the whole purpose of such a society is to grow, exponentially, the amount of wealth that is available. Indeed, as we shall see, humanity has succeeded in this endeavour to only a fraction of its capacity.

When the first human being trod the virgin soil of the earth, he found himself in a situation of almost unrelenting poverty. Mother Nature, as anyone trapped for an extended period of time in the wilderness has discovered, is far from a kind host, providing very little (except air to breathe and fruit on wild trees) by way of resources that can be consumed immediately for very little effort. Yet all of the matter contained in every resource that we enjoy today – buildings, cars, refrigerators, televisions, computers, clothing, medicines, and so – was, give or take a little, right there at the beginning of the world’s existence. Strictly speaking, no human being has ever created anything – rather he has merely transformed matter from one thing into another. So why, if all this matter was there from the very start, weren’t these wonderful things available to our first human? The reason is, of course, that a human must apply his labour in order to change the matter available in the world into useful resources that fulfil his ends. Yet the work of one man with his unaided body alone was not sufficient to create all of the wonderful things that we enjoy today. Indeed, it might take a single human being an entire day to hunt or catch enough fish for just one meal before the process must be repeated the following day. How can this be limitation be overcome?

The first answer is quite simply the very bugbear that is complained about – an increased population. A greater number of humans can together lift and carry a far greater amount than one man alone. Several or many men building a house would accomplish the task in a far shorter time than one man alone. More importantly, however, the widening of the division of labour as the population grows ensures that production stays ahead of population growth. Additional humans constitute an additional demand for consumption – ten humans may require ten houses whereas one human would require only one. But the fact that these men are also producers means that each can now fill his day by specialising in a particular task. One man, devoid of the ability to specialise, may take a year to build one house and he would have to undertake every single activity related to the building work on his own. With ten men, however, two may specialise in lumber felling, another two in transport, some in building, and the task of one the men may be solely to produce food and other supplies for the men doing direct work on the houses. The result of this is a greater degree and concentration of knowledge and an increased perfection of technique and expertise in each task. The resulting time saving means that, whereas one man would take one year to build one house, ten men would less than one year to build ten houses. Thus the rate of house building overtakes the rate of the increase in population. We therefore see that the quantity of labour has a marked effect on the accumulation of wealth and the transformation of matter into useful economic resources, provided that a society is distinguished by capitalism and the division of labour. To further emphasise this point, it is the twin effect of the consumption demand of the additional people coupled with the fact that these people are also producers that makes an ever increasing widening of the division of labour possible. If ten houses have to be produced then it might not be possible for one man to concentrate on any single task in order to fill his day; he might have to work in installing the wiring, the plumbing and the wallpaper. If one hundred houses have to be built then he might be able to concentrate on plumbing alone. If one thousand houses are built then he might be able to specialise on plumbing just bathrooms whereas someone else works on plumbing kitchens, for instance. The ever increasing volume of demand from an increasing population therefore begats an ever increasing division of labour when that population is put to work, and with it come all the benefits of specialisation and expertise.

Second, although it is flexible, the human body is a relatively weak and feeble creature, capable of moving and lifting only a tiny amount of matter at any one time. Regardless, therefore, of the quantity of labour available we can see that fifty men carrying sacks on their back would fail to transport as many goods in as short a space of time as, say, a railway locomotive hauling some wagons. The power of labour is therefore a further limiting factor on the number of resources that can be enjoyed. This power can only be increased by accumulating ever greater amounts of capital. All such goods – machines, tools, vehicles, and so on – are, fundamentally, merely extensions of the human body that enable its labour to accomplish more than it otherwise would. A man with an axe can fell a greater a number of trees than a man whose body is unaided by this implement. For centuries, humans could not labour to extract oil from the ground and refine it into petroleum. Yet with the capital available to construct drilling apparatus, oil rigs and refineries this is no longer the case. Indeed, most direct labour today is not concerned with the production of consumption goods at all. Rather, it is devoted to the production, augmentation and improvement of capital goods. In short, it is directed towards increasing the power of labour.

What we begin to see, therefore, is that it is not necessarily the scarcity of resources burdened by an ever increasing population that is the real obstacle to the growth of wealth and economic progress; rather, it is the scarcity of labour and the power of that labour as represented by the stock of capital goods which serve to enhance it. Goods are, to be sure, the original source of scarcity. We apply our labour only because the available quantity of a given resource exists in insufficient supply relative to the ends to which it could be devoted. Yet the power of our labour is a significant compounding factor on the degree of scarcity that we must endure. My body may only have enough capability in order to fetch a few buckets of water from a nearby stream – yet more than three quarters of the globe is covered in water. It is because the power of my labour is relatively weak that most of this water is either too far away or of insufficient quality to serve me any practical end. Only be improving the power of my labour – by being able to move greater distances, lift heavier volumes and develop processes of purification – could I hope to enjoy more water.

Such a circumstance is not limited to such a clearly abundant resource such as water. The entire world, right from the depths of the core of the Earth all the way up to the stratosphere is densely packed with matter. Our labour has only ever been able to harness a mere fraction of these resources, mostly skimmed from the Earth’s crust. As time goes on however, as population increases and with it capital accumulation and the widening of the division of labour, we harness the ability to tap into more and more of these resources. Hence, mines and oil fields that were once too costly to drill are now drilled (and, indeed, are more productive than the most productive fields of yesteryear); such mines could eventually reach depths of miles rather feet; and valuable elements can now be extracted from more complex ores. There is no reason to believe that this process cannot continue. Even today, the sea contains traces of elements such as gold which, in their totality, amount to a far greater quantity than all of that ever mined from beneath the land – 20 million tons compared to 175,000 tons respectively. Yet our labour is insufficient to take advantage of this fact. Indeed the sea remains one of the greatest untapped resources available to us. Unlike private land settlement which led to a prosperous agriculture and exploitation of the land, government has pretty much closed off areas of the sea to the possibility of settlement, preventing the development of a full-fledged aquaculture and robbing us of the ability to exploit this wonderful gift of nature.

It is for this reason – the increasing power of labour – that all predictions of resource depletion as a result of overpopulation (not to mention the ridiculousness of disingenuous “facts” such as the allegation that twelve earths are required to give everyone a Western lifestyle) – have failed. In the well known Ehrlich-Simon wager, for instance, economist Julian Simon made a bet in 1980 with biologist Paul Ehrlich that the price of five metals of Ehrlich’s choosing would have declined in price ten years later – indicating increasing availability of resources rather than increasing scarcity. Simon won the bet outright, in spite of a population increase of 800 million during that decade. Other peddlers of the overpopulation thesis, such as Albert Allen Bartlett, have labelled the views presented here as “cornucopian” or “the new flat earth” – mythical, whimsical and not based on any serious scientific understanding. What these people share in common is that they simply do not account for the future economic viability of production from what are currently viewed as uneconomic resources. For the clear result is that as population has increased we have been able to apply more labour with a greater power of that labour to a greater number of the world’s resources in ways that we were not able to do before. The ultimate goal, needless to say, would be something akin to molecular engineering – the ability to transform worthless matter such as dirt, trash or even air – into valuable resources. The futuristic “replicators” on TV shows such as Star Trek can apparently conjure goods such as a fully cooked meal out of thin air; yet the science behind would not be too difficult to imagine. We have already harnessed the ability to transform matter into energy through processes such as combustion. We can envisage that one day we could do the reverse and transform energy into matter. An inedible sack of coal could end up as a fabulous meal on your dining table.

Overpopulation does, however, give the appearance of being a problem as a result of government interference. Above we noted above, additional consumption demand represented by an increasing population serves in increase wealth provided that the additional population are also producers and therefore will act so as to widen the division of labour and the accumulation of capital. Yet the actions of government serve to swell consumption while choking off production. Pressure on resources and industries therefore arises from government control of these things. Britain’s decrepit healthcare, energy and transport systems are bursting at the seams as a result of demand and increasing costs, a direct result of inefficiency combined with prices that are too low which serve to swell consumption demand in these industries. Government pays its citizens to produce babies and thus increase the population, while an increasing immigrant population today is induced not by the freedom to pursue one’s own goals and to better one’s own life for oneself through hard work and productivity, but, rather, by generous welfare states. All of this causes a rising population that contributes to consumption but very little by way of production. In other words, if you set up the economic system to make consumption as care free as possible and production as costly as it could be then the excess of consumption and a deficit of production will give the illusion of overpopulation. Government therefore begins to look on its citizens as pests and parasites, wanton consumers of precious resources that are desperately running out. Yet the problem is not with resources; rather the problem is with the ability of the government to swell the ranks of consumers and its inability to increase the power of labour, together with its incessant stifling of anyone else who tries to do so. Every additional person who is born in the world is another mouth to feed, another person who will demand the consumption of resources. Yet that person could also be a producer who will widen the division of labour and help to grow the capital stock. Government succeeds only in breeding the consumer in a man while totally destroying in him the producer.

Turning to a related aspect, the fact that whole continents, such as Africa, are mired in poverty has nothing to do with the allegation that the richer countries refuse to “share” their wealth. If the richer countries did not have their wealth, it would not mean that poorer countries would have more – the wealth simply would not have been produced, period. Indeed, whatever wealth that does exist in poor places is often the result of Western enterprise or outright gift. These places do not lack resources; rather, they lack the institutions of private property and voluntary exchange that enable capitalism and the division of labour to flourish, and with them a greater command of labour over resources. Indeed, many of these countries are proceeding down the wrong path by setting up welfare states, trade unions and Keynesian economic (mis)management overseen by democratic institutions which are, of course, the very things that are destroying the standard of living in the West. The West achieved its greatest accomplishments in a pre-democratic, pre-welfare state and pre-union age before Marxism and socialism succeeded in leading the onslaught against capitalism and private property.

What we can see, therefore, is that overpopulation is not a fundamental economic problem. It is only an apparent problem in a society that is hampered by government intervention and the stifling of private property rights, the division of labour and capital accumulation. However, even if population started to put pressure on resources when, in a capitalist society, we reached the (unlikely) point where we were regularly turning over all of the matter in existence to meet our ends – we would still conclude that this would not be a problem worthy of any serious attention. Or at the very least, it would certainly not be a problem that merited any centralised, government control. For as population increases relative to the supply of resources, the latter become more expensive. The cost of raising a child therefore itself becomes prohibitively more expense and people would need to choose between devoting ever more valuable resources to themselves or to their children. Indeed one of the first of such resources to exert this pressure may well be land, assuming we have not, by then, invented the ability to produce more of it artificially. We could, of course, build upwards and end up living in skyscrapers but people may prefer to breed less and have more land available to themselves rather than to their children. Such choices may serve to relieve, naturally, any exponential growth in population figures. Even if, though, people desired to keep on having more children it would only indicate that they prefer the company of children to enjoying more resources for themselves. There is no objective standard by which to complain about the result of such a choice. Nevertheless, even when it comes to the question of land, humanity is currently so far from this point that we hardly need to bother mentioning it, except to try and concede to the overpopulation thesis its best possible case.

The illusion of overpopulation is exacerbated today by a fundamentally antagonistic attitude from what Murray Rothbard called the “professional foes of humanity”, the environmentalist movement1. Apart from this movement’s interference in one the most crucial markets for capital accumulation – the production of energy – the fundamentals of their philosophy view the earth as inherently beautiful and sacred, and any of humanity’s attempts to exploit it as sacrilege. Such a view is radically anti-human and can only hold that the problem with the Earth is that there are too many of these stupid, dirty, polluting, and wantonly consuming human beings. Given the influence that this movement holds it is no small wonder that such thinking permeates into more mainstream views. That aside, however, we can conclude from what we have learnt here that humans need not fear increases in population. What they should fear, however, is their government turning additional people into spoon fed eaters with shackled hands – consumers who cannot produce. It is this fact that puts a very real pressure of resources. It is therefore not overpopulation that is the real problem but, rather, “over-government”.

View the video version of this post.

1Murray N Rothbard, Government and Hurricane Hugo: A Deadly Combination, Llewellyn H Rockwell Jr, (ed.), The Economics of Liberty, pp 136-40.