In the two centuries since Malthus first predicted the apocalypse, the world population has risen sixfold—from one billion to more than six billion. Over the same time, average life expectancy has more than doubled—and average real income has risen ninefold.
In the four decades since Paul Ehrlich declared the battle to feed humanity over, a Chinese people who saw millions of their fellow citizens perish from famine as recently as the early 1960s are now better fed than ever in memory.
And in the years since Mr. McNamara predicted we could not sustain existing population levels, we have seen the greatest economic takeoff in East Asia—among nations with almost no natural resources and some of the largest and most crowded populations in the world.
Not that the record counts for much. Time and again Malthus has been disproved—and Malthus himself seems to have revised his own thinking in later years. Advanced and comfortable societies, however, seem to have an appetite for the prophets of apocalypse. The jargon may change—Mr. McNamara’s warnings about thermonuclear war have given way to ominous talk of carbon footprints, unsustainable growth, ‘Humanpox,’ and the like. Yet at the bottom of it all remains the same zero-sum approach that sees the human being as the enemy rather than the solution.
And the greatest irony of all? Many of the same nations that once tried so hard to push their birth rates down—Japan and Singapore, for example—are now frantically trying to encourage their people to have more children as they see the costs of a rapidly aging population. My own prediction is that within a few years China will join them, replacing its one-child policy with inducements to Chinese women to have more babies.
Am I suggesting, then, that we trade the Sermon on the Mount for The Wealth of Nations? Hardly. I do say that when it comes to the banquet of life, our economists have proved themselves more gracious hosts than our humanitarians; that a businessman who travels to a poor country and envisions a thriving factory has a more realistic assessment of human possibility than the U.N. aid worker who believes the answer is reducing the birth rate; and that the champions of liberty tend to do better by humanity than the champions of humanity do by either.