Poptimism (population-optimism) is a system of thinking that holds that a large and/or growing population is a good thing. It is a very loose school of thought, whose adherents may have nothing else in common save a general optimistic view of the human race in its abstract form. Whilst poptimism does have ramifications when it comes to the view taken of certain government policies, in it self it does not dictate any political agenda, and often ideas which may be described as poptimistic are misused to support the claims of other political ideologies.
I will go through five mechanisms whereby a large or growing population may improve the lives of individual human beings or else contribute towards other abstract goals which may be seen to ascribe purpose to existence.
Whatever one wants to do in life, ones ability to do it hinges upon money. Adam Smith identified mans propensity to “truck, barter and exchange” as a defining characteristic of human beings – one never sees two dogs exchanging one bone for another. So economics is important to human affairs. A growing population is often seen as an economic disadvantage – children are expensive to their parents, and a given pool of wealth divided between more people mean every individual gets less.
But of course, the pool of wealth is not given. When we spend money, the money does not disappear, it becomes someone else’s to spend. Money does not make anything, people do. When one puts a coin into a can machine, the machine does not eat it. The machine has no desire for it whatsoever. It is the owner of the can machine who benefits, who gets your money, and in turn he will spend it himself. In fact, as Smith explains, just as money does not make things, money does not buy things. Labour is the source of all wealth, and when there are more people, there are more hands to make things, and so there are more things to go round. So wealth, as defined as labour, always increases in proportion to the population, and so an increase in population is always equal to the increase in wealth, income per person remains the same.
Modern economic arguments are more complex. Of particular importance is the relationship of labour and capital to natural resources. Insofar as humanities wealth depends upon a fixed supply of natures fruits, then a growing population will be a poorer one. Malthus and Ricardo saw the fixed supply of land in the world as an impassable constraint to the growth of population. However, humankinds capacity to take advantage of the fruits of nature depends upon another variable, technology.
In the olden days, when the earth had few inhabitants, people often went hungry, because if they wanted food they had to go to some lengths to find it or even to catch it. Now, it is quite easy to do so, because of our technology and social organisation, so even though there is far less land and resources to go round, everyone seems to have more of it.
Technology is the application of human knowledge to the process of production. There are various theories as to what causes technological growth, be it greater literacy or greater investment, but the most exciting school of thought is that of Hayek. The use of knowledge in society and Competition as a discovery procedure advance the belief that the price mechanism is a system of communication and that the processes of the free market make firms apply the best production techniques and, indeed, forces them to find new resources, both human and natural. There is no given set of economic resources available to human beings. The quantity of resources available is defined by the economic system.
This links in with Olsen’s writings. The advantages of market integration are vastly larger than classical economics portrays, because the larger the market, the more competitive it is. A small market, whether the size of a village or a country, is subject to dominant interests who reduce efficiency and prevent competition to increase their share of output. If you increase the size of the market, so the whole world is trading together, then individual actors in individual countries can no longer exercise a dominant influence. They are forced to compete with the rest of the world.
In a global economy, population growth increases the number of players. More people means more new ideas, more resources to devote to research. More firms means more competition. More competition means more advanced technology, and more economic growth. A source of precious metals is no use sitting far under the ground. Technology provides a means of getting to it. Competition provides a means of forcing companies to develop the technology to access new natural resources, to apply human knowledge to the production process. Knowledge comes from human beings. Wealth comes from human beings. More human beings potentially means more wealth for each individual human being in society.
Generally speaking, poptimistic philosophies are those which hold that because human beings are a good thing, more human beings are preferable to fewer. This is a vastly oversimplified statement which nonetheless forms the centrepiece of any belief system that favours the fecundity
of the human race. This applies to monotheistic religious
traditions, where by God commands Adam and Eve
to cover the earth with their progeny. It really ought to be the same of humanist
ic philosophy, but for other reasons generally is not. Any philosophy that holds people to be the most important creature in the world – if not intrinsically good, at least better than anything else in the environment we inhabit – ought to favour growth in the number of human individuals insofar as it does not worsen the quality of life for existing human beings. Whether or not this is the case may depend upon ones view of the economic arguments above.
On top of this, some religions in particular view the act of creating offspring as a good itself. Roman Catholicism’s anti-contraceptive stance in itself is not poptimistic, as abstinence is encouraged as a means of limiting family size, and celibacy of priests and nuns is a particularly anti-poptimistic doctrine. On the other hand, one may argue that the desire behind rules against practical contraception are actually intended to make Roman Catholics have more children. More generally, religions deeply immersed in natural law philosophy, such as Catholicism and Islam, as well as some varieties of Hinduism, believe the purpose of human beings is to procreate, and so encourage couples to have large families, making these religions indirectly poptimistic.
When a person retire
s, they cease to contribute to the economy and become dependant upon those who continue to work for their economic needs. A shrinking population has a higher ratio of old people to young people
– and therefore a greater dependency ratio. Of course, a growing population has a different problem, children do not work but must be fed, clothed and educated. On the other hand, investment
in children, unlike that into pensioners, yields a return.
A poptimistic view of demography, in which an economy performs better with a growing population, would apply under circumstances in which retired persons are more expensive than children. This is more likely if children start working at a younger age and are cheaper to maintain, and if old people retire at a younger age, have more money to spend in their old age (due to good state pensions or lots of savings due to the economic conditions prevalent whilst they were working), receive more health care, and live longer.
As explained above under demographics, a growing population as more young people and fewer old people. Sociologically, young people tend to be more creative
than the old and less inclined to adhere to pre-established rules
. On top of this, a growing population means larger families. Under a one child system everyone is an only child. There are no younger and older sibling
s. However, only children like elder siblings are know to be, on average, more conservative
than younger siblings, as established rules favour their status as the eldest or only child. Large families lead to a diversity of personality traits
; the youngest siblings are likely to be the most rebellious
whilst middle siblings are more likely to be conciliatory
, favouring negotiation
(necessary when trapped between two extremes). Therefore a population shrinking due to small families will be an conservative one, whilst a population growing due to large family sizes will be a radical
and creative one.
This must be the most topic
. A large and growing population is a diverse one in which genetic variety
is increasing. A small and shrinking population is loosing its genetic diversity
and runs an ever increasing risk of inbreeding
. When a couple has only one child, half their genetic uniqueness is lost to the world. If they have two, a quarter disappears, but on top of this the process of random mutations
encouraged by our reproductive systems
introduces new variations
to the gene pool
, so the level of diversity stays constant (more or less). If a couple have three or more children, an even smaller part of the parents uniqueness is lost and even more diversity is created. So a growing population means a greater range of genetic difference
, and so a more healthy genetic stock
. This is all very common sense, more people equals more genes
I have covered a wide range of ideas and schools of thought, variously disjointed, but hopefully not contradicting each other, all with the common thread of a belief in the capacity of human beings to overcome the constraints to the expansion of the species, and benefit from its growth. Of course, one topic I have completely missed is the effect upon the environment. On the simplest level, if human beings occupy more room, there will be less room for wildlife. But it is a statement of faith on the part of poptimists such as myself that human effort can overcome such constraints and devise ways of preserving our environment. Technology can overcome pollution, and find new sources of energy. People are the source of all creative capacity. As long as there is life, there is hope.