Overpopulation is not the problem

The real problem is undergovernance

People say and believe many things to explain India’s failings. The most popular is that many things are broken in India because “India is a poor country.” A discussion on this is for another day. The second most popular explanation is that India’s problems are because “India is overpopulated.” Let’s interrogate this further.

The claim that any place can be overpopulated presumes that there is a optimum level of population. Well, there isn’t. Whatever the geography, there is no ideal number of human beings. To argue that there is an optimum population would be to ignore history, geography, biology and technology.

The human population has grown, and the population at any time appears shockingly large to a person from an earlier epoch, perhaps even an earlier decade. That same person is also likely to be shocked by the advances in material well-being over time. There doesn’t seem to be an ideal population beyond which human well-being falls apart…in living memory and fossil record.

It is easy to believe, like Malthus, that human beings are outstripping the capacity of the land to provide for their food and other necessities. Educated people in the 18th century can be forgiven for believing this. Educated people in the 21st century believe this only by ignoring three centuries of empirical evidence. Current day environmentalists, like Malthusians of an earlier era, ignore or underestimate the capacity of human beings to adapt, innovate and thrive in any environmental context. Yes, the great march of human innovation can stall, ingenuity can come to a halt, and humans might take the ecosystem to a point where the species will be destroyed. One serious response to it is “so what?”. The other serious response is to put the onus of those who believe in such things to show why innovation and ingenuity should falter now, when it has not done so in living memory and fossil record.

Humans will transform the environment—driving some species to extinction, creating entirely new species, changing the physical landscape—but only those romantically wedded to any particular status quo will place a negative value judgement on this. The rest will enjoy brave new worlds day after day as we have throughout living memory. (Imagine how beautiful the countryside in Wiltshire, England would have looked before those humans put some big, ugly stones there).

So there is no ideal population size. Some of those who accept this conclusion will argue that that being so, surely overcrowding is a problem. The evidence for this argument is weak: Macau, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea and the Netherlands have higher population densities than India and few would argue that they are worse governed than India is. Yes, Indian cities have among the highest population densities in the world, but there are many cities outside India with high densities that do pretty well on the governance front.

The overpopulation argument does not hold up. That should lead us to ask what is the problem that we are describing as overpopulation. The answer is undergovernance. To say that our public institutions have the capacity to handle only so large a population is not an argument to reduce the population. It is an argument to enlarge the capacity of our public institutions. Like Procustes, we cannot chop off the legs of sleepers who were too tall to sleep on his bed. We need longer beds. Enlarging capacity is about better ideas, better technology, better people and more people engaged in governance. It is wholly wrong to attribute our failure to scale up governance to keep pace with population growth to ‘overpopulation’.

The overpopulation argument is prevalent in many democracies where the state has to perform welfare functions. It is particularly popular in India because of our history (why only history, our current reality) of being a socialist welfare state. When “mouths have to be fed” then having more mouths than the money to feed them is a problem. It is perhaps not a coincidence that the most socialist government of them all was also the one attempting the worst methods to control population growth.

If the governance mindset changes to equipping people to feed themselves then the number of mouths is less of a concern. Straitjacketing human capital, limiting its ability to grow, constraining its ability to develop and then complaining that there are just too many people is an astoundingly self-defeating argument. It is time to stop indulging in it.

(This is an unedited draft. There might be typos)

To escape the tyranny of the ignorant

Why education must outpace population growth

How do societies become enlightened? If they are under authoritarian rule, a small elite can impose values of the broader population. Sometimes authoritarians—or leaders with personal charisma and political power—promote enlightenment values: Peter the Great and Kemal Ataturk, for instance, used political power to push liberal values into their societies. Indian nationalists like Gokhale, Gandhi, Nehru and Ambedkar did the same, although they took a more democratic approach and constitutional methods to do so. The Constitution of India was an elite enterprise and was (is?) far ahead of its time in terms of the values it sought to enshrine in the genetic code of the new republic. Whether in Russia, Turkey or India, what we can see is that while it is relatively easy for the state to inject enlightenment values into society, it is by no means a given that society will completely adopt the package.

The challenge of promoting enlightenment values becomes much harder in a democratic societies that are under the grip of tradition, orthodoxy, orthopraxy, ignorance or lack of education. Here the principal channel for promoting enlightenment is education (again, in the sense of open-mindedness and critical reasoning). Yet it is not uncommon for the education system to be controlled by the very sections of society that oppose enlightenment values. Democracy empowers everyone alike—the liberal and the bigot, the enlightened and the ignorant, the reasoner and the dogmatist. Ignorant majorities can democratically decide to expunge Reason. In the absence of an educated population, democracy ends up as the tyranny of the ignorant. [See this post on dogma, reason and democracy]

For democratic societies to become enlightened the pace of education (E) must be higher than the rate of population growth (P). If E > P long enough for a majority of the population to be educated, then enlightenment is likely to prevail in a democratic society. If E < P, then that society is likely to ultimately reject enlightenment. It becomes impossible to endogenously and democratically reform the education system (in the broadest sense of the term) once it crosses a point of no return. The existence of countries like this in the contemporary world should serve as a signal warning against complacence on the E/P ratio.

One important argument that contests reaching the conclusion we have arrived at concerns the role of institutions. Institutions where they exist, the argument goes, will defend enlightenment values. Well, yes, but institutions are comprised of mortal individuals. The individuals that constitute institutions are prisoners of the same narratives as the rest of society. The ‘doctrine of necessity’ will cause them to side with the popular. No institution can escape the hard social arithmetic of the E/P ration. The strongest constitutional institution, the most influential liberal social institutions are subject to education prevailing over ignorance. Tamasoma jyotirgamaya.

Tailpiece: The term “education” is used here not in the narrow technical sense of literacy rates, graduation rates and so on. It is possible to acquire post-graduate degrees while remaining uneducated. Similarly, it is possible to be well-educated without ever having to go to school. Education is the ability to acquire and use knowledge and most importantly, employ reason in decision-making.

Dogma, Reason and Democracy

To the extent that people subscribe to dogmas, democracy is a risk to Reason and values that derive from it.

How to protect Reason from democratically-enforced dogma

Democracy is popular. Other than self-serving polemic promoted by authoritarian regimes or by dispossessed elite, it is rare to find anyone criticising democracy. For thoughtful people, democracy is, as that Churchill cliché goes, “the worst form of government except for all the others.” Yet some—perhaps even a lot of—scepticism is warranted in terms of democracy’s role in the long war between Dogma and Reason that has been in progress for much of human history.

Indeed, it is possible to argue that most—if not all—big political debates are essentially different forms of the fundamental conflict: should humans follow some form of dogma, or use knowledge, reason & critical reasoning in making decisions. What individuals do in their private lives is less of a concern. How they decide on public issues matters a lot more. Should slavery be banned? Should abortion be declared criminal? Should women be allowed to willingly immolate themselves on the pyres of their dead husbands? Should cloning be allowed? Should we allow foreign direct investment in retail? Should voting rights belong to citizens or to all people living in the country? The most vexing questions of politics are essentially dogma vs reason, playing out in different contexts.

So what role does democracy play in this conflict? Do democratic states always tend to push the moral envelope towards greater reason? For instance, aren’t democracies more liberal than non-democracies? Perhaps yes. But this might merely be a temporary correlation: are they liberal because they are democracies, or democracies because they are liberal? We can’t say for sure, as there are other factors at play that might have made societies more liberal, democratic or both.

Bryan Caplan has a compelling argument on why democracies fail:

“In the view of most democracy skeptics, it fails because it does not do what voters want. In my view, democracy fails because it does what voters want. In economic jargon, democracy has a built-in externality. An irrational voter does not hurt only himself. He also hurts everyone who is, as a result of his irrationality, more likely to live under misguided policies. Since most of the cost of voter irrationality is external—paid for by other people—why not indulge? If enough voters think this way, socially injurious policies win by popular demand.[The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies]

Mr Caplan’s argument is that people have systematic biases that, unlike random biases, do not cancel each other out. In other words, if biases towards colour of shirts were random in the electorate, then they would cancel each other out and no particular colour would be more likely to win. However, if people had a systematic bias towards purple even to a small degree, the electoral verdict is quite likely to go purple. (Read the book to understand more deeply how this happens)

This argument, in itself, is a powerful indictment of democracy. It explains why democratic governments choose policies that are bad for them. If we factor in “education” (in the sense of reasoning, critical thinking and open-mindedness) then democracies can amplify dogma, in extreme cases, into a vicious cycle where society surrenders to dogma.

Consider a democracy where a simple majority of the people have an unshakeable dogmatic belief that Everyone Must Wear Purple Shirts. The rest of the people have a shakeable belief in everything and make up their minds based on available facts. Since the facts do not point to any advantage of purple shirts, they disagree with the Dogmatists who insist on purple shirts. Let’s assume everyone votes. It is quite likely that the politician who runs on a “Wear Purple” ticket is likely to defeat her competitors. And once she acquires political power, depending on her political strength, she is likely to change public policies to promote the wearing of purple. She is likely to focus on the education system, introducing purple into the curriculum so that she has an inherent advantage against the Reasoning politicians. In the future, politics will be about the shade of purple that people must wear.

In this highly simplified example, Democracy worked, the majority got what they wanted, but Reason lost. The real world is more complex, but the fundamental argument remains valid. To the extent that people subscribe to dogmas, democracy is a risk to Reason and values that derive from it.

Mr Caplan sees democracies failings as an argument for governments to let the market determine economic outcomes (his book consciously limits itself to economics). Given the risk democracy poses to Reason*, and therefore, to itself we should go further. The zeroth requirement is for democracies to be constrained by a republican constitution that affirms fundamental rights.

First, those who prefer a slightly more reasoning society than a slightly more dogmatic one must unequivocally defend freedom of speech and expression. Unpopular and dissenting voices must not only be tolerated but enjoy absolute protection. As my colleague V Anantha Nageswaran noted during a recent conversation on this topic, actors in ancient India enjoyed total freedom and protection for what they said on stage. Likewise, court jesters. Such freedoms are protected in many democracies, but your mileage varies depending on which democracy you are speaking out in. Freedom of speech and expression must be protected in law and in practice.

Second, those who believe minds should not surrender to dogma must hold up the freedom of education. This means that while the government can pursue uniform standards, syllabi and curricula in its role of delivering a public good, it should not be allowed to monopolise the curriculum. People should be free to start and send their children to schools of their choice, teach and learn curricula of their choice, with no interference by the government or self-appointed custodians of public values. If this means some parents send their children to religious schools, nature schools or witchcraft & wizardry schools, so be it. It would be a small price to pay in the defence of Reason.

Third, the separation of powers into the legislature, executive and judiciary is not only for the purpose of ensuring that no single entity is too powerful. It charges the judiciary with the duty to defend the constitution and dispense justice without reference to what is popular. Here again, your mileage varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, from time to time. In recent years we have had the US Supreme Court under John Roberts declaring it is not the job of the Supreme Court to “protect people from the consequences of their political decisions”. In India, while courts have been criticised for judicial activism and overreach, cases of judicial populism have received lesser attention. Trials by jury suffer from the defect that they subject questions of guilt and innocence to popular mores. This doesn’t mean trials by judges escapes the defect completely: judges are cut from the same cloth as jurors, and both from that of their compatriots. One way to reduce such risks might be for judges to come from other jurisdictions—rotate them more frequently across states, and bring in foreign judges from similar jurisdictions.

* Disclaimer: In a contest between Dogma and Reason, The Acorn stands on the side of the latter. Hence the implied value judgement.