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)