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pologists for China’s one-child policy make bizarre economic arguments

My son, aged 16, is cleverer than me and knows more about
economic theory, which interests him. He has his own views on the
world. So I invited him to write a blog post on a topic of his
choosing. Here it is:

by Matthew Ridley

Janice Turner provided an amusing dose of irrational pessimism
in The Times on 21 August
(behind a paywall) with an argument for population control. Talking
of China’s efforts to control population, she says that:

That one-child policy, you have
to concede, certainly works

Her only evidence for such a startling proposition is that she
went to Beijing and discovered that it didn’t feel very crowded. I
can’t say for sure but I think the `hundreds and
thousands of girls and disabled children abandoned each year

in China, or the millions of Chinese women who have suffered from
forced abortions under the policy
(well worth reading the full
post), may not find such an argument very convincing. According
to one writer,

China’s one-child policy causes
more violence to women and girls than any other official policy on

Sadly the rest of the Times article does not improve much on
this bad start. Janice Turner’s arguments become increasing
economically questionable. For example, there is this gem:

The one-child policy also aids
the economy since, having to fork out less on child-raising,
[Chinese parents] can afford more consumer goods, [such as] a

This is an example of a classic economic fallacy recently
debunked in an excellent article by the FT‘s John
. The resources spent on making a consumer good such as a
car are economic costs rather than benefits; the “benefit” is the
value the consumer gets from owning said car. If some parents would
have derived more value from a second child than from a car, but
are forced to buy a car thanks to the one-child policy, that is a
loss to them and to the economy.

Then she says this:

In a world with ever greater
strain on natural resources…is the number of children in a family
only a private concern?

Well, yes, actually it is, because the child’s parents pay
(whether through prices or taxes) for all the resources used to
care for their children. If we think the production of those
resources imposes external costs on others, then we should increase
their price, not ban babies. Equally, if such resources start to
run out, then market forces will raise their prices, which in turn
will encourage people to innovate around such resource

It is said that we need new
workers to support an ageing population. But we expect our old to
stay in work even longer, which, if we continue to breed at this
rate, will mean more young unemployed.

This is a classic illustration of the depressingly common “lump
of labour” fallacy, which assumes there is a fixed amount of work
to be done in the economy which needs to be divided up among the
population. No good economist believes this to be true:
more work in the economy will stimulate economic growth and
consumption, which in turn creates more jobs for others. Countries
with higher populations do not have higher unemployment rates.

In fairness to Janice Turner, she does not advocate a one-child
policy for the West. Instead she proposes more moderate ‘solutions’
such as financial incentives for having fewer children. But frankly
she has failed to convince me that population needs to be
controlled at all. A rational optimist would recognise that there
are many benefits to a larger world population, such
as more minds to think up new innovations and add to the store of
collective intelligence. Sure, we should probably not subsidise new
births, as the UK Child Benefit does, but we shouldn’t restrict
them either. Let’s remember that world per-capita income increased
massively over the past century even as population skyrocketed, and
that population is set to level off in mid-century by itself anyway (see
chart below from World Resources Institute)

The most violent official policy in the world towards women
and girls is not what the West should be emulating now.


By Matt Ridley | Tagged:  Uncategorized