The Ultimate Resource

Policy makers often claim poverty is caused by "overpopulation." In places like Congo, Zimbabwe, and Hong Kong, however, just the opposite is true. Is man really a burden on earth, or the ultimate resource?

Why is it that mankind enjoys cell phones, computers and airplanes today but not when King Louis XIV was alive?

The necessary physical resources to make cell phones, computers and airplanes have always been around, even when caveman walked the Earth.

There is only one answer to why we enjoy these goodies today and not yesteryear. It's the growth in human knowledge and ingenuity, along with specialization and trade, that led to the industrialization, coupled with personal liberty and private property rights.

For most of mankind's existence, he has been self-sufficient and spent most of his time simply eking out a living.

In pre-industrial societies, and in some places today, the most optimistic scenario for the ordinary person was to be able to eke out enough to meet his physical needs for another day.

With the rise of industrialization and development of markets, and the concomitant rise in human productivity that yielded seemingly ceaseless economic progress, it was no longer necessary for mankind to spend his entire day to meet his physical needs.

People became able to satisfy these needs with less and less time. This made it possible for more people to have the time to read, become educated in the sciences and liberal arts, gain more knowledge and become more productive.

The resulting wealth also enabled them the opportunity to develop spiritually and culturally through attending the arts and participate in other life activities that were formerly within the purview of the rich.

Contrary to the myths we hear about how overpopulation causes poverty, poor health, unemployment, malnutrition and overcrowding, human beings are the most valuable resource and the more of them the better.

There is absolutely no relationship between high populations and economic despair. For example, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, formerly Zaire, has a meager population density of 22 people per square kilometer while Hong Kong has a massive population density of 6,571 people per square kilometer.

Hong Kong is 300 times more crowded than the Congo. If there were any merit to the population control crowd's hysteria, Hong Kong would be in abject poverty while the Congo flourishes. Yet Hong Kong's annual per capita income is $28,000 while the Congo's is $309, making it the world's poorest country.

What are the chances for the United States to become overpopulated? The population census has us at 304 million. How many more people could we handle?

I don't have an answer, but here are a couple of facts that suggests we have a ways to go before we have to worry about overpopulation. All urban areas, any community of at least 2,500 people, cover less than 3 percent of the U.S.'s 2.3 billion acre land mass.

The world's population is 6.7 billion. That means if the entire world's population were put into the U.S., each person would have about a third of an acre.

Nobody is talking about putting the world's population in the U.S. It is merely to suggest that neither the U.S. nor the world is running out of space.

Population controllers have a Malthusian vision of the world that sees population growth as outpacing the means for people to care for themselves.

Mankind's ingenuity has proven the Malthusians dead wrong. As a result of mankind's ingenuity, we can grow increasingly larger quantities of food on less and less land.

The energy used, per dollar of GDP, has been in steep decline, again getting more with less, and that applies to most other inputs we use for goods and services.

The greatest threat to mankind's prosperity is government. A recent example is Zimbabwe's increasing misery. Like our country, Zimbabwe had a flourishing agriculture sector, so much so it was called the breadbasket of southern Africa.

Today, its people are on the brink of starvation as a result of its government. It's the same story in many countries — government interference with mankind's natural tendency to engage in wealth-producing activities.

Blaming poverty on overpopulation not only lets governments off the hook; it encourages the enactment of harmful policies.

Walter E. Williams is a professor of economics at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. He has authored more than 150 publications, including many in scholarly journals, and has frequently given expert testimony before Congressional committees on public policy issues ranging from labor policy to taxation and spending.

8 comments from readers  

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I totally agree with the Zimbabwe story -- it is the increasing reliance on petroleum that concerns me -- and the inevitable crash of our lifestyle if the price insists on increasing to all these 22 ppl/sq. mile around the globe
This is the most important message Dr. Williams has ever penned!

Thank You Dr. Williams!
I was always convinced that over population was a problem in the world because it seems that one is constantly battling idiots all around. After reading this article I must say that I have reconsidered and now I see the real issue is one of philosophy instead.

An excellent article that makes one think.
I would have rated this a 5.0 as I usually do pieces by Dr. Williams, but there was just too much fractured English in it. I have never seen this before in a Williams commentary, so it may be due to a bad transcription from the original source.

Americans today commonly fail to understand how much land once farmed in America has reverted to woodland. We have vast acreage which could be farmed, but which is not now needed given our incredible efficiency in producing food.

The reader concerned about more people using more fuel might want to consider that a few more Americans might address the problems of finding more fuel for the world population better than many who reside in other less innovative and efficient countries. In any case, man has a huge capacity for developing the new energy sources he needs when he needs them. It is a mistake to underestimate that ability. Unfortunately, many governments, including the U.S. governments, act to inhibit the search for new energy supplies and/or their deployment.
Absolutely fabulous reasoning, again, from the esteemed W. Williams!

Interestingly, I got into this argument with a couple of coworkers just last week. They both view human beings as nothing but consuming machines that never produce anything. The argument was over illegal immigration from Mexico, which they both viewed as "wrong," and, well...illegal!

I tried to explain how more people means more ideas and more production, not more consumption.

"But we'll all end up speaking Spanish!"

Yeah, right. How many of your relatives speak the language they're immigrant ancestor spoke before they came here? None, right? And what's so terrible about Spanish, anyway? It's a beautiful language. I wish I knew more of it.

"But we'll run out of room! And water! And and and...!"

BS, I said. Do you have any idea how under populated the US is? Besides, would you move to a place that had no work, or no way to make a living?

"But they're taking our welfare benefits!"

I could have screamed. OUR welfare benefits?? Hey, don't blame them for taking what we offer. That's our fault, not theirs!

"But they work for such low wages!"

And what does that mean to you and I as consumers? It means lower prices for everyone.

This argument went on and on for about 15 minutes. I was practically red faced at the fascist assumptions from these two biddies.

Thanks again, Mr. Williams, for reaffirming what is never reported in the mass media.
I love Walter E. Williams!
Outstanding and IMPORTANT article as always, Dr. Williams.

To the reader who made the unwarranted correlation between the arguments against the Malthusian view and the arguments FOR illegal immigration, I offer the following description:

"...slow regression away from many of the norms of democratic governance, such as democratic elections; the independence of the judiciary; the rule of law; freedom from racial discrimination; the existence of independent media, civil society and academia"

If this is sounding familiar, I would inform the reader that this is a Wikipedia description of a land half a world away - Zimbabwe. The rule of law is what prevents people like Mugabe from accumulating power. And welcoming, as a matter of pragmatism, the unlimited import of people who culturally disregard the rule of law only serves to undermine those protections. I'm all for making legal immigration much easier - but not at the price of disintegrating the bedrock of principles which keep men free.
This is a case where I must disagree. Any given community can reach a density of population that exceeds the ability of the land and resources to support it.

I have noticed this in my home town, where the wooded lots and open ground which I prize for its esthetic value is rapidly disappearing as claptrap houses are jammed onto the once empty space.

These houses come with people from other, less free parts of the country, ready to crowd our highways, change our laws and generally raise taxes and reduce our freedoms.

A few dozen brain surgeons, research scientists or creative artists are fine. A few thousand spoiled yuppies parking their SUV's on the road at 5 pm, voting to take away my guns and my fireworks, and filling up the open spaces where I used to relax or shoot my guns, that is another story alltogether. Not to mention the influx of non-English speaking immigrants who are exempt from the normal zoning laws, drivers licenses, insurance, criminal codes and other restrictions legal residents have to put up with. These people create endless havoc and cannot or will not be held accountable.

I don't mind speaking Spanish. I wish I knew it better. But every day it is harder and takes longer to drive across town, wait in line at the grocery store, and especially to deal with government bureaucracies.

Hong Kong is prosperous, but only because someone, somewhere, in a much less densely populated area, grows food to sell the residents of that human ant hill.
To post comments, please log in first. The Atlasphere is a social networking site for admirers of Ayn Rand's novels, most notably The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. In addition to our online magazine, we offer a member directory and a dating service. If you share our enjoyment of Ayn Rand's novels, please sign up or log in to post comments.