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 cavemen 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, 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 preindustrial 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 suggest 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.