Are there too many people?

Whatever the answer, we need a population policy.

How many people do we need? How many do we want? The astonishing announcement last year that the population of England and Wales increased by more than 3.7 million between 2001 and 2011 brought population to the forefront of political debate here in Britain. Two recently published books on the consequences of continuing world population growth – Stephen Emmott’s Ten Billion and Danny Dorling’s Population Ten Billion – remind us that they are of global significance as well.

In 1926, John Maynard Keynes published one of his most celebrated essays – “The End of Laissez-Faire”, in which he proclaimed the demise of the ideology that had served as the fundamental underpinning of economic and social policy for most of the previous century. The Great War and its economic aftermath, Keynes explained, had done for the dogma that the unfettered pursuit of individual self-interest would always and everywhere be for the best. A new age was dawning: one in which the virtues of judicious government intervention would be rediscovered. There were three fields in particular, he predicted, in which deliberate regulation by government policy would be required.

The first was industry and national investment; the second, money and finance. On both these fronts, Keynes proved prophetic. After 1945, nationalisation of the commanding heights of the economy did indeed put control of aggregate investment firmly in the hands of the state and ingrained a presumption that the government is responsible for macroeconomic management, which survived intact the reprivatisation of industry in the 1980s and 1990s.

Meanwhile, in the monetary sphere, the self-regulating mechanism of the gold standard was swept away and replaced by today’s system of a central bank that sets interest rates in a deliberate effort to achieve low inflation and imposes rules (however feeble) to control the behaviour of commercial banks.

But in the third field that Keynes proposed, state regulation remains as taboo today as it was 87 years ago. “The time has already come,” he wrote, “when each country needs a considered national policy about what size of population, whether larger or smaller than at present or the same, is most expedient.”

Keynes merely asserted his point. Professors Emmott and Dorling make their cases in more detail, and in doing so they exemplify the two approaches to the population question that have dominated this debate for centuries.

Emmott takes the natural scientists’ approach – the perspective of biologists, chemists and physicists (though one that originated, ironically enough, with Robert Malthus – one of the fathers of modern economics). It sees the growth of human population, like that of other living things, as being constrained by the carrying capacity of the ecosystem: a physical limit defined by the scarce availability of natural resources.

Dorling, on the other hand, takes the social scientists’ approach – the way of geographers, economists and anthropologists. This sees population growth as determined by political, social and economic factors, rather than physical conditions.

At one level, the natural scientists’ approach is correct. There must be some physical limit to the number of human beings that can be sustained by the earth. In practice, however, the social scientists’ approach is the more relevant one. Human beings live in society and for many millennia now the binding constraints on population growth have been not physical but social and political. Famines, as Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen demonstrated, are generally the result of political failures, not natural causes.

It would be nice if we could understand human society as a natural system, but unfortunately we can’t. In modern economies, people make decisions – about everything from what to buy to how many children to have – based on economic and social incentives, not physical needs. And while physical needs and the earth’s capacity to supply them may be fixed, social needs and the economy’s ability to meet them are not.

In the physical sphere, requirements don’t change: we need the same number of calories to survive today as our ancestors did 500 generations ago. In the social sphere, however, what is valued today is often worthless tomorrow, and people’s behaviour changes accordingly. Just ask the management of BlackBerry or Nokia. Conversely, things not even imagined today may be considered bare necessities in five years’ time. Just ask Mark Zuckerberg – or, on a more prosaic level, whoever it was that invented the chain coffee shop on the high street.

The point, when it comes to population, is that it is social conventions, economic incentives and (most importantly in China) state decrees that determine how many children people have, not physical constraints or the lack of them. These social determinants can be changed and the rate of population growth will change with them.

Many people prefer this social scientists’ perspective because it sounds liberating – or at least, less pessimistic than the Malthusian vision of the natural scientists. Emmott predicts that the world’s population will imminently outrun its resources and so concludes with the apocalyptic advice that today’s children should learn how to use a gun. Dorling’s first chapter, by contrast, is called “Stop Worrying” – because the optimal population level is not some objective fact that can be backed out of a mathematical model of agricultural inputs and outputs, but a collective choice. So maybe there’s no problem after all.

In fact, it cuts both ways. If the question of the optimal level of population is political, not scientific, it may indeed be that the answer will be larger than today’s. But it might also be the same, or smaller. It seems Keynes was right: in matters of demography no less than macroeconomics, it is a fiction to believe that we are objects in a natural system governed by unalterable laws – and that things will therefore take care of themselves and a policy of laissez-faire is the best we can do. Britain, and the world, should indeed start thinking seriously about what level of population it wants.

Photograph: Getty Images

Macroeconomist, bond trader and author of Money

This article first appeared in the 23 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Can Miliband speak for England?

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Jeremy Corbyn sat down on train he claimed was full, Virgin says

The train company has pushed back against a viral video starring the Labour leader, in which he sat on the floor.

Seats were available on the train where Jeremy Corbyn was filmed sitting on the floor, Virgin Trains has said.

On 16 August, a freelance film-maker who has been following the Labour leader released a video which showed Corbyn talking about the problems of overcrowded trains.

“This is a problem that many passengers face every day, commuters and long-distance travellers. Today this train is completely ram-packed,” he said. Is it fair that I should upgrade my ticket whilst others who might not be able to afford such a luxury should have to sit on the floor? It’s their money I would be spending after all.”

Commentators quickly pointed out that he would not have been able to claim for a first-class upgrade, as expenses rules only permit standard-class travel. Also, campaign expenses cannot be claimed back from the taxpayer. 

Today, Virgin Trains released footage of the Labour leader walking past empty unreserved seats to film his video, which took half an hour, before walking back to take another unreserved seat.

"CCTV footage taken from the train on August 11 shows Mr Corbyn and his team walked past empty, unreserved seats in coach H before walking through the rest of the train to the far end, where his team sat on the floor and started filming.

"The same footage then shows Mr Corbyn returning to coach H and taking a seat there, with the help of the onboard crew, around 45 minutes into the journey and over two hours before the train reached Newcastle.

"Mr Corbyn’s team carried out their filming around 30 minutes into the journey. There were also additional empty seats on the train (the 11am departure from King’s Cross) which appear from CCTV to have been reserved but not taken, so they were also available for other passengers to sit on."

A Virgin spokesperson commented: “We have to take issue with the idea that Mr Corbyn wasn’t able to be seated on the service, as this clearly wasn’t the case.

A spokesman for the Corbyn campaign told BuzzFeed News that the footage was a “lie”, and that Corbyn had given up his seat for a woman to take his place, and that “other people” had also sat in the aisles.

Owen Smith, Corbyn's leadership rival, tried a joke:

But a passenger on the train supported Corbyn's version of events.

Both Virgin Trains and the Corbyn campaign have been contacted for further comment.

UPDATE 17:07

A spokesperson for the Jeremy for Labour campaign commented:

“When Jeremy boarded the train he was unable to find unreserved seats, so he sat with other passengers in the corridor who were also unable to find a seat. 

"Later in the journey, seats became available after a family were upgraded to first class, and Jeremy and the team he was travelling with were offered the seats by a very helpful member of staff.

"Passengers across Britain will have been in similar situations on overcrowded, expensive trains. That is why our policy to bring the trains back into public ownership, as part of a plan to rebuild and transform Britain, is so popular with passengers and rail workers.”

A few testimonies from passengers who had their photos taken with Corbyn on the floor can be found here