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?

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MP after a moonlighting job? I've got the perfect opportunity

If it's really about staying in touch with the real world, how about something menial and underpaid? Or reforming parliamentary rules on second jobs...

There she stood outside Number 10 on 13 July last year, the new Prime Minister pledging with earnest sincerity her mission to fight injustice and inequality, to “make Britain a country that works not for a privileged few, but for every one of us”.

 “When it comes to opportunity,” she promised the ‘just managing’ millions, “we won’t entrench the advantages of the fortunate few". Another new day had dawned

But predictably since then it’s been business as usual. If we needed proof, George Osborne has provided it: those who have so little must continue to go without so that the man with so much can have it all.

What would it take for Tory backbenchers to trouble Theresa May’s serenity? Not her u-turn on Brexit. Nor her denial of Parliament’s right to scrutinise the terms of the UK's uncertain future. Certainly not a rampant Labour opposition.

But were she to suggest that they give up their adventures in the black economy and focus on the job their constituents pay them for, she would face a revolt too bloody to contemplate.

Fifteen years ago, I introduced the short-lived Members of Parliament (Employment Disqualification) Bill. My argument was simply that being an MP is a full-time job for which MPs are paid a full-time salary. If they can find time to augment an income already three times the national average, they can’t be taking it seriously or doing it properly.

Imagine the scandal if other public servants - teachers perhaps or firefighters – were to clock off whenever they fancied to attend to their nice little earners on the side. What would become of Britain’s economy if employers were unable to prevent their workers from taking home full pay packets but turning up to work only when they felt inclined?

But that’s what happens in the House of Commons. Back in 2002, my research showed that a quarter of MPs, most of them Conservatives, were in the boardroom or the courtroom or pursuing lucrative consultancies when they should have been serving their communities. And it was clear that their extra-curricular activities were keeping them from their Parliamentary duties. For example, in the six month period I analysed, MPs with paid outside interests participated on average in only 65 per cent of Commons votes while MPs without second jobs took part in 91 per cent.

I doubt that much has changed since then. If anything, it’s likely that the proportion of moonlighting Members has risen as the number of Tory MPs has increased with successive elections.

Their defence has always been that outside interests make for better politicians, more in touch with the "real world". That’s entirely bogus. Listening to people in their surgeries or in their local schools, hospitals and workplaces provides all the insight and inspiration a conscientious MP could need. The argument would be stronger were absentee MPs supplementing their experience and income in the menial, insecure and underpaid jobs so many of their constituents are forced to do. But, they aren’t: they’re only where the money is.

It’s always been this way. The Parliamentary timetable was designed centuries ago to allow MPs to pursue a gentleman’s interests. Until relatively recently, the Commons never sat until after noon so that its Members could attend their board meetings – or edit the Evening Standard - and enjoy a good lunch before legislating. The long summer recess allowed them to make the most of the season, indulge in a few country sports and oversee the harvest on their estates.

The world has changed since Parliamentary precedent was established and so has the now overwhelming workload of a diligent MP. There are many of them in all parties. But there are also still plenty like George Osborne whose enduring sense of entitlement encourages them to treat Parliament as a hobby or an inheritance and their duty to their constituents as only a minor obstacle to its enjoyment.

Thanks to Osborne’s arrogance, the Committee on Standards in Public Life now has the unflunkable opportunity to insist on significant, modernising reforms which remind both MPs and their electors that public service should always take precedence over private interest. And if sitting MPs can’t accept that principle or subsist on their current salary, they must make way for those who can. Parliament and their constituents would be better off without them.

Peter Bradley was the Labour MP for The Wrekin between 1997 and 2005.