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Does overpopulation cause poverty?
In my article, Overpopulation and Standard of Living, I pointed out simple statistics that show that the most densely populated countries are, in fact, consistenty richer than the least densely populated countries. Thus, I claimed, if we actually look at the evidence rather than simply supposing what the evidence must be, we find that high population density causes wealth, not poverty. (I then gave some theories to attempt to explain this relationship.)
Two objections have been raised against my analysis that deserve a response.
The first objection is that when I presented my list of countries that were very densely populated and also very rich, and countries that were very sparsely populated and also very poor, that I was simply picking out a few odd cases. Many people have rhetorically asked why I didn't include China or Bangladesh.
The answer is simple, as I explained in the original article: I took the four most crowded countries, the four least crowded countries, the four richest countries, and the four poorest countries, as listed in the then-most-current edition of the Information Please Almanac. I did not deliberately pick countries that conformed to any pre-conceived theory, I simply took the top and bottom of each list. I choose this method rather than some more exhaustive statistical analysis because this would be easier for people who did not necessarily have a grounding in statistics to understand.
But okay, I'll accept the criticism. Let's try to be more thorough and examine all the countries in the world.
If you look at a list of all the nations in the world, with their population densities and per capita incomes, there is, not surprisingly, no simple, totally consistent relationship. There are too many factors that go into overall wealth. But let's work with some broad averages. I divided all the countries in the world into groups of twenty-five: the twenty-five least crowded; then the next, slightly more crowded, twenty-five, etc. (The last group was a little short because the total number of countries in the world is not an exact multiple of twenty-five.) For each of these groups, I computed the average per-capita income.
If the theories of anti-populationists are correct, we would expect that, in general, the more crowded a country is, the poorer it would be. Thus, the graph should slope downward as we go to the right.
The actual graph is shown in Figure 1. The numbers across the bottom show the highest population density of any country in the group, in people per square kilometer. The numbers down the side are the average per capita income, in dollars.
Note that, contrary to the anti-populationists prediction, we see almost exactly the opposite. As population density increases, so, in general, does wealth.
To check this result another way, I constructed a reverse graph. I divided countries into groups of twenty-five by their wealth, and then found the average population density for each group.
Again, by an overpopulation theory, we would expect greater wealth to be associated with less density, so the graph should slope down and to the right. The actual graph is shown in figure 2.
This graph is a little more ambiguous than figure 1. The very richest group of countries is -- on the average, as usual -- relatively sparsely populated. This could be considered to coincide with anti-populationist predictions. But for the other six groups, the trend is again exactly the opposite of what anti-populationists predict.
(As just this one point is out of line with the rest, I rather suspect that if I had tinkered with the size of the groups -- used 23 or 27 countries per "bucket" instead of 25 -- that I could have come up with a graph that would have consistently risen. Note that it is really the second-to-last point that is out of line, leave that out and you get a general increase followed by a slight dip, easily explainable by random fluctuations in the numbers. But I'm not going to play with statistics until they give the result I want; I'll accept the graph as it came out.)
In any case, it could be argued that this graph fails to prove that high density causes wealth. But it certainly does not at all substantiate any theory that high density causes poverty.
Note we are talking about averages and general trends here. It is, of course, true that there are countries which are very crowded and very poor. Bangladesh and China are obvious examples. But if we look at all the data, we see that these, in fact, are the exceptions. Most very crowded countries, like Singapore, the Netherlands, Japan, and Germany, are very rich. Most very sparsely populated countries, like Mongolia, Mauritania, Chad, and Somalia, are very poor.
Another frequent objection is that I am confusing cause and effect. Some have argued that wealth and high population density go together, not because high density causes wealth, but rather because people tend to move to places that are wealthy, and thus they become more crowded.
I readily concede this possibility.
But even if true, at most it negates my proposed theories on how high density could cause wealth. It does nothing to save the anti-populationist claim that overpopulation causes poverty.
Let's consider how this attracting-people theory fits in with basic overpopulation theory. Suppose a country starts out with a modest population density. It manages to build great wealth because of abundance of natural resources, wise economic policies by government or business leaders, etc. This attracts many other people to want to move to this country, so population density starts increasing. Well at this point, according to standard overpopulation theory, the economy would start to become strained. Because of limited resources, wealth cannot grow rapidly enough to keep pace with all the immigrants, and each person's share gets smaller and smaller. Eventually this country is no richer than any other country and the incentive to immigrate disappears.
At most, then, all this attracting-people theory does for the overpopulationist is offer an explanation for some temporary exceptions to their general theory. It does nothing to explain how their theory could prove to be so completely inconsistant with the facts.
When in real life there are more exceptions to your theory than there are confirmations, a scientifically-minded person would surely have to concede that his theory was wrong.
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Posted 10 Sep 2000.
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