Chapter 1 from: J.J. Ray (Ed.) "Conservatism as Heresy". Sydney: A.N.Z. Book Co., 1974


By John Ray

People create resources

IN THE PROFESSIONAL literature of social science, 'misanthropy' is treated as a form of personality disturbance or maladjustment. It could in fact be argued that for a highly social creature like man, a generalised aversion for his own species would be the ultimate form of maladjustment.

It is interesting therefore to note that there could be few more specifically misanthropic utterances than 'people are pollution' -- which is, of course, the slogan of the fashionable Zero Population Growth movement.

The recent announcement that America's birth rate has dropped to only the replacement rate may indicate that this movement now has to be taken seriously.

If any further evidence for the obsessional neuroticism of this movement were needed, it could be found in the amazing way it treats the entire world population as an undifferentiated, featureless gruel. Because the world population overall is expanding steadily, it is argued that therefore we in Australia should limit our numbers!

This is to regard Australia as being in the same situation as Bangladesh -- which we most evidently are not. If love of sweeping generalisations were the basis for comparison, the ZPG movement could well be compared with Hitler's Nazism.

Indeed ZPG is more extreme. Hitler only generalised about 'Jews' and 'Aryans'. ZPG generalises about 'people'. It should be noted however that the offering of simplistic solutions to complex social problems is characteristic of most messianic cults -- from Communism to Jehovah's witnesses.

The apology that ZPG spokesmen offer for saying that we are in the same boat as the underdeveloped nations is that we use up far more of the world's resources. This thinking however is equally limited. What they omit to say is that resources are not static and most of them we in the West in fact created.

Nothing is a resource until you find a way of putting it to use. Bauxite wasn't a resource until Hall and Heroult discovered a way of extracting aluminium from it. Most of Europe's iron ore wasn't a resource until the Thomas steel process was invented.

We have no reason to believe that this process of resource creation won't continue. In fact, with the increasing level of education in our population, we might reasonably expect it to increase as never before. If it is resources we lack, the way to get them is to increase the population in that part of the world which creates them. The more people of Western European origin we have, the more Einsteins and other resource creators we can expect to have.

Because of just this one man, Einstein, even seawater is now a resource of incalculable value. If we run out of petroleum, it is hydrogen from seawater that will fuel our cars. And how will we get the power to extract the hydrogen? From nuclear power and probably even from thermonuclear power.

Even the Club of Rome didn't attempt to tell us how long we would take to run out of seawater! And note also that when it becomes commercial, thermonuclear power will not create radio-active waste products.

ZPG proponents of course almost entirely ignore technological growth and the consequent resource growth. Manifesting a truly neurotic sense of insecurity, they say that technological growth is too unpredictable. We have to base our planning on what we know, now, to exist.

In doing this they place themselves in precisely the same position as Malthus. It is precisely because he ignored technological growth that his predictions proved so ludicrous. Malthus, however, had an excuse. He had never heard of technological growth. By contrast, when ZPG proponents ignore it, they do so deliberately.

We can see how absurd it is to treat our resources as fixed if we look at any of the many previous false prophecies of doom that have been made based on such an assumption. Where would we be if we had heeded those prophecies? In fact -- as the Americans showed with the Manhattan project and many subsequent projects --technological growth can be turned on largely at will simply by pouring more resources into research.

Note that in such a context what is meant by resources is man-hours. If one wished to fight slogan with slogan, one might reply to the ZPG slogan by saying that 'our basic resource, in fact, is people'. This being so, we want more of them, not less.

Of course, the people we want more of are those who will be educated to their maximum potential. That certainly leaves out most of the underdeveloped world. For them, even ZPG may not be the way forward. They may need population decline [1]. Such a prescription may leave a nasty taste in the mouth, but if it is the surest way to cure the patient, surely that is what matters.

'Populate or perish'?

Australia is one of the few countries that have long had an explicit and 'thought-out' population policy. In Australia, then, the ZPG movement might be expected to meet some opposition instead of merely filling a gap that was not filled before. To use the biological metaphors of which ZPG people seem to be particularly fond, the 'ecological niche' of population policy is not empty in Australia. Before the new species ('People are pollution") can flourish, the old species ('Populate or perish') must be subdued. My aim is to help the old species avoid such extinction.

Briefly, there was for long a bipartisan consensus in Australia that our vast and empty land was a prize, eyed enviously by the teeming hordes of Asia and that the inevitable invasion from that source could be either staved off, or more effectively countered, by filling this land with many more people of our own kind. Australia had, in a word, a maximum population growth policy predicated on strategic considerations. This maximum, in practical terms, was taken to be an overall growth rate of two per cent per annum. Higher growth than this was taken to be too ambitious and potentially disruptive. Since such a rate of growth was considerably higher than the rate of natural increase, the gap was to be made up by officially encouraged immigration from European sources. As described, this was the policy introduced after the second world war by Mr Arthur Calwell, the Labor Party Minister for Immigration. The same policy was followed by his conservative successors. I would like to argue that that policy is as appropriate today as it was then.

Even before the ZPG movement came along, there had arisen some opposition to this traditional policy on economic and social grounds. Migrants were said to be living in 'ghettoes' (nobody favoured that) and were not adapting to the problems of life in their new country. It was also said that migration imposed a special burden on the economy in requiring it to supply larger amounts of social overhead capital (roads and schools for example) than would have been otherwise necessary.

The first of these two lines of criticism I have little dispute with. Originally, there were two prongs to Australia's population policy: encouragement of domestic population growth and encouragement of immigration. The erosion of the first prong meant that undue emphasis was given to the second. The mechanism for encouraging domestic population growth was the 'child endowment' system. This was a system of payments to mothers designed to minimise the economic burden of having children. Over the last twenty years, however, the payments made under this system have barely been increased, even though there has been substantial inflation and a substantial rise in the standard of living over the same period. This has resulted in a payment that was once a substantial contribution to the child's upkeep becoming now only the most token sum. I would favour the resurrection of child endowment as a meaningful redistributive mechanism. [2]

Much of the problem of migrant 'ghettoes' has arisen because of the declining standards that have been applied to the recruitment of migrants. The increasing standards of living in Europe have meant that Australia became less attractive in relative terms. Given Australia's own declining birthrate, this meant that in recent years more and more migrants had to be found from sources that were increasingly drying up. In the circumstances, any pretence of maintaining standards against which migrants had to measure up became increasingly (if not resoundingly) hollow. And yet these 'standards' are vital. They concern precisely what has given cause for disquiet: the prospect that the migrant will adjust satisfactorily to life in Australia. Language is the most obvious of such standards. A non-English speaking person will have difficulties that will need to be compensated by other attributes such as willingness to learn. A person who is non-English speaking, poorly educated, with few vocational skills and who comes from a peasant society is obviously going to be a problem to both himself and his host country if he is encouraged to migrate -- and yet Australia has in recent years accepted legions of such migrants. No wonder there are 'ghettoes'. The domestic birthrate should have been encouraged instead of accepting so many migrants unsuited to living here happily [3]. Revive the child endowment program. To sloganise: 'The best New Australian (an Australian euphemism for 'migrant' ) is the one who is born here.'

There is, of course, no guarantee that restoration of realistic child endowment will in fact raise the birthrate by the required amount. Many years of strenuous pro-natalist policy in France had little success. Nonetheless, it is known that the birthrate is in the long term responsive to perceived economic circumstances. During the Great Depression, for instance, the birthrate dropped below the replacement level. Reviving child endowment is at least worth trying. One can, for instance, argue that the failure of French pro-natalism was precisely because it happened to be accompanied by economic depression.

The economic arguments against immigration are a different matter however, They are much more specious. Migration does mean that we have to spend more on social infrastructure. This, however, would be true of population increase from any source. Only a static population would allow us to spend less. This would mean that instead of building new facilities we would have to spend only to maintain or improve existing facilities. A static population would, in theory, allow more diversion of capital resources into directly productive investments and hence we would have higher per capita living standards. There are two broad classes of saving brought about by static population levels: saving on upbringing and education costs due to the smaller number of children required in the population and the aforementioned savings on investment in new social overhead capital works. With reference to migration, it should be noted that we are getting the former for free. By bringing in migrants to swell our population, we are getting the education and upbringing of the person concerned at no cost to us. In economist's terms, we are being given large amounts of human capital. All we have to find is the social overhead capital.

There are then costs in population growth -- economic costs as well as the aesthetic and ecological costs mentioned by ZPG proponents. These costs to us, however, are decreased, not increased, by finding part of one's population increment through immigration.

The real question in the population issue is not whether growth has costs or not, but whether those costs are outweighed by advantages. To listen to the ZPG evangelists, one would think that population growth had no advantages. One cannot expect Lucifer to expatiate on the good points of Jehovah. It is the purpose of this chapter, however, to set out what some of the advantages in growth are.

The first such advantage was the general one given at the outset: that population growth gives more resource creators and that, historically, the resources so created have been outstripping the resources used up at an ever increasing rate. Our living standards would be no higher than our grandfathers' if it were not so. Historically, growth of living standards has always been accompanied by increasing population --not static or declining population. One notable exception to this is postwar Japan. Japan's culture is, however, a highly derivative one -- it borrows what others have created. Moreover, their industrial workforce has been expanding rapidly in spite of the static overall population. This is because of the increasing employment of women and the vast reduction of the workforce required on the increasingly mechanised farms.

In Australia, these general reasons for growth are reinforced by certain other local reasons. The first of these is of course the one embodied in the slogan at the head of this section: Populate or perish. However true it might or might not be that ZPG is an appropriate policy for America and Europe, it is scarcely appropriate for Australia. Half of Australia's population is concentrated in the two large cities of Sydney and Melbourne. Outside such centres Australia is largely empty. Practically all of Australia's rural land is extensively rather than intensively farmed. A dozen more cities such as Sydney and Melbourne would scarcely make a dent in the amount of land available for rural use. Darwin could be expanded to the size of Sydney with no trouble at all. 'But who would want Darwin the size of Sydney?' say the trendies. 'Most Australians' is the evident answer.

It is notable that people who condemn big cities seldom take any steps to leave them. In Australia, there are a range of cities in all shapes and sizes. No matter what you consider to be the ideal size, you can find one to suit you. Why don't the trendies go there? Why don't they leave their terrace houses in the heart of the Sydney and Melbourne metropolitan areas and go to Perth, Toowoomba, Hobart, Townsville or Gympie? They do not go because the big city has advantages that they cannot do without. When it comes to voting with their feet, it is not hard to see where their preferences really lie. Urban sprawl, urban blight, traffic congestion, air pollution are their plaintive and parrotlike cries, but still they stay put. Surely this is something requiring explanation. The answer is an easy one: we would all like to have our cake and eat it too. Of course the city has the disadvantages mentioned but those disadvantages are the concomitant of the positive advantages that cities confer. It is difficult to have one without the other.

What are the advantages that cities have which continually draw people into them? If they can be summed up in one word, that word is variety. Cities offer variety of employment, entertainment, society and opportunities generally. They offer people, people in abundance, and it is from people that we draw our rewards and our sense of meaning in life. More mundanely it is generally easier to get a job to suit one's own particular needs and abilities in a large city. Employment seems to be the most frequently mentioned reason for people moving to or staying in the city. London is widely said to be a more interesting and rewarding city than Sydney. Why? Simply because it is bigger and hence has more scope for variety. People love big cities -- the protestations of the trendies notwithstanding.

'But could we feed more people?' some will ask. One might as well have asked Arthur Calwell back in the 'forties whether he thought Australia could feed twice the number of people it had then. We know now that it can; and feed them at a higher standard than ever before. More people means more production, more food, more everything. Those extra people don't just sit around and twiddle their thumbs. With some notable exceptions, they work.

'But land area does not expand. Surely applying more and more people to the same amount of land must lead to diminishing returns for each extra man put to work!', some will no doubt say. In so saying they are indeed relying on a classic economic proposition. It is precisely the proposition that Malthus relied upon in coming to his conclusions; conclusions that time has shown to be hilariously pessimistic. As mentioned before, what Malthus overlooked was technological growth. More people means more technologists (not only in absolute, but also in relative terms) and more technologists means more technological growth.

In general, then, as one part of the resources generating sector of the world, Australia has good cause to favour population growth from all sources, but particularly from the domestic birthrate. Except insofar as it raises the educational standards among the children of migrants, the encouragement of immigration from one part of the developed world (Europe) to another does nothing for the world resources generation process.

Where migration does provide a clear gain, however, is in the economic and strategic fields. The economic reason for encouraging population growth, even above what the domestic birthrate can provide, centres around the pervasiveness of barriers to international trade. All countries find themselves under pressure from their domestic manufacturers and producers to protect the local industry. To varying degrees, governments succumb to this pressure. What they do is build barriers against selected imports in the form of customs tariffs. The practice is so well entrenched and so widespread it seems as inevitable as death and taxes. What concerns us in this, however, is that what other people regard as imports are to us exports. When other countries keep out foreign imports, it may well be our exports that are being affected. As we shall see, this is an especially serious matter for a small country.

The efficiency of many modern industries increases as the industries grow larger. The reasons are to be found in any elementary economics textbook and go under the name of 'economies of scale'. Henry Ford's invention of mass production, and the high turnover and low prices of Woolworths are popular examples. This means that an industry with a small home market can never become as efficient as the same industry in a larger country, unless the industry in the smaller country can expand its output by exporting. As we have seen there are very often barriers built to prevent the small country industry from taking the export escape route. The result is that the industry is permanently condemned to lower efficiency and higher costs. This means that it, in turn, must be protected by the smaller country's government so that the customers will not all turn to the cheaper product imported from the larger country. The upshot, as we see it in the Australian automobile industry for instance, is that the inhabitants of the smaller country end up having to pay far more than they otherwise might for what they want to buy. Smallness makes us poor. By growing larger we become richer.

It may be asked, 'What about Sweden and China?' thus naming a very rich small country and a very poor large country. The answer is that size is only one of the determinants of affluence. In fact, the single most important factor is probably the educational level of the population. Other things being equal, however, size must have the effect described above. It is certainly one respect where we in Australia are presently at a disadvantage.

The strategic reason for increasing our population is the obvious one that it lends more hands to our defence. This traditional reason is nowadays likely to be ridiculed among intellectuals, but I would submit that it is now as realistic as ever it was. The betrayal of Israel by Japan and Europe (including Britain) when threatened by Arab countries with an oil embargo shows vividly how small countries cannot rely on international aid to ensure their defence. If their own self-interest is sufficiently threatened, larger countries will abandon all their high-minded principles overnight. For us to rely on such principles as a guarantee of our security would be ostrich-like folly. Like Israel, small countries must be able to look after themselves. If in twenty years time China (to name one possible example) has built herself a powerful navy and sets sail for our shores, how well could we rely on the U.S.A. to come to our aid? The U.S.A. aided Israel because the oil embargo had so little effect on America's own situation. That would not be so if the U.S.A. were faced with the threat of a nuclear attack by Chinese missiles. China already has such missiles. What would the U.S.A. do if faced with a Chinese threat of: 'Don't intervene or else...'? Obviously, we cannot rely on the American response. We must be as ready as possible to defend ourselves. Having the manpower is a vital ingredient of such preparation. If size makes us richer, it also makes us safer.

Some will scoff that the scenario outlined above is a highly unlikely one. Australia seems safe from any threat for many years to come. Such optimism is ludicrous. Wars and revolutions can change the international scene overnight. Population policy, by contrast, is a necessarily long-range affair. Even if Australia is safe for the next fifteen years, what about after that? Even fifteen years is scant time to do much about our population. No, the only safe policy is an unremitting commitment to maximum growth.

'What if all the world thought that way?' some might say. The answer is that what is true for Australia is not necessarily true for others. Again, the optimal policies for the developed and the underdeveloped worlds are different. In this case what is true for Australia is also largely true for the U.S.A., but it is certainly not true for China, Brazil, India or Indonesia. The latter countries already have the maximum advantage they could extract from sheer size and manpower. Their urgent need is to educate the people they already have and provide them with modern machines and tools (or weapons) to work with. The U.S.A., Europe, Australia and Japan, by contrast, have already extracted practically all the advantage they can from education and modernism, and for them the most obvious way forward is an increase in sheer numbers.

'But is all this politically realistic? Can we honestly expect the underdeveloped world to limit its numbers if we fail to limit ours? Surely we have to set an example!' These questions are rather plaintive cries at best. Their total vacuity is exposed when we realise that we are already in precisely the position advocated above. Already China and India have active birth control programs while we in the 'West' do not. The so-called political impossibility is already a political reality.

None of the above is to assert that population growth can go on indefinitely in a fixed area without undesirable consequences. Even underpopulated areas of the world such as Australia and the U.S.A. would, in the very long run, come to the point of standing room only. This very long run involves hundreds of years however. Therefore we cannot practically plan for it. Our distant descendants will be in a much better position to deal with any such problem both by reason of being nearer to it and by reason of possessing more advanced technologies. Long before the standing room only problem arises they will take steps to forestall it. Not having the technology of the future, we cannot know what those steps will be. It would be extremely surprising if, in hundreds of years time, humanity has not expanded to the other planets. It would be all very well if we could now take intelligent steps to plan for the distant future, but given the incredibly rapid changes constantly occurring in human society, anyone who thinks he can so plan is just misleading himself.

The pollution problem, however, is one that we can deal with now and it should be clearly evident that population limitation is a hopelessly indirect and unnecessarily severe way of accomplishing it. The answer to pollution is surely pollution control-not misanthropy. Pollution control is the ultimate luxury. It is very dubious whether Joe the Worker would rather have cleaner air or a new car. I am inclined to think that cleaner air is simply the preoccupation of those who have practically everything else they could want already. At any event, like all luxuries it has its costs and, if it is strongly enough desired, communities will be prepared to pay those costs. I am strongly in favour of pollution control and if the whole community can, via the political process, be cheated into paying for my middle class preferences, I for one would find it hard to resist. The connection between pollution and population, however, is far from a necessary one. Nor should we assume that pollution is a penalty of modernity. For hundreds of years London was one of the world's most polluted cities. Smog killed thousands and the Thames was empty of life. Now, after pollution control legislation, the skies are blue and London is probably the best big city in the world to do your breathing in. There are even fish in the Thames again. This clearly shows that pollution control can work and that pollution is not an inevitable consequence of large concentrations of people. Indeed, the example of London convinces me that as we become more numerous and more- affluent we will become more pollution conscious and pollution will decrease -- not increase.

In summary, population policy must be tailored to the needs of each particular nation. As attractive as the romantic and reactionary generalisations of the ZPG movement might be, they seriously distort the facts. We of the Western world are consistently adding to the world's resources -- not using them up. If the underdeveloped world wants the prosperity that our patio intellectuals affect to scorn, it must pray for more of us not fewer of us. We alone can create the resources that they need.


The first section of this chapter originally appeared as an article in Nation Review, 4 May 1973, p. 882.


The "Zero population growth" slogan has faded out of politics in the 21st century -- as well it should. As I pointed out above, zero population growth had already arrived in the Western world by the 70s. The ZPG brigade were agitating for something that already existed! I guess that must have dawned on them eventually.

BUT the Zero Population Growth nutters are still with us as just one part of the Greenie movement -- and they still have their "people are pollution" attitudes. Only by now they want to HALVE our population! And it does seem to be the old gang from the 1960's again -- including Paul Ehrlich. The abject failure of their earlier prophecies -- e.g. that we would all be doomed by the mid 1970s -- has not dampened them down a bit. "Spiked" has a critique of them and makes a historical point in reply: "Rising living standards and rising populations go hand-in-hand." But the doomsters ignore history, of course. They even ignore the present! The world's population has never been so large -- and prosperity worldwide has never been so great. Even India and China are forging ahead now that they have unleashed capitalism.


[1]. I had in mind here China's "one child" policy -- mentioned later in the chapter.

[2]. There have subsequently been increases in Australian child support payments but the most striking innovation in the policy area concerned has been the system instituted by the Howard government of paying mothers thousands of dollars for each new baby born -- a policy that does seem to have had some effect in increasing births. So there has now been official recognition of my argument above that encouraging births among the existing population is desirable.

[3]. Fortunately, the children of the Southern European immigrants being referred to above did adapt perfectly well to Australian society. A broadly similar cultural background and assimilationist government policies undoubtedly helped in that.

Generalizing that experience to the children of Muslim immigrants in a situation where government policy favours multiculturalism rather than assimilation would be most incautious. And there would now seem to be clear evidence that many young Australians of Muslim origins have NOT adapted well to the Australian scene -- given the high rate of unemployment, lower educational achievement and higher rate of crime in such communities.

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