A Demographic Cap and Trade

Some time ago I mentioned the concept of tradeable birth licences proposed by Kenneth Boulding in the 60’s. One must recognize that population growth, especially in the developing world, is a serious problem. We are facing a kind of a Malthusian situation – there are ever more people in the world without us having the possibility to extend agricultural production meaningfully. Furthermore, this time (unlike in the beginning of the 19th century, when Thomas Malthus lived), agriculture is not the only limiting factor. The stresses we impose over the Earth’s ecosystems generally become ever larger und more severe. And this despite the fact that there are millions of people living in such poverty that their influence on the environment is almost negligible! So maybe the time is ripe to think about population control.

I already frequently wrote about the impossibility to preserve ecosystems stability by virtue of technology only (see, e.g., here). But I fear that even sufficiency will not be enough. Humanity has almost reached the level of 7 billion heads and is still growing at a fast rate. With every additional newborn the sustainable level of resource use (measured, e.g., as the Ecological Footprint of a person) decreases. Already by now it is rather low when compared with the standards of living in the developed world. I am skeptical about our ability to lower our wants that much that we were able to live sustainably without keeping the poor in their poverty. Especially while their numbers are increasing.

Most people think of China when they hear “population control”. The associations are negative. This is right to some extent, since the Chinese one-child-policy is quite oppressive (think on forced sterilizations). But one shouldn’t generalize. The way to control population proposed by Boulding and advocated by many ecological economists is probably the most efficient and least coercive means to achieve population stability at a sustainable level* – just as cap and trade in emissions stabilizing. Indeed, a tradeable birth licences scheme is a type of a cap-and-trade scheme.

But before starting the analysis of its implications, we have to clarify one more point: what about the so called “reproductive rights”, viewed by many as a basic right? In modern world, in democracy, it is common to assume that the freedom of an individual is limited by the freedom of others. As John Stuart Mill once wrote:

And in a country either over-peopled, or threatened with being so, to produce children, beyond a very small number, with the effect of reducing the reward of labor by their competition, is a serious offence against all who live by the renumeration of their labor.

This remark makes clear that in a “full world” (and I would argue that ours is full) our reproductive rights are constrained by the rights of others (especially of future generations who would compete for labour, food, and space with our descendants) to live decent lives.

So, the idea is to create a demographic cap-and-trade scheme. After deciding about a limiting “cap” (e.g., the replacement level or slightly below if we recognize that we already are too many), birth licences would be issued equally to every woman. This woman would be free to use them herself or to sell/grant them to others who want to have more than the average number of children. The “cap” could be adjusted to demographic and other developments that would influence (our understanding of) the optimal number of people living on Earth.

This is the rough idea. There would be many issues to be cleared (should the caps be defined nationally – according to the replacement level in the concrete country – or globally?; should there be a possibility for interboundary trade? and so on). But the first step would not even be to to agree on this idea, but just to allow a reasonable discussion. Sadly, population control is a very delicate area where emotions seem to have more weight than reasonable arguments.

By now the birth licences scheme or a similar institution seems unthinkable. But so was democracy a few centuries ago. One of the greatest virtues of humanity is its ability to recognize the need for change and to adjust to changing conditions. It may well be that there is a need for change again.

* There is a theory in economics that affluence acts as a limiting factor against population growth. This may be right (look at Europe and Japan). The problem of this approach is that the level of affluence needed is not sustainable. We cannot wait until all Indians reach the consumption levels of, say, Germans. That would be disastrous.

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6 thoughts on “A Demographic Cap and Trade

  1. So we want to save the Earth and ourselves by intoducing rather oppressive measures. In fact I am not surprised. The trend in the democratic world is to restrict civil liberties as far as possible, for various “good” reasons. The modern, democratic state seems to see the society at large as a bunch of misreants who must be watch over and threatened with all sorts of “punishments”. What about education and developing societies in the spirit of self discipline ?

    Regards,

  2. The foundation of my argument is the recognition that the freedom of an individual ends where the freedom of others begins. In my opinion, this is so in the case of population growth (as I have outlined in the post). If you think that one or both is wrong (i.e., either my definition of the “frontiers” to individual freedom, or its extension to reproductive rights), tell me why. I am aware that what I have written is controversial (it appeared to me so when I read for the first time about that, and to some extent it still does – but I have arrived at the insight that this prescription may be unavoidable).

    What about education and developing societies in the spirit of self discipline ?

    Call me a pessimist, but I don’t believe that we can change much in this area through education (of course you are right that this would be a “nicer” solution). Actually we have been trying to do it for years. I don’t see much success. Meanwhile, the urgency is increasing.

  3. The civil liberties are not equivalent to an unlimited freedom. They are set in a legal/constitutional framework of rules which regulate functioning of society. What we must, however, remeber that a democratic stated functions on the basis of common observance of the agreed rules. Part of that parcel is social responsibility of each one of us. But somehow this is gone. Look at Britain. 50 ( or more) years ago it was a prime example of a self disciplined society. Today it cannot function without CCTV cameras which record people and their actions.
    In the gone by years you would find writings which were rather explicit about the link between education and functioning of a society. Today its all forgotten and it is easier to give substandard education and rule by means of a “decree”.
    There is something to add here. Wealthy and educated societies battle with a declining birth rates while in the poorest parts of the world they are skyrocketing. This tells us something, doesn’t it? At a practical level, how are we going to enforce your ideas in poor countries where the state is barely functioning? Just think about that.

    Regards,

  4. 50 ( or more) years ago it was a prime example of a self disciplined society.

    I wouldn’t “saint” the past. There were other problems, but not necessarily less of them than now. Though in this particular context the problem, I think, is the loosing of social control through more individualism, more people generally, more mobility etc.

    In the gone by years you would find writings which were rather explicit about the link between education and functioning of a society. Today its all forgotten and it is easier to give substandard education and rule by means of a “decree”.

    You dramatize somewhat. In what I have written there is no denial (neither explicitly nor implicitly) of the positive role of education – indeed, education is very important. But, and that is my argument, education and similar measures are not enough.

    Wealthy and educated societies battle with a declining birth rates while in the poorest parts of the world they are skyrocketing.

    I already commented on that in the footnote (*) at the end of the post.

    At a practical level, how are we going to enforce your ideas in poor countries where the state is barely functioning?

    This is so far the most important argument you have named. That’s a big problem. But it is a general one: to provide qualitatively sound education, you need institutional structures as well. Surely less complex than in the case of population control policies, but the principle is common for both.

    we want to save the Earth and ourselves

    Population growth is linked to many challenges already for people living today. Maybe you’ll find time to read these few pages by Partha Dasgupta on “Population, Poverty and the Local Environment”.

  5. Being away and without connectivity I will comment briefly.

    It seems to me you are suggesting things I have not written. The example only points out the change which has happened in Britain and does not refer to the problems ( or lack of them ) of the past. It may also indicate that not all change means progress. Contrary to what you write, modern state has ways and means of controlling us to a greater degree than in the past – and makes a “good ” job of it. Our increased mobility is no barrier here. Some of the issues are addressed by prof. A. Grayling in ” Liberty in the Age of Terror”.
    You may not deny importance of the education but somehow your scheme assumes we cannot make wise decisions without administrative help – as it is the case with many such schemes, where there is a self appointed guardian of our wellbeing.

    Let’s move on.

    Regards

  6. Contrary to what you write, modern state has ways and means of controlling us to a greater degree than in the past

    I cannot remember writing this either. Of course, the modern state has ways and means of controlling us – no discussion here. This by itself is neither good nor bad, though. Possibilities seldom are. The problem is how (or, in some cases, whether) the state uses these possibilities.

    your scheme assumes we cannot make wise decisions without administrative help

    It does. And this has a reason: we have to do with a classical example of a social dilemma here: while it is better for the community when its members do A (social optimum), it is better for every one of us to do B (individual optimum) as long as we do it independently of others. So, people tend to have many children, for different reasons – and that often (though not always, as Dasgupta points out in the paper I linked above) may be individually “rational” (i.e., good for them). But, in the aggregate, too much children are born. We have a social dilemma. And social dilemmas can hardly be solved otherwise than with the help of the state (this is today obvious in areas like infrastructure, education, health etc.).

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