What is population policy?

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Article Highlights

  • What is population policy?

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  • Population science has been a totally futile exercise--Nicholas Eberstadt

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  • The official Indonesian practices regarding population policy deserve a much broader examination

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Just what is “population policy”? Immigration, public health, and communication policies have always had demographic effects. To the extent that individuals make calculations about future childbearing on the basis of their current and expected levels of prosperity, policies that lead to the enrichment of persons around the world have demographic effects. But population policy is supposed to be quite different. Population policy presumes to shape the demographic contours of affected societies in the name of bringing social and economic betterment to its citizens. Governments of very different ideological inclinations and organizational capabilities have expressed enthusiasm for the general idea of a population policy. In large part, the favor that population policy enjoys today in the corridors of government derives from the presumption that it is a tested and scientifically grounded instrument at the disposal of the modern statesman. Five distinct, if not always clearly identified, premises underlie this belief: first, that a body of knowledge known as population science exists that is capable of explaining and, to some extent, predicting population change and its relation to socioeconomic changes; second, that there is such a thing as overpopulation and that its effect on human welfare is demonstrably adverse; third, that there is a huge unmet demand for modern contraceptive services in the developing world; fourth, that filling this need would lead to significant and sustained fertility decline in the less developed countries today; and fifth, that active population policy can achieve worldwide lowering of birth rates through entirely voluntary means.

"Governments of very different ideological inclinations and organizational capabilities have expressed enthusiasm for the general idea of a population policy."--Nicholas Eberstadt

None of these premises is demonstrably true. To the extent that any of these premises can be empirically tested, each one appears to be demonstrably false.

Population "Science"?

Let us start with the notion that population science is capable of explaining and predicting relationships between population change and socioeconomic change. For some time, demographers have been attempting to improve the quality of their predictions about population change. This has been a totally futile exercise. Over the past century, population predictions have been renamed population projections out of consideration for the reputations of those making the forecasts. The distance between the predictions and the results has often been dramatic, and the gap has not been closed appreciably by any of the improvements in applied demographic or mathematical theory in this century. The reason is fairly clear: There is no scientific method by which one can predict how many children a person or a couple will choose to have in the future, much less in the distant future.

Even some very recent population projections have become obsolete remarkably quickly. The projections for 1990--1995 by the demographers at the United Nations, which were set down in the 1992 edition of World Population Prospects, are completely outdated for Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. This is because this team of demographers--whose reputation is deservedly excellent--simply could not anticipate that birth rates would have collapsed and that death rates would have shot upward with the demise of the Soviet bloc. While other misprojections in this study, only two years old, are already evident, none are so glaring as these. After all, in this instance some of the world’s best demographers failed not only to anticipate future demographic shocks, but they even failed to recognize current ones, which were already well underway in 1992!

Predictions are by their very nature demanding and risky. Explaining the past is usually less taxing. Yet as anyone familiar with historical demography can attest, the difficulties in explaining population changes in the past in an unambiguous way are formidable, and these problems cannot be resolved by current theories on population and socioeconomic change.

Historian Charles Tilly put it well when he examined the theories about fertility decline in Western Europe in the nineteenth century (which happens to be one of the most intensely gardened areas in the field of historical demography): “The problem is that we have too many explanations which are individually plausible in general terms, which contradict each other to some degree, and which fail to fit some significant part of the facts.” That description obtains generally to the project known as population science. There are many interesting, innovative, and provocative items within this great literature, but it offers nothing like a theory of demographic change or a unified theory of the interrelationships between demographic change and socioeconomic change.

The state of our knowledge about the socioeconomic impact of population change is provided, albeit inadvertently, by two separate studies by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences on the contemporary phenomenon of rapid population growth in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. The first report, issued in 1971, was almost alarmist: It depicted rapid population growth as a serious impediment to economic progress in the developing countries and counted among its consequences the spread of poverty, the elevated risk of mass malnutrition, and the heightened political instability in the Third World. The next report, issued in 1986, offered a radical contrast to the first. This report suggested that rapid population growth might hinder economic development efforts but that on the whole its net impact was rather slight--in any case, slight compared with the impact projected by particular development policies embraced by local governments. We need not argue here about which of these assessments is closer to the mark. The point is that they cannot both be right simultaneously. Whatever else may be said about them, the fundamental discrepancies between these two reports underscore the absence at present of any stable corpus of knowledge about even the broad relationships between demographic and socioeconomic changes.

The Myth of Overpopulation

We have all heard about overpopulation for so long that we may not have stopped to think about whether an unambiguous definition exists. The fact of the matter, however, is that there is none. No matter what demographic indicators one uses to define overpopulation, it is possible to offer examples that fit the definition but do not seem “overpopulated.”

Rapid population growth is often used as the proxy for overpopulation. But rapid population growth is not the defining characteristic of overpopulated countries (as the term is generally used). If it were, we would have to say that the United States in 1790 and 1800 was an overpopulated country because its rate of population growth was much higher than today’s rates in India, Bangladesh, virtually all of Latin America, and most of sub-Saharan Africa. Frontier America is not what most people bring to mind when they think of “overpopulation.”

Suppose we say instead that the demographic indicator that can identify overpopulation is the birth rate. The same problem obtains. The U.S. birth rate in the Revolutionary War era and shortly thereafter was very high--probably in the area of 50 or 55 births per 1,000 population, which is higher than nearly any current figure offered by the World Bank in its annual World Development Report. The same general problem holds true for total fertility rates.

If we discuss instead densely crowded populations, the United Kingdom as of 1981 would have been slightly more overpopulated than India; Japan today would be more overpopulated than Indonesia; the continental United States would be considerably more overpopulated than Africa; and the most overpopulated country in the world would be the kingdom of Monaco.

We could continue this exercise, but what is apparent from these examples is that overpopulation is a problem misdefined. What most people are talking about when they refer to overpopulation is poverty. Poverty is a human characteristic--it cannot be viewed or identified apart from individual units of population. But it is an elementary lapse in logic--a fallacy of composition--to conclude that poverty is a population problem simply because it is manifest in large numbers of poor people.

Because the concept of overpopulation is impossible to define unambiguously, it lends itself to amazingly casual and open-ended interpretation, even by well-informed and reasonable people. Two recent examples come to mind. In March 1993 an earnest column appeared in the Washington Post arguing that what the turmoil in Russia today really showed was that the country was overpopulated. What the writer overlooked, or didn’t know, was that Russia’s population is actually shrinking: It is registering many more deaths than births. In May 1994 a letter in the New York Times stated that the ongoing massacre in Rwanda was a consequence of overpopulation. Apparently believers in overpopulation dogma can convince themselves it is the cause of many things, including historical tribal hatreds and individual acts of savagery.

Unmet Demand?

The argument that there is a large unmet demand for modern contraceptives in the developing world appears repeatedly in the position papers of the World Bank, the Agency for International Development, and other aid-dispensing organizations. Sometimes the phrase “unmet demand” is slightly changed into the less falsifiable formulation “unmet need.”

The ostensible basis for the assertion comes from two separate sets of surveys--the World Fertility Survey, which was begun in the 1970s, and the Demographic and Health Survey, which is more recent. Both have shown that some proportion of women of childbearing age in all developing countries surveyed say that they are not currently users of modern contraceptives, but that they wish to have no more children. Depending on how inventive one is, other groups--including teenagers or people who are judged to have imperfect contraceptive coverage--can be added to expand the figure for unmet need, as indeed it has been expanded, to well over 100 million couples in the Third World: The World Health Organization, for instance, has put the figure at 300 million!

There is an obvious problem with this sort of maximizing definition of unmet need. This view seems to cast poor people in low-income countries as helpless captives of their animal appetites, incapable of regulating their own fertility without modern contraceptives. (Official pronouncements, of course, couch the view more diplomatically; thus the World Bank’s World Development Report 1990: “In the poorest countries...strong family planning programs are necessary to slow population growth.”) It is a view of low-income peoples that is, at the very least, highly condescending. It is a view, moreover, that has been dramatically contradicted by demographic trends over the past century. In the nineteenth century, for example, many parts of Europe that were by modern standards extremely poor were regulating births and experiencing fertility decline. Despite a wholesale lack of modern contraceptives, a number of countries in Europe hit subreplacement fertility levels in the decade before World War II.

For reasons that cannot be quickly explained, the theory of the vast unmet need for modern contraceptives has not been treated with the sort of rigorous scrutiny that one would ordinarily expect for a proposition in the social sciences (to say nothing of the medical sciences). Earlier this year, however, an interesting and important examination of this hypothesis was published by Lant Pritchett, a World Bank economist, and Lawrence Summers, who was director of research at the World Bank at the time. Their study may actually be the first impartial assessment of the unmet need hypothesis utilizing the past two decades of World Fertility and Demographic and Health Surveys. Their findings are worth quoting at length:

Ninety percent of the differences across countries in total fertility rates are accounted for solely by differences in women’s reported desired fertility. . . . This strong result is affected neither by ex post facto rationalization of births nor by the dependence of desired fertility on contraceptive access or cost. . . . Actual fertility increases almost one-for-one with desired fertility. . . . Large “unmet need” figures as “unmet need” is currently defined! are consistent with very small numbers of fecund women wishing to limit childbearing but not using contraception.

In short, the differences in fertility levels across the world have to do with a factor not always considered in population policy--the desired fertility level of the parents in question. This brings us to our fourth premise.

Voluntary Planning?

If Pritchett and Summers are correct, then perfecting the ability of parents throughout the Third World to achieve precisely their desired number of children--if such a thing can be precisely determined--would have at best a marginal impact upon current levels of fertility in the less-developed countries. For modern contraceptives to evince further reductions in fertility, they would have to trigger a revolution in attitudes toward children and the family on the part of prospective parents. Proponents of modern family planning methods have claimed many properties for their programs, but this (as yet) is not among them.

If fertility levels in developing countries depend critically not on the imperfect marketing of modern contraceptives but on the family size desired by parents, we come to a problem with the final premise--that an active population policy can achieve a worldwide lowering of birth rates through entirely voluntary means.

And here is where the slope gets slippery. The preliminary papers for the Cairo conference advertise, endorse, and repeatedly praise voluntary family planning. None of them extols involuntary family planning, much less coercion. But the proposition of promoting voluntary family planning is broadly inconsistent with the goal of achieving a targeted and sustained reduction in fertility. These two results can only occur together by complete coincidence. And many governments seem to recognize this, for at the same time that voluntarism is being praised, population programs not premised upon voluntarism are proliferating.

We hear a lot about what is occurring in China, and rightly so. The People’s Republic of China has gone through cycles of increased direction and relaxation of population policy, but the involuntary nature of its policy is beyond dispute. And China is no longer alone. Vietnam now has an active and even militant antinatal population policy based on the same premises as China’s policy. A similar policy is in force in North Korea.

Vietnam and North Korea may be political outliers on the modern map, but this is not true of Indonesia, the fourth most populous country in the world today. Indonesia’s aggressive antinatal population policy has not received the attention China’s policy has, but the degree of involuntarism by which it operates is staggering. As in China, Vietnam, and North Korea, population targets are stipulated down to the regional, village, and hamlet level. And as in China, population education takes place by gathering villagers into meetings with soldiers, police, and other law enforcement officials and announcing target levels for births. This is not an approach designed to evince a voluntary response.

To my knowledge, virtually the only Western writers who have criticized Indonesian population policy have been radical feminists in fringe journals. These official Indonesian practices deserve a much broader examination. My fear is that the Indonesian model may provide a foretaste of the future.

Nicholas Eberstadt is a visiting scholar at AEI.

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