Marian Tupy: Chelsea Follett, welcome to The COVID Tonic.
Chelsea Follett: Thank you for having me.
Marian Tupy: This is the first time that we are having a COVID Tonic episode with a member of the Human Progress staff. For those people who don’t know, you are the managing editor of Human Progress and a colleague of mine at the Cato Institute. Today, we will not be talking about COVID, but we are going to be talking about a new paper that you have written and which Cato has published. Why don’t you tell us about the paper? What’s its name? Where can it be found, and why did you think about writing it?
CF: Sure. The paper is called “Neo-Malthusianism and Coercive Population Control in China and India.” You can find it on Cato’s website. We also have a blog post on HumanProgress.org that talks about some of the issues involved and that links to it. The paper is about Malthusianism. I know with the current pandemic that it can feel like that is the only major problem that people worry about. But even before the pandemic, a problem that many people were concerned about, or a supposed problem that many people were concerned about, was overpopulation. So where does this idea come from? It comes originally from Thomas Malthus, from which we get the term Malthusianism. Malthus wrote a book on his fears that population would rise to the point where we would not be able to feed ourselves and there would be widespread famines. He wrote this at the end of the 18th century. Now, of course, we know that the Industrial Revolution happened. Poverty declined dramatically. Wages rose. People were able to pay for better sanitation. Lifespans increased and the population grew massively, but there was no famine. We were able to feed ourselves. But then this idea underwent a resurgence in the 60s and 70s. That’s why we call it neo-Malthusianism. During that time, the world population again was growing rapidly. Specifically, the decline in infant mortality and child mortality around the world was allowing the population to grow at a rate that we had not seen before, and as the world population swelled, many people worried that it would lead to some kind of ecological or social disaster. What we saw then though was the Green Revolution. Once again, human ingenuity rose to the occasion, and we were able to not only feed the growing population of the world, but human prosperity has actually been taken to new heights that our ancestors would not have been able to imagine. We now have a crisis of obesity rather than starvation. It truly is incredible what we’ve been able to do, and yet this idea just won’t die. Even today, you hear many people speaking about overpopulation as though it’s an urgent problem necessitating government intervention, and unfortunately, that sometimes results in truly horrendous human rights abuses, which is what the paper focuses on.
MT: Now, before we go and talk about today and about China and India specifically, I think it’s worthwhile to point out that Malthus was actually historically correct, which is to say that, writing at the end of the 18th century, he was reflecting on past human experience with overpopulation. When human numbers increased but the productivity of the land didn’t increase , there could have starvation. But as often happens, authors don’t realize that they may be living through a time when things are beginning to change. Malthus may have been correct in summarizing the history of our species, but famine hasn’t occurred since then. I think it’s worthwhile pondering why, even though Malthus has been wrong for the last 250 years or so, this notion of overpopulation is back in the news. Could you tell us about the relevance of Malthusianism today? Who holds Malthusian views, and who propagates them?
CF: Sure. There are two answers to the question of who holds Malthusian views. Unfortunately, many people do, including many prominent people and celebrities, ranging from Bill Nye the Science Guy to Bill Maher. We see this view espoused by many famous people. Prince Harry recently worried about overpopulation, and of course, last year the congresswoman from New York, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, famously asked whether, in the face of climate change, it’s still okay to have children. So we see this view being propagated by many prominent individuals, from celebrities to political leaders. As to where it is having an effect and where it is actually resulting in policy changes that are affecting people’s lives, fortunately, we don’t see that in the United States today. We don’t see that in the West, but we do see that in China and, to a far lesser extent, India, which is why that is where the paper focuses its attention.
MT: So I think in the next two questions, we should separate what happened in China and India historically and what is happening now. So let’s start with China in the 60s and 70s and the 80s. What happened there?
CF: Well, China instituted the one-child policy, arguably the most dramatic and draconian Malthusian policy that the world has ever seen. It had very dramatic effects. It saw over 300 million Chinese women fitted with intrauterine devices that were modified to be irremovable without major surgery. We normally think of IUDs as a temporary, reversible form of birth control, but when they mandate a form of birth control like that on a wide scale and then modify the devices to make them irremovable without major surgery, that is de facto sterilization of the population. They also did over 100 million permanent sterilization surgeries of the traditional kind, and over 300 million abortions took place in China over the course of the one-child policy, many of which were coerced.
MT: So, China had 300 million abortions and hundreds of millions of these procedures, and the Chinese population growth has declined, but so it has in the rest of the world. Am I right on that?
CF: That’s correct. If you look at birth rates in Hong Kong, an autonomous region of China that was not ever subject to birth limits of any kind, their birth rates actually fell faster than China’s. We see that around the world with normal economic development, as people become wealthier as their children are more likely to survive to adulthood, people stop having large numbers of children as a sort of insurance strategy to ensure that they have some children who survive. So we see birth rates declining everywhere. Even in sub-Saharan Africa, the poorest region on earth, birth rates are now in decline voluntarily. China claims that by instituting these birth limits, they prevented a large number of births, but that’s actually not clear. It looks like their birth rate probably would have declined just like every other country on earth without these draconian measures. All they really accomplished was widespread suffering.
MT: Could you maybe talk about some of the things that you found out about the suffering of Chinese women? Often, when we talk about large numbers, one doesn’t really get a sense of how horrific this system of the one-child policy was. What did you find out in your research about the behavior of the Chinese government and the lives of ordinary people?
CF: It turned the lives of ordinary people upside down, particularly the poor who could often not afford the fines for illegal births. It turned upside down the lives of the children who were born illegally. Many people, of course, did manage to evade the policy and gave birth to children who were illegal, who were never recognized by the Chinese government as existing They are called “black children” in Chinese as a nickname because they have no official registration. They’re not able to attend school, obtain work, travel, marry, or apply for a birth permit to have children themselves one day. All of these things are denied to them unless they go through an extremely Kafkaesque process to attempt to gain registration or they bribe an official or through connections or other means obtain a registration, whether legitimate or fake. And this hasn’t just turned upside down the lives of women. It hasn’t just harmed them because of a traditional preference in China for sons over daughters. When you combine that with birth limits, when people know well we’ve only got one shot at having a child, they often chose to have a son, and this resulted in a lot of sex-selective abortion and in some cases even female infanticide to the point where the sex ratio of the entire country has become very much skewed. In fact, the sex ratio at birth of the entire world was skewed as a result of their policy. Because China is such a populous country, it has an effect on the sex ratio at birth of the entire world. This has harmed many of the men in China too because the missing women in the population are so numerous that many of the men in the country really do not have any hope of finding a Chinese wife, and so there are many bachelors in China. We have seen data showing that they have higher rates of depression, aggression, crime, etc. This has also led to the sex trafficking of brides from other countries and many other social problems.
MT: When we think about “forced,” we often think of the state telling you that you have to do “x.” Otherwise, something bad is going to happen to you down the line. But in China, when we are talking about forced sterilizations and forced abortions, they actually happened using physical violence. Is that the case?
CF: In some cases, unfortunately, yes. This policy spans many years, and in different areas of China, you saw very different forms of enforcement. It was very decentralized in how it was enforced, so in some areas, it was more lenient. You’d be able to get away with violating the policy with a bribe, or they just would not check every village, and you’d be able to get away with it. But in other areas, it was very brutally enforced. We have reports in the early years of the policy from The Wall Street Journal of women being literally tied up, gathered into trucks, and driven off to get forced abortions or sterilizations. In the paper, you can see accounts that are extremely horrific of people who underwent very late-term, forced abortions that actually failed, resulting in the birth of live children who were then killed before the parents’ eyes. It’s really horrific the scale of what happened. and this policy was in place from 1979 to 2015. Many people talk about the one-child policy and forced sterilizations and forced abortions in China as though that is entirely in the past, but at the beginning of 2016, what they did was institute the two-child policy. China never entirely got rid of birth limits. They are now actually encouraging many couples to have a second child, and the overall government of China does realize now that their declining birth rates could have effects on the country’s fiscal commitments and the economy, and many people in the government are worried about declining birth rates. These limits are actually still in effect. Last year, there was a report of a family who had their life savings seized when they had a child illegally. There was also a report of a woman who was fired from her job for having a third child deemed illegal. We saw a BBC investigation shortly after they switched to the two-child policy where they interviewed a family in hiding because they were pregnant with a third child that was in violation of the policy, and they knew that if they remained at their home and were caught by officials, they would be forced to have an abortion and the woman would be forcibly sterilized against her wishes to comply with the policy. So, although it’s certainly a step up from the one-child policy, we do see enforcement of the two-child policy, and most notably, this policy is enforced in an even stricter manner against the Uyghur population and other ethnic minorities in China, such as the ethnic Kazakhs.
MT: To summarize, until 2015, China had a one-child policy and tremendous amounts of suffering and so on. And since 2015, they have a two-child policy, but you will be punished if you have a third child. In other words, the state is still centrally planning how many children a woman can have. There are still penalties and human rights abuses in terms of sterilizations and forced abortions. They still go on. It’s just that now it kicks in at a different count of children.
CF: That’s correct. And this is less common today, not only because the birth limit doesn’t kick in until three children, but also because fewer people in China want to have a third child. Fewer people are attempting to violate the policy than in the past. That’s why it’s rarer today. But it is still a rule that’s on the books. It’s still justified in Malthusian terms. It is still enforced, particularly among populations that the government dislikes.
MT: Can we talk about the Uyghurs now? How does that fit with the Malthusian idea, and what is the Chinese government up to?
CF: Both historically and today, we unfortunately often see fears about overpopulation and Malthusianism going hand in hand with the belief that some populations or some people are more worthy of having children than others. Back in the 60s and 70s, during the initial rise of neo-Malthusianism, we often saw proponents of that view working with people who wanted to limit births for reasons of eugenics, the view that you could improve the population by preventing certain people from having children. They were often allies: Malthusians and eugenicists worked hand in hand. Sometimes, they were the same people. Many people held both views. They were actually very complementary of one another, and today, you still often see Malthusian views going hand in hand with prejudice against certain groups. The Chinese government believes that overpopulation is a problem, or at least that’s how they officially justify the two-child policy. At the same time, that is a very convenient cover for them to decrease the populations of certain minority groups, so you see a prejudice against the Uyghurs and other minorities going hand in hand with Malthusian beliefs.
MT: Would you go as far as to say that the Chinese government is using Malthusian excuses in order to perpetrate human rights abuses against a specific group of people, in this case, Uyghurs? So for some reason, the Chinese government has decided that Uyghurs have to be reduced in population, but if you just got yourself involved in a genocide, the world would be aflame with condemnation of what you are doing. So, instead, you justify it in Malthusian terms, and that way, you essentially blunt or reduce some of the criticism that might come your way. Would that be the right way to think about it?
CF: I think it would be. I don’t think that’s going too far at all. Unfortunately, because so many people around the world in prominent positions hold this fear of overpopulation, by dressing what they’re doing in that language, by saying we’re doing this to combat overpopulation and if we didn’t do this, the population would explode and there would be disaster, they’re able to make the reduction of the Uyghur population much more palatable to people in the United States and to other people abroad who normally would be horrified. If you just said, “We plan on committing genocide against this group,” obviously no one would be able to support that. But by dressing it in this language, they are able to make what they’re doing sound like it is for a noble purpose.
MT: That’s fascinating and horrific at the same time. Switching gears a little bit, let’s talk about India. Now, you take pains to point out that India and China are quite different, but it is worth mentioning that bad things have happened in India and maybe some bad things are even continuing. Can you give us also a sense of what happened in India back then and what is still going on today?
CF: Sure. One of the worst human rights abuses we’ve seen related to neo-Malthusianism was “The Emergency,” a period of time in India from 1975 to 1977 when civil liberties were suspended, and the prime minister was ruling by decree. Her son, Sanjay Gandhi, who had no official position and whose power was entirely unconstitutional, chose to violate Indian law by instituting extremely strict quotas for sterilization and allowing the police to help officials forcefully sterilize millions of Indians.
MT: Can you give us some examples of what happened during this time?
CF: Sure. People were rounded up on street corners outside. Many people took to leaving their homes or to hiding or not going on main roadways or thoroughfares or to only staying home or being at work to try to avoid these officials, who would come and round people up. The focus on having a certain number of people be sterilized was so strong that the officials were not even concerned with the characteristics of those they were sterilizing. They sterilized homeless people, elderly people past their reproductive years, young people who did not yet have any children, people whose spouses had already been sterilized. There are even some accounts of people undergoing the procedure twice, which obviously makes no sense. There was another thing going on during The Emergency called beautification drives, where they razed certain neighborhoods called slum neighborhoods that were not seen as particularly aesthetically pleasing. The people whose homes were destroyed by the government during these drives were then told that they would be given a new housing plot only if they underwent sterilization. If your home was just destroyed by the government, then your only choice was either to be homeless or to get sterilized. That’s not a free choice, obviously. There were cases of people going into government-run hospitals for entirely unrelated things and then being sterilized, often without even being informed that that is what was happening to them. Others were denied treatment unless they agreed to undergo sterilization. State-run schools also got involved, with teachers, according to some witness accounts, threatening to fail students unless their parents elected to undergo sterilization.
MT: Okay, so that went on during the 70s. How is India doing now? I think it’s sort of heartening in a way that such terrible things could happen in India only during an emergency, during a period of deep political instability and essentially one-person rule. But India is obviously a democracy. Are there any remnants of both Malthusian policies and Malthusian thinking going on in India at this time?
CF: Unfortunately, yes. So, coercion is illegal in India. It’s worth noting that after “The Emergency,” Indira Gandhi received a resounding electoral defeat. Democracy provides protective quality against these sorts of widespread abuses on the population, fortunately. But the mindset that overpopulation is a severe problem that needs to be remedied by government action is unfortunately still very much present in India. We saw last year the prime minister, Narendra Modi, during his Independence Day address, specifically saying that there was an overpopulation explosion going on. He called Indian families who have few children “patriotic,” implying that those who have many children are unpatriotic. This is unfortunately a view that many politicians hold now. Of course, as with China, there are multiple motivations here. There’s a fear of overpopulation, but in India, there is also a prejudice against the Muslim minority. In India, Muslims tend to have more children than do Hindus, so when Prime Minister Modi made those remarks, it was widely interpreted as a not-so-subtle slight against the Muslim minority. He was talking about overpopulation, but there was also a subtext that certain groups were to blame for overpopulation more than others. And in India today, half of the population lives in states that have two-child policies of varying kinds. Now, when we say the two-child policy in India, it’s very different from those in China. There is no violence or physical force, but there are some penalties. People who have more than two children are not allowed to be full participants in society because there are certain restrictions placed upon them. They cannot run for electoral office. In many cases, they are not able to hold any sort of job working for the government, including working as a public school or even working as a janitor for a government building. They’re not allowed to be hired if they have three children. In the paper, there’s a quote from one man who was hired to be a security guard and then was fired the next day when they discovered that he actually had three children, thus disqualifying him from the position. In some cases, there are also extra taxes or penalties upon people who have more than two children. We’ve also now seen a number of proposals put forward by various politicians to enact a nationwide two-child policy. Currently, only about half the population of India is affected. This would bring it to the entire population, where people with people who violated an ideal family size determined by technocrats and had one too many children would not be able to fully participate in society in some ways.
MT: I want to make one comment that was prompted by a reference to technocrats because I think that a lot of young viewers may not understand the concept of quotas and why that was important in the Indian situation. When a quota is declared by a centrally planned economy or a state, it has to be met. So Gandhi decided that every state or every community had to deliver a certain number of sterilizations, and public officials, presumably, would be held accountable if those sterilizations were not actually produced at a local level. That is where you get into crazy situations like sterilizing people twice just so that you can add another sterilization to the quota which you need to deliver to the federal government. I just thought that needed to be clarified. So where do we go from here? What is an optimal family size according to Chelsea Follett, and what would you recommend we do in order to prevent human rights abuses based on Malthusian ideas from spreading and taking hold?
CF: I think it’s a very personal decision that each family and each individual needs to make for themselves, and I certainly do not think that we should have the government recommending any particular family size. As you mentioned, once you get into particular quotas, you quickly run into the problem of people sometimes making different decisions than you would like for them to make to meet those quotas and then you get into actual situations of coercion. The ideal outcome would be for people to realize this and for China to end the two-child policy – and there are now many hopeful signs that they’re moving toward that – and for India to reverse all of the Malthusian policies that it still has on the books. Unfortunately, in India, it still is a very popular mindset among the elite of the country. Even aside from the two-child policy, they also have some policies, such as malapportionment. Political representation in their lower house of parliament has been skewed to try to reward and disproportionately represent states with lower population growth while punishing states with higher population growth. This makes no sense. It’s very unlikely to alter any family’s decisions in terms of how many children they’ll have. No one’s going to have fewer children just to try to reverse the political representation in this way. That makes no sense. It’s completely pointless. That should be ended, but the mindset underlying these problems needs to be ended to really get people to move away from coercion. It’s a crisis mindset when you believe that overpopulation is about to result in disaster. And in a crisis, you’re willing to suspend civil liberties that you would normally extend to people. Most people have a presumption of freedom. You can do whatever you want — have one child, have three children, it’s not my business. But once there is an emergency and everyone’s well-being depends upon having only a certain number of children, that then can result in horrific coercion or softer disincentives like we’re seeing in India that still give people a message that they cannot be full participants in society if they have more children than a bureaucrat somewhere deems appropriate.
MT: Where does this crisis mentality come from? In the 60s and the 70s, it surrounded the issue of food supply. But now the world is better fed than ever before. We have more people than ever before, but we also have more food than ever before. There doesn’t seem to be any indicator suggesting that we are going to run out of food. So what’s fueling Malthusian concerns about overpopulation today if it’s not lack of food?
CF: So in some cases, it actually is still justified in terms of resource scarcity. But once people start speaking of overpopulation, you often hear that going hand in hand with fears about climate change, about having more people resulting in more pollution. But, of course, we do know that it’s possible to reduce the amount of pollution per person, and we’re seeing lots of these trends recently because of the pandemic. For example, as more people have been teleworking, we have seen a huge decline in pollution because fewer people are commuting. There are absolutely ways that we can use technology to decrease the amount of pollution per person dramatically. We’re seeing huge gains in energy efficiency. We’re seeing all sorts of trends for environmental optimism, and so having a crisis mentality, in any case, is not the right way to approach these problems. Environmental problems are real, but these are challenges that are worthy of optimism. Ultimately, even though these are real problems with severe consequences, they’re not any different from the problems humanity has faced in the past in the sense that, ultimately, ingenuity, innovation, human creativity, and cooperation are going to help us find a solution. Simply saying this is a crisis and the only solution is to force people to have fewer children is incompatible with human rights and is not the proper way to go about thinking about these problems.
MT: Would you go as far as to say that having more people actually is good for the planet in the sense that it’s people who produce more ideas, which can lead to innovation and which can lead to the betterment for humanity? After all, it’s only people who can come up with ideas, so maybe the more people we have, the more ideas about improving the state of the world we can come up with. Would you agree with that, or is that going too far?
CF: I would agree with that. That is, of course, the economist Julian Simon’s argument that people are themselves the ultimate resource, that we can make other resources more plentiful, that we can come up with solutions to problems, even dramatic problems like climate change. But I think another thing that we haven’t talked about which is very important to mention when considering these issues is that the global population is set to decline. Estimates from every reliable organization, including the UN, show that in the long run, since birth rates are falling voluntarily around the world as we mentioned, the world population will decline. So, in any case, whether you think that human beings are a net positive or a net negative for the planet, it’s clear that the population is going to decline voluntarily, and so there is no need for coercive measures wherever you stand on that issue. Another reason for environmental optimism that we see is that up until this year, which has obviously disrupted a lot of these trends, the world has been becoming richer and richer, and we’ve seen poverty decline. As countries become wealthier and poverty declines, we witness what’s called the environmental Kuznets curve. Wealthier people have more time and energy and desire to protect the natural environment around them. You see beautiful nature preserves in rich countries. You see less pollution coming out of rich countries as people, having moved on from the basic necessities of survival, are able to broaden their circle of empathy and concern to include the natural world, the well-being of animals, and having large green spaces to enjoy.
MT: So the problem, if it is a problem, is going to resolve itself, and we shouldn’t try to destroy human lives and cause a tremendous amount of suffering for something that may not be a problem after all. That seems to be the upshot of your paper.
CF: That is the upshot. Many people are worried about this, and the population is growing, so in some sense, that’s understandable. But it’s set to decline, so wherever you stand on population, ultimately, this is a problem — if it is a problem — that will resolve itself.
MT: Very good. I obviously recommend that people have a look at your paper and follow you on Twitter. We will publish this episode as soon as possible. Thank you very much, Chelsea Follett.
CF: Thank you, Marian.