The West may have to fight each other off for African labour to sustain welfare states

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Recycling of wastes in the township of Kliptown, a suburb of the formerly black township of Soweto. Picture: Frédéric Soltan/Corbis via Getty Images
Recycling of wastes in the township of Kliptown, a suburb of the formerly black township of Soweto. Picture: Frédéric Soltan/Corbis via Getty Images

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In 1995 I wrote Exploding Population Myths. At the book launch in Johannesburg, I explained that I was less an author and more a translator. 

I took academic material filled with statistics and numbers and explained it to readers who didn’t have time to wade through those tomes. 

My book argued that we were already heading towards a levelling off in population, to be followed by decline.

At the time, most people agreed with religious leader Saint Jerome, who said: “The world is already full, and the population is too large for the soil.”

Jerome uttered that fearful statement in 200AD, when the world’s population was 100 million.

In other words, panic about population has been our constant companion even as population grew and famine declined.

In Exploding Population Myths, I wrote that there are three stages of population dynamics:

  • Stage 1 is when human ability to produce is limited owing to a lack of knowledge about how to use resources, along with opposition to free trade with other population groups. At this point there are high birth rates matched by equally high death rates.
  • Stage 2 is when people learn how to produce and grasp the virtues of market exchanges. Deaths begin to decline while birth rates remain high. This temporary stage means rapid population growth driven by reduced death rates.
  • Stage 3 takes place when, as futurist Herman Kahn put it, “parents begin to have fewer and fewer children prompted by the reduced value of children as economic assets combined with increased cost of rearing …”

I argued: “In an industrialised economy, raising a child is expensive and the higher the income of the family, the greater the costs. If the woman works, she will have to forego her usual income during the later stages of pregnancy and often during the first few years of the child’s life. At the same time, with retirement plans, pensions and so on, few people in developed countries look to their children for support in their old age.”

I predicted that economic development, more than family planning and other such measures, would bring population decline in the developing world.

According to the UN, the World Bank and a host of other official number crunchers, this is largely what we’ve seen since 1995. Poor nations have seen strong economic growth followed by prosperity and a decline in birth rates.

I was criticised for my utterances at the time and the academics whose works I relied on were often ridiculed.

Activists of various stripes damned anyone who argued that a population panic wasn’t warranted.

When I wrote my book, the average woman in the world had 2.86 children over a lifetime, down from 5.03 in 1965. Today that number is 2.4.

READ: Book Extract | Recession, Recovery and Reform: South Africa after Covid-19

Recently the BBC promoted another population panic with the dramatic headline: “Fertility rate: ‘Jaw-dropping’ global crash in children being born (July 15, 2020).”

It reported: “As a result, the researchers expect the number of people on the planet to peak at 9.7 billion around 2064, before falling to 8.8 billion by the end of the century.

‘That’s a pretty big thing; most of the world is transitioning into natural population decline,’ researcher Christopher Murray told the BBC.

‘I think it’s incredibly hard to think this through and recognise how big a thing this is; it’s extraordinary, we’ll have to reorganise societies.’”

In 1995 the panic was about too many people, now it’s too few. For decades various academics argued that this was precisely what was going to happen.

They were ridiculed for doing so and my book was panned for saying the same.

That was a quarter of a century ago, and I wasn’t the first by any means.

There has been plenty of time to prepare for population decline, but, driven by green panic promoters and politicians, governments the world over assumed that a population explosion would destroy us.

Now they suddenly realise that the opposite is the problem.

Western political planning was based on the dire themes of panicmongers; that there would be a growing world filled with young people and small numbers of seniors embedded in a welfare system, based on the assumption that more people would be paying in than collecting.

As the BBC notes: “Who pays tax in a massively aged world? Who pays for healthcare for the elderly? Who looks after the elderly? Will people still be able to retire from work?”

Those of us who warned that this inverted age structure meant that the welfare system would become less and less stable were ignored.

It was a recipe for eventual disaster, especially for well-off European welfare states.

The BBC says one “solution” is using “migration to boost population and compensate for falling fertility rates”.

Murray is quoted as proposing one policy supported by free market advocates – easier or open migration.

He says: “We will go from a period where it’s a choice to open borders or not to frank competition for migrants as there won’t be enough.”

In particular, he is talking about migration from Africa.

“We will have many more people of African descent in many more countries as we go through this.”

There is the irony in it all. The West ignored the “optimists” about the population explosion petering out and never prepared. Now it wants to rely on African labour to sustain Western welfare states.

The real question is whether Africans want to prop up welfare for elderly Europeans. What if the West opened its doors and no one came?

It seems they should have listened to those free market cranks decades ago instead of panicking at the last minute.

Peron is president of the Moorfield Storey Institute and author of several books including Exploding Population Myths and The Liberal Tide: From Tyranny to Liberty. He has written for numerous newspapers including The Star, the Wall Street Journal (Europe) and the Auckland Herald. The views expressed in the article are the author’s and are not necessarily shared by members of the Free Market Foundation


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