More People, Better Earth — Part 1

One of the more compelling reasons for understanding how the world works is that it helps in reasoning ourselves out of wrong ideas. I speak from personal experience. Among all sorts of wrong ideas, I used to think that overpopulation was one of the reasons that some countries are poor. The logic was not wrong — only the underlying assumptions were wrong. I wasn’t any stupider than I am today. I was only less informed about what the world is about than now. Now I know better only because I have had the time and the inclination to learn how the world is.

The logic of something can be water-tight but if you begin with wrong premises, the conclusion will be wrong. You have to get the premises right to have any hope of reaching correct logical conclusions.

Anyone who has had some training in mathematics, the sciences, engineering and technology — true for most of us — is reasonably competent enough to think logically. The trouble is that most of us are not exposed to think economically. I use the word ‘economically’ here in two distinct senses.

First, as engineers and technologists we are not exposed to basic principles of economics. These are quite distinct from the scientific and engineering principles we usually learn. The distinction lies in the fact that the subject matter of economics is how people act as opposed to how matter behaves. People have their own goals and act rationally to achieve them. That’s the rationality assumption that is central in economics. More about that later.

Science, particularly the fundamental science of physics, deals with inanimate matter, forces such as gravity, and energy. These things don’t have minds and therefore objectives. They can be manipulated at will if one has the technology. Due to that it is natural for us to incorrectly believe that humans too can be manipulated just like we manipulate inanimate stuff. Learning economics gives that sort of nonsense a decent burial. That’s what I call reasoning economically.

The second sense in which I mean reasoning ‘economically’ is that economics trains us to think in small steps. Don’t be extravagant. Don’t think that we can buy it all because we cannot “afford” the whole big thing. Buy a little bit first. Reason out one little bit, and once you have it well in your grasp, take the next tentative step. Proceed slowly. Break down the task into small manageable bits, tackle each small bit and after you have got those small bits, put them all together to get the whole job done.

This is similar to programming. You write little subroutines to do specific bits of the big task. Then you write the big program which is just a set of calls to the subroutines. If you know programming (which I expect most of you to know), this analogy may be useful.

This is an undeniable fact. People don’t know much of what is already known about the world. This is because there’s too much that is known and nobody has the capacity to know more than a vanishingly small part of the whole. But of the small bit that people think they know is likely wrong. Most of what most people believe is actually false.

The problem arises from a fundamental feature of the world. Whatever even the most smartest among us knows about the world is eventually proved to be wrong. Therefore we have to be humble and admit that nobody knows it all. Economics is perhaps the only discipline that teaches humility. Nearly all of the misery that humans suffer arises from the hubris of the powerful.

Let’s remember the powerful are the great men that the population revere. Lord Acton famously said, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” And continued with the bit that “Great men are almost always bad men, …”.

With this preamble, in the next bit I will address questions Ghost of Hamlet raised today.

 {Continue to part 2 of this.}

 

 

Author: Atanu Dey

Economist.

2 thoughts on “More People, Better Earth — Part 1”

  1. >To invent or discover technology (which we have defined as recipes or know how or knowledge) humans have to have freedom. Freedom to experiment, freedom to try out things. To overcome the handicap of not being omniscient, humans have to experiment to figure out what works.

    This explains why India with 1.3B people is unable to achieve the levels of human prosperity USA achieved when their population was 100M. Or why India does not produce enough Gold medals in Olympics.

    But even then when we look at India in isolation, whatever islands of excellence we have in India, they are made possible by large population. A less free society means a society with less rate of improvement. But the rate is still positive and large gains can be made by sheer volume of people.

    So even in unfree countries like India, having a larger population is not a bad thing.

    Can we have a country so unfree that the rate of progress is negative ? Communist regimes appear to fall in that category. What did communists use before candles ? Light bulbs. But then they seem to invariably collapse sometimes with big shocks and sometimes they just figure out their mistakes and do course correction like China.

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