Economics as a Method for Population Control

Though the ideas of Thomas Malthus may seem radical today, they were once incredibly influential in fears about global over population and the subsequent chaos that would ensue as a result. Malthus posited that because human growth increased exponentially, whilst food production only increased in a linear manner (Gould and Lewis, 108).  Thus, as time passed, and as humans failed to control or slow the rate at which their population grew, a multiplicity of conflicts would occur.  These caustic consequences included famine, rampant disease, and world wars (Gould and Lewis, 109).  He continued to argue that since humans could clearly not exert moral control over themselves, the best solution was to reduce the human population, specifically impoverished communities (Gould and Lewis, 109).  Thus, reduction to charity and services to the poor, who were especially implicit in the overpopulation problem because of their oversized families, was completely justifiable (Gould and Lewis, 109).  After all, what was some misery now compared to mass, global misery later?

Though Malthus published Essay on the Principle of Population in 1798, his projections held societal attention well into the latter half of the twentieth century.  In fact, Malthusian ideals were still so “reliable” that government agents were able to use them justification to support their specific, targeted plans of population control.  In the 1950s, as more data began to be collected, and as that data became more reliable, fears about a new type of overpopulation began to emerge.  No longer were people just having too many children, but advances in science, medicine, and technology extended the average life expectation by just long enough to ensure that there were more people on the planet that people felt comfortable with (Hvistendahl, 32).  The West was concerned about the possibility of greater poverty and less resources in developing countries, certainly.  However, there was a more specific fear, that this widespread, global poverty would make people more open to the idea of communism (Hvistendahl, 32).  Combined with established Cold War tension and a slip in Western control over places such as Latin America and Asia.

In 1952, Rockefeller set up the Conference on Population Problems, and subsequently created the Population Council. Other organizations rose to the task, such as the International Planned Parenthood Federation, the World Bank, and the U.S. Agency for International Development (Hvistendahl, 33).  This set the stage for the West to extend its desire for population control across the globe, targeting specific countries like South Korea and China with promises for greater economic prosperity.  The catch?  Population control or “family planning” programs, which would slow overpopulation, which would have a causal relationship with economic growth and individual wealth (Hvistendahl, 31).  These programs began “educating” Asian countries, and began researching and funding contraception methods aimed at and for Asian countries.

We can see how this economic frenzy played out especially in Asia, especially as more Western money flowed in. After the Korean War, the United States kept a relatively tight hold over the country and its militaristic government.  The Korean government “embraced family panning as an integral part of its economic development strategy, writing birth targets into its five-year economic plans” (Hvistendahl, 34).  Singapore, for example, held back tax and housing benefits to families with three children or more (Hvistendahl, 34).

It is interesting to look at economics in the way it affects individuals in modern times. However, looking at this issue highlights the way economics can be used to systematically stop certain groups from reproducing, which at least to me, is incredibly disturbing.


Hvistendahl, Mara. 2011. Unnatural selection : choosing boys over girls, and the consequences of a world full of men / Mara Hvistendahl. n.p.: New York : PublicAffairs, 2011., 2011.

Gould, Kenneth Alan, and Tammy L. Lewis. 2009. Twenty lessons in environmental sociology / Kenneth A. Gould, Tammy L. Lewis. n.p.: New York : Oxford University Press, 2009., 2009.


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