Make population growth work

Published in The Australian (Sydney), 22 August 2012

A FUNNY thing happened last week. The government’s decision to increase Australia’s intake of refugees to 20,000 a year, up from the present figure of about 14,000, was met with cheers from people on the Left who usually oppose population growth as unsustainable or object to foreign workers filling skills shortages.

It would be good if this backflip sparked debate about Australia’s growing population. Should Australia’s population increase in the next decades? This question is misleading. It implies that Australians can choose just how many they want to be.

Although there are of course a few levers that can be pulled in controlling population growth, particularly through restrictive migration policies, other factors can hardly be controlled.

The government cannot decide how long we are going to live. It cannot mandate the number of children we have and at what age we have them. Yet these natural factors account for about half of the country’s projected population growth.

The advocates of restricting population growth usually come up with figures that they claim are desirable.

What none of these small or smaller Australia campaigners spells out is the ways in which these population targets could be achieved.

The necessary policies quickly become draconian and ugly and incompatible with the ideals of a free society based on the rule of law.

Just looking at historical examples of countries trying to steer their population figures one way or the other should be a warning.

There are cases of governments trying to increase or decrease their populations for various reasons. But such active and direct population policies usually happen in dictatorships.

In Nazi Germany, the semi-religious cult of the alleged supremacy of the Aryan race led to all sorts of policies encouraging Germans to have more children.

One of them was the Cross of Honour of the German Mother awarded in bronze, silver and gold depending on the number of children (four, six and eight respectively), which came with various privileges. Nazi ideology promoted “donating children to the Fuhrer”, and Hitler talked about giving birth as a battle that mothers were fighting for the survival of the people.

The opposite population policy of suppressing population growth has been practised in China since 1979. The policy has been rigorously enforced with large fines for violations and resulted in forced abortions, the killing of female babies, a growing gender imbalance and a worsening age profile of the population. China may become the first country in world history to get old before it really gets rich.

The measures needed to increase or decrease the natural factors behind population growth are so drastic it is difficult to imagine them applied in a modern democracy. We cannot force people to have children or not to have them. We cannot limit the increases in life expectancy by law.

It is impossible to enforce such population policies without violating fundamental human rights that allow us to live our lives according to our own preferences.

When anti-population growth campaigners talk about limiting the natural increase of population, alarm bells should be ringing.

Outside totalitarian systems, effective population policies are hard to imagine and even harder to implement.

This leaves migration as the only possible way by which the vision of a smaller Australia could be achieved. But even there the government may be less powerful than the small-Australia brigade believes.

There are good reasons that economic development and opportunities determine migration patterns, not the other way around. When an economy booms, and companies are running out of jobseekers, they are looking for candidates elsewhere. We know this phenomenon from the mining sector, but it’s equally true for doctors and nurses in rural and remote areas. Even advocates of a small Australia would probably agree that these are the last people we would want to shut out as it would hurt our vital interests in growing the economy and providing key workers for vital services.

Small-Australia campaigners would presumably also hesitate to argue with an increased humanitarian intake of refugees, or with citizens being able to bring their family members into the country. We would not disagree.

But then, given all this, the question really becomes what you could actually do to restrict population growth without hurting economic development, resorting to inhumane measures or preventing family reunions.

The honest answer is: not very much. Population growth is happening and, though governments may have some discretion at the margin, it is a process that cannot (and often should not) be controlled.

There are no easy choices for Australia’s demographic future. There is no right or wrong population size or rate of population growth.

But there are right and wrong policies for dealing with the challenges population growth brings.

Australia should not fear a growing population. We should approach this issue from the liberal principal of defending the freedom of individuals to live their lives as they wish.

Individual freedom is the best way to bring happiness to the greatest number of people and individuals should be allowed to decide how to lead their lives. The role of government is to establish a framework in which individual freedom can flourish.

A growing population can bring economic benefits. It goes hand-in-hand with increased prosperity and better standards of living. It delivers a larger, better-skilled labour force and more vibrant cities. The real challenge is not to stop population growth. It is making population growth work.

Oliver Hartwich and Jessica Brown are the co-authors of Why vs Why: Big Australia, a new book released by Pantera Press today.

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