When it comes to the number of people in the world human beings will beat governments hand down every time.

The thought’s been bubbling in my mind for some time.

Ever since I earned a living forecasting population it’s something I’ve known.  But it’s come back into focus for three reasons.

First the never-heard-of-before (by me) Optimum Population Trust popped up on BBC news  programmes twice this month.  They punt the idea of an optimum (posh for best) level of population for both the UK and the world.  In particular

In the UK…population should be allowed to stabilise and decrease by not less than 0.25% a year to an environmentally sustainable level, by bringing immigration into numerical balance with emigration, by making greater efforts to reduce teenage pregnancies, and by encouraging couples voluntarily to “Stop at Two” children.

Then yesterday the UK Department of Work and Pensions claimed that by 2066 there could be more than 500,000 people aged 100 or over in the UK – there were 11,600 in 2009.

And finally, also yesterday, think tank Institute for Public Policy and Research published a briefing note that concluded net immigration is unlikely to fall much in the next year despite government attempts to curb it.

This is all an intensely political and emotional subject as a few quick Google searches will show.

On the one hand, those concerned by high levels of population are often characterised as neo-eugenicists – a clumsy phrase but hinting at some distant link with extreme right wing views.

On the other, those relaxed about higher levels of immigration are sometimes confronted with claims that white people will be a minority in Britain by the turn of the next century, if not sooner.

My take is rather different.  You can call it technical but it’s basically about the futility of government attempts to control the size of the population.

There are three immediate causes of population change

  • births
  • deaths
  • net migration – the difference between the number of people moving into the country and out of it.

The control of government over each of these causes in a democracy is at best distant, at worst non-existent.

The most controversial of the three for many is migration.  While government can to some extent control the level of immigration, it has little direct influence over emigration.  That depends on

  • how would-be emigrants perceive their own prospects in the UK for work, social advancement, education, the future of their children, and so on
  • work opportunities, lifestyle and government policy in each of the 190+ other countries in the world.

The lack of control is exacerbated by our old friend the law of unintended consequences, of which there are many examples world-wide.

Romania under communist dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu sought to increase its population when the consequences of static numbers for longer term growth in a planned economy were realised.  Most abortion was criminalised, income tax raised for childless adults and lowered for those with three or more children, divorce made more difficult, contraception illegal and so on.  The US Library of Congress produced a good summary of all the measures and their impact (you might say the full horror).  The birth rate, after an early increase, fell almost continuously throughout the remaining period of communist rule.  The adverse social consequences arguably remain until the present day.


China perceived the opposite problem – a population increasing out of control.  The government response was a one child policy with heavy penalties for parents having more than one child, increases in forced abortions, female infanticide, underreporting of female births, and a gender imbalance in the population.  Recent reports suggest one unintended consequence, perversely, is a much higher value placed on the education of girls and women as the economy has grown and a single daughter is seen by parents as a source of support in old age.  More dramatically, there is now concern at the longer term ability of the population to meet the needs of the labour market, and unfavourable comparisons drawn with India’s much more youthful population.

Even in the more benign environment of a democracy the consequences of public policy impact on population levels in unintended ways.

Who could argue with the principle that citizens should lead longer, healthier lives?  Yet no political party has a policy of increasing the number of people living to 100.  And the consequences of increased longevity are impacting dramatically on social service, health and pension provision.

Incidentally, for readers working in local government, the same truths apply.  The only circumstance in which you can control even the initial population in an area is to start with an empty site and build houses where there were none before.  But once the people have moved in understand you cannot control the number of children they have, how long they live for, and whether they move into or out of the area.

In a recent post on Ideas whose time has come I recorded the views of two experienced ex-politicians on what makes a successful government policy.  Their criteria included

  • ease of achievement
  • working with the grain of human nature
  • focus – don’t do more than you are capable of doing.

Politicians seeking to influence levels of population would do well to remember these points.  They certainly don’t seem to have impacted on the Optimum Population Trust.