If abolishing China’s one child policy led to more children, would it be so bad?
Written by Simon Beard
This is an unedited version of a paper which was originally published on The Conversation:
please see here to read the original article
After 35 years, the Chinese government recently announced the abolition of its controversial one child policy for one that will allow all Chinese citizens to have up to two children. Whilst this increased respect for personal autonomy is undoubtedly good, it is not clear if the lifting of the ban will actually lead to a marked increase in China’s birth rate – while the birth rate has dramatically reduced since the policy was introduced, so too have those of neighbouring countries without such policies.
Whether or not Chinese parents decide to use their new-found rights to procreate, the move does raise questions. Would it be good or bad if more children were now born in China and the population grew? And what value might there be in any changes to China’s population size and structure?
There are several reasons to think that more Chinese children would be a good thing. These children, or at least the vast majority of them, can expect to live lives that are ‘worth living’. They will enjoy the good things life has to offer and there is no reason to assume that they will suffer unduly. Whilst China is far from the perfect place to grow up, Chinese people born in 2015 have better expectations for health, education, and prosperity than at any other time in history. More children could also help to solve China’s two pressing demographic challenges: a rapidly ageing population and an over predominance of male children, caused by a sexist preference for boys under the one child. It seems hard to argue that these reasons do not make an increase in the number of children a good thing, at least in one respect.
On the other hand, many people worry that the world in general, and China in particular, may be “overpopulated” and that more children will reduce the resources, making available to Chinese people, making things worse for everyone.
One thing we might believe that would strengthen this argument is that the welfare of currently-not-existing-but-merely-potential people does not make an outcome better or worse. This view is consistent with the common intuition that having a child is neither good nor bad. Call this the intuition of neutrality. Unfortunately, this intuition is almost certainly mistaken. Most of us would view it as terrible if human beings were to cease to procreate so that the current generation would be the last. Imagine that aliens were to offer humanity a choice. We can exchange all our procreative functions for a lifetime of sheer bliss, or we can continue to live as we are and humanity will be guaranteed to thrive for generations to come. If you are at all tempted to say that we should keep hold of our procreative functions in this case, then you must agree that the welfare of not-currently-existing-but-merely-potential people can make an outcome better.
Another view, which would strengthen the argument that additional children would make things worse, is that whilst the welfare of potential people matters, the number of such people does not. This view is not consistent with the intuition of neutrality. However, it does imply that if the addition of more people in the future made things worse for China’s current population then this may be a bad thing if it lowers everyone’s average welfare.
A hellish scenario
Unfortunately, once again any intuitions we may seem to have supporting this view are clearly mistaken. Consider the following two cases adapted from Derek Parfit. In Hell One, there are many people who suffer and whose lives are very bad for them, worse than their never having existed. In Hell Two there are even more people with very bad lives than in Hell One, but also many people whose lives, whilst still bad and worse than nothing, are not quite as bad as the lives in Hell One. If the number of people in each case did not matter, then it would seem that Hell Two must be better. Most of the people in Hell Two are better off than the people in Hell One are, and only a minority have lives that are as bad. If we believe that Hell Two is worse than Hell One, then the number of people in a population matters to us. We recognise that this minority of people in Hell Two represents a greater number of bad lives than the total population of Hell One.
However, if you do not accept either of these views it is hard to argue that the costs additional children bring with them will outweigh the benefits. One reason for this is what economists call “the diminishing marginal utility of consumption”. This means that as you consume more the utility or welfare you gain from this extra consumption will tend to diminish. One implication of this is that it is almost always better, in terms of producing more welfare, for a resource to be consumed by somebody who consumes less than by somebody who consumes more. However, this also implies that it is better for a fixed quantity of resources to be consumed by a larger number of people than by a smaller number. It follows that, even if additional children do nothing to increase the stock of resources available to China’s population, they can still increase the welfare derived from them.
Even if an increasing population is in itself a good thing, we might still view it as bad because of its wider effects.
One effect of increasing China’s population might be to increase our existential risk, that is the likelihood of human extinction, or otherwise to reduce the human population in the long run. Such arguments rely on the claim that existential risks result from the simultaneous global population, so that the more people live at any one time the higher the risks. However, for many plausible causes of existential risk this is not so. For instance, man-made climate change does not result from the level of greenhouse gas emissions at any one time, but by the build-up of these gasses in the atmosphere over hundreds of years.
Similarly, the exhaustion of the Earth’s non-renewable resources is a long-term process; it is not simply the result of too many people consuming these resources at the same time. Such processes will continue whether global populations increase or decrease. Undoubtedly, the simultaneous global population can accelerate the processes that cause existential risk, but it will also affect the number of minds, and hands, that can be utilised to avoid or respond to these risks.
Another effect of an increasing population in China would more people living in poverty and inequality. People in China remain poorer, on average, than the rest of the world and 150m citizens live on the international poverty line of less than US$2 a day. An increase in the birth rate of these people is likely to increase global poverty and inequality, and there is evidence to suggest that rising populations in poorer countries have completely cancelled out the effect of all efforts to eradicate global poverty. So does this make this kind of population growth bad?
Philosophers often differentiate between inequalities that result from the “mere-addition” of people who are less well off from inequality that results from making people worse off. While the morality of the latter kind of inequality is hotly debated, the philosophical consensus is that inequality that results from mere addition is not bad. As Larry Temkin puts it: “Typically, when we say one outcome’s inequality is worse than another’s, the same people exist in both outcomes and the worse-off fare worse in the one outcome than the other.” However, when the choice is between where the worse off exist and where they do not, “the inequality is not morally regrettable”.
The only reason that such inequality might be bad would be if some or all of the worse off lives created by this population growth were not “worth living” and were even “worse than nothing”, for instance lives of constant and unbearable suffering. However, politicians and policy makers are seldom willing to contemplate that many lives could fall into this category.
Unless we take the controversial stance that many lives are not worth living, then we should conclude that a growing population in China is not only good in itself but its effects are far less negative than we might think. It follows that it is not only a good thing that the people of China have a choice to have more children but it would be a good thing if they chose to have these extra children as well.