An Old Solution to a Growing Problem?

Updated: Oct 1, 2020

Market for Reprodutive Rights and a Global One-Child Policy

Keywords: Population; Sustainability; Tradeable Birth Quotas; Herman Daly; Kenneth Boulding; Demography; Economics

The problem of unrestrained population growth caught on the attention of the masses after reverend Thomas Malthus published his Essay on the Principle of Population (1826, 6th edition under his name), although the question of the surplus of humans growing above the limits of their places[1] can be traced back to Babylonian history (Clines, 1988 p. 510), and many times afterward (Abegão, 2018 p. 35-37).

After Malthus, and up to the present time, there have been countless exhortations from prescient individuals who sought to alert humanity to the dangers of the expansion of the human enterprise (Rees, 2017), be it regarding overpopulation (Ehrlich & Ehrlich, 1968), carrying capacity (Pearl & Reed, 1920) and overshoot (Catton, 1982), the laws of Ecology (Commoner, 1971), the limits of the biophysical system (Meadows, Randers & Meadows, 1972), the toxification of nature and its impacts on biodiversity (Carson, 1962), the vulnerability and the transition in thought into a closed Earth (Boulding, 1966), anthropic ecological degradation (Leopold, 1949), the Earth as a complex and interconnected living system (Lovelock, 1979) and the ever-present threat of collapse (Tainter, 1988) due to a collision course between a growing number of humans and the natural world (Union of Concerned Scientists, 1992).

Considering the significance and immensity of anthropogenic damage already committed, an appeal from philosophy and bioethics has started to emerge, raising the legitimacy of reducing one’s desired family size to a limit of one, so as to allow the population to slowly decline, while not depriving individuals/couples of the experience of parenting (Rieder, 2016a; 2016b; Ludden, 2016; Hickey, Rieder & Earl, 2016). However, a global demographic one-child policy would require the support of an economic scheme with vision and substance. As a result, Herman Daly (1992) picked up on Kenneth Boulding’s (1964) rationale of population control through a mechanism of tradable birth quotas, and popularized its discussion, at least to a point where it became more digestible, from a situation of near obscurity [although David Heer (1975) discussed Boulding’s proposal in greater depth and detail, prior to H. Daly]. Daly did this by providing an examination of ecological economics and the three foundations of allocation, distribution, and scale. Daly then linked it to a scheme of tradeable permits in order to stem the growth of the human population. In detail, Daly defines the three goals as:

  1. Allocation concerns the division of a given resource over various uses of production – such as how much goes to the production of a plane, clothing, agricultural equipment, etc. A viable allocation is one that is efficient, in the sense that allocates resources to the given end-uses in consonance with individual preference, decided by the ability of the individual to pay for it. A good policy instrument with an efficient allocation would entail that prices are determined by supply and demand in competitive markets.

  2. Distribution invokes the relative apportionment of the resource flow, in the manner that it is integrated into final goods and services, among different people, either in the present or future. A good distribution can be achieved when it is just and fair, or that reduces inequality to an acceptable range. The way to attain a good distribution is through transfers – which are the subject of this work.

  3. Scale consists of the physical volume of the throughput[2] and it may be imagined as the product of population times per capita resource use. It is calculated relative to the natural capacity of a given ecosystem to regenerate the inputs and absorb the outputs. A good scale would be one that does not erode the carrying capacity of a system, either through present or future use. That is to say, an optimal scale is one that does not forfeit present biocapacity and ecosystem services, in order to create a given production benefit.

The point of scale is of heightened relevance in economic theory because it has been mostly excluded – or at the very least misconstrued – in serious economic examinations. Indeed, this has transpired, mainly in two opposing ways. First, the supposition that environmental sources and sinks know no boundaries relative to the scale of the economic subsystem. Secondly, when considering that scale is total instead of infinitesimal, in the sense that nature can be seen as just another sector like industry or agriculture. Under such abstractions, separate issues of macro-scale are non-existent, thus, no policy instrument that would include scaling is required.

It should be clear to anyone, that if the human population is currently growing in net gain numbers by roughly 83 million people/year (PRB, 2020) that would result in an expanding scale that creates problems for natural sources and sinks. With this in mind, Daly discusses the feasibility of a tradeable births quota scheme, drawing from the ones already put in place dedicated to pollution permits. To explain:

  1. A limited number of rights to pollute would be created. This limit would have to be comprised within the carrying capacity of the system. Since we are already in overshoot, it stands to reason that a births quota would be conceived to rapidly decrease the size of the human population, by adhering to something like a global demographic one-child policy (Morris, 2020) to lessen humanity’s total ecological footprint.

  2. The limited number of quotas/rights set to the scale of reference would have to be distributed initially to different people. An equal distribution between individuals or couples would be desirable (Lianos, 2018), although Daly also suggests that these could be collectively transferred as public property, then auctioned or sold by governments to individuals (Heer, 1975, suggests that governments be able to intervene when noncompliance occurs and become a buyer as well). Regardless, there needs to be an initial distribution so allocation and reallocation by trading can occur.

  3. At this stage, after an ecologically sustainable scale and an ethical and just distribution are decided, reallocation among individuals can take place, so as to enhance efficiency. For this to occur, the total amount of birth permits would have to be fixed, but the price could still vary. Moreover, scale couldn’t be determined by price, but by a social decision reflecting ecological limits. Distribution would follow a similar path, sharing the newly created assets equitably. Individual trading would then allocate the scarce birth quotas through market means.

Notwithstanding, tradeable permits (not for birth quotas as these haven’t been applied) have been considered by economists to be the individualistic “free market” solution, without considering that the market is only free after it has been tightly and collectively confined to fit the scale and distributive limits (Daly, 1992). Moreover, Daly asserts the importance of keeping an economic Plimsoll line from overloading the natural systems with the excellent metaphor, which contains the three optima of allocation, distribution and scale discussed thus far (Daly, 2014 p.42):

“The micro allocation problem is analogous to allocating optimally a given amount of weight in a boat. But once the best relative location of weight has been determined, there is still the question of the absolute amount of weight the boat should carry. This absolute optimal scale is […] the Plimsoll line. When the watermark hits the Plimsoll line the boat is full, it has reached its safe carrying capacity, if the weight is badly allocated, the waterline will touch the Plimsoll mark sooner. But eventually, as the absolute load is increased, the watermark will reach it, even for a boat whose load is optimally allocated. Optimally loaded boats will sink under too much weight – even though they may sink optimally! [...] The major task of environmental macroeconomics is to design an economic institution analogous to the Plimsoll mark – to keep the weight, the absolute scale, of the economy from sinking our biospheric ark."

Under these circumstances, Boulding/Daly’s concept of a tradeable births scheme could be seen as an attempt to solve the oldest problem of humans, the fact that resources are limited while human wants are unlimited (Lianos, 2018). Instead of focusing on the supply side, which has been the task of the modern economy, by enhancing technological efficiency or reducing waste production, a tradeable births scheme would focus on the demand side of the economy, by reducing the resultant consumption by constraining the size of the population. But reduce it to how much? Is there an optimal scale for the size of the human population? Yes, and these have been meticulously calculated considering different metrics.

In 1994, a thought experiment was conducted regarding the optimum population size based on an estimate of the maximum total world energy production within what came to be called planetary boundaries (Rockström et al. 2009). Considering a 6 TW total energy production and a level of per capita consumption of just 3 kW, the authors stipulated an optimum population of 2 billion people (Daily, Ehrlich & Ehrlich, 1994). In the same year, Pimentel et al. (1994) arrived at a total population of 3 billion people. They based their reasoning on a 0.5 gha per capita necessary to supply food and ensuring soil conservation. As a comparison, presently, the ecological footprint metric (which assumes more than food supply and soil maintenance) presumes that on average each person requires 2.8 gha, with the available biocapacity putting it on only 1.7 gha per capita (GFN, 2018). Afterward, Pimentel et al. (2010) revised their analysis and concluded that with a European standard of living for everyone, the carrying capacity of the planet would allow only 2 billion people. More recently, Lianos (2013) added the variable of income to the mix, assuming a yearly $11,000 to be conducive to only 2.5 billion or less. Regardless, the lesson is that if people want to increase their welfare and material wealth the total number of people has to decrease, or vice versa.

Forasmuch as everything already mentioned is considered, two different tradeable birth schemes were deemed to be relevant enough to require examination. The first proposal comes to us from Theodore Lianos in his article Steady State Economy and Optimal Population Size (2018) and his idea of a ‘Market for Human Reproduction Rights’, conceived independently from Boulding’s or Daly’s scheme. It goes as following:

  1. Every couple is provided with three shares by the government, each share giving the right to half a child. Each share represents the potential for the couple to participate in the creation of the next generation, with all couples having the same exact rights.

  2. These shares would become tradable in the world market. Accordingly, a couple from Portugal who would want to have two children could buy a share from a couple in the United States, in like manner, if they desired a family size of three, they would have to once again resort to the market, for example buying two extra shares from a couple in Angola next time around. If all the people in the world wanted two children, the market would not allow the trades, and the scheme would effectively become a one-child policy. However, it is almost certain that people in all countries would want to buy or sell shares, depending on their desired family sizes, effectively allowing the transference of incomes probably from relatively rich people to relatively poor, within each country and internationally. If the scheme becomes popular enough and a substantial sum of money were to be traded for shares, even countries that favor large family sizes would be enticed to join the international market. The scheme would also incentivize a childfree lifestyle.

On the other hand, we have Fung (1998), who affirms that to have an operating and adequate population control policy, there is a need to fix the total annual births on a strict limit to allow a lower stationary population. He discusses an unconventional approach, but seeing that since Boulding’s (1964) exposition of the logic of a tradeable birth quotas scheme no application or even major discussion has been made, no idea should be discarded upfront. Accordingly, for Fung “the most pressing immediate concern is to reduce fertility as much as possible and worry about any possible adverse consequences later.”

In view of this, Fung discusses the proposal of linking deaths to fixed births quotas. In other words, this would mean that each death would trigger the emission of a certain amount of birth quotas. Fung argues that the allocation problem of fixed birth quotas would be repaired and population aging managed. Moreover, Fung adds that his proposal of death-linking birth quotas, is more egalitarian than lifetime birth quotas per woman, because each person, either married or not, has the equal right to pass on births.

In spite of this, Fung acknowledges that since fertility rates are not uniform across each country, or even across income and ethnic groups, there could be a tendency for rural populations and less well-off and less educated minorities to maintain higher fertility, which could become politically unbearable, since the scheme would require an equal treatment to everyone, regardless of social status, affluence or ethnicity, so as to preserve social cohesion and the success of the program. Nonetheless, such a scheme could create an incentive for the hopelessly ill to seek earlier exits, thus further analysis of this strategy is required.

For Fung, when births and deaths are connected, a mutually beneficial exchange between the hopelessly ill and society can occur. Fung argues that by resorting to a painless physician-assisted death for those to which it is justified and are willing to do so, the death benefit would be converted into a birth quota, to be used only by their next of kin. He adds that an earlier death would be seen as an altruistic act since those people could see themselves as givers of life, for the next generation, by unlocking inherited birth quotas.

On the other hand, Fung concedes that inherited birth quotas obtained only by members of the same family might induce feelings of covert or overt pressure on the hopelessly ill or even on the healthy elderly. By granting this possibility, Fung addresses the possibility of inherited birth quotas being traded in a market. Considering this, Fung suggests that birth coupons should have an expiration date of about 12 months. In detail, this would allow the holders of the coupons enough time to plan a pregnancy, as well as preventing any unreasonable hoarding.

As in Lianos’ Market of Reproduction Rights (2018), Fung asserts that a market for inherited birth coupons would allow exchanges since it is reasonable to expect that couples might want to sell their quotas instead of using them if:

  • Couples already have their desired family size

  • Couples who have inherited more than enough within the same or overlapping redemption period

  • Couples who are not ready to have children

  • Couples who have less than a full birth quota but cannot afford to fulfill an entire quota

  • Couples who don’t want children

  • People who are not biologically capable to bear children

  • Singles who can’t use the quota

Regarding the last point, in contrast to Fung’s perspective, Lianos advocates that there is an ethical foundation to argue that if there is a right to give birth (a popular discussion in bioethics and philosophy that goes beyond the aim of this work) (Ryan, 1990; Dillard, 2007; Cavaliere, 2020; Conly, 2005; 2016), then this right should be given to individuals and not to couples, since there are many people who wish to have children without getting married or being in a relationship with others. By Lianos perspective, instead of the three shares given to each couple by the government (each share corresponding to half a child), these would be attributed to individuals, with flexible values, depending on the desired rate of decline of the population (e.g. 0.6 or 0.4 instead of 0.5).

Notwithstanding, Lianos does not elaborate on what would happen if individuals consume or sell their shares previous to being designated a couple. Would the couple’s shares be maintained if one of the individuals already depleted them or would these be restituted, leading to double counting and further population growth or abuses in the market?

A market for birth quotas would also be needed to make sure that all are redeemed. In the absence of such a monetary exchange that would mean that a potential source of income would be left untapped. There would also be a need to impose a progressive tax of some source on inherited birth quotas from already large families, which could potentially create a loop of numerical advantage.

Equally important, and still not mentioned is the point that for birth quotas to be effectively enforced, voluntary birth controls methods would have to be made widely available [one would add education since both are proven to reduce fertility rates (The Overpopulation Project, 2019; Population Matters, 2020)], so as to reduce any pregnancy termination interventions, for unlicensed pregnancies. Fung doesn’t address the question of who would pay for the contraception methods and/or abortion services, however, he does discuss the application (by 1998 standards) of birth control methods, mentioning that costs of enforcement would be very high, that these require cooperation from recipients and that they sometimes produce undesirable repercussions.

Generally speaking, it should be noted that Fung’s proposal (1998) was written in China during the One-Child policy, in the hope that it would provide an alternative plan for the country. In any case, the one-child policy of China has drawn international condemnation for its forced sterilizations and abortions as well as the sex ratio unbalance (Ebenstein, 2010) and increased crime (Edlund et al. 2007), despite the fact that there were many benefits to the policy that have remained obscure or pushed to the fringes of academia (Conly, 2015; Fong, 2002; Ibarra, 2018; Huang, 2018; Watts, 2011; Cafaro, 2012).

Comparatively, the idea of a global one-child policy remains as fundamental and indispensable as ever (Morris, 2020), since it would also serve as the structural pillar for a tradeable births scheme to operate smoothly and effectively. However, enforcing such tradeable birth quotas would most likely impinge on what is now recognized to be reproductive liberty, a freedom that when violated, should be weighed against other possible choices. Undoubtedly, there would be infringements into personal procreative decisions, as these would require that families reduce their desired family sizes, in the absence of shares/quotas. On the other hand, allowing unrestrained procreative freedom reduces the level of utility (from a utilitarian perspective) of future generations since overpopulation leads to overshoot and collapse (Meadows, Randers & Meadows, 2004), with the consumption of resources in the present, seizing to be available to posterity.

However, even the philosopher Sarah Conly, author of One Child: Do We Have a Right to More? (2016), who asserts that the claim that people have a fundamental right to have as many children as they desire should be rejected, refuses to approve enforcement on the desired number of people that a family may have (Lianos, 2018). On the other hand, Carol Kates from Ithaca College has argued (2004) what to my knowledge is the most undisguised and straightforward defense of a strictly regulated global agreement on population reduction, with aggressive/coercive population control policies being justified when considering the threat posed by human overpopulation and continuous growth.

Considering that countries which have attained below replacement fertility of 2.1 birth per woman haven’t fully recognized the inherent social and environmental benefits (Götmark, Cafaro & O’Sullivan, 2018) of such an achievement, having instead sixty-two percent of them enacted pro-natal policies (UNDESA, 2017) or turned to immigration to fuel population growth (Cafaro, 2018), requires us to ponder over the necessity of such a global demographic policy.

In any event, since Boulding’s first utterance on the subject almost sixty years ago, no implementation of the scheme has come to pass, which would also mean that the birth quotas schemes here invoked (and others not mentioned) have never been put to the test and continuously revised/complemented so as to fix any problems that might arise, and for sure that such problems would appear, as in any incomplete human creation. In effect, de la Croix and Gosseries (2009) have discussed in great length some of the complications arising from the tradeable procreation entitlement programs here referred, with four issues being put on the limelight: the need for continuous adjustments of the birth rate target; the need to shift the reproduction age through the system; the problem of early mortality which Fung (1998) attempted to solve by linking births to deaths; and the definition of the license beneficiaries.

Fung (1998) also stresses how a too-rapid decrease in births may lead to population aging, and labor supply and school enrollment shortness. Furthermore, only Fung appears to have proposed that quotas/shares be bounded by a time stamp, to prevent hoarding and abuses in the market, which seems to be something that ought to receive more attention. Another issue that was not taken into account was the effect of immigration. The schemes here discussed only focus on fertility reductions below replacement rate, and inasmuch as globalization has left many countries dependent on foreign immigration, putting this market into operation could also mean abandoning current immigration levels [something which would also benefit sustainability, advocated by the principle of Malthusian Restrictionism (Chapman, 2006; Rees, 2006; Cafaro & O’Sullivan, 2019)], and adhering to something like a 'democratic immigration policy' (Abegão, 2019) (3).

All in all, it should become clear that the goal of this examination is to propose a global one-child policy supported by a tradeable births market system. Such a scheme would help to assure that future generations can inhabit this planet in relative peace and security by preventing present generations from bequeathing a world that has been left devoid of non-human life and the necessary natural capital. It is high time these tradable procreation entitlements are put into action, since tradable schemes used as policy tools have been functioning for decades, in cases such as air pollution, overproduction (e.g., milk quotas in the EU), and overexploitation of natural resources such as in fish stocks.

Human populations growing above the limits of their places appears to be a problem as old as Humanity itself. In such a manner, how can a species call itself wise when they completely disregard their 'Spaceship Earth' (Boulding, 1966) and continue to grow beyond the limits of its capacity? For a species to really be wise it must, therefore, attain a stationary stage in population dynamics, and rapidly progress into a declining population, to leave behind the state of overshoot and eventually secure some sort of sustainable living on Earth. A global demographic one-child policy spearheaded by a tradable birth scheme would certainly facilitate this endeavour.

[1] Sites that evoke a profound sense of belonging for humans (Chapman, 2006). [2] The continuous flow of energy and materials needed to keep the population and the economy growing, by way of the rate at which humans can extract natural capital from the planet and emit wastes without exceeding the productive and absorptive capacities of the Earth (Meadows et al. 2004).

[3] A democratic immigration policy would be defined by priority slots for international migration in high-income countries being granted to only those nations that have in place policies to stop population growth and abandoned pro-natalist tendencies. Correspondingly, it would be in the best interest of the populations that wish to immigrate to vote for politicians that would assure that their migration slots in highly desired locations would be maintained. Ultimately, such a policy would grant more democratic power at 'home' by legitimizing policies to slow the growth of the population, improving conditions in their country while at the same time, allowing a share of those voters to seek international mobility.

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