Population Control in the Bible

Genesis 1:

27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.

28 And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.

(King James Version)

God commanded the first humans to multiply. Children, and large families, were considered a blessing throughout much of the Old Testament. Abraham was blessed by becoming the ancestor of millions. But was this very first commandment general? Or was it specific to the time? When the first humans were created, the earth was under populated, to put it mildly. Today, when it comes to “repleninishing the earth,” I think it’s fair to say, “Mission accomplished!” But does the Bible back up my assertion? Or should we continue to fill every possible niche with as many humans as possible, maybe even breeding some extra humans to have some big wars?

The New Testament appears to back my view. Breeding is not particularly celebrated therein. We have no mention of the apostles having wives and children. St. Paul suggests marriage as a means of dispelling troublesome sexual energy [1 Corinthians 7:9]. The early Church celebrated celibacy.

I would venture that even the Old Testament has a population control measure. It is implicit, well-hidden, but there. Population control is implied by the land laws in Leviticus 25.

Moral Hazard and Henry George

Before I became the holistic-thinking upper-leftist that you find on this site, I was a hardcore libertarian, and quite active in the Libertarian Party. As I made the transition to the views you see here, I attempted to bring the Libertarian Party along with me, or at least broaden the LP to include what I had become. During those final years within the party I had the opportunity to have dinner with a very prominent party member -- a former national chair. When I pitched to him my expanded view of natural rights and Henry George’s ideas on ground rent, he came back with a very important objection. I will paraphrase crudely (my memory isn’t that good):

Consider two early humans settling an island Grog and Ook. If we grant them equal natural rights, they each get half the island. Since the island is big, no problem. Over time the Grog family has many children, and many grand children and so on. Their half of the island grows crowded; they have to farm intensively, working hard just to eat. Meanwhile the Ook family multiplies less rapidly, and when game and wild coconuts become less plentiful, they drop down to having 2.1 children per family to maintain a leisurely, hunter-gatherer existence.

Question: do the descendents of Ook owe ground rent to the descendents of Grog? Why should the descendents of Ook pay for the overpopulation of the descendents of Grog?

His objection was correct! Henry George’s ideas on distributing ground rent contain a moral hazard of catastrophic magnitude. The family (or culture, or tribe, or religion) that overpopulates gets to collect rent from those who maintain a sustainable population. Over time, the culture/tribe/religion that overpopulates dominates. Those who want to live a sustainable lifestyle are not only outvoted, they also pay land taxes on their “under-utilized” lands. Private game preserves and wildlands are penalized under this scheme. (They are also illegal under Murray Rothbard’s rules of initial land ownership, BTW. See “The Ethics of Liberty.”)

The Jubilee Laws of Leviticus 25 solve the dilemma elegantly. Instead of giving each individual an equal share of the land, each family got an equal share at the time of the conquest of Canaan. From then on, individuals were entitled to their share of the family’s initial plot. Members of a family which overpopulated its lands had less natural rights to divide among themselves. They had to farm their lands intensively, or move to the city and get a job, or rent land from members of another family which had restrained its fecundity.

Conversely, the family which did not overpopulate its lands reaped the benefits. They could engage in low-intensity agriculture, or even a bit of hunting and gathering. Or, they could rent out land to others.

To individuals the arrangement is unfair. Why should individuals pay the price for their ancestor’s actions? Then again, we pay the price of our ancestors’ actions today even without the land transfer restraints of Leviticus 25. We pay the price of living in a populous world. (And we also reap the benefits of our high-tech civilization.) The dynamic exist regardless. The restraints in Leviticus 25 tighten the feedback loops and allow side-by-side comparisons of life choices; they make life somewhat more fair.

Modern Applications

I doubt we could apply the land system of Leviticus 25 today as is. But we can study the underlying principles and use them. While creating permanent family plots is impractical, we do have these semi-permanent national boundaries to work with. Environmentalists take note: unlimited immigration and environmentalism don’t mix. With unlimited immigration, the culture which believes in surplus breeding can overrun those which have decided to live within the constraints of nature.

We in the United States live bigger than Western Europeans not just because of smaller government, but because we have more land and natural resources per capita. The plagues and wars which devastated the natives of this land left wide open spaces which are being filled more slowly than improving technology increases resource productivity. Elsewhere, the richest parts of the world filled up long ago, when technology growth was low, and now their inhabitants live in poverty (cf. Bangladesh, Viet Nam).

In the past few decades Western Europeans have opted to have few children. As their population shrinks they too will be able to live in U.S. sized houses and maybe even drive U.S. sized cars. Well, they would be able to save that Western Europe is being flooded with immigrants, from cultures which have made different choices. The Western Europeans will not reap the benefits of their restraint unless they reign in immigration.

Reigning in immigration is an ugly process: barbed wire and armed guards along borders, people risking their lives to get out of poverty, national IDs and surprise workplace searches. We might be able to control the tide immigrants to this country without such harsh measures. Suppose we replace our current system of progressive taxes and welfare with flatter taxes and a Citizens Dividend. For example, we could merge the income and FICA taxes into a 25% flat tax (and a possible surcharge on the super rich if the liberals in the audience insist on it). This 25% tax would be on every income, no matter how small. However, every adult citizen would receive a dividend check independent of income. For the poor, it replaces welfare; for the not-so-poor it replaces the personal exemption and several deductions.

Currently, the wealthy countries offer more in welfare services than poorer countries offer in available work. This introduces a steep economic gradient inducing people to risk their lives to cross borders. A Citizen’s Dividend instead of welfare benefits and graduated taxes would reduce nominal wages for low-skill jobs in wealthy countries while increasing the useable income of native low-skill workers. The reduced wage gradient would reduce immigration pressure to something more manageable. Those who would truly earn more by crossing borders could do so, but they wouldn’t be entitled to the dividend of the wealthier nation.

I used income tax in my example, but a Citizen’s Dividend could be funded from other taxes such as sales, excise, tariffs, property, etc. Georgists, of course, would favor land and natural resource use taxes to fund such a dividend.

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