*The Land is Full*

The Land is Full, written by Israeli academic Alon Tal, makes the argument that Israel ought to cease its high rate of population growth. It is an interesting book, I was especially interested in the analysis of the demographic effect of child benefits(Tal argues they have a positive effect on fertility) and the history of pro-natalism in Israel. Tal criticizes the politically correct environmentalists for their refusal to address population growth as a cause of environmental problems. Although the introduction to The Land is Full is written by the notorious doomer Paul Ehrlich, Tal deserves credit for avoiding the extreme, idiotic rhetoric that characterizes much of the environmental movement. He never claims the world is on the edge of starvation, and though he claims Israel is nowhere near self-sufficiency in food production, he doesn’t make a big deal about it, recognizing that food can be imported from elsewhere with little fuss. His main concerns are reasonable, involving economics and quality of life. Still, I think he overstates his case. One of his weakest claims is his analysis of Israel’s healthcare situation, he attributes the shortage of hospital beds in Israel to population growth. But Israel, with historically high fertility rates, has a lower population of the aged who disproportionately consume healthcare services, considering this, demographic factors cannot explain Israel’s poor performance in healthcare.

Because of it’s high fertility rate, Israel has a lower proportion of the population who are aged 15-64 than any country in Western Europe, and has the same number as Japan. It has fewer elderly people, but a lot more under 15s. It is undeniable that this will affect Israel’s economy, but there are reasons a lower population might not be a good thing for Israel. If you look at countries which are isolated by geography and compare to ethnically similar non-isolated countries, it does not look good. The Nordic Faroe Islands is a country of ~50,000, it is much poorer than other Nordic countries. Iceland is as rich as mainland Scandinavia when measured by per capita GDP, but this is only accomplished through the Icelanders working many more hours than do Scandinavians. New Zealand is significantly poorer than Britain. Although not isolated by geography in this way, Israel is isolated by virtue of being surrounded by poorer, potentially hostile and unstable countries.

Being a small, isolated nation has many problems. The lack of a large market necessitates the expensive importation and exportation of a large proportion of goods and services. These nations find it hard to offer the variability in education, jobs, and lifestyle that people demand, with the result that they have high rates of emigration. They say quantity has a quality of its own, and, if the low productivity levels of these isolated places are any indication, low quantity seems to lead to low quality, all else being equal.

I am no believer in pro-natalism for it’s own sake. Though I’d be very reluctant to limit them, I do not believe in the doctrine of “reproductive rights” as inalienable rights  that can never be restricted.(Once something becomes a “right,” people no longer have to explain how the exercise of that right benefits society.)  It would astonish me, if, 3,000 years from now, humanity has not enacted universal prohibitions on the number of children women are permitted to have. Eventually, evolution will select out the preference for small families, and population growth cannot last forever.

Nevertheless, it is not obvious to me that the high-IQ nations of Europe and America are at the point where they would not benefit from a larger population. Large population density seems to be a problem only when other factors prevent the nation from dealing constructively with them, when zoning laws prevent housing development or when pollution is treated as a non-issue. Are Germany or the Netherlands bad places to live because of population density? People’s revealed preference seems to be for suburbs. In all but the most dense nations of the world, there’s room to build more. If agricultural land is consumed, than so what? Our modern “factory” farms hardly achieve the highest yields per acre which are possible. They focus on maximizing output profit per acre and could easily produce more with less land, if the incentive was there.

Tal cites a quote by David Attenborough, who said that he has never seen a problem that could not be improved by having fewer people. I can think of a few. Certainly America and the Soviet Union were glad they had a large population during world war II. In which nation is cancer more likely to be cured, a nation with 50 million people, or the same nation with the same ethnic composition and 100 million people? At a certain value, the poverty of a society reduces its potential to innovate, but I don’t think the industrialized West is anywhere near that point. If we were a little poorer due to population growth, we’d still invent things, we’d just have smaller backyards.

To reduce Israel’s fertility rate, Tal advocates cutting off Israel’s very generous child allowances. He also proposes other policies such as more public transit, better subsidized daycare, and government-provided driving lessons in order to subsidize female employment enable women to work outside the home. As a liberal, he isn’t concerned much with questions of ethnic nationalism or eugenics. He assumes that, as many Israeli Jews apparently believe, “Israel has won the war of the cradle with the Arabs.” Indeed, Israel’s Jews appear to have a fertility rate very close to the Arab rate: 3 children per woman. Israeli Arab Muslims have more, but Arab Christians and Druze have fewer, around 2 children each. Israel might have “won” the battle, but the war isn’t over. Just as fertility wasn’t unchangeable in 1980, it will likely change in the future. If Israel’s Jews reduce their birthrate to 2 children per woman, what’s to say Israeli Arab Muslims will do the same? They might be motivated to have more children, as the “war” becomes “winnable.” Israel may think it is making “peace,” but the Arabs might just interpret it as “surrender,” in the same way Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza and South Lebanon gave it not goodwill but rockets.

For these reasons, I would advise Israel’s leaders to continue it’s pro-natal policies and culture.


Alon Tal, The Land is Full, Yale University Press, 2016

Population ages 15-64 (% of total), World Bank, accessed October 8 2016 http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SP.POP.1564.TO.ZS

GDP per hour worked, OECD, accessed October 8 2016 http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SP.POP.1564.TO.ZS

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