James B. Duke Professor of Economics, and Associate Director, Center for
Demographic Studies, Duke University.
An early version of this paper was
presented at the Nobel Symposium in Economics, December 5-7, Lund, Sweden, 1991.
I wish to acknowledge comments on this earlier draft by Nancy Birdsall, John
Bongaarts, Martin Bronfenbrenner, A. W. Coats, Ansley J. Coale, Peter J.
Donaldson, Richard A. Easterlin, Dennis Hodgson, Nathan Keyfitz, Geoffrey
McNicoll, Thomas W. Merrick, Samuel Preston, Mark Perlman, Julian L. Simon,
Steven Sinding, Gunter Steinman, Jeffrey G. Williamson, and Tony Wrigley.
current draft updates the analysis to include the 1990s.
Not to be quoted all or in part without the permission of the author.
Hansen (1939), Wattenberg (1987), National Research Council (1986).
The Population Debate in Historical Perspective:
Allen C. Kelley
Revisionism and the Population Debate
Debates surrounding the consequences of population growth on
the pace of economic development have, since Malthus, been both
vigorous and contentious.
While pessimism--indeed alarmism--over
the adverse consequences of rapid population growth has dominated
the lexicon of popular and, to a lesser extent, scientific
discourse, swings in thinking have from time to time occurred.
During the Great Depression, Alvin Hansen and the stagnationists
cited slow population growth as a cause of aborted or anemic
During recent decades the "birth dearth" in
developed countries has motivated writers like Ben Wattenberg to
forecast long-term economic decline, waning political clout, and
the demise of Western values and influence.
And during the 1980s
the so-called "population revisionists" downgraded the prominence
of rapid population growth as a source of, or a constraint on,
economic prosperity in the Third World.
This population revisionism appeared to represent a notable
retreat from the widely-held "traditionalist," or sometimes
"population-alarmist," view of the 1960s and 1970s, that rapid
population growth constitutes a strong deterrent to per capita
economic growth and development.
In contrast, the revisionists
1) downgraded the relative importance of population growth
as a source of economic growth, placing it along with several
other factors of equal or greater importance; 2) assessed the
consequences over a longer period of time; and 3) taken indirect