Is Britain over-populated?

(By R. B. Kerr, 97, North Sydenham Road, Croydon. 118 pages. 1s.)

Mr. Kerr presents the familiar case for a reduction of the population by means of birth control. His argument is that the population per square mile in England is much greater than in a number of countries, and hence the prosperity of this country is less than it might be, and less than in America, Australia and other sparsely-populated areas. He is quite confident that “the reason and the only reason” why the U.S.A., Canada. New Zealand, etc., are “so much more prosperous than Great Britain ” is that they “are thinly-populated in proportion to their natural resourcres” (P. 33).

It is not only the familiar case put forward by the birth controllers, but it bristles with all of the familiar fallacies. Mr. Kerr is an industrious disher-up of unrelated trifles, but he has not succeeded in presenting a convincing or even coherent argument. He discusses “over-population” and “prosperity” without even attempting to define these very elusive terms. He does mention the optimum density (i.e., that density of population at which productivity is at a maximum), but whereas serious economists like Professor Cannan candidly confess that they have not the remotest idea what in fact that density is, Mr. Kerr tells us on his own unsupported authority that it would mean a population “so much thinner than the present that we shall probably never reach it” (p. 114). Then, having forgotten this bold assertion, he goes on to admit that the problem of determining “what is an optimum population ” has yet to be solved (p. 115).

Mr. Kerr does not offer one particle of proof that the optimum density is less than the present one. It might be greater.

Prosperity is, again, a term requiring a little attention. Mr. Kerr ignores the enormous inequality of wealth existing within every nation, whether thickly or thinly populated. The U.S.A., he says, is prosperous because of its relatively small population, Great Britain is less prosperous because of its big population. Are there then no millionaires, and is there no wealthy propertied class in this country ? And are there no destitute persons in the U.S.A.?

For Mr. Kerr there are no class divisions in society. He selects Great Britain as his unit, instead of the British Empire as a whole (this would have upset his theory), on the ground that the relations between the Dominions and Great Britain are purely commercial ones—not sentimental. He says, truly enough, “Out of his bursting bins the Canadian farmer will not give his Mother Country a single bushel of wheat, except for payment in cash” (p. 9). But since it is equally true that the English farmer does not open his “bursting bins” to the English factory owner or factory worker “except for payment in cash,” why not take as the unit London, or Lincolnshire, or compare all the English towns with the whole rural areas? It would be just as sound and just as useless as any other comparison of density of population as a guide to wealth.

Niggardly Nature

Mr. Kerr dismisses the contention that Nature is sufficiently bountiful for our needs by quoting Sir J. Stamp on the distribution of wealth. He does not deal with the admitted fact that nowadays, in almost every highly-organised industry, there is deliberate restriction of output in order to maintain prices and profits. Is nature niggardly in oil, or coal, or cotton, or wheat, or rubber?

The much-quoted figures presented by Sir J. Stamp also deserve attention. Stamp points out that, if all incomes over £250 were reduced to £250 and the surplus equally divided between all the families in the country, the gain per family would not exceed 5s. per week. In the first place, the great mass of the workers do not receive £250 a year, and an equal division of the national income would very materially raise their standard of living. As Stamp himself point out (Studies in Current Problems, 1924, page 98), to raise the standard of life in the great nations by 10 per cent, would be “for the great mass of the peoples of these nations the difference between grinding penury and a reasonable standard of comfort.”

Secondly, and more importantly, as is explained in detail in our pamphlet “Socialism,” about half of the population between 16 and 60 are not engaged in producing wealth at all, but are either idle or are carrying on purely wasteful services called into being by the capitalist system.

Mr. Kerr trots out the old bogey of the “unfavourable balance of trade.” He asks us to behold a column of trade figures and be suitably horrified, but he makes no effort to explain what it all means. That international trade is merely an extension of the ordinary division of labour, and is economically profitable to both parties, he has not grasped. Hence his forecast that in a ” ‘Birth-Controlled World’ each country will do the bulk of its own manufacturing, and will live in the main on the products of its own soil” (p. 110).

Population and War

Mr. Kerr quotes Shelley and Mussolini to prove that over-population is the cause of modern wars. According to the table of. relative densities, it would appear from this that England—having a density nearly twice that of Germany—must have been responsible for the war. It is, of course, nonsense. The urge to find markets and sources of raw materials affects every capitalist country, irrespective of population. American exports of capital, and consequent deliberate war with Spain, her brutal suppression of the Phillipines and present endeavours to create an Empire covering all Central and South America, are the outcome of capitalist organisations, and are not to be checked by birth control devices.

Mr. Kerr quotes a Japanese newspaper in support of his contention that, in a conflict between natural law (e.g., pressure of population) and man-made law, the natural law will prevail. This is flagrantly untrue. Is it a “natural” or a “man-made” law which prevents millions of workers on the border-line of poverty from taking possession of the wealth which they create but do not possess? What natural law prevents the unemployed from enjoying superfluous food, clothing and housing of the propertied classes? Mr. Kerr says (p. 58) that “The amount each man produces determines the amount each man can consume.” In truth, the amount consumed by members of the capitalist class depends on their ownership of the means of production, which in turn depends on their control of the political machinery of society. There obviously are problems of population, but the problem of working-class poverty is not one of these. That problem cannot be solved by the workers until they have taken possession of the political machinery and re-organised society on a socialist basis.


(Socialist Standard. August 1927)

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