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A rickshaw driver talks on his mobile phone as he rides past a billboard outside a railway station in the northern Indian city of Chandigarh. (AJAY VERMA/REUTERS)
A rickshaw driver talks on his mobile phone as he rides past a billboard outside a railway station in the northern Indian city of Chandigarh. (AJAY VERMA/REUTERS)

Doomsaying math whizzes just don’t understand capitalism Add to ...

Here we go again.

A group of mathematicians sponsored by NASA have purportedly proven that humanity is doomed. Ho hum. No queue-jumping, please. Doomsayers are a permanent feature of human existence, but have achieved a veneer of scientific respectability ever since the 19th century’s Thomas Malthus won economics the name “the dismal science” by predicting that population growth would outstrip agricultural productivity. He predicted mass starvation.

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Then there was Paul Ehrlich predicting the exhaustion of Earth’s resources, followed by the Club of Rome and The Limits to Growth, Al Gore, Sir Nicholas Sterne and others peddling the apocalypse.

We’re still waiting.

The NASA mathematicians are only the most recent example of well-meaning and highly intelligent people who nevertheless do not understand that human beings are not objects, prisoners of some Newtonian clockwork universe. We are not passive objects, but learning machines. In fact, the ability to acquire, understand and deploy new knowledge is perhaps humanity’s greatest strength.

Just because humanity appears to be headed in one direction, like Malthusian mass starvation, does not mean that we must ineluctably arrive at that destination. On the contrary, what Malthus failed to realize was that the burgeoning population was an opportunity for those who knew how to seize it. That opportunity helped to unlock a revolution in agricultural productivity that caused food production to overtake population growth.

Because the doomsayers can see today’s measurable trends, but cannot understand how human intelligence and opportunity work together to respond over time, their knee-jerk response is invariably that humanity must be saved from itself. And they are always willing to cast themselves in the role of saviour.

Give us the power to curb population growth, to spread the wealth, to prevent overconsumption, they murmur seductively, and we will save you from the doom that awaits. According to The Guardian newspaper’s writer who first drew the world’s attention to the NASA mathematicians’ gloomy prognostications, their work shows that only egalitarian socialism can save us from ourselves.

Ah, now I see. The system that during a time of relative plenty condemned millions to mass starvation in agriculturally rich places such as the Soviet Union and China, a system abandoned by those societies because it does not work, is now to be our salvation if universally applied. Please don’t quit the mathematics day job to become a Platonic guardian.

Of all the world’s roughly 7.2 billion people (according to the world population clock), the vast majority owe their very existence to the system the doomsayers condemn – capitalism.

Hunter-gatherer technology can only support a world population of a few million. Scratching the ground with a stick, then adding workhorses and ever more sophisticated plows, raises the level again and again. Today we can feed seven billion people because we have ever-improving irrigation, mechanization, genetic modification, food storage, transport and efficient markets, all of which emerged quite unpredictably from the knowledge, productivity and investment of the developed world responding to opportunity.

And that’s not even mentioning the medical, communications, educational and other rich-world innovations that are every day transforming the lives of the world’s poor for the better. If developing-world telecoms depended on copper land lines, billions of people would do without. Instead, we’ve developed technologies that connect those billions to the world wirelessly, freeing up scarce resources for other uses.

Far from exploiting the poor of the developing world, the developed world has created the ideas and technologies that have made their very lives possible in such large numbers, and improved the standard of living they can enjoy.

Excitingly, this revolution created by the application of reason to humanity’s challenges is increasingly moving to the developing world. New ideas, processes and techniques in every field are being developed in India, China, Kenya and Chile. But there, too, this explosion of innovation was made possible not by empowering bureaucrats to tell us what to do for our own good, but the opposite. The increasing freedom of people in these countries to act on their own knowledge, and pursue the opportunities they see, is allowing them to become part of the solution.

What is missing from the equations of the mathematicians of doom is the institutions we have developed – individual freedom, trade, markets and liberal democratic capitalism – thanks to which we are rewarded for experimenting and learning previously unknown and unsuspected things, and adjusting to new and unforeseen circumstances. These institutions allow us to act on more knowledge of the world than any central planners could ever possess, while using scarce resources ever more sparingly. Taking the doomsayers’ advice would destroy the very system that keeps billions of us alive.

Brian Lee Crowley (twitter.com/brianleecrowley) is the managing director of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, an independent non-partisan public policy think tank in Ottawa: www.macdonaldlaurier.ca.

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