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Jewish World Review Nov. 30, 1998 /11 Kislev, 5759

Thomas Sowell

Thomas Sowell Knowing what you are talking about

WHEN I WAS A GRADUATE STUDENt in economics at the University of Chicago, the class was often confronted with some mathematical proposition and asked: "Is this an equation or an identity?"

It happened so often, in so many courses, that I found myself muttering: "Flip a coin." I did not see the point of the question.

In later years, I learned that this was one of the most important questions to ask, not only about economics, but also about politics, social issues and many other things that are not even expressed mathematically.

An equation is true only under certain conditions, while an identity is always true, just because of the way you define the terms. 3x = 6 is an equation that is true only when x equals 2, but 2x + 2x = 4x is an identity that is true regardless of what x equals.

Whether or not a statement is made in mathematical terms, it may be true either because it corresponds to some reality or just because of the way you define your terms. The reason this distinction is so important is that people are often convinced that they have said something that is true about the real world when, in fact, they have said nothing, but merely used words in such a way that the statement is true by definition.

Policies affecting millions of human beings can be based on a collection of words that mean nothing but imply something which is wholly unsubstantiated -- and yet cannot be refuted because of the way words are defined. A classic example are policies designed to deal with "over-population."

Vast sums of money are poured out around the world to stop "over-population," and Draconian birth control policies have been imposed on women in India and China, all in the name of this word. What does it mean to say that a country is over-populated -- and is it true in the real world or merely a matter of defining words?

Those who have seen hungry and poverty-stricken people in parts of the Third World may find it beyond any question that these countries are over-populated. Would these people not be better off if there were only half as many of them, so that they could have twice as much food per person and twice as much of other things?

It is certainly true that the same output divided by half as many people would mean twice as much real wealth per person. But that is an identity. It is true just because of the way we define the terms. It tells us nothing about the real world.

Worse yet, it may insinuate something that is not true. That is the underlying danger in tautologies that get mistaken for real statements about the real world.

When today's poverty-stricken countries in fact had half as many people, were those people better fed or otherwise more prosperous? Now we are talking about the real world, not about definitions. In the real world, most Third World countries were even poorer and even more subject to hunger and famine when their populations were half of what they are today.

Poverty and hunger are a real horror, whatever their causes. But launching a crusade based on verbal confusions is not going to help the victims, however much it may feel good to the crusaders.

Some of the most dire poverty and hunger in the world are in sub-Saharan Africa, where the population density is less than one-tenth of what it is in prosperous Japan. Other countries in dire poverty have higher population densities, but so do prosperous countries in Western Europe.

Since it is people who produce output, if poor countries had fewer people, they would produce less output, and there is no reason to arbitrarily assume that there would be more output per person. Exactly two centuries ago -- in 1798 -- Malthus succeeded in identifying poverty and over-population in the public mind, so that anyone denying over-population is regarded as denying poverty.

People are horrified when you question over-population dangers, because that suggests callousness about the hungry millions in the Third World. But if wrong theories were the answer to poverty, the Third World would be a Utopia by now.

Wealth is the answer to poverty -- producing more. This may not be as emotionally satisfying, as intellectually exciting or as politically attractive as some other notions, but it is the only thing that has, in fact, produced prosperity in countries that were once as poor as the Third World still is.

Over-population theories will probably continue to flourish, because they remain as irrefutable as other statements that are "true" by definition.

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3/6/98: Vindication
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2/26/98: The Wrong Filter
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©1998, Creators Syndicate, Inc.