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Are human beings a burden, and in what way? Between two camps of opinion on this question are many shades of thought, and some inconsistencies. But whether the discussion is centered on the macro-societal level or the family level, the view of people and population growth as burdensome promotes centralized social control and authoritarian rule, with an attendant imposition of burdens on human freedom and productive effort.

Naysaying Greens

The environmental Left views people as a net burden on resources while failing to recognize their resource value, without which our world would yield little in the way of food and other comforts. It is mankind’s ability to process and transform raw materials that makes the planet so hospitable.

The world’s human population has increased by a factor of 18 times in the last 400 years, but food supplies have grown even faster. Each person has potential as a resource capable of a net positive contribution to societal and global well being. If we wrongly conclude that people are burdensome, however, it offers a rationale to statists for regulating the lives of individuals, preventing them from producing and consuming as they would otherwise choose.

Sirens of Dependency

There will always be individuals who cannot provide for themselves, sometimes due to temporary circumstances and sometimes as a permanent condition. If the latter, these individuals find themselves in the lower tail of the distribution of human productive capacity. The undeniable burden of this lower tail for humanity can be dealt with through various social support structures, including family, religious organizations, private social organizations, and the public safety net.

People of true compassion have always helped to fill this need privately and voluntarily, but “compassionate” motives can be a false and corrupting when the public sector becomes the tool of choice. Actual and potential beneficiaries of public largess can vote for their alms at the expense of others, along with those well-meaning partisans who confuse forced redistribution with compassion. And benefits and taxes often create disincentives that undermine a society’s productive dynamic. Under such circumstances, the lower tail and its burden of dependency grows larger than necessary, and society’s ability to carry that burden is diminished.

Burdensome Children

Children are unable to provide for themselves up to varying ages, so they do create an economic burden for their parents. That burden might loom large in the event of an unexpected pregnancy, but most parents find the burden well worth bearing, whether planned or unplanned, ex ante and ex post, and for reasons that often have little to do with material concerns. But many individuals and families in the lower tail simply cannot bear the economic burden on their own; others not in the lower tail might simply find the prospective burden of an unexpected pregnancy a bit too heavy or inconvenient for non-economic reasons.

Solutions are available, of course. They range from sexual abstinence and prophylactics to adoption services, as well as hard sacrifice by new parents. And then there is abortion. The pro-choice Left makes the argument that children are so burdensome as to justify the termination of pregnancies at almost any stage. The ease with which they make that argument and traffic in the imposition of that burden upon the innocent is horrific. Furthermore, regimes dominated by the Left have often instituted formal population control measures, and Western leftists such as the late Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood, have advocated strenuously for eugenics.

Burdens at the Border

Are migrants a burden or a blessing? In general, the latter, because mobility allows individuals to exploit economic opportunities, with consequent gains to themselves and to those who demand their services. This is generally true from the perspective of nations; it is the basis of the traditional economic argument in favor of liberalized, legal immigration to which I subscribe. But some partisans on both sides of the immigration debate accept the idea that immigrants impose a burden. That may be correct under some circumstances.

Opponents of immigration reform certainly identify immigrants as a burden to productive citizens and taxpayers. Critics of border control, on the other hand, are motivated by compassion for political refugees or economically disadvantaged immigrants, whether employment opportunities exist for them or not. In fact, would-be immigrants are often attracted by generous public benefits in the receiving country, and so they are likely to add to a country’s lower-tail burden, as I’ve described it. But the no-borders crowd insists that society must shoulder any burden created by the combined effect of an open border with generous public benefits, and even immediate voting rights.

The Burdens of Overbearance

The Left imagines that people create many burdens, but the Left is happy to impose many burdens in pursuit of their “ideal” society: planned by experts, egalitarian, highly regulated, profit-free, and green. They wish to “save the planet” by imposing burdens, regulating and restricting economic growth and sparing no expense to minimize the human “footprint”. They wish to fund redistributive social programs by burdening productive resources with taxes, while crowding-out private efforts to provide charitable relief. They wish to prevent the perceived burden of children by offering, and even funding publicly, the “choice” to impose an ultimate burden on those too weak to register a protest. And they wish to burden taxpayers by availing all potential migrants, without question, of generous public benefits.

Burdens are a fact of life, but people with the freedom to exploit their own effort and ingenuity for gain have increasingly shouldered their own burdens and much more. Over the last few centuries, human ingenuity has expanded the effective quantity of all resources by many orders of magnitude. In so doing, the scale and scope of real poverty have been reduced dramatically. But those who would deign to manage our burdens for us, under the authority of the state, are more threatening to our well being than beneficent.