Pipe Dreams and Tunnel Visions: Economists and Australian Population Debates before the Baby Boom
Australia is notably, if not notoriously, a land of much space but few people. Its population density is, correspondingly, almost the lowest of any country in the world: only Namibia and Mongolia record a lower figure. Australia’s extreme divergence from the common human experience has been a magnet for strong reactions; and Australia’s small population has frequently judged either being a failing or a blessing. Economists, however, have in the past two generations tended to keep their silence on this issue. But for about 20 years prior to the post-War baby boom economists did have some confidence that simple economic theory could constitute a guide to population policy, under the rubric of ‘optimal population’ theory. This paper reviews Australian explorations of ‘optimal population’ in the period, and concludes the episode provides a moral on the frustrations that may meet hopes that simple economic theory can provide answers to large questions.
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