At the UN World Population Conference in Mexico next week the United States delegation, led by former Sen. James Buckley (R) of New York, will function under guidelines that emphasize economic development as the answer to population growth. This is another abdication of leadership by the Reagan administration.
Historically, to be sure, in Europe, the United States, and Japan, birthrates declined with industrialization and the growth of cities. (In Japan, in addition , there is no religious or cultural bias against abortion.)
But history, at least since World War II, also teaches that it is mistaken to expect the European-American-Japanese pattern of economic development to be repeated in the third world. Mexico and Brazil provide outstanding cases of third-world industrialization, and both countries have ruinously high population growth rates.
These rates negate the benefits of industrialization. In the early 1950s, Mexico had a population of 26 million. If today its population were in the range of 40 to 50 million, all of its other problems would be manageable. Instead, its population is more than 75 million. Its cities are bursting, unable to provide the most basic public services; its countryside is impoverished; and its citizens are fleeing to the US in uncontrollable numbers.
If this has been the Mexican experience, given that country's industrial progress and petroleum resources, what can one expect in South Asia and Africa?
It misses the point to argue, as some do, that population is an asset, that people are resources. This is true only if the people are healthy and well educated, in which case they are indeed the most valuable of all resources. Switzerland is perhaps the best example of this. But there is no hope that any third-world country will duplicate the Swiss experience.
If people are to be an asset, they have to be cared for and educated at great expense for the first 20 years or more of their lives. During this period, they are not an asset in economic terms; they are a liability, a burden quite beyond the capacity of most countries to support.
A recent study by the Heritage Foundation argues that population growth stimulates business by creating markets. This is reminiscent of the argument that if every Chinese added one inch to the length of his shirttail, the cotton surplus would disappear. Some US businessmen still salivate over the potential Chinese market. But a market does not exist without purchasing power, of which there is precious little among third-world masses.
Population has been a sensitive issue for the US both at home and abroad. Many Americans reject any form of artificial birth control, and abortion is even more controversial. Abroad it has been necessary to avoid opening ourselves to the charge that the root of our concern is the threat that too many Latin Americans would pose to our hemispheric hegemony or, worse, the threat that too many black or brown people would pose to whites.
In addition, many countries have deeply ingrained cultural or economic patterns which are conducive to large families. In Latin America especially, large families are taken as a sign of the father's machismo. In much of the third world, large families are also a form of social insurance. Children contribute to the family's income by going to work at an early age, either wielding a hoe in the fields or hawking trinkets on the streets. (Thereby they also ensure that they will not get the education that would enable them to contribute later to their country's development.) And children support parents in old age.
So it behooved the US to proceed cautiously through this political mine field. By and large, the US did so, beginning in the Johnson administration when timid bureaucrats were prodded by Congress, and continuing under Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter. Progress was made. It was slow and it came late, but it was measurable. Latin American women turned out to be less enthralled than their husbands over demonstrating father's machismo. In Jamaica in the 1960 s, graffiti read, ''Birth Control: White Plan to Kill Blacks.'' By the 1970s the graffiti were gone, and billboards carried the message: ''Don't Want to Get Pregnant? Call....''
It would be a pity to lose this momentum in pursuit of the will-o'-the-wisp of economic development as the answer to population growth. Ironically, Marxist doctrine also questions the dimensions of the population problem. The cause of the problem, in this view, is capitalist exploitation; the problem does not exist in properly organized (i.e., Marxist) societies.
In fact, the problem does not have, or ought not to have, any ideological content, both Marxists and conservatives to the contrary notwithstanding. It is a matter of simple arithmetic. Malthus casts a longer and darker shadow than Marx.