A Soul's View of the Optimal Population Problem

33 Pages Posted: 15 Mar 2021 Last revised: 8 Jan 2022

See all articles by David de la Croix

David de la Croix

IRES, Universit Catholique de Louvain

Matthias Doepke

Northwestern University - Department of Economics; Centre for Economic Policy Research (CEPR); National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER); IZA Institute of Labor Economics

Date Written: March 2021

Abstract

A long-standing challenge for welfare economics is to develop welfare criteria that can be applied to allocations with different population levels. Such a criterion is essential to resolve the optimal population problem, i.e., the tradeoff between population size and the welfare of each person alive. A welfare criterion that speaks to this issue inherently requires evaluating the welfare of nonexistent people, because some people exist only in some allocations but not in others. To make progress, we consider the population problem in an environment where population is variable, but there is a fixed supply of souls, who may experience multiple incarnations over time. Rather than pondering the value of nonexistence, from the souls' perspective comparing larger or smaller populations merely involves valuing shorter or longer waits until the next incarnation. We argue that such comparisons are possible on the basis of introspection and lead to intuitive welfare criteria with attractive properties. We emphasize that one does not have to believe in reincarnation to accept the resulting criteria; rather, reincarnation serves as a metaphor to facilitate the necessary utility comparisons.

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Suggested Citation

de la Croix, David and Doepke, Matthias, A Soul's View of the Optimal Population Problem (March 2021). NBER Working Paper No. w28554, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3804552

David De la Croix (Contact Author)

IRES, Universit Catholique de Louvain ( email )

Belgium

Matthias Doepke

Northwestern University - Department of Economics ( email )

2003 Sheridan Road
Evanston, IL 60208
United States

Centre for Economic Policy Research (CEPR)

London
United Kingdom

National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER)

1050 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

IZA Institute of Labor Economics

P.O. Box 7240
Bonn, D-53072
Germany

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