Great post on a topic I’ve thought a lot about. You can look at the population issue from several perspectives: the ecological, the economic, and the political. Ultimately, these three are all tied together, but they tend to operate on different time frames so there are probably a lot of lead and lag effects.
The ecological question is basically population and carrying capacity. In the 1970s, population was considered a major ecological threat to the planet but in later years was de-emphasized in order to avoid the conclusion that madatory population restrictions would be required. That was probably a good thing in terms of forcing environmentalists to look at other issues like technology and distribution and efficiency, but it is true that - to the extent that the population is lower - the stresses on the environment tend to be less extreme at whatever technolgoical and efficiency level you are at. Juilan Simon argued that larger populations lead to more creativity and therefore increase the chance that we can techologically solve problems. This is somewhat plausible but probably overstated, because 1) larger populations cannot change the basic laws of nature, 2) if you don’t have the right systems for identifying and empowering creativity, all you have is more consumers, and 3) the maximum intelligence of the top quartile of your population does not vary linearly with population size, and is most likely a concave function (i.e. diminishing returns to scale).
On the political side of things, greater population tends to make a country more important and more powerful, insofar as it can martial more resources for its economy and its military. Larger populations are often more difficult to govern, particularly if there is greater diversity in norms and expectations within them.
But this forum probably focuses more on the economic side of things, and the OP talked about automation and robotics. We often think of a large population in terms of a large labor force and the amount of production that the labor force can provide – this is partly because such a force contributes to a country’s military capacity to execute war and diplomacy backed by the threat of war – and with automation this would seem to reduce the importance of population at least on the production side (you still might need to populate a military force, even if you were highly economically productive).
But part of the advantage of a large population is that each unit of population is also a consumer. If you had enormous production but no one to sell that production to, how would the economy function? One possibility is “well, everyone would have more, because there are fewer people to divide all this productivity among.” But once that initial division took place, the advantages of economy of scale would not turn into profits (or concentrated profits) to the same extent.
This is one reason why the impoverishment of the middle class is a bad thing here in the US. It’s not just a sense that the principle of “all men [and women] are created equal” is a patent lie in the real world and therefore not a sufficient rationale for why the average citizen should be law-abiding, there’s also the issue that if there’s a ton of production by robots owned by wealthy people, there will be almost no one else around to buy that production (basic necessities like food and shelter, excepted, though the incentives to keep quality high will drop). There are some countervailing economic forces (quality will go up because of competition among oligarchs, but the historical record is that oligarchs spend more time cooperating with each other to keep prices high rather than undercutting each other to push each other out of business).
The 0.1% today spend a lot of time complaining about all the hacksaw members of the population who want to leech off of them, but if you could push a button and have the 99.9% (or 99%) disappear painlessly into the void and have factories run by robots instead, what would that world actually look like, economically? It’s hard to say exactly, but the first point is that to the extent that it works at all, it would work because there is a redistribution of resources and an increase in median buying power.
I had an argument with an economics colleague of mine about a decade ago about how every time I shop at Wal*Mart, I feel like I’m stabbing the American worker in the back. My colleague said “Don’t worry, the displaced worker will find jobs elsewhere.” I said “I understand that that’s the theory, but I don’t see it happening. The skill sets that need to be required to adapt to upcoming industries aren’t skill sets that can be learned in a few months, they take years to develop, and by the time you’ve developed them, it’s not unlikely that those industries are in decline.”
It’s by no means certain that large numbers of unemployed or underemployed people will automatically be re-employed in some other part of the economy, particularly in an age of roboticization, and even if they are re-employed, it will very likely be at a reduced real wage owing to the fact that they need to be retrained and therefore are less experienced in their new trade than they were in their old trade. Or they move to unskilled labor, which is the most vulnerable sector of the labor force.
I’ve been spending more time trying to think about what happens if the 99% just vanish into thin air and the economy only consists of the 1% buying, selling, and investing with each other. What does that look like? And then compare that to what the economy looks like if the 1% vanishes into thin air and the 99% buy sell and invest with each other.