Coherent Identifier About this item: 20.500.12592/6xc6vb

A Soul's View of the Optimal Population Problem

12 March 2021


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.



public goods microeconomics public economics labor economics economic fluctuations and growth demography and aging welfare and collective choice environmental and resource economics

Acknowledgements & Disclosure
We thank Paolo Piacquadio and two anonymous referees for comments on an earlier draft. David de la Croix acknowledges financial support from the Belgian French-Speaking Community (ARC Project 15/19-063 on "Family Transformations"). Matthias Doepke acknowledges support from the National Science Foundation. The views expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Bureau of Economic Research.