The World Bank's hysteria about overpopulation begs for a little drying out, as do so many of the nightmares of the environmental lobbies. It is always so.

In the 1960s, when the ideological swingers spoke of nothing else than the dangers of strontium 90, a royal commission in London closed its report on the dangers of radiation with the wonderful sentence, "On the whole, then, it is our conclusion that the requirements of good health warn against the consumption of any food." In Great Britain you can get away with a nice little wisecrack like that at the end of a solemn report. If such a statement were issued by a congressional committee, I know at least 35,000 people who would starve to death.

Anyway, we are blessed in New York by the presence of economist Ed Rubenstein of National Review, who has looked into the business of population growth and the poverty it brings. He begins by giving us the figures on seven countries.

Singapore, with a population per square mile of 11,910, has a per-capita GNP of $9,070. Its GNP's average annual percentage growth, 1965 to 1988, is 7.2 percent.

The same data, as they apply to six other countries:

Hong Kong: 9,744; $9,220; 6.3

South Korea: 1,189; $3,600; 6.8

Japan: 844; $21,020; 4.3

India: 658; $340; 1.8

China: 288; $330; 5.4

Argentina: 30; $2,520; 0.0

What is it that is responsible for the zero growth rate in Argentina? We can begin by eliminating overpopulation. In fact, Argentina is a classic example of the critical role of politics. Before the Second World War, Argentina's standard of living was equal to that of France. Fifty years of populist Peronism, of coups and inflation and the flight of capital, and Argentina now is broke. But it wasn't population pressures that brought that country to its knees. It was political instability and statist economics.

China is, of course, the principal showcase of Communist human despoliation. It is the most heavily populated country in the world, though the density of the population is less than one-half that of India, where the per-capita national income is almost identical. Most of the growth in Chinese GNP came after the death of Mao. India continues tortured by statism and tribalism. But it is difficult to attribute its poverty to its population when one glances at the first four countries on the list.

Japan's average rate of growth has been 4.3 percent. Although it is incorrect to suppose that the rate of growth needs to slow down to the point where it is negligible, it is true that affluence brings on a greater demand for service features. There is no way in which a harpsichordist is going to appreciate substantially the rate at which he can perform Scarlatti sonatas.

Rubenstein quotes the Nobel laureate Simon Kuznets, who says it flatly that there is no evidence that population growth automatically decreases economic growth.

But the question legitimately arises: What is it about an increase in population that argues for strategic increases in the standard of living? In "Population Matters," Julian Simon documents that American fathers put in the equivalent of two to five extra weeks of work for each additional child, thus easily offsetting the economic effect of the mother's withdrawal from the work force. This extra effort by the father for the child ought not to surprise. Moreover, population growth means a higher demand for investment. A growth in the population in Texas during the decade of the '80s would have meant much less housing overbuilt.

"Other things being equal," writes Rubenstein, "countries with large populations enjoy higher and more rapidly growing output per worker."

Those who worry about overpopulation in the United States are reminded that the new immigration law provides not for fewer but for more immigration -- an increase in slots for foreigners petitioning to come to America, from 540,000 to 700,000. Excessive? In 1980 there were 800,000 immigrants. And at the turn of the last century, immigration topped 1 million for six consecutive years. "Only 6 percent of the U.S. population today is foreign born -- less than in Britain, France and Germany; far less than in Canada and Australia."

For a while it appeared that the United States, along with Sweden, would close out the century with a negative birthrate. But the nation's fertility rate has climbed to the highest figure since 1971, 2.1 lifetime births per woman. There is something about that that brings cheer to those who have always been skeptical of Malthusian pessimism.