October 24, 2004


The West ignores low birthrates at its peril (Philip Bowring, October 23, 2004, International Herald Tribune)

[W]hy, it must be asked, does the report just accept low fertility as a given and not consider birthrates as a factor susceptible to policy-making in the interests of society? Should we not consider why the fertility rate in Britain is just 1.7, compared with the 2.1 needed to ensure a naturally stable population, considering the consequences of a continual aging process and massive population shrinkage? Should we not consider the merits of policies that might reverse the trend? Should we not consider major rewards for those who invest in a new generation and produce the human factors of production necessary to ensure that any pensions are paid?

One can hear the outrage at the very suggestion that Western governments should try to influence free choice in parenthood. But governments have been doing so for years. It is implicitly racist for self-styled liberals to object to pro-natal policies now needed in rich countries while continuing to advocate policies in poor African and Asian countries aimed at raising living standards by lowering birthrates.

Population policies do not in themselves strike at free choice. Only China has made a habit of using force to reduce births through a state-imposed one-child policy. Elsewhere, people have responded to family planning education and availability.

What is now needed in countries with very low birthrates is to help families and individuals choose the numbers of their children by presenting them with the realistic economic consequences of those choices. In turn, those will be set by tax incentives and pension policies determined democratically and in the long-term interests of society.

High birthrates in the developing world have been associated with the need to provide social security for the old. Likewise today, very low birthrates are partly a consequence of the divorce of social security from parenthood. Extended family systems cannot be recreated in urban nuclear family societies. But that does not mean totally severing the link between parenthood and provision of security in old age. It means using tax and benefit systems to replicate its economic effect.

Unfortunately, the Ownership Society reforms are going to make it less necessary, not more, to have a family, so it will take the continuing moral regeneration of the nation to keep our population growing.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 24, 2004 8:30 AM

Hmmm. And what happens to those couples, who amount to a sizable fraction, who are unable to reproduce?

We let them starve in their old age?

Like we did when Christianity was rampant?

Posted by: Harry Eagar at October 24, 2004 2:19 PM

Rampant? Getting a wee bit frothy, are we?

Posted by: ras at October 24, 2004 3:55 PM

Paying women to have and raise kids would be a good start.

Breeding should be an acceptable career path.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at October 24, 2004 4:50 PM


They'll have their accounts to keep them.

Posted by: oj at October 24, 2004 5:48 PM


Who would do the paying?

If the initiative didn't work, there would be no point.

If it did, it would be a perfect case of stealing from your own wallet.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at October 24, 2004 8:45 PM

France offered baby bonuses and upkeep for generations. Still does, I think.

So, Orrin, if they have their accounts to keep them, they don't need the children, right?

Posted by: Harry Eagar at October 25, 2004 12:47 AM


More like capital spending. It's an investment.


As does Sweden, quite generous ones.
However, since Sweden's fertility rate isn't especially high, apparently not structured correctly, or possibly just not generous enough.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at October 25, 2004 6:09 AM


Yes, that was my point.

Posted by: oj at October 25, 2004 7:49 AM


Doesn't matter.

The more it works, the less it does.

All post-industrial societies are seeing plummeting birth rates. It seems high tax rates antagonize that trend.

And religion doesn't have much to do with it. I wonder what the contemporary Mormon birth rate is?

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at October 25, 2004 7:59 AM


America isn't seeing plummeting rates--that's because of religion.

Posted by: oj at October 25, 2004 8:33 AM


The heck it isn't. Plot fertility rates against time.

The trend is down. Way down. While it is true American women out-reproduce their European counterparts--that is not due to religion, but the wide difference in tax rates--they still don't manage replacement levels.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at October 25, 2004 12:24 PM


Tax rates? C'mon. We know very well that birthrates have fallen throughout the West (and in Asia) with significant increases in general prosperity. Do you really think people listen to the budget and then kill the lights when they hear their marginal rates are cut?

Posted by: Peter B at October 25, 2004 12:39 PM

Trying to generalize is likely a wrong approach, but at least in 19th and 20th century conditions, the motivation for controlling family size seems to have been in large part a desire to leave some, not necessarily many, progeny.

A mother who gave birth 10 times around 1800 did not likely leave any more descendants than one who gave birth 3 times in 1900, or one or two times in 2000.

The reasons for changes in family size, at least in subsistence societies, have usually been assumed to have been a desire to have support in old age at the least expense; and in modernizing economies, to a desire to have enough resources to educate all the offspring.

That's not very persuasive, since families in both situations showed the same trend -- a Muslim village in Punjab and a town in Belgium showed very similar fertility changes.

It will be interesting to see whether, if a society gets so rich that the upper stratum of parents can afford to educate large numbers of children, they will have large numbers of children.

That's what I observe among the very prosperous people I know. A lot of them have very big families, whether they are Mormons or not.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at October 25, 2004 2:42 PM


The only way to return to replacement level is to make it a moral imperative again, so only we're likely to achieve it.

Posted by: oj at October 25, 2004 2:59 PM


Actually their rates went back up after a dip except for a post 9-11 blip that was probably a function of fear. The numbers over the next few years will likely show American women back at replacement level.

Posted by: oj at October 25, 2004 3:22 PM


The fact remains, American women replace at below replacement level. And they progressively marry later, and have their first child later. All of those things argue against another baby boom.

In what respect is having fewer children less moral than more?

And whether one looks at declining disposable income or increasing college cost, the effect is the same. Children represent a huge expense, and for a great many people, 1 or 2 huge expenses are preferable to three or more.

BTW, what was that trend line like for Mormons? Catholics, too come to think of it.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at October 25, 2004 7:29 PM

Orrin, over lunch I ran down the rich people I know:

Very rich (over $100 million): 4 to 7 children, except one couple that was not able to have any.

I know only 7 of these couples.

Middlin' rich (over $50M): I know too many to count but most of the ones who come to mind are reproducing over replacement rate

Although I know some people who breed for what you would call moral imperative reasons, among some of the biggest families I know, morality would not come to mind as a motivation. The biggest ice dealer on the island had children -- by 8 fathers.


Posted by: Harry Eagar at October 25, 2004 7:58 PM

The American middle class is moralistic.

Posted by: oj at October 25, 2004 8:13 PM

Isn't this a pleasant discussion we're having -- arguing like buzzards over how we get to spend the proceeds other people's kids' labor. I don't have kids and probably won't. If you do, I don't want their money. What I do want is for it to be a bit easier to save for my own old age (and by "old age", I don't mean any pre-set number. I mean when I'm too frail to work any more.) Why's that so hard?

Posted by: joe shropshire at October 26, 2004 1:08 AM


As of 2000, Mormon females' fertility was 2.96 children per, about 35% higher than the national average.

joe shropshire:

It's not about "spend[ing] the proceeds [of] other people's kids' labor", it's about other people's kids supporting their aged parents, and about increasing the overall prosperity of society.

Home-grown kids are preferable to immigrants, since they already speak the language and know the customs, but a liberal immigration policy could accomplish the same goal.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at October 26, 2004 12:15 PM


Note the trend line, which is what I was talking about.

In 1986-1988, when I lived in Idaho, the Mormon fertility was 5.5.

It is falling even faster than I thought it was.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at October 26, 2004 9:35 PM