May 12, 2009


Population, Economy, and God (Tom Bethell, May 2009, American Spectator)

SO WHAT IS CAUSING these dramatic declines? It’s under way in many countries outside Europe too. In Mexico, fertility has moved down close to replacement level—having been as high as six babies per woman in the 1970s.

Obviously economic growth has been the dominant factor but there are other considerations. Young couples hardly read Paul Ehrlich before deciding whether to have children, but scaremonger- ing authors have played a key role in creating our anti-natalist mood. Books warning of a (then) newfangled emergency, the “population explosion,” began appearing soon after World War II. Consider Road to Survival (1948), by William Vogt, or People! Challenge to Survival, by the same author. An anti-people fanatic before his time, Vogt was hypnotized by the Malthusian doctrine that population growth would overtake the food supply. That would lead to a war of all against all. Paul Ehrlich projected that the 1980s would see massive die-offs from starvation. (Obesity turned out to be the greater health threat.)

In that earlier period, the population controllers didn’t feel they had to mince words. Vogt wrote in 1960 that “tens of thousands of children born every year in the United States should, solely for their own sakes, never have seen the light of day.… There are hundreds of thousands of others, technically legitimate since their parents have engaged in some sort of marriage ritual, but whose birth is as much of a crime against them as it is against the bastards.”

At a time when the world population still had not reached 3 billion—today it is 6.7 billion—Vogt thought “drastic measures are inescapable.” He warned of “mounting population pressures in the Soviet Union,” where, by the century’s end, “there may be 300 million Russians.” It was time for them “to begin control of one of the most powerful causes of war—overpopulation.”

Note: the population of Russia by 2000 was 145 million; today it is 141 million. (Fertility rate: 1.4.) Population alarmists have long enjoyed the freedom to project their fears onto whatever cause is uppermost in the progressive mind. Then it was war. Today it is the environment, which, we are told, human beings are ruining. This will be shown to have been as false as the earlier warnings, but not before our environmental scares have done much harm to a fragile economy (at the rate things are going with Obama). All previous scares were based on faulty premises, and the latest one, based on “science,” will be no different.

I believe that two interacting factors shape population growth or decline: economic prosperity and belief in God. As to the first, there is no doubt that rising material prosperity discourages additional children. Fewer infants die; large families are no longer needed to support older parents. The welfare state—which only rich countries can afford—has greatly compounded this effect. When people believe that the government will take care of them, pay their pensions and treat their maladies, children do seem less essential.

A rise in prosperity also encourages people to think that they can dispense with God. Religion diminishes when wealth increases—that’s my theory. But with a twist that I shall come to. Wealth generates independence, including independence from God, or (if you will) Providence. God is gradually forgotten, then assumed not to exist. This will tend to drive childbearing down even further. Hedonism will become predominant. Remember, Jesus warned that it’s the rich, not the poor, who are at spiritual hazard.

The legalization of abortion reflected the decline of religious faith in America, but it must also have led others to conclude that God was no longer to be feared. That’s why I don’t quite believe Djerassi when he tries to disassociate the pill from fertility. The ready availability of the pill told society at large that sex without consequences was perfectly acceptable. Then, by degrees, that self-indulgent view became an anti-natalist worldview.

It became so ingrained that many people now think it obvious. Sex became a “free” pastime as long as it was restricted to consenting adults. Furthermore, anyone who questioned that premise risked denunciation as a bigot.

THE U.S. HAS BEEN SEEN AS the great stumbling block to any theory linking prosperity, lack of faith, and low fertility. Prosperity here has been high, and overall fertility is at replacement. But I am wary of this version of American exceptionalism. How much lower would U.S. fertility fall without the influx of Latino immigrants and their many offspring? Nicholas Eberstadt, a demographer at AEI, tells me that Mexican immigrants now actually have a higher fertility rate in the U.S. than they do in Mexico.

The anti-natalist and the nativist are perhaps the most unsavory marriage of political convenience going.

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 12, 2009 7:31 AM
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