Capitol Ideas

Population, Economy, and God

Western fertility decline is now deplored even by an inventor of the Pill.

By From the May 2009 issue

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World population, once “exploding,” is still increasing, and “momentum” ensures that it will do so for decades to come. But fertility rates have tumbled. In Europe every country has fallen below replacement level. Some governments, especially France’s, are beginning to use financial incentives to restore fertility rates but the effort, if generous enough to work—by paying women to have a third child—could bankrupt the welfare state.

In rich countries, a total fertility rate of 2.1 babies per woman is needed if population is to remain stable. But in the European Union as a whole the rate is down to 1.5. Germany is at 1.4, and Italy, Spain, and Greece are at 1.3. The fertility rate in France is now 2.0, or close to replacement. But the uneasy question is whether this is due to subsidies or to the growing Muslim population.

All over the world, with a few anomalies, there is a strong inverse correlation between GDP per capita and babies per family. It’s a paradox, because wealthier people can obviously afford lots of children. But very predictably they have fewer. Hong Kong (1.02), Singapore, and Taiwan are three of the richest countries in the world, and three of the four lowest in total fertility. The countries with the highest fertility rates are Mali (7.4), Niger, and Uganda. Guess how low they are on the wealth chart.

Here’s a news item. Carl Djerassi, one of the inventors of the birth control pill, recently deplored the sharp decline of total fertility in Austria (1.4), the country of his birth. A Catholic news story seized on that and reported that one of the pill’s inventors had said the pill had caused a “demographic catastrophe.” Austria’s leading Catholic, Cardinal Schönborn, said the Vatican had predicted 40 years ago that the pill would promote a dramatic fall in birth rates.

Djerassi, 85, an emeritus professor of chemistry at Stanford, did warn of a catastrophe and he said that Austria should admit more immigrants. But he denied that people have smaller families “because of the availability of birth control.” They do so “for personal, economic, cultural, and other reasons,” of which “changes in the status of women” was the most important. Japan has an even worse demographic problem, he said, “yet the pill was only legalized there in 1999 and is still not used widely.” (Japan’s fertility rate is 1.22.) (In fact, if the pill and abortion really were illegal more children surely would be born, if only because unintentional pregnancies would come to term.)

Austrian families who had decided against children wanted “to enjoy their schnitzels while leaving the rest of the world to get on with it,” Djerassi also said. That may have rankled because the country had just put his face on a postage stamp.

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. (Maybe because they come to American hospitals for free medical care?)

I wonder also if religious vitality here is what it’s cracked up to be. Surely it has weakened considerably. A recent survey by Trinity College in Hartford, funded by the Lilly Endowment, showed that the percentage of Americans identifying themselves as Christian dropped to 76 percent from 86 percent in 1990; those with “no” religion, 8.2 percent of the population in 1990, are now 15 percent.

As a social force, the U.S. Catholic bishops have withered away to a shocking extent. Hollywood once respected and feared their opinion. Today, the most highly placed of these bishops are unwilling to publicly rebuke pro-abortion politicians who call themselves Catholic, even when they give scandal by receiving Communion in public. How the mitered have fallen. They daren’t challenge the rich and powerful.

But there is another factor. Calling yourself a Christian when the pollster phones imposes no cost and self-reported piety may well be inflated. We have to distinguish between mere self-labelers and actual churchgoers. And beyond that there are groups with intense religious belief who retain the morale to ignore the surrounding materialism and keep on having children.

The ultra-Orthodox in Israel are the best example. Other Jewish congregations may go to synagogue, but they have children at perhaps one-third the ultra- Orthodox rate. At about seven or eight children per family, theirs is one of the highest fertility rates in the world. And they don’t permit birth control— Carl Djerassi, please note. In the U.S. Orthodox Jews again far outbreed their more secular sisters.

The Mormons are also distinctive. Utah, about two-thirds Mormon, has the highest fertility rate (2.63 in 2006) among the 50 states; Vermont has the lowest (1.69). In the recent Trinity Survey, Northern New England is now “the least religious section of the country.” Vermont is the least religious state; 34 percent of residents say they have “no religion.” So minimal faith and low fertility are demonstrably linked. Mormon fertility is declining, to be sure, and I recognize that I am flirting with a circular argument: deciding which groups are the most fervent by looking at their birth rates.

Then there’s the Muslim concern. It’s hard to avoid concluding that the lost Christian zeal has been appropriated by Islam. In the U.S., Muslims have doubled since 1990 (from a low base, to 0.6% of the population). The rise of Islam suggests that the meager European fertility rates would be even lower if Muslims had not contributed disproportionately to European childbearing.

It’s hard to pin down the numbers, though. Fertility in France has risen, but Nick Eberstadt tells me that the French government won’t reveal how many of these babies are born to Muslim parents. “They treat it as a state secret,” he said. In other countries such as Switzerland, where lots of guest workers are employed, the fertility rate would be much lower than it already is (1.44) were it not for the numerous offspring of those guest workers. When a population is not replacing itself, the welfare state creates its own hazard. Lots of new workers are needed to support the retirees. Germany’s low fertility will require an annual immigration of 200,000 just to maintain the current population. Where will they come from? Many arrive from Turkey, where the fertility rate has also declined ( to a bout 2 .0). But not as far as it has declined among native Germans. So the concern is that in the welfare states of Europe, believing Muslims are slowly replacing the low-morale, low-fertility, materialistic non-believers who once formed a Christian majority.

I could summarize the argument with this overstatement: The intelligentsia stopped believing in God in the 19th century. In the 20th it tried to build a new society, man without God. It failed. Then came a new twist. Man stopped believing in himself. He saw himself as a mere polluter—a blot on the landscape. Theologians tell us that creatures cannot exist without the support of God. A corollary may be that societies cannot long endure without being sustained by a belief in God.  

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About the Author

Tom Bethell is a senior editor of The American Spectator and author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science, The Noblest Triumph: Property and Prosperity Through the Ages, and most recently Questioning Einstein: Is Relativity Necessary? (2009).