The Public Policy

Demographic Self-Indulgence and Its Remedy

Government has it in its power to reverse Western demographic decline -- if it backs off.

By 5.4.06

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With the urgent debate on demographic declines in some parts of the world, a historical reminder of what worked and what didn't may be useful. It offers insights into the far broader picture of the links between people's private decisions and public policy.

After Germany defeated France in 1870-1, and political leaders associated military strength with numerical superiority, declining population and the future of French language and culture became the focus of French politics. When ratifying the Treaty of Versailles, George Clemenceau, France's prime minister in 1919, announced: "The treaty does not say that France must undertake to have children, but it is the first thing which ought to have been put in it. For if France turns her back on large families, one can put all the clauses one wants in a treaty, one can take all the guns of Germany, one can do whatever one likes, France will be lost because there will be no more Frenchmen." Later, Vichy politicians embraced "pronatalism of the French population," and gave gold medals for women having more than ten children (silver to those with seven, and bronze to those with five). It did not help -- absurd policies rarely do.

Michel Debre, Prime Minister under de Gaulle, also spoke often in the National Assembly about "the demographic struggle," and in 1979, Michel Jobert, who had been de Gaulle's foreign minister, wrote an article titled "Comment un pays meurt" ("How a country dies") for a collection entitled La France ridee ("Empty France"). Jacques Chirac described the demographic situation in France as "terrifying" and Europe as "vanishing." This must sound familiar in Canada: in 1978, the Federation of Francophones outside Quebec published "The Heirs of Lord Durham: Manifesto of a Vanishing People."

France's political leaders, its media, and the "intelligentsia" showed a near consensus on deploring the trends in fertility and asking for state intervention. But the political debates did not convince the French to make more children. Perhaps part of the push for the European Community coming from France and Germany, which also faced a low birth rate, might have been to ensure that if not French or German culture then at least one with a "European" face would survive longer.

But why did the people of Europe and other Western countries people decide to bring fewer children into this world? There are a number of answers. In poorer societies, kids are parents' social security and their savings for rainy days. In agricultural societies kids can help out their parents more than in industrialized ones. And in poorer places, where people live in relatively isolated, small villages, the only insurance one has is the family and the tribe. Insurance companies emerge only when the law of large numbers starts to apply. With financial markets and government promising security and people counting on such promises, parents might well have decided to have fewer kids.

The present decline must also be seen in another context. The rapid growth of population during the 20th century, in so-called emerging countries in particular, was inadvertent. Local population, expecting a number of children to succumb to diseases, did not immediately adjust to the impacts of vaccines, invented in the West, which suddenly increased the number of surviving kids. The declining birth rates today may be, in part, adjustment to the fact that with more kids likely to survive until old age, parents decide to have fewer to start with.

But the fact is that in many Western societies the fertility rate is below the replacement level of roughly 2.1. Something else is happening, beyond the above rational calculations. The pill, the no-fault divorce, the 50% divorce rates, the longer years of study, women having unprecedented career opportunities, all combine to postpone having kids. And by the time couples decide, the fertility clock might have run out of batteries. And there are other factors.

In many ways, having kids is similar to taking on a large debt. Parents owe everything to the kid: they brought him into this world. The kid owes them nothing: he did not ask to be born. Most parents fulfill such moral and monetary obligations. But before they become a parent, calculations such as "Is it worth it, since I cannot just fly to London or Cancun on the spur of the moment? Will not be able to go out to restaurants and pubs at night? Will not be able to just do, well, whatever I want?" cross young adults' minds, once they no longer expect kids to be "insurance" for rainy days. What does convince such young adults to give up such personal freedom, and take on a large debt in the shape of a kid?

At the risk of being accused of professional deformation, a possible answer may be that youngsters do it for the same reason KKR does a leveraged buy-out. Debt imposes a discipline. Time and money spent on kids cannot be spent on various forms of self-indulgence -- golden girls in gold-plated Trump Towers. Unless one is extremely disciplined and dedicated to work, or religious, it is not too difficult to succumb to temptations, and have either a pleasurable life, a dissolute one, or one of boredom. Most people might not have such strong discipline. Having kids forces one into a disciplined life. How we disguise this weakness in character with the veil of language -- that is another story. The fact is, more people today choose to forego such self-imposed discipline, one that religious institutions and a maze of custom and tradition helped enforce in the past.

There might be an intangible factor too in the wish to have kids: a desire for immortality. Few achieve it with their work during their lifetime. The vast majority hopes they get a stake in it by bringing children to this world. But "immortality" is a religious idea, and with the weakening of religious institutions, such desire was weakened too.

What could reverse the trend and induce the young generation to have more kids? At this stage there is one thing perhaps: less government paternalism, which anyway seems to be underway, as governments have over-committed themselves to taking care of people. Weakening these cradle-to-grave promises would allow family ties to get stronger and people to become more disciplined; such adjustments will help deal with looming risks and uncertainties. Too much "care" can turn into an enemy of life. I realize that this is the exact opposite of policies that the U.S., France, Canada and other countries have been pursuing. But we know that these policies have not had their desired impact. It is time to re-examine them and perhaps apply the principle of "ownership" ("owning to oneself," that is, but better call it "accountability") to family life too.

It may just reverse Western countries' demographic decline.

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