Hello, population implosion. Well, not quite yet, but soon.
Birthrates are falling in almost every country, changing the way the public and policymakers think about a wide range of issues. To mention only the most obvious, Social Security reform, once a taboo topic in American politics, is now up for debate as lower birthrates lead to an unsustainable ratio of workers to retirees.
Two new books explore these changes and their implications. Each presents a wide variety of information that will be news to most readers; each offers policy prescriptions; and each, in its own way, falls short. Wattenberg's Fewer has the more extensive description of the new demographic realities faced by humanity, while Longman's The Empty Cradle offers a more detailed look at the likely causes for the fertility decline as well as ways to address it in the United States.
Although the birthrate decline has begun to have significant effects in the U.S., it is in Europe and East Asia that the consequences will be most dramatic. In demographic terms, a "total fertility rate" (TFR) of 2.1 is necessary to keep a population from declining—the average woman needs to have two children (plus the 0.1 for girls who die before reaching reproductive age) to replace herself and the father. The TFR in the U.S. is just a hair below that benchmark, having bounced back from its nadir in the 1970s. But in every other developed nation it is lower, and falling: Ireland, 1.9; Australia, 1.7; Canada, 1.5; Germany, 1.35; Japan, 1.32; Italy, 1.23; Spain, 1.15. Birthrates this low are unprecedented in peacetime societies. As Wattenberg writes, "never have birth and fertility rates fallen so far, so fast, so low, for so long, in so many places, so surprisingly."
Not only is this causing an increase in the median age of these populations, as in the U.S., but many of these countries will soon see declines in total population. By the middle of this century, we could find a Europe home to 100 million fewer people than today, and a Japan shrinking by one-fourth.
Despite their huge and growing populations, the most rapid birthrate declines (and thus the most rapid rates of population aging) are taking place in the Third World. The total fertility rate in less-developed countries as a whole, as defined by the U.N., has fallen by half since the 1960s, to 2.9 children per woman, a much faster drop than anything experienced in the developed world. This is happening almost everywhere: China and India, Mexico and South Africa, Iran and Egypt. Population "momentum" will cause continued increases in these countries for a time, as large numbers of girls have babies, albeit fewer than their mothers, and the Third World will potentially add another 2.5 billion people before population growth stops. This is still a very large increase, but it will come to an end in the foreseeable future (in some countries surprisingly soon). After that, their populations will also start to fall.
"[O]ne broad social trend," Longman writes, "holds constant at the beginning of the twenty-first century: As more and more of the world's population moves to overcrowded urban areas, and as women gain in education and economic opportunity, people are producing fewer and fewer children."
Both authors acknowledge that the U.S. is exceptional. Our birthrates have fallen, and thus the average age of our people has increased, but it has happened more gradually than elsewhere. What's more, our population is projected to keep growing. This is not only because of immigration, as Wattenberg suggests, but because of higher fertility among native-born women; even college-educated, non-Hispanic white women have a total fertility rate of 1.7 children, higher than the overall rates of Canada, Britain, or Australia, not to mention the even lower rates of Japan, Germany, Italy, and Spain.
Within the context of falling birthrates worldwide caused by urbanization, education, and the rest, Americans, as both a more religious and more optimistic people, simply choose to have more children. In fact, the only Census Bureau scenario that foresees a declining U.S. population in this century is based on the highly unlikely assumptions that, first, the fertility of American women will fall to European levels, and second, immigration will be reduced to levels below even what most restrictionist organizations call for. Barring catastrophe, then, the population of the U.S. will not decline during the lifetime of anyone reading this article.
Nonetheless, we as a people are getting older, and this is creating important challenges in fields ranging from medicine and pensions to employment. The fundamental question for our society is: Should our emphasis be on adjusting to new circumstances, or should the state second-guess the American people and take an active role in shaping the size and composition of the nation?
Both authors favor the second approach, fearing that what they value about America could be lost if population aging and slowing growth continue. Longman, a senior fellow at the New American Foundation, sees America's purpose as providing a home for secular liberalism, and fears that if secular liberals like him don't start having more children, the only people having them will be "fundamentalists." He writes:
On our current course, more and more of the world's population will be produced by people who believe they are (or who in fact are) commanded by a higher power to procreate, or who just lack the foresight to avoid the social and economic cost of creating large familiesâ€¦. [S]uch a trend, if sustained, would drive human culture off its current market-driven, individualistic, modernist course, and gradually create an antimarket culture dominated by fundamentalist values.
Wattenberg also fears that the New Demography could impair America's mission, which he defines somewhat differently. Other than defending itself, our country's " job" is "to vigorously promote social, economic, and individual liberty in America and around the world." Declares Wattenberg,
It's hard for me to imagine that the advance of individual and economic liberties in the world would continue without an exemplar nation that is prospering and growing. In the modern world America is that nationâ€¦. Were America on the European/Japanese track of population decline, the case for democracy would be much harder to make.
When it comes to policies, Longman's recommendations are clearly intended to engineer for America his desired political culture. But he works from the common-sense proposition, often articulated by Jack Kemp, that if you tax something, you get less of it. Longman maintains that there is an effective tax on child-bearing and rearing; he spells out ways of lightening the load on parents, including exempting them from Social Security payments until their children turn 18 (the theory being that parents are already contributing to the future of society by raising children). To ensure healthier and more productive old age, he wants to hector Americans to eat less and exercise more. He also wants government to help the family reclaim its role as the center of economic activity, thus again making children economic assets rather than liabilities.
Wattenberg's solution, by contrast, is unambiguously undemocratic and coercive. He argues that pro-natalist policies like Longman's have always proven ineffective, and that the magic solution is mass immigration. Unfortunately, his data refute his argument. The Census Bureau projects an increase in our population of about 140 million, including new immigrants, over the first half of this century, but "only" a 50 million increase if there were no immigration at all. How is it plausible to claim that America will be derailed, and the worldwide spread of human liberty jeopardized, if our population grows by an average of one million a year instead of three million?
Basically, Wattenberg is saying that since Americans have freely chosen to have smaller families, the state must import people to supply the bodies needed to fuel the global democratic revolution. As others have noted, this mass-immigration worldview echoes Bertolt Brecht's suggestion that the East German government dissolve the people and elect a new one. Wattenberg never offers any specifics about how to "elect" this new people. What kind of actual immigration policy should we have? How many immigrants? What kind? How do we select and screen them? He offers nothing beyond the most vaporous generalities.
In the end, neither author has sufficient faith in the American people. Wattenberg sees his countrymen as not up to the task History has set before them, and so they must be supplemented by a huge, unending flow of outsiders. Longman, on the other hand, harbors the blue-state fear that those who feel commanded by nature and nature's God to procreate are itching secretly to establish a theocracy.
Some of Longman's suggestions about easing the burden of parents' excess taxation may well be advisable on equity grounds, and a certain low level of immigration by, say, foreign-born spouses, is desirable. But the social engineering that both authors call for is incompatible with republicanism, and in any case, unnecessary. The American people, through what one might call a reproductive free market, are collectively making sensible decisions about how many Americans there should be. We need sober and reasoned discussion about how best to adjust to changing demographics, and these books do a good job of alerting us to the challenges. But when it comes to having babies, our government should leave it to the citizenry to decide how best to secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.