Acton Commentary

The Limits of Policy


In recent years, an extraordinary change has occurred at the level of international social policy discussion. The “population bomb” parlance of alarmists such as Paul Ehrlich has given way to the “population implosion” warnings of European government and United Nations officials.

Granted that this is a localized phenomenon and that countervailing forces complicate the matter; the conventional wisdom concerning overpopulation as the main problem, globally speaking, holds sway in scientific and public policy circles.

Nonetheless, in Europe and parts of Asia especially, there is a new willingness to confront the problem of demographic decline. Calling the situation “critical,” Russian president Vladimir Putin has called for a ten-year plan to attempt to reverse the plummeting birthrate in that nation. Putin is right: The Russian population is already shrinking by 700,000 per year and all indications point to further decline rather than any reversal. The president requests cash payments to mothers, more generous maternity leaves, and other benefits to sweeten the prospect of bearing children.

South Korea has allocated $35 billion over the next five years to address its low birthrate. Many European nations already have in place incentives to increase the number of births and discussions to improve those incentives are ongoing.

These population policy debates have vital economic consequences. The strain on Europe's social welfare system caused by a rapidly expanding elderly population coupled with declining numbers of workers has been widely recognized. In some cases, policy may actually be counterproductive. As Joseph D'Agostino of the Population Research Institute observes, the South Korean initiative will be paid for by a special tax, “which will increase the burden on South Korea's economy and thus could decrease her birthrate in the long run.”

But the larger and more crucial point to make is that all such policy efforts are inherently limited. Governments can support child-bearing with family-friendly policies (never more than by keeping taxes low and economic growth strong), but decisions about having children are naturally personal and intimate--a phenomenon much more dependent on cultural factors than on economic or political ones.

Western European governments have been experimenting with child incentives for decades and birth rates have continued to drop. The only exception is in France, where the high birth rate of a burgeoning Muslim population has moderated the nation's average. It is doubtful that the relatively high fertility of Muslims has anything to do with government policy; more likely the religion of Islam, with it surrounding social norms, is the decisive factor.

Solving population decline problems, then, requires a focus on the cultural issues that affect birth rates. Many things could be said on that score but, boiled down, the bearing of children evinces two qualities: sacrifice and hope.

In pre-modern agricultural society, children might be an economic boon to a family, providing farm labor after an initial period of growth and training. Given cultural and economic developments and changing customs, that is no longer true in the vast majority of cases, in developed nations at least. One child might still make for a nice accessory to a fashionable couple; but any more than that is, in financial and comfort terms, a sacrifice.

What fuels the making of such sacrifices? Motivations are various, but most revolve around some kind of religious view concerning the fruitfulness of love between a man and woman and the related mandate to increase the number of human souls--expressed in the Judeo-Christian tradition by the Genesis command, “Be fruitful and multiply.”

The desire to be fruitful also issues from a hopeful outlook on humanity. This is different from facile optimism that believes that suffering can be eliminated and that moral and economic progress is inevitable. It is instead a perspective that admits that man is the cause of the world's problems--but also insists that he is the solver of them. It manifests itself in an abiding joy in life and wishes to share that joy with an increasing number of human persons. Its opposite is a view of human beings as a plague on the earth: that a more numerous humanity is doomed to a future of war, disease, and environmental catastrophe, while a happier future is a less populous one.

At the individual level, of course, it is absurd to draw hard and fast conclusions about religious practice or humanistic attitudes based on number of offspring. But at a national level, if a population is failing to reproduce itself, it seems safe to say that religious notions of being fruitful and hopeful humanism are in short supply.

One can admire Putin and likeminded leaders for their honesty and determination, but ultimately their efforts are like piling sandbags against a rising ocean tide. You can't really do much until the tide begins to go back out--and at that point your efforts are superfluous. Countries in demographic decline need to rediscover the values of sacrifice and hope. That's a task beyond the capacity of even the most expansive government program.