Bedroom Call to Arms

Or, how I stopped worrying and learned to love the population bomb.


Doomsday scenarios have been popular with both the left and the right. The favorites of the left are nuclear destruction, environmental catastrophe, and the population explosion; those of the right are moral decay and the spread of communism. Recently, however, several conservatives have taken the traditional theme of the population explosion and turned it on its head.

Presidential candidate Pat Robertson, for instance, has called for policies that would increase births in America. This includes baby subsidies as well as restrictions on abortion. On an academic level, Ben Wattenberg of the American Enterprise Institute has gained widespread attention with a provocative book, The Birth Dearth: What Happens When People in Free Countries Don't Have Enough Babies.

This book comes less than 20 years after Paul Ehrlich's The Population Bomb, which tried to alert us to the dangers of having too many people. One wonders at exactly which moment during the last 20 years we struck just the right balance before proceeding to destroy our briefly held procreative harmony.

In the under-populationist view, the problem is too few babies, not too many. The number of children produced per American woman is now only 1.8 (the total fertility rate, or TFR, for short). In countries such as West Germany, the TFR is as low as 1.27. A TFR of 2.1 is needed for a population to remain constant. Thus, if present trends continue, the Western allies will lose population.

On the other side of the demographic equation are the Soviet bloc and the Third World, which have booming populations. Conservatives fear a world where the Western democracies (including Japan) are but a mere fraction of the total population. Could we maintain our cultural influence and military strength in such a world? Wattenberg's The Birth Dearth gives us both the demographics and the scare story, while Robertson has taken the scare story on the campaign trail. Wattenberg offers some policy recommendations, such as a an annual $2,000 check for having children, whereas Robertson would up the ante to $3,000 or $4,000. But the underlying moral is the same: Unless true-blue Americans increase their procreation, the world will not have enough guardians of Western culture and values.

Yet, even under the worst-case scenario (based upon Wattenberg's demographics), the free world will still outnumber the Soviet bloc, 590 million to 525 million, in the year 2100. In addition, the population growth in the Soviet Union is no source of comfort to the moguls who command the evil empire, because it is occurring among non-Russian ethnic groups, mostly Moslem, who feel little loyalty for the predominantly Russian state machinery. Although ethnic Russians are reproducing at a TFR of 2.1, the Moslem south central republics have TFRs ranging from 4.7 to 5.5.

Wattenberg himself notes that by the year 2020, only 35 percent of Soviet draft-age youth will be Russian. Even now, the Soviets have been unable to sustain their original plan to send no Moslem soldiers into Afghanistan. As a result, we see Soviet Moslems fighting Afghan Moslems. This is bad military strategy and bad public relations for a Kremlin that is trying desperately to build good relations with its non-Russian satellites.

So we have to ask, are population demographics really stacked against the West? In fact, the distribution of Soviet population growth may be the most potent long-term force operating against Bolshevik rule. Consider the following: "As demonstrated by Western demographers, it [a certain people] has moved into biological degeneracy. Within a century or perhaps sooner, it will be diminished by one-half and dissolve itself and almost vanish from the face of the earth. And this development seems irreversible." This is Russian conservative Alexander Solzhenitsyn talking about the Russian people, not American conservative Robertson or Wattenberg talking about the Americans.

The concerns of American under-populationists are not only widespread in other countries, but they are also a familiar theme throughout history. In the 1930s it was quite common to decry declining birth rates and predict impending doom. To the surprise of demographers, this trend reversed itself in later years. Going back even further, a "birth dearth" was a primary concern of the European mercantilists in the 17th century. That problem did not materialize either.

Demographers have been notoriously unsuccessful in predicting aggregate trends. The Social Security Administration was unable to foresee the "graying of America" that strained the system's funding base. Neither was the baby boom (a 3.8 TFR) foreseen by the demography profession. The so-called population explosion of the Third World has also left many demographers with egg on their faces. Third World TFRs have fallen from 6.1 in 1970, two years after Erhlich's book appeared, to 4.1 in 1985 and are continuing to fall.

The fault for these wrong predictions lies not in demographic tools but in the demographers who misuse their science. Like all social sciences, demography can only attempt to predict the future through some form of extrapolation from past statistics. But the future often exhibits elements of novelty and surprise that cannot be anticipated by any study of the past.

Predicting how many children people will have is not an easy task. Decisions about children depend upon a number of unpredictable factors: when I marry, my future mate, my future income, and the hours of my future job, to name just a few. The statisticians' "law of large numbers" does not allow us to add up a large number of such cases and reach a reasonably certain conclusion about the aggregate. Such laws are better suited for similar phenomena with repeated trials, such as coin-flips—not human families whose size is subject to conscious control. More often than not, past demographic warnings have not been well-founded.

Surprisingly, Wattenberg does not claim he can predict the future. He recently wrote in the Wall Street Journal that if the birth dearth crisis does not come to pass, it will be "because people were told, by me and others, that a real problem—personal, economic, and geopolitical—was brewing." Wattenberg and other under-populationists sound like Chicken Little looking for credit when the sky does not fall. Are their efforts the potential swing factor in our bedroom decisions?

Nor is the under-populationists' scare story inevitable even if their demographics turn out right. Diminishing numbers do not forebode either military decline or cultural decay.

More individuals increase a nation's military strength, but population size is just one factor of many. Switzerland, whose population has never substantially exceeded 6 million, has escaped the ravages of many European wars for the last thousand years. Contrary to popular belief, not all of Switzerland is buried deep in the Alps, impregnable to military attack. Basel, Zurich, and Geneva are quite accessible through fairly flat terrain. The security of the Swiss must be attributed to their military preparedness, their unflagging national pride, and their tradition of neutrality.

Israel and Vietnam are similar examples—they have defended themselves against vastly more populous enemies. In all three cases (Switzerland, Israel, Vietnam) the decisive factors have been morale and love of country. The West will not perish as long as it does not lose these virtues.

Countries that do not have an unyielding sense of unity and morale will never spread their influence, whether militarily, culturally, or otherwise. Modern China and India are two population giants who remain basket cases because of backward social and economic systems and their inability to mobilize their resources.

Cultural success is especially numbers independent. Even the largest of the Greek city-states had a population considerably smaller than the capacity of some of today's sports stadiums. Yet, the cultural impact of Greek science, philosophy, and literature continues to the present day. The cultural impact of the Jews has far exceeded their numbers as well. Further examples are numerous—blacks in jazz, the Germans in chemistry, and the Dutch in art.

If the Western world retains its intellectual and spiritual vitality, it will continue to have a profound cultural influence, regardless of birth rates. Without this vitality, numbers are no help. India, for instance, has both a huge population and the largest film industry in the world. Which Indian films are your favorite?

Under-populationists such as Robertson and Wattenberg ought to think more seriously about why birth rates have fallen. For the most part, it is because people wish to have fewer children. From this follows the simple conclusion that having fewer children makes people better off. Why then should a decrease in babies be called a dearth? Individuals are substituting away from "numbers of children" into other valued goods and activities. In many instances, the preferred alternative may be fewer children but more time for each child.

Population doomsayers on both sides of the issue suffer from the "optimal population fallacy," which assumes there is some policy-relevant objective standard of how many people there ought to be apart from how many children existing individuals wish to have. Despite many years of effort, philosophers have searched in vain for a theory that would allow us to pinpoint the optimal number of individuals.

One approach suggests that the optimal population is the one which provides for the greatest average happiness (the principle of average utility). Even if we could measure happiness, this standard still has serious problems—such as its implication that happy individuals who have below-average happiness should die, since this would raise the societal average.

Another approach is the "principle of total utility"—the best population is the one that contains the most happiness. But this standard gives too much weight to sheer numbers of people. It is possible that the population with the greatest amount of happiness would have a very large number of people who are not very happy—hardly a desirable ideal.

Social policy should help create happiness for individuals, not create individuals in order to procure more happiness in society. Children are precious not because they increase some abstract total sum of happiness or national strength but because their lives are desired by existing individuals. Recognizing this requires abandoning the chimera of government steering us toward some "optimal population." Instead, we should let individuals pursue their own values—which, of course, may include children.

Under-populationists sometimes speak of human beings as if their primary function was to fill some role in society or add to some checkmark tally for measuring the glory of the West. Considering the following from the dust jacket of Wattenberg's book: "With fewer children, who will buy houses? What will happen to construction workers? Who will buy the records and movie tickets?" But individuals do not exist for the purpose of filling movie houses or supporting the film industry. Instead, movie houses and the film industry exist to please individuals.

Likewise, the "preeminence of the West" that plays such an important role in the current debate is not an end in itself. Western values are good, but they are good as a means to some further end—enabling individuals to lead happy and fulfilled lives. If the only way of preserving America's cultural influence in the world is to force a culture upon America that Americans do not want (a many-child culture), it may not be worth the price. Furthermore, preserving Western values by overriding individual preferences is a contradiction—allowing individuals to make their own decisions is the most important, the distinguishing Western value.

If America's population were of concern, however, one easy way to increase it would be to lower immigration barriers. Since most immigrants are young and hard-working, this would also solve our Social Security crisis overnight (about which self-described "life-long admirer and booster of Social Security" Wattenberg worries a great deal) by broadening the system's funding base. In addition, the American way of life has demonstrated a remarkable capacity to absorb large numbers of immigrants quickly and Americanize their children. Unlike in many other countries, the first generation of children born to immigrants in the United States generally owe their cultural, moral, and political allegiance to their place of birth, not their parents' homeland.

If America is underpopulated, a large wave of immigrants can solve the problem without costing the taxpayers money. By contrast, under-populationist conservatives are adopting a free-spending attitude that would put welfare-state socialists to shame. When discussing possible ways of increasing America's population Wattenberg says, "If it's judged a good plan, let's do it. Money should be no object. Remember, we're saving Western civilization."

The primary policy suggestion of the under-populationists is exactly what we would expect from big spenders-an annual subsidy for each baby. The figures suggested by Robertson and Wattenberg range from $2,000 to $4,000 a year, and Wattenberg speaks in terms of a 16-year subsidy. In light of this lucrative opportunity the old joke about lying back and thinking of Mother England would disappear quickly—unenthusiastic love-makers could instead count their forthcoming pecuniary benefits.

At some point in the future, of course, children would have to be taxed to fund these subsidies (plus interest). If the under-populationists truly love children, why do they want to tax them so heavily? One is continually led to suspect that the under-populationists value children primarily as a tax and resource base for military spending.

It is unlikely that such subsidies could pay for themselves in the long run. Most of the payouts will go for babies who would have been born anyway. The additional new babies will someday be paying taxes, but they will consume public services as well, so the government's net revenue gain may be quite small.

Subsidies would also lead to a booming black market in baby certificates (sans baby). How is the existence of a new baby to be verified? At $2,000 to $4,000 a year, the incentive to defraud the government is strong. This would create an interesting twist on state welfare programs that have often required female welfare recipients to prove that there is no man living in the house. When the welfare inspector comes, the man runs out the back door or jumps out the window. With baby subsidies, producing a baby on short notice will be the new trick. This may be harder than getting rid of a man, but one can imagine a neighborhood baby being passed from one house to another when the "baby inspector" comes. The enforcement of antifraud violations would entail serious intrusions in people's lives.

Even if such subsidies are effective and pay for themselves, will they strengthen America? They might instead create an America full of otherwise unwanted children, save for an extra few thousand dollars a year. Will these children receive the upbringing and care required to turn them into the virtuous and productive citizens that the under-populationists feel we so desperately need?

World history should not be seen as a struggle among different nations, each trying to increase its power at the expense of others. This is a game that America should refuse to play—it characterizes the worldview of mercantilism, an antiquated but still dangerous philosophy. Since the under-populationists have accepted this philosophy, it is no surprise to see them endorse the mercantilist policy of subsidies to remedy such private-sector "deficiencies" as low birth rates. It is also no accident that Nazi Germany and modern-day Rumania are the most prominent instances of pro-natalist policies.

Economists such as Julian Simon have refuted the myth that the world has too many people. We can only hope that Pat Robertson's campaign and Wattenberg's Birth Dearth do not propagate the opposite fallacy.

The best population policy is one of laissez-faire. Much of America's strength derives from a tradition of liberal immigration laws, and to the extent that we have such a policy, our contribution to the future of the world will be assured. When it comes to individual bedroom decisions, nature has provided her own subsidy—the joys of parenthood.

Tyler Cowen is an assistant professor of economics at the University of California, Irvine.