More Robot Babies, Please


Last week the London Times ran a less-than-groundbreaking "Europe needs more babies" opinion piece, this one by avowed "eco-puritan" Melanie McDonagh. Understandably, McDonagh is worried about her pension and health care in the absence of gurgling future taxpayers. But the folks at The Economist blog will not be guilted into breeding:

Longman and McDonagh seem to envision breeding and childrearing as a sort of public good likely to be underprovided if individuals are left to their own selish devices. Those of us who decline to yield future workers are free riding off all that "human capital" produced by altuistic pram-pushers. But, as always, there is too little altruism to go around. So we should go for the next best thing: tax incentives.

There is something inherently repellant about a social vision in which wombs and their fruits are conceived primarily in terms of future labor productivity and tax receipts. But you don't have to be repelled to see that the "kids as public goods" picture doesn't add up.

First, it should be obvious that nations don't have to have pension systems highly sensitive to worker-to-retiree ratios. A shift to a system of mandatory personal retirement accounts immediately solves that problem. And then there are substitutes to native-born children. People born in other countries can also work and pay taxes. Indeed, if yours is a rich country, billions of less-rich people would like to come there. So let more of them come. And then there is technological progress, which allows machines to do some formerly human jobs, and increases the productivity of remaining human labour.

There is no reason a nation with a shrinking population cannot maintain steady rates of GDP per capita growth if mechanization and labour productivity gains keep up a good pace. Indeed, George Mason economist Robin Hanson argues that soon enough robots will be doing almost all the jobs [pdf] anyway. So it is easy enough to imagine a country that maintains a high standard of living as the population eventually shrinks to … nothing. People differ rather vehemently on this issue, but I see nothing wrong with a population dwindling away entirely, as long as living conditions remain high.

There is much more, all of it worth reading. But ultimately you have to wonder whether lengthy refutations of pro-fertility economic (as opposed to cultural) claims are just a waste of pixels. Worries about population decline, like worries over overpopulation that preceded them and worries about immigration that coincide with them, are tied to a particular vision of a particular society–and it's not a vision that is likely to be argued away by positing the sustainability of social security accounts.

Singapore's natalist agenda is in place largely to help maintain the Chinese majority; John Gibson warns American non-hispanics that it's time to "do your duty" and "make more babies." McDonagh is worried about population decline, yet she somehow sees fit to promote immigration restrictions as a coping mechanism. All of which is why Mark Steyn's Oh-shit-the-Muslims-are-breeding polemic America Alone is a less intellectual book than Philip Longman's economically inclined The Empty Cradle, and probably a more important one.