Slate Magazine Misses the True Cause for Declining Global Fertility: Liberty


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As my colleagues at Reason 24/7 noted yesterday, Slate is running an article, "About That Overpopulation Problem," the subhed of which notes, "Research suggests we may actually face a declining world population in the coming years."Perhaps it's a bit churlish of me, but I can't help but observe that it's about time that the folks over at Slate caught up with the data.

The article cites projections from Austria's International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis that suggest that the global population will top out at 9 billion some time around 2070 and then begin declining. In fact, Slate notes, if fertility rates subsequently hover around the European average of 1.5 children per woman, world population will be cut in half by 2200 and drop to about 1 billion in 2300.

So why are fertility rates declining? Slate argues:

The reason for the implacability of demographic transition can be expressed in one word: education. One of the first things that countries do when they start to develop is educate their young people, including girls. That dramatically improves the size and quality of the workforce. But it also introduces an opportunity cost for having babies. "Women with more schooling tend to have fewer children," says William Butz, a senior research scholar at IIASA.

Well, yes. But Slate's answer begs a prior question: What causes countries to develop? Short answer: Liberty and the rule of law. In my 2009 column, "The Invisible Hand of Population Control" I reported:

Let's take a look at two intriguing lists. The first is a list of countries ranked on the 2009 Index of Economic Freedom issued by the Heritage Foundation and The Wall Street Journal. Then compare the economic freedom index rankings with a list of countries ranked by their total fertility rates. Of the 30 countries that are ranked as being free or mostly free, only three have fertility rates above 2.1, e.g., New Zealand at 2.11, the Bahamas at 2.13, and Bahrain at 2.53. If one adds the next 53 countries that are ranked as moderately free, one finds that only 8 out of 83 countries have fertility rates above 3. It should be noted that low fertility rates can also be found in more repressive countries as well, e.g., China at 1.77, Cuba at 1.6, Iran at 1.71, and Russia at 1.4.

In 2002, Seth Norton, a business economics professor at Wheaton College in Illinois, published a remarkably interesting study on the inverse relationship between prosperity and fertility. Norton compared fertility rates of over 100 countries with their index rankings for economic freedom and another index for the rule of law. "Fertility rate is highest for those countries that have little economic freedom and little respect for the rule of law," wrote Norton. "The relationship is a powerful one. Fertility rates are more than twice as high in countries with low levels of economic freedom and the rule of law compared to countries with high levels of those measures."

Norton found that the fertility rate in countries that ranked low on economic freedom averaged 4.27 children per woman while countries with high economic freedom rankings had an average fertility rate of 1.82 children per woman. His results for the rule of law were similar; fertility rates in countries with low respect for the rule of law averaged 4.16 whereas countries with high respect for the rule of law had fertility rates averaging 1.55. 

Economic freedom and the rule of law produce prosperity which dramatically lowers child mortality which, in turn, reduces the incentive to bear more children. In addition, along with increased prosperity comes more education for women, opening up more productive opportunities for them in the cash economy. This increases the opportunity costs for staying at home to rear children. Educating children to meet the productive challenges of growing economies also becomes more expensive and time consuming.

Don't get me wrong: Educating women is vitally important. Unfortunately, it tends to be a following rather than a leading indicator of economic development.

In a 2011 column, "Trading Ferility for Prosperity," I reported research that shows that free trade (that liberty thing again) correlates with declining fertility rates:

Doces cites research [PDF] that shows "increasing international exchange and communication create new opportunities for income-generating work and expose countries to norms that, in recent decades, have promoted equality for women." As a result, trade-induced demand for human capital expands to include women, further cutting fertility rates even in poor countries.

Just as high fertility rates and rising population encouraged would-be global saviors to demand drastic interventions into the fertility decisions of individuals, I fear that falling ferility rates and population will do the same. Choosing to have or not have children is an intensely private issue and should be left entirely up to individuals without interference from governments.

Hat tip Marion Tupy.

NEXT: Steven Greenhut on Why Hiring More Cops Is Not the Answer

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  1. Data: The atmosphere contains high concentrations of methane, carbon monoxide, and fluorine.
    Picard: Life signs?
    Data: Population approximately nine billion… all Borg.

    1. Life forms…tiny little life forms…

    2. Population approximately nine billion… all Borg.

      Well they don’t drive or have cars so I’m sure it’s fine. What’s up with all that methane though?

      1. Yeah, who knew the Borg were so flatulent?

  2. Ron Bailey, you ignorant slut! Clearly, the reason for declining fertility rates is simply because it’s not subsidized enough.

    1. Oh No! Is there a solution to that problem?

      1. Axlotl Tanks?

        1. What is the tax deduction for a dependent ghola anyways?

    2. This. We clearly need to pay people NOT to use the condoms we supply for free in schools (and other birth control supplied to Sandra Fluke (pbuh). And to offset the gazillion abortions performed each year.

      I think we need Joe Biden to convense discussions with “interested parties”. Stat.

      1. “A serious national conversation”? Egads!

  3. In fact, Slate notes, if fertility rates subsequently hover around the European average of 1.5 children per woman, world population will be cut in half by 2200 and drop to about 1 billion in 2300.

    Stupid in, stupid out. There’s no reason to think that assumption is true. One of the reasons people currently don’t have children is because of pressures due to population density. As the population drops, these people will start having kids again and we’ll stabilize at some new equilibrium. Instead of that equilibrium being decided by wolves and smallpox (as it was up to a few hundred years ago), it’ll be decided by population density or sustainable resource availability or something like that.

    1. Well, sure. When there aren’t enough people to support a global economy with current division of labor, you’re gonna need the snot factories to help you with the harvest again.

    2. “Of the 30 countries that are ranked as being free or mostly free, only three have fertility rates above 2.1, e.g., New Zealand at 2.11, the Bahamas at 2.13, and Bahrain at 2.53. ”

      This can’t be mentioned enough when arguing with progressives or idiots who simply buy into Peak Bullshit hysteria. Overpopulation is the newest edition of global laming, and it’s only a problem when governments prevent currency from being the sole rationing device and subsidize families.

      1. Overpopulation is the *oldest* edition of “global Laming” – it goes back to 1789 with Malthus.

    3. One of the reasons people currently don’t have children is because of pressures due to population density. As the population drops, these people will start having kids again and we’ll stabilize at some new equilibrium.

      The population density factor doesn’t make sense.. it that were the case why do many poorer places with even less resources have exploding populations? I dunno, maybe they’ve never heard of condoms, but their population densities certainly aren’t changing the minds there.

      Furthermore, a few European countries and Russia especially, are already thinning out and it’s not the Ruskies and saying “Hey, so much land and so little people. Let’s go make some babies!”
      (although I presume they still like to have sex)

    4. Actually, there’s a huge reason to think that birthrates are slowing for reasons other than population pressure.

      The best piece of evidence it that the birthrate is not dropping very fast (if at all) in high density/poor countries and its is dropping in low density/rich countries.

      I’m pretty certain that the people in Britain aren’t basing how many children they have on crowding conditions in Bangladesh.

      1. Britain is a low density country? Japan is a low density country?

        Most low density countries are poor. Rich countries tend to be high density.

        1. That just goes to show that “Some Guy’s” orignal supposition is incorrect – reduced fertility is *not* correlated with population density.

          Birth rates are dropping in rich countries regardless of their population densities.

  4. I blame child labor laws. Little snots can’t pull their own weight anymore by working in monocle factories. Simply a travesty.

  5. Neither are entirely right. The “demographic transition model” has been shown to be flawed on numerous occasions. It relies on one simple proposition, that as countries develop they will assimilate into the values of western civilization.(Though no one phrases it that way because that would be racist) Look at Saudi Arabia and the gulf states for example. They are rich and they have very high fertility rates, because their culture puts a premium on having children. Israel is similar, with a TFR that is very high by industrial standards. The fact is that in many cases development leads to more fertility. Artificial birth control is not the only method of controlling how many kids one has. One can marry late, have sex according to a woman’s you know what, or not have sex at all.(I know, I’m not supposed to say it) The fact is that if you ask these women in developing countries how many kids they want, seven is a common number. A woman who has seven adult children will get much respect in these communities. Another fallacy is that of assuming that people are completely rational in their mating habits. the fact is that evolution wants people to breed in large numbers. Only our society, with all the uncertainty in the marriage market, can keep people from being fruitful and multiplying.

    1. (cont)
      I don’t really like our society, with its depression, its divorce and its single mothers, but perhaps ecologically it just may be our best bet. Population growth is still a serious problem. Africa’s population will triple by 2050, it’ll be our responsibility(social justice) to feed them, and we will have to be “inclusive” of them by letting them immigrate, with all their old-world feuds and problems, their dislike of white men and capitalism.

  6. True to form, the doom-and-gloom Left must portray this as a negative: “And in the long term?on the order of centuries?we could be looking at the literal extinction of humanity.”

    WTF!??!?! We’re doomed if the population grows, and we’re doomed if the population falls. Either way we’re doomed, doooomed, DOOOOOOMED!!!!!!

    1. Obviously, we need to put Top. Men. in charge of, well, everything to head off impending DOOOOM.

  7. I think it has more to do with women’s rights. The more they have, the less likely they will want to have anything to do with men, and thus not have kids (unless they are lesbians).

    So it’s kind of a tricky thing – while on the one hand, they deserve equal rights, on the other hand, it means the human races is doomed to extinction if they do…

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