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.