Authored by the Editors of Law & Liberty via RealClear Wire,
The following is an overview of Law & Liberty’s January forum on the question of demographic decline.
Birth rates are falling across the developed world, and China recently joined the list of countries with a declining population.
These trends have many governments worrying about shrinking workforces and unsustainable elderly entitlements. In Law & Liberty’s January forum, Lyman Stone argues that those concerns are relatively trivial, compared to the loneliness, infertility, suicide, and addiction that are ravaging American society today.
Stone sees strong connections between these maladies and the failure of so many people to marry and have children.
Family life can be a source of tremendous joy and meaning, but more and more Americans are missing out on this, owing to liberalized divorce, high rates of incarceration, a badly designed tax and benefit structure, and other cultural factors. The best antidote to loneliness and despair, Stone argues, is to help people marry, and have the children they already say they want. To that end, he recommends higher alcohol taxes, the elimination of marriage penalties, school vouchers, and liberalized zoning policies, along with child allowances and family leave policies.
David Goldman, in his reply, points out that fertility has not declined precipitously among all developed people. Israel is an important outlier, with an average of about three children per woman, but within the Israeli population it is clear that the highly-religious are boosting the nation’s birth rates. That trend is not unique to Israel, or to Jews. In the United States as well, people who report that religion is important to them have more children. This trend holds even for highly educated women, although the decline in fertility has in general correlated strongly with the rise in female education.
Jesse Smith shares Stone’s interest in a more-robust family policy, but he is dissatisfied with Stone’s decision to focus his argument on the realization of individual fertility preferences. Families are good for so many reasons; why not put them all on the table? We do need more babies to have a thriving economy and hope for the future. Smith notes as well that Stone’s individualist framing may hinder him from understanding the phenomenon in question. Anxious to interpret falling birth rates as tragic evidence of unrealized life goals, he is reluctant to probe the attitudes of potential parents too deeply. A person might genuinely want more kids, without being willing to prioritize family goals over other life goals. If pronatal policies simply ignore those complexities, they may not work.
Susanna Spencer also worries that Stone may be misunderstanding the motives that lead people to build their lives around family and children. She illustrates this by telling the story of her own family, and the open-to-life ethic that she absorbed growing up in a Catholic community. It seems unlikely to Spencer that government benefits or a revised tax code will significantly alter the present fertility situation. Organic community, personal connections, and a prioritizing of human life and relationships are the real key, as John Paul II explained in his encyclical, Evangelium Vitae.
Answering the skepticism of multiple respondents, Stone’s final reply sketches many ways in which pronatal policy might in fact have some meaningful effect. Stone points out that it is really quite clear that government policy can influence birth rates, even quite dramatically, as seen in Romania under Nicolae CeauÈ™escu. No one wants that kind of autocracy in America, but gentler policies might still make a difference. Money does help. Housing and education make a real difference, too. Religion is certainly a factor, but Stone notes that its role is also fairly complex. Community support is hugely important to facilitating family life, and it does often go hand in hand with organized religion, but that isn’t inevitably the case. Meanwhile, other forms of community can also help lonely people realize their dream of raising a thriving family.
The way forward, Stone suggests, is to tackle the problem from multiple angles, refusing to accept the present misery and despair as an inevitable consequence of a more secular society.