Can We Do Anything about the Collapse of the Birth Rate?

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By  John Zmirak, a Senior Editor of The Stream, Sept. 23, 2017

John ZmirakEarlier, here at The Stream, Liberty McCartor made an excellent case for why we should ignore the cooked-up research advising us: “For God’s sake, don’t have kids!” She exposes how each of the hedonistic arguments against bringing children into one’s marriage is shallow and adolescent. Most of them could equally be used to warn against getting married, having friends, or (thank you, UberEats!) ever leaving the house.

And yet. And yet. Millions of adults who do pair off, have friends, and even leave the house are making the decision not to have any kids. Or not enough of them to matter to society. (As in, by replacing all the people who retire or die each year with new future workers, soldiers, and taxpayers.) Read David P. Goldman’s Why Civilizations Die for a sense of how far this trend has gone.

We Will Be Euthanized By Robots

Why should we worry about this? Here’s one reason: It means that we won’t be taken care of by smiling family members in our dotage. Or even by hard-working home health techs. We will be euthanized by robots. Or by low-paid harried immigrants following orders given by hideously overworked doctors who answer to the Department of Triage, a Cabinet-level agency which President Miley Cyrus will have established during her first 100 days in office.

And that’s a concern, for me. It leads me to ask poignant questions like, “Is it fair to bring a child into a world with such a low birthrate?”

The last research I read said that the only countries in Europe where women bear more than 2.1 kids per lifetime are … Albania and Bosnia. Since those are “allahu akbar” enclaves, I think we can bracket them. In the U.S., our birthrate is barely at replacement.

The Icy Rationalists of … Sicily?

Birthrates aren’t just falling in cozy, “consumerist” places like Park Slope, Brooklyn, where nibblers of vegan kale wraps measure babies’ carbon footprints with tiny eugenicist calipers. No, rates are plummeting in places which we don’t generally think of as dominated by icy, rational calculators. Like Mexico, and Iran. Like Sicily and Ireland, like Hungary and Poland.

Governments are quietly panicking about this. It’s true that most of the leaders of Europe are childless technocrat cyborgs. So they don’t exactly have bully pulpits on the subject. But they can read the charts, and run the numbers. If things go on as they are, every single worker in places like Germany and Holland will have his very own retiree to support all by himself.

Birthrates aren’t just falling in cozy, “consumerist” places like Park Slope, Brooklyn, where nibblers of vegan kale wraps measure babies’ carbon footprints with tiny eugenicist calipers. No, rates are plummeting in places which we don’t generally think of as dominated by icy, rational calculators. Like Mexico, and Iran.

Yeah, that’s probably not going to work. It’s not as if you can, say, tuck your retiree into a sling and carry him with you while you work, feed him when he cries. Anyway, you don’t know the guy. The government will just take, say, half your paycheck to pay for some stranger’s apartment, food, and advanced medical treatments. Which will make it even harder for you to afford to have any actual children, who could someday pay taxes … you see how this vicious spiral works. Eventually you and the other remaining taxpayers will rebel and slash the budgets. That stranger you’ve been supporting will wait in his dirty sheets till another stranger comes in and gives him the final needle — which is exactly what you can look forward to. It’s the Circle of Life, just like in Lion King!

Outsourcing the Grunt Work of Childbearing

We all know on some level that this is true. That things can’t go on as they have. Our elites have decided to outsource the sweaty grunt work of human reproduction to the Third World. In Europe, they’re importing millions of low-skill, culturally hostile, and often religiously fanatical strangers. Because when all those Muslims in Sweden or France grow up and pay taxes, they’ll be really eager to see half their paychecks go to support … old white, retired nominal Christians, right? Yeah, that’s what will happen. Just visualize the stone-throwing Islamists of Parisian suburbs walking around a French beach, greeting pale, elderly Frenchmen, and handing them their paychecks, with a smile. “Thanks for the country, mon cher. We’re really enjoying the place.”

Don’t be smug because you live in America. I noted back in 2003:

[P]olicy makers ought to wonder about the future of a pension system that relies upon heavily taxing poor recent immigrants and their children to support more prosperous elderly people of another race — particularly of a resented, displaced majority. A professor of Chicano Studies at California State University, Rodolfo Acuna, has applied this logic to America. He said of the Latino community, “There’s a growing feeling ‘Why should we pay for all these senior citizens’ if the majority of them are white and all they were willing to pay for was prisons?”

We Are All English Bulldogs Now

Some European governments are trying to incentivize, not outsource. They’re lavishing anyone willing to bear and raise some children with subsidy checks. Fancy daycare. Paid leave. Whatever it takes, people, will somebody please breed? It’s as if this generation of human beings had morphed into factory-farm turkeys or English bulldogs, incapable of mating unassisted.

Those checks are helping, but not nearly enough. In fact, there’s very little such governments (or ours) could do via social programs or money incentives to counteract the trend toward grim sterility.

Sometimes governments get confused. They can’t decide between their environmental priorities (“Empty the planet and make way for our dolphin overlords!”) and the grim demographic reality (“But who will man the crematoria?”) So they send mixed messages, as the Swedish government has:

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This is beyond a joke now

Maybe it makes sense to examine the reasons that people historically have had big-enough families. Instead of jerry-rigging some Rube Goldberg government programs to try to replace those reasons.

What are those reasons? How many of them could we harness today, without impinging on people’s freedom? Let’s scan the list of arguments that convinced people in the past to have four, five, or more children, and see if any still apply.

“My Woman Keeps Having the Little Ones. What Makes This Happen?”

Nah, just kidding. Snooty anthropologists have periodically told us that they found some tribe or other that doesn’t understand the link between sex and children. But those stories always collapsed. The only group so primitive that it’s unsure about the links of intercourse and childbirth appears to be … the present generation.

“It’s Better Than Celibacy. What Else Can We Do?”

It wasn’t until the early 20th century that widespread effective contraception became available. Then it took several decades for eugenics and population panic-mongers to overcome historic Christian and natural law objections to the practice.

No one proposes making contraception illegal or less available. The Catholic church has kept on making its case against it, but very few listened — including the people working at major Vatican offices today. Nope, the genie is out of the bottle. People can mostly avoid kids if they want to. So on to other reasons….

“So Many of the Kids Die, We Have to Keep Having More.”

In the late 19th century medical advances slashed the infant mortality rate in wealthy countries. Those improvements filtered slowly and unevenly around the world. My mother’s mother, for instance, bore 11 babies — only five of whom survived childhood in Depression-era, Hell’s Kitchen tenements.

Thankfully, the market economy is continuing to slash extreme poverty and infant mortality around the world. Except, of course, in pockets like Venezuela and North Korea.

And America. Because if you count unborn kids as people, you see that we’ve managed to replicate the dismal old rate of over 33 percent child mortality, right here in high-tech America. So outlawing abortion would do quite a bit to boost the birth rate. Don’t be scared off by Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s warning that such kids saved are of the kind “we don’t want to have too many of.” She was just being racist.

“We Need Kids to Help with the Work.”

This is the most ancient reason that people considered large families a blessing, and sterility a curse. When we moved in from farms and outlawed child labor, we made it obsolete. Now kids are a cost from birth till age 30 or so when we finally kick them out of our basements. But do things have to be this way? Pastor Chris Wiley thinks not. In his brilliant book Man of the House, he argues that Christian families should strive to craft home-based businesses that supplement dad’s income, and put children to work. It trains them in virtues, bonds the family more tightly, and offers some independence from the vagaries of the market. It’s worth a thought.

“Who Else Will Care for Us When We’re Old and Feeble?”

This is an even more primal reason to have enough kids. In fact, it may be even more powerful than the work motive above. However, our government social insurance programs have virtually removed it. We have socialized the benefits of childrearing, while personalizing the costs. Now we expect all those other people to have enough children to take care of “all of us” when we’re old. So we can spend our time changing window treatments, not diapers. We can invest in 401ks, not college funds. And we can do it all thanks to other people’s children. But sooner or later, you run out of other people’s children.

What could we do to fix this? It’s politically unlikely, but when the Social Security system goes Hindenburg (probably on the day I turn 65) we could replace it with a system that rewards, instead of punishes, people for having children. I laid such a system out in 2003 in response to President Bush’s tentative gropings toward entitlement reform. Of course, nobody listened.

Here it is in a nutshell, quoting the essay that I dropped down a well. Our new system should

provide a basic income, perhaps allotted according to cost of living in an individual city, to every retired American, regardless of his previous contributions or income. It would collect the money for this stipend through the income tax, with full deductions allowed for parents with children. On top of this basic stipend, it would draw from the salaries of every working adult a certain percentage, payable directly to his living parents— or whoever had claimed him regularly as a dependent on past tax returns.

The more children one had borne (or adopted) and raised, the more sources of income one could expect. The more successful one’s children became — at least, financially — the better one’s own retirement…. In every traditional society, people look to their children as the comfort and support of their old age. By tapping into that instinctive behavior, rather than undermining or wishing it away, we might help blunt the Western demographic implosion.

Such a system would also be fairer. It would measure more accurately the vast contributions parents make to society. It would also greatly diminish the resentment young immigrant workers must feel at contributing to the nation’s retirement system, by making their own parents their primary beneficiaries. Whatever the legal minimum contribution to parents’ support mandated by law, an optional “check-off” on one’s income tax would allow a worker to pay more, in pre-tax dollars, to benefit his parents. Generous tax deductions would benefit adult children who provide their parents food and shelter.

To those who consider this system unjust to the childless, the minimum benefit for every American must be sufficient to permit a dignified retirement. Also, it should be noted, the childless typically have more income available for savings and investment than those who are engaged in feeding, clothing, and educating the young. Those who have forgone consumption, investment, and leisure in order to raise up the next generation of citizens—of workers, soldiers, mothers, doctors, nurses, and firemen—deserve some direct reward from the society whose future they have created.

This is the outline of a truly pro-family social policy, one that accords with the best impulses of Americans old and new, bends public policy to mirror the natural order rather than undermine it—and pays due honor to our elderly citizens, recognizing that we ourselves are their greatest achievement.

“God Is Good. Life Is Good. We Want to Pass on the Gift, Along with Our Faith.”

Here’s the key, best, and most powerful reason for people to carry on the species. As David Goldman notes, it’s only in religious subcultures that people have positive birthrates in developed countries. So orthodox Jews, Mormons, devout evangelicals and faithful Catholics are still having normal-sized or even large families. It’s not that all those people reject contraception. It’s that they love life. And that’s the best reason of all.

It’s also not something the government can do much about. But the state can get out of the way. It can stop harassing traditional religious believers with lawsuits and threats of prosecution. The state can stop jailing homeschoolers, as in Germany. It can leave parents alone to pass along their values and faith, unlike in Canada. The state can also direct more resources toward religious schools and homeschooling, via tax credits that don’t give the government the power to micromanage and censor.

The state can stop pretending that it’s a “village” that’s raising everyone’s children. Policies based on that premise encourage couples to leave the childbearing … to everyone else in the village.


He has been Press Secretary to pro-life Louisiana Governor Mike Foster, and a reporter and editor at Success magazine and Investor’s Business Daily, among other publications. His essays, poems, and other works have appeared in First Things, The Weekly Standard, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, USA Today, FrontPage Magazine, The American Conservative, The South Carolina Review, Modern Age, The Intercollegiate Review, Commonweal, and The National Catholic Register, among other venues. He has contributed to American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia and The Encyclopedia of Catholic Social Thought. From 2000-2004 he served as Senior Editor of Faith & Family magazine and a reporter at The National Catholic Register. During 2012 he was editor of Crisis.

He is author, co-author, or editor of eleven books, including Wilhelm Ropke: Swiss Localist, Global Economist, The Grand Inquisitor (graphic novel) and The Race to Save Our Century. He was editor of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute’s guide to higher education, Choosing the Right College and, for ten years, and is also editor of Disorientation: How to Go to College Without Losing Your Mind.

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