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Friday, January 1, 1988

A Reviewers Notebook: The Birth Dearth

Ben J. Wattenberg, a demographer by profession, did some informal polling of students in a Michigan high school in 1985 to determine their preferences in family size. What he discovered set him off on a world-wide statistical trail that has resulted in a startling book called The Birth Dearth: What Happens When People In Free Countries Don’t Have Enough Babies? (New York: Pharos Books, 182 pp., $16.95).

The students Wattenberg queried in the Michigan school were born to mothers just after the Baby Boom had ended. The fertility rate of the mothers (2.4 children per woman) was still high enough to guarantee a population increase. But the students who responded to Wattenberg’s questions projected a different story for the future. To Wattenberg’s question, “How many want to have four or more children?” not a single hand went up. Only a tenth of the students’ hands rose in response to the question, “How many want to have three children?” But a whole sea of hands (half of the group) indicated a two child per family preference. Thirty per cent of the students voted a one child per family choice, and a tenth wanted no children at all.

When Wattenberg worked out his arithmetic, the informal expectation data came to 1.6 children per woman, far short of the 2.1 figure for a replacement level. A small Michigan sample is hardly enough to prove a world trend or even to justify a country-wide prophecy. But Wattenberg went home from Michigan to consult the census data. He discovered that for quite some time the total fertility rate in the industrialized nations of the West has been running well below the 2.1 replacement level. Japan went below the replacement line in 1957. West Germany followed Japan in 1970. By 1980 all the major free nations were below the replacement figure.

This evidence was not enough to dispose of Stanford University’s Paul Ehrlich’s book, The Population Bomb, which frightened so many people in the 1960s. Ehrlich, relying on figures from India, Red China, and the Third World countries of Africa, believed he had brought Malthus up to date. The people in the modernized industrial nations might not be reproducing themselves, but immigration would make up the difference. There would be at least a leveling-off, at four children per family, around the word.

Not so, says Wattenberg. In the first place, the industrialized nations of western Europe and America are against unlimited immigration. Secondly, Wattenberg’s figures for nations that have been at the total fertility rate of four children per family will, within foreseeable time, fall below the 2.1 level themselves.

How Wattenberg can be sure that people in the less developed countries will cease to reproduce themselves is not immediately apparent. He tells us that fertility in the Third Word, though still quite high, has been falling for fifteen years. But has anyone really been able to count the population of China? If the one-child allowance in China per family were, after the current capitalist surge, to be increased to two or three, what would this mean? The AIDS death rate in Africa might complicate figuring for that continent. So might a cure for AIDS.

Wattenberg is on more certain ground when he sticks to the West. He worries about what will happen when domestic markets shrink as reproduction falls and there is a general “graying” of the population. The optimists say that, with the birth dearth yielding fewer younger workers, there would be more bidding for their services. Youth unemployment would go down as wages went up. More capital would have to be invested to buy equipment to replace the higher cost of labor. The newer equipment would mean higher productivity per worker.

Wattenberg says this is a nice scenario. But the birth dearth would provide fewer buyers. There would be little call for new housing. What would happen to the jobs of people who make furnaces, air conditioners, stoves, refrigerators, electronic garage doors, and all the other things that now go into new houses? And what about the real estate brokers, the mortgage bankers, and the termite inspectors? With Yuppies growing older, they might want to buy up-scale houses. But who, asks Wattenberg, would buy their old houses? With dead people leaving empty houses, the whole problem would be compounded.

Tumultuous Times?

Wattenberg hasn’t worked it out industry by industry to reach any final conclusions about the loss of markets due to a declining population. But he is sure the disappearance of markets would lead to tumultuous times. He has some remedies to offer. One would be to subsidize young couples to have more than 2_ 1 children per family. A $2,000 family allowance per third and fourth child might be a good lure. But the money would have to come from higher taxation or from inflation. Wattenberg has nothing to offer that would avoid these undesir ables.

As an economist, Wattenberg might have considered that it is the high-tax philosophy coupled with the “safety net” provision of “entitlements” that has made it necessary for women to go into the labor market in order to keep family living standards from dropping disastrously. The average family today needs two incomes. If this could be changed, families could go back to rearing and educating more children;

Is there any likelihood that the western world is about to abandon the Welfare State philosophy? The world does learn. It might even learn how to live with a birth dearth without any great discombobulation. What happened in England after the Black Death is instructive. The need for workers in the towns in the post-Black Death years killed the feudal system and set capitalism on its course. The human race is adaptable. It is strange that Wattenberg does not mention the Black Death. He might have made something of it.

  • John Chamberlain (1903-1995) was an American journalist, business and economic historian, and author of number of works including The Roots of Capitalism (1959). Chamberlain also served as a founding editor of The Freeman magazine.