Freedom, Coercion, and Family Size

by  David Huff

Mr. Huff, chief financial officer of Fox-Rowden-McBrayer in Atlanta, Georgia, is married and has three children.

The freedom of a husband and wife to bear as many children as they wish is an implicit aspect of the principles of liberty upon which our nation was founded. America’s early citizens and statesmen clearly understood the many social and economic advantages of large families, recognizing in the family structure a rich treasure of ingredients for the sustenance of society which far overshadows any benefits a civil government can provide. As Gary North has observed:

The family . . . provides a basic division of labor, and this leads to greater productivity. It provides a zone of safety against life’s battles with a fallen, recalcitrant environment . . . . It provides men and women with a stake in the future, and in so doing, makes possible habits of thrift that lead to vast capital growth . . . . It provides welfare and education for its members. It reduces the need for a huge state bureaucracy, so it acts as a weapon against the illegitimate expansion of state power.[1]

As might be expected, the concept of the family as the cornerstone of a free society, a principal steward of a society’s capital, and a key facet (through steady population increase) of a society’s economic vitality has not lacked detractors. Most parents with more than two children would agree that large families are subtly and sometimes noisily discouraged today. The task for advocates of freedom is to inquire beyond the specific bias against large families and discern the root ideology involved. It will prove to be quite familiar.

Any consideration of the freedoms involved in choosing family size necessarily involves the larger issue of ownership and property rights. Even to question the fact that the ownership and responsibility for children vests exclusively in their parents once would have seemed superfluous. Yet in the current environment of Zero Population Growth, Planned Parenthood, and Global 2000, private ownership of children no longer enjoys unanimous consent: “The ‘right’ to breed implies ownership of children. This concept is no longer tenable. Society pays an even larger share of the cost of raising and educating children. The idea of ownership is surely affected by the thrust of the saying that ‘He who pays the piper calls the tune.’”[2]

Does this tune sound familiar? While one obvious response is the insight that a “society” has no existence or identity apart from the individuals composing it, such a coercive mind-set merely regurgitates a common statist strategy. Any drive for omnipotence by the state or its agents always involves an insatiable appetite to control private property for the “good of society.” And understandably so, since the ownership and control of private property is integral to a free society and therefore an inherent enemy of central planning.

Given that the tenets of interventionism idolize the state as a benevolent, all-wise parent to its children, it is not a difficult leap for government to concoct a policy which includes seizure of the “right to breed” and thereby arrogates the ultimate control of family size to the state. Only then can it begin to enact the kind of “necessary” controls (to protect society, of course) envisioned by some: “It can be argued that over-reproduction—that is, the bearing of more than four children—is a worse crime than most and should be outlawed. One thinks of the possibility of raising the minimum age of marriage, of imposing stiff penalties for illegitimate pregnancy, of compulsory sterilization after a fifth birth.”[3]

We see, then, that in order for a bureaucracy to gain its desired position of pseudo-parent and thereby the power to control family size, it must begin by usurping property rights over children.

Malthus and Human Capital

As alluded to earlier, the barbs directed at prolific parents generally are launched from the various elements of the population control movement. Their basic message is that our planet is becoming overpopulated, which in turn will purportedly cause food shortages, destroy the balance of nature, wreck economies, and generally drive civilized society into extinction.

This population control ideology had its origins in the theories of Thomas Malthus, who two centuries ago predicted a population crisis which would shackle the world in the perpetual grip of poverty. The passage of time, however, has not seen the fulfillment of his dismal prophecies—but it has yielded decades of experience which show that healthy population growth is an asset, not a threat:

The basic axiom of economics—both classical and modern—is that wealth is the product of labor. The mineral resources of the earth are not wealth until human effort has been exerted, either to discover or extract them.

Throughout the ages—until the current era of statistics-worship—population has been regarded as the foremost source of wealth; the prime object of rulers and governments has been to attract and increase the number of their people. Density of population and rising population historically have been the mark of a prosperous, vital civilization.[4]

By their very nature, Malthusian precepts (which have been substantially disproved) are ideologically at war against the principle of human capital expansion through population increase. This seems strange, when the evidence in favor of large families and growth is amply available.

So again, to fully comprehend the real issue, one must uncover the motivation of those who fret over the “population bomb.” Is the issue actually conservation—of resources, living space, and the balance of nature—or is the issue control of the human capital represented?

The Propaganda Explosion

An exhaustive chronicle of the many factors working toward family size limitation by force is beyond the scope of this brief essay. Nevertheless, the fundamental idea which should be retained is the insight that discouragement of large families represents but one narrow symptom of an age-old, chronic illness—interventionism. The dangerous explosion has not been population, but propaganda.

Population control is an uncannily accurate objective for a movement whose prime motivation is, indeed, control. The march of the state toward attainment of the power of life and death over its citizens, if unchecked, will allow no competing sovereignty on the part of individuals or families. Thus, not only the right to bear children, but the very sanctity of human life must be diligently guarded and defended. For as Frederic Wertham notes, “If someone in authority tells us that we have no right to procreate, it is only one step further for him to tell us we have no right to live.”[5]

History bears telling witness to an observation which captures the essence of the family-limiting philosophy: “Population control is the last desperate act and ultimate weapon of a Welfare State whose lust for power and instinct for survival knows no political or moral limits.”[6]

1.   Gary North, Unconditional Surrender: God’s Program For Victory, 2nd Ed. (Tyler, Texas: Geneva Divinity School Press, 1983), pp. 102-3.

2.   Garrett Hardin, “Parenthood: Right or Privilege?” Science, July 31, 1970, p. 427, quoted in James A. Weber, Grow or Die! (New Rochelle, New York: Arlington House Publishers, 1977), p. 179.

3.   Kingsley Davis, “Will Family Planning Solve the Population Problem?” The Victor-Bostrum Fund Report for the International Planned Parenthood Federation, Report No. 10, Fall 1968, p. 116, quoted in Weber, Grow or Die/p. 178.

4.   Elgin Groseclose, “Too Many Mouths to Feed?” Research Reports, American Institute for Economic Research, Great Barrington, Mass., December 9, 1968, p. 198; reprinted from Barron’s November 18, 1968, quoted in Weber, Grow or Die! p. 21.

5.   Weber, Grow or Die/p. 183.

6.   Ibid.. p. 190.

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