Pro-Natalism’s Checkered Past

There is much I can agree with and even admire in Bryan’s essay. Having frequently clashed with Malthusians, it is refreshing to read such a fresh and enthusiastic argument for why we should welcome every new addition to the human family. And, as a new father, I am relieved to hear that I can stop worrying and just let my toddler run amok. She will thank you for it, Bryan, right up until the point that she breaks her collarbone. But I fear that over the long run puppies, breakables, and younger siblings may be somewhat worse off.

Still, we must not use the future as evidence. Population projections, technology forecasts, and dire scenarios about what happens when we run out of this or that have been an extremely poor guide to policymaking. Too often, scary predictions turn out to be spurious, but inspire even more terrifying reactions that have real and demonstrable costs. One of the great strengths of Bryan’s essay is that it is rooted in historical evidence rather than mere speculation about the future.

My problem is that it does not go deeply enough into the history of population panics and the reactions they have provoked, as shown in its very first line. People have been fretting about babies for thousands of years. And for almost all of recorded history, population growth was seen as indisputable proof of prosperity, rather than the reverse. The world’s largest religions all encourage people to be fruitful and multiply. When they have succeeded, it was seen as a measure of sound laws and good government, and states took pride in seeing their numbers grow. When governments began to notice the decline of fertility, most reacted with alarm—recall Teddy Roosevelt’s despair over “race suicide.” Political and religious authorities worked together to deny people access to contraception and keep abortion unsafe and illegal. Even in Britain, the native land of Thomas Malthus, Malthusianism was a fringe movement until the mid-twentieth century. Even then, many governments insisted that their problem was not too many people, but too few.

State policy and social pressure have therefore favored large families for most of history, and continue to do so in many parts of the world. To start this story in the 1960s therefore gives a very misleading impression, in which pro-natalists appear like the natural ally of libertarians. In fact, up until that point people like Margaret Sanger who championed the right to contraception were about the only people who defended individual’s right to have as many children as they wanted. And when some of them—including Sanger—began to argue that people had not only a right to contraception, but a positive duty to plan their families, their main opposition continued to be those who believed that Malthusianism was contrary to the prerogatives of religious or governmental authority—especially Catholics and Communists.

The Catholic hierarchy was not just troubled by the moral aspects of allowing people to have sex without having children. They also worried that women who could control their own bodies would be less likely to obey their husbands and remain loyal to the Church. With the coming of state population control policies aimed at engineering specific population outcomes, beginning with eugenic programs to sterilize the “unfit,” Church leaders were stalwart in opposing what they deemed to be government interference in personal matters of faith. But they voiced no opposition to a eugenics program that aimed at encouraging “fitter” parents to have ever larger families. The Church defended—and continues to defend—state laws that limit or preclude access to birth control and abortion.

Communists opposed Malthusianism for attributing poverty to the misguided choices of poor people. It also undermined the idea that people working together could eradicate poverty, providing a powerful rationale against redistributive policies. This is why Marx considered Malthus a mortal enemy. Like libertarians, his followers insisted that Malthus had slandered humanity by underestimating people’s capacity to create and produce when freed of oppression. Even so, Communist countries could quickly change population policies depending on the needs of the state. The Soviet Union was the first country to provide birth control and abortion in government clinics, but once war with Germany loomed on the horizon Stalin withdrew contraceptives from the market, banned abortion, and paid mothers cash incentives to bear large families.

What this history suggests is that even when a desire to increase family size is rooted in ideological commitments—even in commitments that are as strong and dogmatic as Catholicism and Marxism-Leninism—pro-natalists can be quite opportunistic in pushing one or another means to that end. And they have been very willing to use the coercive power of the state when mere persuasion is unavailing. This has been true even when specific measures, such as denying access to condoms—even for those with HIV/AIDS—run entirely contrary to Catholic values of charity for the poor and mercy for the afflicted. And Communists have been quite willing to jettison an ostensible commitment to gender equality when the Party decided it needed women to breed more soldiers.

Clever economic theories about paying people to have more or fewer children—which attempt to reduce existential questions about the meaning and value of life to statistical regressions—have led to even more opportunistic, manipulative, and coercive policies. It was economists who calculated the incentive payments they thought would persuade poor people to be sterilized, estimating the net benefit to society of each “birth averted.” This is actually how Julian Simon started out in the field. But in India and other countries these payments had the most perverse effects. It was often grandpa and grandma who showed up at the clinic and did their bit to support their families. And when World Bank economists suggested paying poor women to have IUDs inserted, they had them inserted—and removed—over and over again. That is when Indira Gandhi decided to suspend civil liberties, pull people off of buses, and drag them to sterilization camps.

Most people who study pro-natalist incentives find that they have very little effect on fertility. What happens when all the economic arguments indicate we need more people and couples once again fail to respond to incentives? What happens when, because we have some new queen of the social sciences, higher order math indicates that it would be cheaper and easier to clone “net taxpayers” in laboratories, or even cull older people who cannot meet their marginal costs?

It is difficult to control population absent coercion, and even then the results tend to be unpredictable if not pernicious—witness the male-female ratio in China following the one child policy. People are stubborn in their beliefs and behavior when it comes to childbearing. Moreover, we do not have a theory that can explain, much less predict, why that behavior changes over time. In other words, economists do not know where babies come from. And without a theory for fertility, we do not know how to manipulate it.

History suggests that, however alarming population trends may sometimes seem, and however alluring the idea of a quick fix, we will pay dearly if we do not maintain an absolute commitment to reproductive rights. State policies to pressure people to have more or fewer children can have long afterlives, and may contribute to social pressures that can also be quite oppressive. If you wonder why there is so much pressure to produce perfect children—beginning with genetic testing, and ending with the college admissions madhouse—recall how pervasive and popular eugenics was when today’s grandparents and great-grandparents first came of age.

Libertarianism does not represent a commitment to large or small families, or even to increasing wealth, but rather to defending individual liberty. Now that fertility rates are falling in almost every country, libertarians need to be mindful of this longer trajectory and think carefully about where an alliance with pro-natalism might one day lead.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Bryan Caplan argues that declining world populations aren’t such a good thing after all. While we may have dodged the “population bomb” predicted in the 1970s, the world still benefits from more suppliers — and demanders — of new goods and services. Friends of scientific and cultural advancement should want more people around. All of which leads him to a question: Are there ways to incentivize population growth without sacrificing individual liberty? Caplan suggests several methods, including open immigration, tax incentives for children — and the direct, ultimately private argument that having more kids is more fun than most people realize.

Response Essays

  • Gregory Clark argues that, while Caplan may more or less accurately describe the history of economic development, mineral and other reserves in the West have been significantly depleted. What holds true today will not hold true indefinitely regarding food, energy, and basic mineral commodities. The balance between population growth and resources only recently tipped toward abundance, and it will likely tilt in the other direction soon.

    Clark agrees, however, with Caplan’s suggestion that on the margin, middle-class families stand little to lose and much to gain by having more children; cultural assumptions in the West likely overestimate the importance of nurture, and as a result, middle-class Americans probably do overinvest in their children.

  • Matthew Connelly reviews the history of pro- and anti-natalist policies around the world. He finds them both full of coercion, perverse incentives, misogyny, and — if states try hard enough — atrocity. Population trends, however, are very stubborn, and the payoff to such policies is low. In his words, “economists do not know where babies come from.” Not, anyway, such that they can motivate people without destroying their autonomy. If libertarians are recruited to the pro-natalist side, as Caplan urges, their enlisting could come at the price of individual liberty itself.

  • Betsey Stevenson agrees that parents are often generally less happy than otherwise similarly situated nonparents. But she casts doubt on the theory that excessive parental worry is the source of the unhappiness. The most worrying parents, those who spend the most time on childcare, are also the ones who report relatively higher levels of happiness. There is, moreover, more to life than self-reported happiness, and parents may very well have other desires and values than just this one. Neither self-reported happiness nor economic utility are all that there is to our various ideas of the good life. We still need to learn more about why parents describe themselves as less happy before we can prescribe more children and less worrying as the remedy.