What is the Cause of Low Birth Rates?
by Baron Bodissey
The noted blogger Fjordman is filing this report via Gates of Vienna.
For a complete Fjordman blogography, see The Fjordman Files. There is also a multi-index listing here.
What causes low birth rates? I have debated this issue at some length with blogger Conservative Swede. Among the reasons frequently cited are the welfare state, feminism and secularism. However, if you look closely at the statistics from various countries, the picture gets quite complex, and there doesn’t appear to be an automatic correlation between low birth rates and any one of these factors.
The United States has the highest birth rates in the West, but this is largely due to ethnic minorities. If you compare white Americans to white Europeans, the American birth rate is somewhat higher than those of the Scandinavian nanny states, but still lower than replacement level. Scandinavian countries such as Norway and Sweden do have elaborate welfare states, high degrees of feminism and are not very religious, yet have some of the highest birth rates in the Western world (though still below replacement level.) They are certainly much higher than those in Catholic Poland, perhaps the most conservative religious country in Europe. And they are much higher than those of South Korea, which has more traditional sex roles and where Christianity is booming these days.
The gap between the Western world and the Islamic world in birth rates is clearly caused by religious factors, but the differences between industrialized nations are far more difficult to explain. If the cause is not welfarism, feminism or secularism, then what is it?
How strange, then, that just as the mommy industry is booming, we’re in the grips of a baby bust. Canada’s fertility rate has been in a free fall for decades. In recent years, though, it has hovered at an all-time low of roughly 1.5 children per woman (we need 2.1 if we’re going to replace ourselves). Social analysts pin it on some jumble of female education and fiscal autonomy, secularization, birth control, Sex and the City, a heightened desire for personal freedom, and increasing uncertainty about bringing a child into a world plagued by terrorism, global warming and Lindsay Lohan. In a hyper-individualistic, ultra-commodified culture like ours, motherhood, for better and worse, is less a fact of life than just another lifestyle choice.
All over the developed world, the same pattern is apparent. Russia, Britain, Ireland, Australia, Spain, Italy and dozens of other countries are contending with fertility rates well below replacement levels. Forty per cent of female university graduates in Germany are childless. In Japan, where the birth rate has sunk to a record low of 1.26, family planning groups are blaming the Internet, charging that fertile men and women are spending too much time online, and not enough having sex.
Many people nowadays find it hard to see why anyone would have children for the sake of old-age security. Surely, they think, people have children just because they like it. Still, they often hear people say they would like to have more children, but they cannot afford it. Moreover, people in less developed countries seem to afford large families, even though their real incomes barely reach subsistence levels.
What can account for these seemingly conflicting observations? The fact that in the absence of social security, the extended family is an informal social insurance mechanism that renders childbearing economically beneficial. But in countries with large social security systems, people no longer have an old-age security motive for fertility, precisely because social security has made fertility economically unwise.
Of course, social security is not the only reason for declining fertility rates. For one thing, the welfare state undermines the family in many other ways too, such as compulsory public education that seeks to replace family loyalty with allegiance to the state. Moreover, the old-age security motive for fertility should become weaker when other ways of providing for old age become available…
One can also look at differences among the developed Western countries. Among these countries, there are practically no differences in infant mortality rates, female labor force participation rates, and other standard explanations of the fertility decline. Yet total fertility rates differ widely — and exactly in the way predicted by the size of social security systems. The United States has a fertility rate of 2.09, whereas the European Union has an average of 1.47.
Also within Europe, where social security benefits are dangerously generous, there are differences among countries. Some of the most generous schemes are found in Germany, France, and the Mediterranean countries — as are the lowest fertility rates in the region. On the surface, it is surprising to find this in countries that used to be family-oriented and fervently Catholic. However, economic incentives shape behavior, and behavior shapes culture…
The best solution is also the simplest: get the state out of the way.
Infertility is killing off the secular world, a number of writers have observed, including Phillip Longman, whose 1994 book The Empty Cradle I reviewed last year. In the former Soviet empire, where atheism reigned as state policy for generations, the United Nations forecasts extreme declines in population by 2050, ranging from 22% for the Russian Federation to nearly 50% for the Ukraine. Secular western Europe will lose 4% to 12% of its population, while the population of the churchgoing United States continues to grow. Is secularism at fault? The numbers do not suggest otherwise.
Humankind cannot abide the terror of mortality without the promise of immortality, I have argue in the past. In the absence of religion human society sinks into depressive torpor. Secular society therefore is an oxymoron, for the death of religion leads quickly enough to the death of society itself.
Why Europe chooses extinction
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Demographics is destiny. Never in recorded history have prosperous and peaceful nations chosen to disappear from the face of the earth. Yet that is what the Europeans have chosen to do. Back in 1348 Europe suffered the Black Death, a combination of bubonic plague and likely a form of mad cow disease, observes American Enterprise Institute scholar Ben Wattenberg. “The plague reduced the estimated European population by about a third. In the next 50 years, Europe’s population will relive — in slow motion — that plague demography, losing about a fifth of its population by 2050 and more as the decades roll on.”
[S]ecularism promotes a more short term and hedonistic attitude towards life. Since secular people have little faith in God or an after life, the tendency is for them to adopt the attitude of “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die”. Of course, not all secular people are like that. But in general, secularism promotes such attitudes.
Their time horizon is therefore their own lifetime. Religious people on the other hand are more long term. Their eyes are on eternity. If you go to Europe, you will come across many Cathedrals that took centuries to build. For example, Cologne Cathedral took more than 300 years to complete.
Why did the Medieval Christians start a project that none of them would live to see its completion? The answer is that they look to the hereafter. Their desire was to please God and go to heaven. They say that faith can move mountains. Here a mountain of stone was literally moved to build the great Cathedrals of Europe.
But what of the secular people in now post-Christian Europe? What are the economic consequences of people whose time frame is simply the rest of their lives?
For a start, they (in general) want to enjoy their lives to the hilt. For some, this could mean early retirement with loss of still productive workers to the economy. For others, it could mean fewer or no children for children means responsibility and a tax on their resources which could be used to indulge themselves. Statistics from America have shown that regular church goers tend to have more children than those that seldom attend church.