A few days ago, Matthew Yglesias and Ross Douthat were discussing the specter of declining population in Russia, and whether that posed a threat to Russia’s future. Ross quoted Nicholas Eberstadt’s article about Russia’s “relentless, unremitting, and perhaps unstoppable depopulation.” Matt wrote that he didn’t buy the hype about rapid population decline in Europe being a big problem, but that “I’m actually quite eager to be talked out of my position on this.” I’m going to try to oblige.
Conservatives have been obsessed with European population decline for years now. A whole raft of apocalyptic books warn that selfish, anti-child secularists aren’t having enough children, and the continent is poised to be overtaken by more fertile, faithful Muslims. In America Alone: The End of the World As We Know It, the deeply stupid but very popular Mark Steyn predicted “the demise of European races too self-absorbed to breed.” Demographically, he wrote, “the salient feature of much of the ‘progressive agenda’ – abortion, gay marriage, endlessly deferred adulthood – is that, whatever the charms of any individual item, cumulatively it’s a dead end.”
Given this sort of rhetoric, it’s tempting to dismiss concerns about demographic decline as an anti-feminist race panic. The thing is, though, rapidly declining birth rates really are a problem, especially for the sort of generous welfare states that liberals love. I have a whole chapter about this in my new book about the global battle over reproductive rights, The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power and the Future of the World. The problem isn’t so much absolute population size as it is age structure – too few young people supporting too many old people.
While immigration is obviously part of the solution, immigration on the necessary scale is almost certain to produce serious nationalist backlashes. According to an article published a few years ago in the Journal of Population Research, if Italy’s 1995 fertility rate remained constant, then without immigration the country’s population size a century hence would be a mere 14 percent of what it is today. Even if Italy could smoothly adjust to a majority-immigrant society, will those immigrants really support a system in which a good part of their taxes go to maintaining a bunch of old Italians who they don’t necessarily feel any connection to?
I get why liberals have shied away from this discussion, since there’s so many uncomfortable issues involved. But they really shouldn’t, because the only solutions to the problem are liberal ones! Basically, the societies where birthrates have plunged to dangerous levels – Russia, Catholic countries like Poland, Spain and Italy, as well as Japan and Singapore – are all places that make it very difficult for women to combine work and family. In countries that support working mothers, like Sweden, Denmark, Norway and France, birthrates are basically fine – they’re either just at replacement, or shrinking in a very slow, totally manageable way. (The United States is the exception, for a whole host of reasons – some intuitive and some surprising – that I’ll elaborate some other time.) That’s why the Tory MP David Willetts, in a very smart 2003 report on the threat low birthrates pose to Europe’s pension systems, wrote that “feminism is the new natalism.” As he explained:
The evidence from Italy, and indeed Spain, is that a traditional family structure now leads to very low birth rates…[a] brief tour of birth rates in four European countries helps demonstrate what modern family policy must be about. It has nothing to do with enforcing traditional roles on women…In most of Europe women still aspire to having two children but in Italy and Germany it is very difficult to combine this with women’s other aspirations.
In other words, the threat of population decline is one of the best arguments yet for socialized day care, family leave, and other dreamy Scandinavian-style policies. It’s a discussion we should welcome.