How Many Human Beings Do We Need?

How Many Human Beings Do We Need? December 18, 2017


I’ve been reading a column by the economist and Federalist writer Lyman Stone, The Great Baby Bust of 2017. He says that as recently as 2009, the U.S. had replacement-rate fertility, meaning that at least as many people were being born as there were people dying. (The replacement rate is 2.1, meaning that the average woman has to have that many children for the population to be stable.)

Since then, our fertility has been declining. Data from 2016 shows a fertility rate of 1.82, and provisional data for 2017 suggests the U.S. fertility rate has fallen further, both nationally and in every state. Even Utah, home of the famously fecund Mormons, has dipped below replacement. Stone frets:

I am worried about fertility in 2017. I am very concerned about fertility in 2018. I am scared of what fertility numbers will be in 2019, especially if a recession hits somewhere in that period.

And he’s not the only one: Republicans like Paul Ryan have discovered the falling birth rate and are demanding that women have more babies for the good of the economy, although this sudden panic doesn’t motivate them either to support family-friendly policies or to roll back their racist immigration bans.

Stone expounds further on these ideas in an editorial on Vox, in which he argues that we have to do more to encourage people to procreate. He says that financial incentives aren’t all that effective: generous parental-leave policies give only a small nudge to the fertility rate. He also says, to his credit, that social-conservative policies banning abortion and restricting contraception don’t have much of an impact either. However:

Cultural forces, meanwhile, can be extremely powerful but are difficult to engineer, especially in big, culturally pluralistic societies like the United States. Douthat’s preferred prescription (and my own), that people should be more religious, may have a very limited impact.

Why would making people more religious help boost the birth rate? The obvious answer is that religion indoctrinates people into desiring bigger families. But it does so in a way that’s deeply unfair and oppressive to women, since it’s inherently tied to religious dogmas that value women solely for their fertility and restrict their ambitions to being mothers and homemakers.

In any case, Stone seems to accept that browbeating people into being more religious wouldn’t necessarily help, as economic and cultural forces appear to be more powerful even in societies where religion remains influential:

Even societies with high religiosity, such as in Africa or much of Eastern Europe, have seen falling birth rates. This decline in religious countries (including where religiosity is stable or rising!) is surprising, because religious groups tend to place a high priority on family, children, and multi-generational living.

In all of this, there’s a question he never really addresses: Why is it a catastrophe if our population shrinks? A plummeting population would be bad, but we’re nowhere near that kind of Children of Men dystopian scenario. Even if fertility is below replacement, it’s only by a little. That means our total population is on track to decrease, but slowly, over decades. Why would that be so bad?

Here’s the answer he gives:

In a low population growth society, inequality is more easily entrenched, parental wealth more easily passed on to heirs, new startups are less able to expand rapidly, and declining generational cohort sizes reduce the need for certain classes of labor (child care and education most notably).

If you’re concerned about inheritance cementing wealth inequality, there’s an easy solution: Raise the estate tax. Encouraging rich people to procreate so their assets spread out among many heirs is a convoluted way of solving this problem.

If anything, negative population growth could be an economic good. If a shrinking society has less demand for teachers and daycare providers, it’ll have more for other jobs, like nurses who care for the elderly. By reducing the supply of labor, it’ll mean that workers are more valuable and have to be paid more, reducing inequality in the long run. (Ask any capitalist, he’ll tell you that a big pool of desperate, replaceable employees is what he likes best.)

A low population growth environment means the economic pie grows slower too — which means, in the long run, that wealth consolidates. And in the very long run, we miss out on potential Mozarts, Washingtons, and Edisons.

This is an especially absurd fear. Stone is worried about having so few people that we won’t have any more geniuses.

Again, a simpler and more direct solution to this problem is to provide good education, nutrition and a stable upbringing to the 7.6 billion people we already have. I can guarantee there are at least a few unsung geniuses out there already, if only they had the opportunity to let their talents shine.

Economic growth can come from increased productivity, making us more efficient and able to do more with the same resources. That’s the kind of growth we want. The economic growth that comes from simply producing more people to consume more resources is the bad kind of growth. It puts further strain on a planet that’s already taxed to the limit.

By some estimates, we’ve already overshot the planet’s carrying capacity for human beings. We pollute more than ecosystems can absorb, harvest more wild animals and plants than their populations can sustain, use up more arable land and fresh water than the planet can provide. Most of our growth over the last century has come from using fossil fuels. Since those are nonrenewable, this is like eating the seed corn: it keeps you going for the time being, but sets up an even bigger disaster later on.

The lament of “not enough babies!” often comes from racists whose real fear is that whites will die out and people of color will take over the earth. I see no reason to believe this is true in Stone’s case. However, it’s curious that he devotes so much effort to fretting about fertility rates without first making a detailed case for why a smaller population would be bad. He seems to take it for granted that his readers will share that assumption.

I’m not going to say there are “too many” people, because that implies a value judgment on the lives of people who already exist. Here’s how I’d put it: There are enough people for anything the human race might reasonably want to accomplish, whether in science, technology, art or literature. Even if our population shrinks from 7 billion to, say, 4 or 5 billion, I see no reason to believe that wouldn’t still be true. We can accomplish more by teaching and raising up the people we’ve already got than we can by cranking out as many as we can without concern for their welfare.

In many ways, having fewer people would be a positive good. It would mean less strain on overtaxed natural systems, giving the planet a chance to recover from our depredations. It would reduce war and migration and promote peace by lessening the pressure to claim every square inch of land. It would mean we could devote more attention to and invest more resources in each child (the demographic dividend).

Big families may be emotionally appealing to some people, but that doesn’t make them the right choice for everyone. Personally, I don’t think any government should be in the business of telling people to reproduce. Whether to have children, and how many, is such a deeply personal decision that I find it deeply unsavory for the state to involve itself at all. Pro-natalist policies, like Stone’s bizarre suggestion to publicly honor parents with at least four kids, are just as creepy and intrusive as China’s one-child policy. I’d rather see a world where every person should be entirely free to seek their own vision of the good life, whether that means no kids, or one, or many. I’m confident that civilization will survive whatever we do.

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