Dan Gardner is the New York Times best-selling author of Risk, Future Babble, Superforecasting (co-authored with Philip E. Tetlock), and How Big Things Get Done (co-authored with Bent Flyvbjerg). His books have been published in 26 countries and 20 languages. Prior to becoming an author, Gardner was an award-winning investigative journalist. More >

Babies Are Good. Really.

One would think that on the scale of controversial statements, "it would be nice if people had more babies" ranks somewhere between "honesty is the best policy" and "kittens are cute." But judging by the fierce reaction to a recent column of mine ("Same old story," March 5), one would be wrong. As I noted previously, the fundamental reason why our population is aging rapidly is not that there are growing numbers of old people. It's because people have far fewer babies than they used to. The average woman has about 1.5 or 1.6 babies, a rate which hasn't budged since the 1970s. This "fertility rate" is extremely low. A rate of 2.1 is necessary simply to maintain the population. Politicians talk a lot about population aging. And they should. It's a huge issue. Population aging threatens the economy, pensions, social services, and more. But politicians almost never publicly discuss fertility rates, much less suggest we need more babies. At the end of that column, I promised to explain why politicians won't talk about the root cause of population aging. But the overwhelming reaction to that column -- in e-mails and Internet comments -- pretty much says it all. - First up, social conservatives crowed. You secular liberals (that's me) wanted birth control and abortion to be legalized, they said. You wanted no-fault divorce. You wanted women to leave the home and get jobs. Well, you got what you wanted and now people are too selfish to have babies. Congratulations! As satisfying as this argument is to social conservatives, it is quite wrong. A chart of fertility rates shows the decline starting in the second half of the 19th century. The line goes down smoothly and steadily -- aside from a bump that marks the post-Second World War baby boom -- until it hits bottom in the 1970s. There are variations between western countries, but generally the same trend unfolded everywhere. See the problem? Birth control was legalized at various times in various countries, but generally it was during the first half of the 20th century. Abortion was legalized in most places in the 1960s or 1970s. Same for the liberalization of divorce laws. Blaming these changes for the decline in fertility rates makes about as much sense as saying wet streets cause rain. But mere facts won't dissuade social conservatives from shouting "abortion!" the moment a politician mentions fertility rates. And that's a major reason why politicians won't say a word about babies. A very senior Conservative politician told me -- privately of course -- that many members of the Conservative caucus are indeed concerned about fertility rates. And they'd like to discuss pro-natal social policies. But they won't -- because the moment they raise the subject, social conservatives will start shouting about abortion and birth control and women in the work force and left-wingers will start shouting about the Conservatives' secret plan to ban abortion and birth control and keep women barefoot and pregnant. Add to this the libertarian attitude that having babies is a private matter that should have nothing to do with public policy -- even though these private decisions are having a huge impact on public policy -- and Conservative politicians have plenty of reason to stay mum. So they do. - Next up, feminists. Apparently in the belief that anyone who would like women to have more babies must be a conservative of the keep-em-barefoot-and-pregnant school, I was informed that women are more than baby-makers, ya know. And they're not going back to the kitchen. What no one acknowledged, however, is that a lot of women want to have more babies than they are now. No, they don't want to return to the enormous families of yore. But surveys consistently show that women (and men) who have one or two kids, or none, would ideally like to have two or three. They don't mainly because they can't afford child care, food, clothes, and everything else that goes with raising a child. As experience in Sweden and elsewhere has shown, subsidized day care, employment supports, and other programs that assist women in the work force and substantially reduce the cost of raising children can boost the fertility rate. Not enormously. Public policy cannot create a baby boom. At most, it could raise the fertility rate from 1.6 to 1.9 or two. But that modest shift would significantly reduce the effects of population aging in the long term and protect us from the nightmare scenario of rapid population decline. From a left-liberal perspective, what's not to love? Pro-natal social policies would empower women to do what they want to do. And many of those policies just happen to be policies that left-liberals support anyway. So why don't we hear Liberal and NDP politicians talking about the urgent need to boost the fertility rate? In large part, I'm afraid, it's because people on that end of the political spectrum aren't aware that women's choices about having kids are being stymied, or that the policies which could encourage women to have the children they want are policies they love. And the few who know better won't risk the wrath of those who think any talk of getting women to have babies is code for banning abortion and sending women back to the kitchen. And there's another reason. It's the environment. As readers told me in no uncertain terms, the planet is already stuffed with resource-consuming, pollution-spewing people. The last thing we need is more babies. And if we really must have more people to deal with population aging, we can increase immigration. It's crazy to add to the burden of an already overburdened world. These objections are as misinformed and misguided as the claims of social conservatives, I'm sorry to say. More on that in future columns.