The Case for More Babies

Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid
Titian: The Worship of Venus, 1518–1520

Demography is the key factor. If you are not able to maintain yourself biologically, how do you expect to maintain yourself economically, politically, and militarily? It’s impossible. The answer of letting people from other countries come in…that would be an economic solution, but it’s not a solution of your real sickness, that you are not able to maintain your own civilization.

—Viktor Orbán, Prime Minister of Hungary, 2012 (epigraph of What to Expect When No One’s Expecting)

Jonathan Last wants Americans to have more babies. If we don’t, he warns, the proportion of young people will fall while the proportion of old people will rise to unprecedented levels. This aging of the population will bankrupt our retirement system or divert spending from other priorities or—heaven forbid—lead to an increase in taxes. It will weaken America’s capacity to project military power in the world because families with few offspring will be reluctant to sacrifice them in battle. It will diminish the proportion of innovators in the economy and lower America’s rate of economic improvement. It will undermine America’s competitive position in the world.

“In the long run,” Last writes, “the groups that breed will (literally) inherit the future.” To save America from the dire ills that accompany “the long, inexorable process” of demographic decline, he calls for a resurgent American natalism—many more babies must be born.

What to Expect When No One’s Expecting is one more in a series of politically tendentious books on population decline, among them Fred Pearce’s The Coming Population Crash (2010), Ben Wattenberg’s The Birth Dearth (1987) and Fewer: How the New Demography of Depopulation Will Shape Our Future (2004), and Phillip Longman’s The Empty Cradle: How Falling Birthrates Threaten World Prosperity, and What to Do About It (2005).

Last claims: “In order for a country to maintain a steady population, it needs a fertility rate of 2.1—remember this as the Golden Number. If the rate is higher, the country’s population grows; lower, and it shrinks.” The truth is subtler. If a country has low and constant death rates, and if migration changes neither numbers nor ages in the population, and if its total fertility rate is constant at around 2.1 children per woman’s lifetime for a sufficiently long period, then in the long run its population size will remain constant.

When the “ifs” do not hold, however, a fertility rate below 2.1 no longer predicts population decline. The population of the United States had a fertility rate below 2.1 from 1971 to 2010 (except in 2006 and 2007, when it slightly exceeded 2.1) and yet it grew from 209 million in 1970 to 310 million in 2010, an increase by nearly half. With a fertility rate that fell steadily from 2.01 in 1993 to 1.61 in 2009, the population of China grew from…

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