Scott Yenor

What to expect when nobody is expecting: population decline and the birth dearth

Scott Yenor
By Scott Yenor
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March 5, 2013 (thePublicDiscourse) - All Western countries have birthrates below the replacement rates, suggesting that soon all countries will experience a graying of, and a decline in, population. Jonathan Last asks why this has happened in his new book, the cleverly titled What to Expect When No One’s Expecting, putting demographic decline in a broader context.

Before we get to Last’s argument, we should revisit a debate between two great Enlightenment philosophers: Montesquieu and David Hume. In Spirit of the Laws, Montesquieu argues that ancient republics had more people than modern ones. Catastrophes aside, this lack of fecundity shows that a country is plagued with “internal vice and bad government.” The internal vices can range from a proud celibacy to a self-indulgent libertinism.

Montesquieu argued that population trajectory is partly the product of marriage laws. Ancient republics encouraged men and women to marry, and penalized bachelorhood. “Old Roman laws sought to induce the citizens to marry,” and censors were established to mind marriage mores. Roman law penalized parents without children and rewarded those with children with special honors and exemptions.

Hume accepts Montesquieu’s comparison of ancient and modern republics, but questions the reliability of the evidence from the ancient poets and historians. “In the flourishing age of the world,” he writes, “it may be expected, that the human species should possess greater vigour both of mind and body, more prosperous health, higher spirits, longer life, and a stronger inclination and power of generation.” Inventiveness and creativity and hope in a genuinely better future move human beings to live and generate. All things being equal, Hume contends, “it seems natural to expect, that, wherever there is most happiness and virtue, and the wisest institutions, there will also be the most people.”

Giving birth, much like educating students, requires some sort of faith or hope in the future, a belief that the human condition is worth experiencing, and a confidence that one can nurture a proper environment for the education of a new life. Welcoming new life reflects openness to the gifts of life, and appreciating these is itself confirmation of a life worth living.

Hume concludes that conditions in the modern world are much better than those of the ancient world. He observes that modern political communities oppose slavery, govern by the rule of law, establish commercial relations, encourage more consensual and relatively egalitarian sexual relations, afford general protection to private property, and encourage progress in the arts and sciences. All these factors make life freer and better, and all point to the steady growth of actions leading to an increase of population. With the numbers he has access to, Hume shows that modern communities are indeed much more populous than their ancient counterparts.

Interestingly, both Hume and Montesquieu argue that Christianity tends to suppress population growth. Neither blames Christianity directly for slow growth, but each equates it with a world-denying celibacy that did much to dampen sexual interest and fecundity in late Roman and post-Roman times; modern fecundity, they seem to suggest, comes in part from embracing a worldliness that the waning of Christianity, as they see it, allows.

Enter into this debate Jonathan Last. Last synthesizes scholarly research with an engaging blend of statistics, anecdotes, and judicious observations. His is very much a book for contemporary readers, as he sympathizes with many of the advances that have, in turn, fostered population decline. I imagine Last at a coffeehouse in a toney urban neighborhood, looking out at his mini-van and wondering if he and his wife should have more children. He appreciates the pull of post-family culture, but he is still a human being in the old sense of seeing himself as part of an intergenerational compact. Neither Cassandra nor fuddy-duddy, his tone is one of detachment from the conflicts in his soul and in the American soul.

Last makes two central claims. First, he argues that declining birthrates are longstanding. At one time, most places in the world had total fertility rates of well over five children born to the average woman, but that rate has been in almost inexorable decline for hundreds of years. In part this long-term trend is due to the salutary decline in infant mortality, but Last’s second claim is that the trend has now moved way beyond that.

Today’s total replacement rates are headed dangerously south, he argues, and population decline has turned into a birth dearth. The rates are below replacement in many countries: Singapore’s is 1.1; Japan and Poland’s 1.3; Germany, Austria, and Italy’s 1.4; Russia’s 1.6; France’s 2.08; the United States’ 1.9. The number of childless women has increased dramatically over the past forty years, while families with more than three children are increasingly rare. The global nature of falling birthrates means it defies easy characterization and cannot be explained with simple causal arrows. We have a dangerous fall (to below the replacement rate) within a much larger long-term decline. Are the two declines related? Is the birth dearth merely “finishing off” what the population decline has started, or is it a new phenomenon on top of population decline?

The urgency of addressing these questions becomes evident every time we consider the wealth of nations today. Declining populations are at the root of many of our policy and social problems, Last shows. The welfare states throughout the Western world are based on the idea that the young will fund the benefits for the old, but the dearth of the young means that as debts and deficits keep rising, something has to give. Either benefits will be trimmed, or the young will have to pay an even higher portion of their income to fund their older relatives.

And as taxes rise, productivity declines. The modern economy depends on innovation and increased productivity, but, as Last argues, the few people being squeezed more and more are much less likely to take daring acts to improve our lives. There you have the contemporary American crisis of government in a nutshell.

We don’t have to travel too far to see these consequences playing out. Japan’s economic “lost decade” (still underway nearly twenty years later) is partly the result of its graying population and shrinking labor force. This same shrinkage is happening in many European countries and, probably, in the United States, where a larger proportion of our workforce is entering its post-creative years. The current “fiscal crisis” will be nothing in comparison to what it will be when our country is sustaining more retirees on fewer workers.

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Last makes a strong argument for seeing the population decline and birth dearth as intimately related. Since birth rates have been falling for at least two hundred years, we can’t simply say that innovations of the past fifty years (such as accessible contraception, legal abortion, or even the modern welfare state) are responsible. While China’s “One-Child” policy and Singapore’s feminist indoctrination programs have lowered birthrates more dramatically than American child safety seat laws (which make it harder for an average family to have lots of young children at the same time and still drive an affordable car) or the price of American homes, no particular explanation would seem to suffice if all nations are caught up in the same tide. There must be some general explanation if tyrannical control (China) and free choice (the United States) yield the same general population declines.

Last’s effort to explain this situation is provocative, especially in light of the Hume-Montesquieu debate. Whereas Hume believes modernity and its political customs foster population increase, Last blames modernity for population decline and the birth dearth. Recent population declines coincide with recent developments in family experience, loosely labeled the “decline of marriage.” As marriage rates and the marriage culture decline, divorce rates, cohabitation rates, and living-alone rates rise. There is a snowball effect as these alternatives become more attractive and marriage less normative. Childlessness is much more accepted than it once was, as are the alternatives to marriage. Birthrates are at their lowest in places where, generally, trends away from marriage are most pronounced.

This seems to be the modern tide. For Last, America’s fertility problem and the world’s fertility problem is “the result of an enormous, interconnected web of factors that constitute something like the entire framework of modern life.” Marriage and fertility are “pulled along by massive, invisible cultural undercurrents” and “disparate parts of modernity evolving independently.” Precisely what Last means by “modernity” is not clear, but while summarizing an argument from the late James Q. Wilson, he suggests that “when reason replaced religion and custom as the lodestars for human thinking, it became natural for the sacramental view of marriage to be replaced by the contractual view.”

Think of population decline and the birth dearth as aspects of this modern project. The “First Demographic Revolution,” Last shows, was one of modern science’s great accomplishments: Beginning in the 1750s, the mortality rate, and especially the infant mortality rate, started declining, a trajectory that accelerated through the 1800s. As more infants survived and life expectancy surpassed forty years, more people had longer “fertility” periods. This, as Hume observed, created what Last calls “demographic momentum,” as larger generations begat larger generations, even as each generation had, on the whole, fewer children. This, according to Last, is the population decline that most of today’s developing world is currently experiencing, as improvements in nutrition, sanitation, and medicine span the globe.

Is there a point when such birth rates level off? Is there a natural limit to thedeclines characteristic of this “First Demographic Transition”? Last’s answer is that the First Demographic Transition started a second, one directed at controlling birth instead of limiting death and reconstructing marriage to favor individual autonomy. Here, Last intimates, the modern project turned more than a little on itself and caused a genuine demographic problem; the First Transition was mostly salutary; the second caused a much more dangerous and destabilizing plunge.

Yet those demographic transitions are united in principle, as Last’s general comments suggest. His suggestive comments force us to understand with greater depth the meaning of modernity. The heart of the modern project lies in conquering nature, in making “nature” obey the creative wills of human beings. First in defying death. Second in controlling life and in redesigning marriage, the institution capable of generating life. Contraception (which asserts a power to control birth), abortion (which asserts a power to define life), the constructivist revolution afoot in marriage (which asserts a human power to define marriage or “relationships” as whatever we wish them to be) are thinkable only in a time when we are preoccupied with making ourselves, in Descartes’s phrase, “Lords and Masters of Nature.” The Transitions are united in their aim and understanding of the world and human power.

The most respectable reason for undertaking this project is, as Last thinks, to allow individuals to actualize themselves or experience the conscious making of their own lives and life plans, which Last sees as the hallmark of the “Second Demographic Transition.” Yet the demographic collapse suggests that our mastery of our situation is not as complete as we think, which should suggest to Last the limits of modernity. Our search for autonomy and mastery over nature has led to a species of revenge from nature. Or, perhaps, our attempt to design and “control” birth can only be successful if we also must rely on nature (i.e., the natural desire for procreation), and nature in this respect seems to be letting us down, as Pierre Manent has argued. This is a problem of technology and its way of thinking; its prominence in our way of thinking is the most compelling reason to see the birth dearth as a consequence of modernity’s general population decline.

Last’s provocative book raises questions about what can be done about population decline and the birth dearth. Initial findings on efforts across the Western world to raise birthrates suggest that there is little we can do to move the needle. The most promising developments in this respect are connecting fecundity with the revitalization of faithful religious practice, as seen in Last’s fascinating discussion of the former Soviet land of Georgia. Swimming against the modern tide seems to require embracing institutions appreciative of such limits.

Scott Yenor is the department chair and a professor in the Department of Political Science at Boise State University. He is author of Family Politics: The Idea of Marriage in Modern Political Thought (Baylor University Press, 2011). This article reprinted with permission from The Public Discourse

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Two Congressmen confirm: National 20-week ban on abortion will come up for a vote shortly

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By Dustin Siggins

WASHINGTON, D.C., April 17, 2015 (LifeSiteNews.com) – A bill to end abortion in the United States after 20 weeks will move forward, and it will have the strong support of two leading pro-life Congressmen, the two Republicans told LifeSiteNews.com at the eighth annual Susan B. Anthony List Campaign for Life Summit on Thursday.

Rep. Chris Smith, R-NJ, told LifeSiteNews and the National Catholic Register that ongoing House discussions on H.R. 36, the "Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Act," will result in a pro-life bill moving forward.

"Very good language" is being put together, Smith told The Register. He told LifeSiteNews that he fully anticipated being able to support the final bill, because the House Republican caucus "wouldn't have something that would be unsupportable. Our leadership is genuinely pro-life."

In 2013, the "Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Act" easily passed through the House of Representatives, only to be stalled by a Democratic-controlled Senate. This year, an identical bill was halted by Rep. Renee Ellmers, R-NC, and other Republicans -- surprising and angering pro-life leaders who thought its passage was assured. That bill, H.R. 36, is now being rewritten so it can be voted on by the full House, though its final wording remains uncertain.

Some fear that the House leadership will modify the bill to mollify Ellmers. She and others objected that the bill allows women to abort a child after 20 weeks in the case of rape – but only if they report that rape to the authorities.

Pro-life activists say removing the reporting requirement would take abortionists at their word that the women whose children they abort claimed to be raped. Congresswoman Ellmers has publicly stated the House leadership is considering such a proposal.

Jill Stanek, who was recently arrested on Capitol Hill as part of a protest to encourage Republicans to pass H.R. 36, said that would be "a loophole big enough for a Mack truck."

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Congressman Smith said the bill will come to the floor shortly. "The commitment to this bill is ironclad; we just have to work out some details," Smith said.

He also noted that, while a vote on the 20-week ban has been delayed for nearly three months, "we did get the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act passed, and that would have been in the queue now, so we just reversed" the order of the two bills.

Congressman Smith spoke to both outlets shortly after participating in a panel at the Summit.

Another speaker was Rep. Steve King, R-IA, who also supports the 20-week ban.

"I can't think of what” language that is actively under consideration could make him rethink his support for the bill, King said. He also told attendees that the nation was moving in a direction of supporting life.

The outspoken Congressman declined to answer further, noting "that's asking me to anticipate an unknown hypothetical."

The annual Campaign for Life Summit and its related gala drew other high-profile speakers, including presidential candidate Senator Rand Paul, potential presidential hopeful Senator Lindsay Graham, and Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus.  

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"Someone who doesn’t flinch at the dismemberment of babies is not going to flinch at the dismemberment of some evangelical baker’s conscience."
Jonathon van Maren Jonathon van Maren Follow Jonathon

Pro-lifers are winning. So now they’re coming for our cupcakes?

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By Jonathon van Maren

As I travel across Canada (and at times the United States) speaking on abortion and various facets of the Culture of Death, one of the things I hear often is a hopelessness, a despair that the West is being flattened by the juggernaut of the Sexual Revolution. There is a feeling among many people that the restriction of religious liberty, the continued legality of abortion, and the redefinition of marriage are inevitable.

This is, of course, one of the most prominent and successful strategies of the Sexual Revolutionaries—create an aura of inevitability while concurrently demonizing all those who oppose their new and mangled “progress” as Neanderthals on the cusp of being left behind by History. That inevitability becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, because many people don’t realize that the various battles in the Sexual Revolution actually all correlate to one another—that what we are seeing now is the end game of an incredibly vast and well-planned cultural project.

It is because we miss many of these connections that we often cannot see, with clarity, how the culture wars are actually unfolding. I read with great interest a recent column by Rev. Douglas Wilson, eloquently titled “With stirrups raised to Molech.”

“We are now much occupied with the issues swirling around same sex mirage,” he writes, “but we need to take great care not to get distracted. Why have the homosexual activists gone all in on this issue? Why is their prosecutorial zeal so adamant? We went, in just a matter of months, from ‘let’s let individual states’ decide on this, to federal judges striking down state statutes, followed up hard by official harassment of florists, bakers, and photographers. Why the anger, and why the savage over-reach? And do they really think we couldn’t remember all the things they were assuring us of this time last year?”

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It’s a compelling question, and one that I’ve heard many Christians puzzling over recently. Why do the advocates of the Sexual Revolution despise those who disagree with them so viciously? It is partly because their cultural project does not, as they claim, consist of “living and let live.” It is about compulsory acceptance of any and all sexual behaviors, with tax-payer funding for the rubbers and pills they need to ensure all such behaviors remain sterile, and extermination crews to suction, poison, and dismember any inconvenient fetuses that may come into being as the result of casual coitus.

The ancient mantra “the State has no business in the bedrooms of the nation” has long been abandoned—the emboldened Sexual Revolutionaries now demand that politicians show up at their exhibitionist parades of public indecency, force schools to impose their so-called “morally neutral” view of sexuality on children, and force into silence those who still hold to traditional values.

Rev. Wilson, however, thinks that this loud and vicious war on conscience may be about even more than that. The pro-life cause, he notes, has been very successful in the Unites States. The abortion rate is the lowest it has been since 1973. Hundreds of pro-life laws are passing on the state level. The abortion industry has been successfully stigmatized. True, the successes are, for pro-lifers, often too feeble and not nearly adequate enough in the face of such unrestrained bloodshed. Nevertheless, the momentum has turned against the Sexual Revolutionaries who have championed abortion for decades—their shock and anger at the strength of the pro-life movement evident in pro-abortion signs at rallies that read, “I can’t believe I still have to protest this s**t.”

It is because of the pro-life movement’s success, Wilson muses, that the Sexual Revolutionaries may be coming at us with such fury. “If a nation has slaughtered 50 million infants,” he writes, “they are not going to suddenly get a sense of decency over you and your cupcakes. Now this explains their lack of proportion, and their refusal to acknowledge the rights of florists. Someone who doesn’t flinch at the dismemberment of babies is not going to flinch at the dismemberment of some evangelical baker’s conscience. This reveals their distorted priorities, of course, but it also might be revealing a strategy. Is the homosexual lobby doing this because they are freaking out over their losses on the pro-life front? And are they doing so in a way intended to distract us away from an issue where we are slowly, gradually, inexorably, winning?”

It’s a fascinating perspective. It’s true—and has always been true historically—that when one group of human beings is classified as nonhuman by a society as nonhuman and subsequently butchered, the whole of society is degraded. No nation and no culture can collectively and systematically kill so many human beings without a correlating hardening of the conscience. But on the pro-life front, there has been decades of fierce resistance, hundreds of incremental victories, and a renewed energy among the upcoming generation of activists. For the Sexual Revolutionaries who thought the battle was over when Roe v. Wade was announced in 1973, this must be a bitter pill to swallow indeed.

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Lisa Bourne

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‘Prominent’ Catholics attacking Archbishop Cordileone are big donors to Pelosi and pro-abort Democrats

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By Lisa Bourne

Note: To sign a petition supporting Archbishop Cordileone, click here

SAN FRANCISCO, CA, April 17, 2015 (LifeSiteNews.com) -- Big donors to the Democrat Party and pro-abortion Nancy Pelosi are among those publicly harassing San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone for protecting Catholic identity in the area’s Catholic high schools.

A big-ticket full-page ad ran April 16 in the San Francisco Chronicle attacking the archbishop and calling Pope Francis to oust him for his efforts to reinforce Catholic principles in the schools.

A number of prominent San Francisco-area residents identifying as Catholic are signatories of the ad, and several are wealthy donors to Democrat entities and pro-abortion politicians, Catholic Vote reports.

Federal Election Commission records indicate Charles Geschke, Adobe Systems chairman and previous head of the Board of Trustees at the University of San Francisco, gave more than $240,000 to Democrat groups, as well as $2,300 to Nancy Pelosi and $4,000 to John Kerry, both politicians who claim to be Catholic but support abortion and homosexual “marriage.”

Also on the list is political consultant and businessman Clint Reilly, who gave nearly $60,000 to Democrat organizations, along with $5,000 to Barack Obama, whose administration vehemently promotes abortion and homosexual “marriage” and has continually opposed religious liberty. Reilly gave $4,600 to Pelosi as well.

Another individual in the ad attacking the archbishop who also gave big campaign donations to California pro-abort Democrats was Lou Giraudo, a former city commissioner and business executive who contributed more than $24,000 to Nancy Pelosi, $6,000 to Dianne Feinstein and $4,300 to Barbara Boxer.

Nancy Pelosi herself challenged the archbishop for his stance on Catholic teaching last year when she tried to pressure him out of speaking at the March for Marriage in Washington D.C., claiming the event was “venom masquerading as virtue.”

The archbishop responded in a letter that he was obliged “as a bishop, to proclaim the truth—the whole truth—about the human person and God’s will for our flourishing ... especially the truth about marriage as the conjugal union of husband and wife.”

The April 16 ad attacking Archbishop Cordileone was the latest in an ongoing assault since the archbishop took steps in February to strengthen Catholic identity in the schools and clarify for faculty and staff in handbooks and contract language the long-standing expectation that they uphold Church principles. 

It said Archbishop Cordileone has “fostered an atmosphere of division and intolerance” and called on Pope Francis to remove him.

“Holy Father, Please Provide Us With a Leader True to Our Values and Your Namesake,” the ad said. “Please Replace Archbishop Cordileone.”

The Confraternity of Catholic Clergy (CCC), a national association for priests and deacons, condemned Archbishop Cordileone’s harassers in a statement, saying the archbishop “teaches in conformity to the Catechism of the Catholic Church.”

“The character assassination and uncharitable venom being cast upon a bishop merely defending the doctrines of his religion is appalling and repugnant,” the CCC said. 

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“It is totally inappropriate, improper and unjust for the media and others to vilify and brutally attack him when he is doing precisely what an ordained minister and pastor of souls is obligated to do,” the group stated, “namely, speak the truth in season and out of season.”

Those behind the attack ad said the proposed handbook language was mean-spirited, and that they were “committed Catholics inspired by Vatican II,” who “believe in the traditions of conscience, respect and inclusion upon which our Catholic faith was founded.”

The Archdiocese of San Francisco denounced the ad upon its release, saying it was a misrepresentation of Catholic teaching and the nature of the teacher contract, and a misrepresentation of the spirit of the Archbishop.

“The greatest misrepresentation of all is that the signers presume to speak for “the Catholic Community of San Francisco,” the archdiocese responded. “They do not.”

The CCC pointed out that just as physicians are expected to be faithful to the Hippocratic Oath, bishops, priests, and deacons are expected to be faithful to the Church, its teachings and its authority, “since their objective is the salvation of souls, not a popularity contest.” 

In openly declaring their support for Archbishop Cordileone, the group urged the media and others to show “prudence, civility, and fair-mindedness” toward those with whom they disagree.

“He took an oath to be faithful to the Gospel,” the Confraternity stated of Archbishop Cordileone, “and in the words of the disciples in the New Testament, ‘better to obey God than men.’”

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