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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Indiana Gov. Mike Pence signs the state's Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
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Indiana faces backlash as it becomes 20th state to protect religious liberty

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By Ben Johnson

INDIANAPOLIS, IN, March 27, 2015 (LifeSiteNews.com) – On Thursday, Indiana became the 20th state to prevent the government from forcing people of faith to violate their religious beliefs in business or the public square.

Gov. Mike Pence signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (SB 101) into law, saying the freedom of religion is a preeminent American value.

“The Constitution of the United States and the Indiana Constitution both provide strong recognition of the freedom of religion, but today, many people of faith feel their religious liberty is under attack by government action,” Pence said.

Gov. Pence, a possible dark horse candidate for president in 2016, cited court cases brought by religious organizations and employers, including Catholic universities, against the HHS mandate. “One need look no further than the recent litigation concerning the Affordable Care Act. A private business and our own University of Notre Dame had to file lawsuits challenging provisions that required them to offer insurance coverage in violation of their religious views.”

The new law could also prevent Christian business owners from being compelled to bake a cake or take photographs of a same-sex "marriage" ceremony, if doing so violates their faith. In recent years, business owners have seen an increased level of prosecution for denying such services, despite their religious and moral beliefs.

The state's pro-life organization applauded Pence for his stance. "Indiana's pro-life community is grateful to Gov. Mike Pence for signing the Religious Freedom Restoration Act into law,” said Indiana Right to Life's president and CEO Mike Fichter. “This bill will give pro-lifers a necessary legal recourse if they are pressured to support abortion against their deeply-held religious beliefs.”

“RFRA is an important bill to protect the religious freedom of Hoosiers who believe the right to life comes from God, not government,” he said.

The state RFRA is based on the federal bill introduced by Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-NY, and signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1993. The Supreme Court cited the federal law when it ruled that Hobby Lobby had the right to refuse to fund abortion-inducing drugs, if doing so violated its owners' sincerely held religious beliefs.

In signing the measure – similar to the one Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed – Pence and the state of Indiana have faced a torrent of venom from opponents of the bill, who claim it grants a “right to discriminate” and raises the spectre of segregation.

"They've basically said, as long as your religion tells you to, it's OK to discriminate against people," said Sarah Warbelow, legal director of the Human Rights Campaign, a national homosexual pressure group.

The Disciples of Christ, a liberal Protestant denomination based in the state capital, has said it will move its 2017 annual convention if the RFRA became state law. The NCAA warned the bill's adoption “might affect future events” in the Hoosier state.

Pence denied such concerns, saying, "This bill is not about discrimination, and if I thought it legalized discrimination in any way I would've vetoed it."

The bill's supporters say that, under the Obama administration, it is Christians who are most likely to suffer discrimination.

"Originally RFRA laws were intended to protect small religious groups from undue burdens on practicing their faith in public life,” said Mark Tooley, president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy. “It was not imagined there would come a day when laws might seek to jail or financially destroy nuns, rabbis or Christian camp counselors who prefer to abstain from the next wave of sexual and gender experimentation. And there's always a next wave.”

The bill's supporters note that it does not end the government's right to coerce people of faith into violating their conscience in every situation. However, it requires that doing so has to serve a compelling government interest and the government must use the least restrictive means possible. “There will be times when a state or federal government can show it has a compelling reason for burdening religious expression – to ensure public safety, for instance,” said Sarah Torre, an expert at the Heritage Foundation. “But Religious Freedom Restoration Acts set a high bar for the government to meet in order to restrict religious freedom.”

Restricting the ability of government to interfere in people's private decisions, especially their religious decisions, is the very purpose of the Constitution, its supporters say.

"Religious freedom is the cornerstone of all liberty for all people,” Tooley said. “Deny or reduce it, and there are no ultimate limits on the state's power to coerce."

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Fight pornography. Beat pornography. And join the ranks of those who support their fellow men and women still fighting.
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Porn is transforming our men from protectors into predators. Fight back.

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By Jonathon van Maren

Since I’ve gotten involved in anti-pornography work, I’ve met countless men who struggle, fight, or have beaten pornography. Each person seems to deal with the guilt and shame that accompanies porn use in a different way—some deny that it’s “all that bad,” others pretend that they could “stop whenever they want,” many insist that “everyone is doing it,” and most, when pressed, admit to a deep sense of self-loathing.

One worry surfaces often in conversation: What do my past or current struggles with pornography say about me as a man? Can I ever move past this and have a meaningful and fulfilling relationship?

I want to address this question just briefly, since I’ve encountered it so many times.

First, however, I’ve written before how I at times dislike the language of “struggling” with pornography or pornography “addiction,” not because they aren’t accurate but because too often they are used as an excuse rather than an explanation. It is true, many do in fact “struggle” with what can legitimately be considered an addiction, but when this language is used to describe an interminable battle with no end (and I’ve met dozens of men for whom this is the case), then I prefer we use terminology like “fighting my porn habit.” A semantic debate, certainly, but one I think is important. We need to stop struggling with porn and start fighting it.

Secondly, pornography does do devastating things to one’s sense of masculinity. We know this. Pornography enslaves men by the millions, perverting their role as protector and defender of the more vulnerable and turning them into sexual cannibals, consuming those they see on-screen to satisfy their sexual appetites.

What often starts as mere curiosity or an accidental encounter can turn into something that invades the mind and twists even the most basic attractions. I’ve met porn users who can’t believe the types of things they want to watch. They haven’t simply been using porn. Porn has actively reshaped them into something they don’t recognize and don’t like. 

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Porn is this generation’s great assault on masculinity and the role of men in society. It is essential that we win this battle for the sake of society’s survival. Contrary to what the gender-bending and family-morphing progressive elites claim, good husbands and good fathers and good church leaders are necessary for a healthy society. But pornography is destroying marriages, creating distant and disconnected fathers, and, metaphoricaclly castrating men, hindering their ability and desire to make a positive difference in the society around us.

So, with this sobering set of facts in mind let’s return to the question: what do pornography struggles, past and present, say about a man?

The proper way to respond is with everything that is good about masculinity. We have to fight pornography as men have fought countless evils throughout the ages. We need to fight pornography to protect women, and wives, and children, and our society at large. This is how pornography threatens society, by castrating men, and turning them from protectors into predators. Rooting out the evil in our own lives allows us to better fulfill the role we are called to perform in the lives of others. Battling our own demons enables us to battle the wider cultural demons. Every day without porn is another bit of virtue built. Virtue is not something you’re born with. Virtues are habits that you build. And one day without porn is the first step towards the virtue of being porn-free.

Many men ask me if men who have had past porn addictions are cut out for being in a relationship or working in the pro-life movement or in other areas where we are called to protect and defend the weak and vulnerable. And the answer to that is an unequivocal yes. Our society needs men who know what it means to fight battles and win. Our society needs men who can say that they fought porn and they beat porn, because their families and their friends were too important to risk. Our society needs men who rose to the challenge that the evils of their generation threw at them, and became better men as the result. And our society needs men who can help their friends and their sons and those around them fight the plague of pornography and free themselves from it, too—and who can understand better and offer encouragement more relevant than someone who has fought and been freed themselves?

So the answer to men is yes. Fight pornography. Beat pornography. And join the ranks of those who support their fellow men and women still fighting. Lend them support and encouragement. We cannot change the fact that porn has left an enormous path of destruction in its wake. But we can change the fact that too many people aren’t fighting it. We can change our own involvement. And we can rise to the challenge and face this threat to masculinity with all that is good about masculinity.

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Red Alert!

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By John-Henry Westen

I don’t like having to do this, but we have always found it best to be totally upfront with our readers: our Spring fundraising campaign is now worrying us! 

You see, with just 6 days remaining, we have only raised 30% of our goal, with $125,000 still left to raise. That is a long ways to go yet.

We have no choice but to reach our minimum goal of $175,000 if we are going to be able to continue serving the 5+ million readers who rely on us every month for investigative and groundbreaking news reports on life, faith and family issues.

Every year, LifeSite readership continues to grow by leaps and bounds. This year, we are again experiencing record-breaking interest, with over 6 million people visiting our website last month alone!

This unprecedented growth in turn creates its own demand for increased staff and resources, as we struggle to serve these millions of new readers.

And especially keep this in mind. As many more people read LifeSite, our mission of bringing about cultural change gets boosted. Our ultimate goal has always been to educate and activate the public to take well-informed, needed actions.

Another upside to our huge growth in readers is that it should be that much easier to reach our goal. To put it simply: if each person who read this one email donated whatever they could (even just $10) we would easily surpass our goal! 

Today, I hope you will join the many heroes who keep this ship afloat, and enable us to proclaim the truth through our reporting to tens of millions of people every year!

Your donations to LifeSite cause major things to happen! We see that every day and it is very exciting. Please join with us in making a cultural impact with a donation of ANY AMOUNT right now. 

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