Book Review

The Empty Cradle
How Falling Birthrates Threaten World Prosperity
And What to Do About It

Phillip Longman
New America Books, 2004, 231 pages

For years, environmentalists and social activists have been handing out dire warnings about a looming "overpopulation crisis". They famously warned that we would run out of copper by 1980 and start running out of oil by 2000, but that it wouldn't matter because we would all be dead by 1985, having inevitably run out of food and water due to overpopulation. One environmentalist predicted that India would starve, the United States would have food riots in the 1980s, and that America's population would drop to 22.6 million by 1999 because of our use of pesticides. Our population is now approaching 300 million. Instead of starving, India is now an exporter of food.

Now Phillip Longman and others are warning about the opposite problem: depopulation. Global fertility rates are half of what they were in 1972. Fertility rates are not only decreasing in Europe and Japan, where fertility rates are far below replacement levels, but also in regions where overpopulation has been a threat, including Africa, China, the Middle East and Mexico. As their population ages, more and more of each nation's resources will have to be devoted to social services, health care, and pensions, while the income tax base of productive taxpayers continually decreases. Longman argues that this will cause widespread poverty. The competition between "guns and canes" will also cause military weakness, which could lead to political instability and war. Is this a real danger or more doom-mongering?

Longman, of course, believes that depopulation is a serious danger. He argues that birthrates are declining in Western societies because children no longer provide an economic benefit to their parents, even while the economic investment per child is greater. Since large numbers of women entered the workforce in the early 1970s, the average income per worker has declined by about 50%, trapping women in the workplace, which makes them less likely to have children. Moreover, a couple now must make an enormous financial sacrifice in order to have children. This is even more true for highly-educated working females, who must also give up a career that may have taken years to build. Longman points out many other disincentives toward marriage in today's society, including the need to pay for children's college and the need for potential parents to attend college in order to retain their middle-class status. Professionals such as medical doctors lose 24 years of their lives to education, and are free to start families only after age thirty, when they are often heavily burdened with debt. The huge increases in tax rates--from 17% in 1955 to 50% for many workers today, if state and local jurisdictions, which link their income tax rates to the federal rates, are included--is another disincentive, as is easy divorce and social acceptance of premarital sex, unwed mothers, abortion and contraception.

Economics may also partially explain the decline in fertility in Russia. The role of Russian women in undermining the Soviet economy by aborting most of their children is poorly appreciated. Today, fully 2/3 of all pregnancies in Russia end with the parent killing their child before birth. The tragic mystery is why this wholesale slaughter is still continuing today, driving the Russian people to extinction.

His solution? The same as that proposed by almost all population doomsayers since the 1960s: bigger government and more social engineering by the state. He advocates creating hugely progressive income taxes to force people to babysit each other's kids instead of working, and giving free taxpayer money to parents by linking Social Security payments to fecundity. These are mixed in with a few granola ideas of his own, such as interstate bike paths and health warnings on junk food. Longman argues that people with no children are inherently selfish, and somehow derive an unfair economic benefit from other people making economic sacrifices to have children. This, however, contradicts his earlier argument that the decision whether to have children is based on cold economic considerations. His argument might have some merit if it factored in the fact that childless people already pay a significant part of the expense of raising and educating other people's children, healing them when they get injured smashing up their parents' cars, and paying for prisons to house them when they grow up and commit crimes. Longman's proposal to change Social Security into a tool of social policy is likely to win few converts. The punitive taxation and vastly expanded entitlements that he proposes are arguably the same factors that allowed depopulation to produce an economic crisis in the first place. Although some solution is needed, this particular solution would hasten the crisis he predicts.

About halfway through the book, Longman suddenly abandons economic arguments and switches to Luddite hippie tree-hugger mode, reminiscent of the 60's-style anti-modernist rants like The Greening of America. It is almost as if a second writer who fears modern science and medicine had taken over and began quoting from books like Social Limits to Growth and Against the Machine. Ironically, the idiotic critiques in some of the reviews of Longman's book on Amazon are of the same mold, indicating that some of these folks have not actually read The Empty Cradle, but are merely reflexively criticizing the idea that population decline will not produce the utopia that the Left wishes it to.

His analysis of why people in traditionalist Utah have a longer lifespan than those in freewheeling Nevada is illuminating. But the idea that bureaucratic government-run health care systems like those in England and Canada are more efficient than America's or superior in terms of saving lives, as his discussion of American health care implies, will only bring bitter laughter from readers in those countries that have jumped into the morass of socialized medicine. His crack on page 125 about SUVs imparting high status because they are gas guzzlers is a bit silly. He also ignores the controversial but critical issue of intelligence and breeding. While it may not be politically correct to say so, the fact that the more intelligent women have fewer children than less intelligent ones will constitute a serious threat for the survival of our technological society. Indeed, if this were not true, then depopulation would be a minor and, in the long run, a self-correcting problem.

Longman is also the author of a paper in Foreign Policy in which he says that reduced fertility of today's pro-abortion secular educated class will eventually lead to a patriarchal society as secularists are inevitably replaced, through natural selection, by those with more traditional pro-natalist views. Although this might be welcomed by those who believe that abortion is a crime, such a change would have a major downside: it could wipe out European culture altogether. Perhaps because he has been afraid of where his conclusions might lead, or because he is afraid to step on any sacred cows of either the Left or the Right, Longman still does not appear to understand the real reasons why falling birthrates are a threat. First, a modern high-tech society cannot survive for long with an uneducated or ineducable workforce. Failure to confront this problem will create ever-increasing pressure to remedy the situation through human cloning or eugenics. Second, declining birthrates produce an influx of immigrants that undermine a country's culture and identity. In the case of Europe, this means Muslims and a replacement of modern post-Enlightenment culture with a violent and repressive religious fundamentalism. In the case of America, it means Mexicans and the creation of a secessionist movement, as shown by the widespread secessionist sentiment at the recent illegal alien demonstrations. Ignoring the problem or calling the messenger dirty names won't make problems like these go away.

Unfortunately, there is enormous pressure in our society to deny that these issues are a problem or even discuss them. Longman deserves praise for coming close to discussing the issue, even if his proposed solutions are impractical. It's clear that the first step in fighting population decline would have to be eliminating political correctness so the issues can be discussed honestly. Fat chance of that happening today.

March 11, 2006 Back