It’s rare that you will see media from opposite ends of the political spectrum take the same policy positions, but outlets from the Wall Street Journal to the Washington Post are apoplectic about the fact that women in the United States are having fewer kids. Why? There will be less consumer demand with fewer people, future labor will be more scarce and costly, and the tax base could shrink. And while low fertility countries have performed well economically, our fear is that falling birth rates in the U.S. could threaten long term economic growth.
What’s wrong with this picture? The United States is a democracy before it is an economy, and falling birth rates are wonderful for democracy.
- All things equal, smaller families can invest more time, love, energy, and resources in each child. This in turn results in greater academic achievement, lifelong success, and more thoughtful and engaged citizens. That may not matter if we want to produce depressed, low skilled workers with low civic participation. It matters a lot if we want to produce citizens capable of sustaining a democracy. And that’s something which the United States could do a lot better.
- The opportunity to invest more in each child aside, smaller families will eventually allow each person to play a greater role in governance. As Jean-Jacques Rousseau understood long ago, the larger democracies get the harder it is for each citizen to influence the policies that influence their lives. One gets lost in the crowd.
- A nation where more than half of the populace is disenfranchised is not a democracy. Falling fertility rates are the culmination of decades of efforts to liberate women. Yes, being a mother is a lot of work and conflicts with time that could be spent influencing public affairs. Falling fertility rates are part of empowering women and leveling of the playing field.
- Arbitrarily pushing people to have kids – irrespective of readiness – results in actual cases of child abuse and neglect, and massive inequality. That’s not how people in a democracy would treat future citizens. Ensuring parental readiness and child development would be a priority. Should we be holding the people pushing for more kids, who care more about their investments than people, personally accountable for those kids’ suffering?
So is falling fertility really a problem? Smaller families mean greater individual investment in each child, which is in important factor in reducing inequality and improving social mobility, and thus a stronger economy.
But If you primarily care about your investments, and see this country just as an economy, falling fertility rates could still seem threatening. If you care democracy, you might think the opposite. Better family planning can create a more democratic and equitable system. What’s the difference between an economy and human right-based democracies? They differ based on the people that comprise them. In the former people are willing to trade human rights for wealth. In the latter they are not.
Luckily, most people probably don’t see children as labor inputs and future taxpayers. That’s a good thing. And so are smaller families.
Take action: Urge media reporting on falling fertility rates to cover the values at stake. Here’s one reporter who got it wrong. Reply with your comments here. The United States is a democracy, and we should put our values before our investments.