[Paleopsych] Policy Review: Stanley Kurtz: Demographics and the Culture War
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Stanley Kurtz: Demographics and the Culture War
Policy Review, No. 129
Stanley Kurtz is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford
We moderns have gotten used to the slow, seemingly inexorable
dissolution of traditional social forms, the family prominent among
them. Yet the ever-decreasing size of the family may soon expose a
fundamental contradiction in modernity itself. Fertility rates have
been falling throughout the industrialized world for more than
30 years, with implications that are only just now coming into view.
Growing population has driven the economy, sustained the welfare
state, and shaped modern culture. A declining population could
conceivably put the dynamic of modernization into doubt.
The question of the cultural and economic consequences of declining
birthrates has been squarely placed on the table by four new books:
The Empty Cradle: How Falling Birthrates Threaten World Prosperity and
What to Do About It, by Phillip Longman; Fewer: How the New Demography
of Depopulation Will Shape Our Future, by Ben Wattenberg; The Coming
Generational Storm: What You Need to Know About America's Economic
Future, by Laurence J. Kotlikoff and Scott Burns; and Running On
Empty: How the Democratic and Republican Parties Are Bankrupting Our
Future and What Americans Can Do About It, by Peter G. Peterson.
Longman and Wattenberg concentrate on the across-the-board
implications of demographic change. Kotlikoff and Burns, along with
Peterson, limn the economic crisis that could come in the absence of
swift and sweeping entitlement reform.
Taken together, these four books suggest that we are moving toward a
period of substantial social change whose tantalizing ideological
implications run the gamut from heightened cultural radicalism to the
emergence of a new, more conservative cultural era.
rawing on these books, let us first get a sense of the new demography.
The essential facts of demographic decline discussed in all four are
not in doubt. Global fertility rates have fallen by half since 1972.
For a modern nation to replace its population, experts explain, the
average woman needs to have 2.1 children over the course of her
lifetime. Not a single industrialized nation today has a fertility
rate of 2.1, and most are well below replacement level.
In Ben Franklin's day, by contrast, America averaged eight births per
woman. American birth rates today are the highest in the
industrialized world -- yet even those are nonetheless just below the
replacement level of 2.1. Moreover, that figure is relatively high
only because of America's substantial immigrant population. Fertility
rates among native born American women are now far below what they
were even in the 1930s, when the Great Depression forced a sharp
reduction in family size.
Population decline is by no means restricted to the industrial world.
Remarkably, the sharp rise in American fertility rates at the height
of the baby boom -- 3.8 children per woman -- was substantially above
Third World fertility rates today. From East Asia to the Middle East
to Mexico, countries once fabled for their high fertility rates are
now falling swiftly toward or below replacement levels. In 1970, a
typical woman in the developing world bore six children. Today, that
figure is about 2.7. In scale and rapidity, that sort of fertility
decline is historically unprecedented. By 2002, fertility rates in 20
developing countries had fallen below replacement levels. 2002 also
witnessed a dramatic reversal by demographic experts at the United
Nations, who for the first time said that world population was
ultimately headed down, not up. These decreases in human fertility
cover nearly every region of the world, crossing all cultures,
religions, and forms of government.
Declining birth rates mean that societies everywhere will soon be
aging to an unprecedented degree. Increasing life expectancy is also
contributing to the aging of the world's population. In 1900, American
life expectancy at birth was 47 years. Today it is 76. By 2050, one
out of five Americans will be over age 65, making the U.S. population
as a whole markedly older than Florida's population today. Striking as
that demographic graying may be, it pales before projections for
countries like Italy and Japan. The United Nations estimates that by
2050, 42 percent of all people in Italy and Japan will be aged 60 or
Can societies that old sustain themselves? That is the question
inviting speculation. With fertility falling swiftly in the developing
nations, immigration will not be able to ameliorate certain
implications of a rapidly aging West. Even in the short or medium
term, the aging imbalance cannot be rectified except through a level
of immigration far above what Western countries would find politically
acceptable. Alarmed by the problems of immigration and assimilation,
even famously tolerant Holland has begun to turn away immigrants en
masse -- and this before the recent murder of filmmaker Theo Van Gogh,
which has subsequently forced the questions of immigration and
demography to the center of the Dutch political stage.
In short, the West is beginning to experience significant demographic
changes, with substantial cultural consequences. Historically, the
aged have made up only a small portion of society, and the rearing of
children has been the chief concern. Now children will become a small
minority, and society's central problem will be caring for the
elderly. Yet even this assumes that societies consisting of elderly
citizens at levels of 20, 30, even 40 or more percent can sustain
themselves at all. That is not obvious.
Population decline is also set to ramify geometrically. As population
falls, the pool of potential mothers in each succeeding generation
shrinks. So even if, well into the process, there comes a generation
of women with a higher fertility rate than their mothers', the
momentum of population decline could still be locked in. Population
decline may also be cemented into place by economics. To support the
ever-growing numbers of elderly, governments may raise taxes on
younger workers. That would make children even less affordable than
they are today, decreasing the size of future generations still
If worldwide fertility rates reach levels now common in the developing
world (and that is where they seem headed), within a few centuries,
the world's population could shrink below the level of America's
today. Of course, it's unlikely that mankind will simply cease to
exist for failure to reproduce. But the critical point is that we
cannot reverse that course unless something happens to substantially
increase fertility rates. And whatever might raise fertility rates
above replacement level will almost certainly require fundamental
Why does modern social life translate into the lower birth rates that
spark all those wider implications? Urbanization is one major factor.
In a traditional agricultural society, children are put to work early.
They also inherit family land, using its fruits to care for aging
parents. In a modern urban economy, on the other hand, children
represent a tremendous expense, and one increasingly unlikely to be
returned to parents in the form of wealth or care. With the growth of
a consumer economy, potential parents are increasingly presented with
a zero-sum choice between children and more consumer goods and
services for themselves.
Along with urbanization, the other important factor depressing world
fertility is the movement of women into the workforce -- and the
technological changes that have made that movement possible. By the
time many professional women have completed their educations, their
prime childbearing years have passed. Thus, a woman's educational
level is the best predictor of how many children she will have. As
Wattenberg shows, worldwide, the correlation between falling female
illiteracy and falling female fertility is nearly exact. And as work
increasingly becomes an option for women, having a child means not
only heavy new expenses, but also the loss of income that a mother
might otherwise have gained through work.
Technological change also stands behind the movement of women into the
workforce. In a modern, knowledge-based economy, women suffer no
physical disadvantage. The ability of women to work in turn depends
upon the capacity of modern contraception, along with abortion, to
control fertility efficiently. The sheer breadth and rapidity of world
fertility decline implies that contraceptive technology has been a
necessary condition of the change. Before fertility could be reliably
controlled through medical technology, marriage and accompanying
strictures against out-of-wedlock births were the key check on a
society's birth rate. Economic decline meant delayed marriage, and
thus lower fertility. But contraceptive technology now makes it
possible to efficiently control fertility within marriage. This turns
motherhood into a choice. And what demographic decline truly shows is
that when childbearing has become a matter of sheer choice, it has
become less frequent.
The movement of population from tightly knit rural communities into
cities, along with contraception, abortion, and the related entry of
women into the workforce, explain many of the core cultural changes of
the postmodern world. Secularism, individualism, and feminism are tied
to a social system that discourages fertility. If a low-fertility
world is unsustainable, then these cultural trends may be
unsustainable as well. Alternatively, if these cultural trends cannot
be modified or counterbalanced, human population appears on course to
shrink ever more swiftly.
et there are signs that the current balance of social forces is not
sustainable and may well give way sooner rather than later. That, at
any rate, is the view of Longman, Peterson, Kotlikoff and Burns.
(Wattenberg is somewhat more sanguine about our ability to weather the
coming challenge, although he does not directly address the more
dystopic scenarios Peterson, Kotlikoff, and Burns float.) Broadly
speaking, both the free market and the welfare state assume continual
population growth. "Pay as you go" entitlements require ever-larger
new generations to finance the retirement of previous generations.
Longman argues that economic growth itself depends upon
ever-increasing numbers of consumers and workers.
Population growth, he argues, drove the Industrial Revolution, and
there has never been economic growth under conditions of population
decline. Thus, for example, he ascribes Japan's current economic
troubles to its declining fertility. And though Longman doesn't point
to Germany, it us interesting to note that this particular
low-fertility country is also struggling economically to the point of
revisiting the famously shorter European work week -- a phenomenon
obviously related to the struggle to reduce the pensions promised to
an aging population and premissed on more younger workers than
actually came to exist.
Both Longman and Wattenberg raise the question of whether markets need
population growth in order to thrive. As Wattenberg puts the point, it
hardly makes sense to invest in a business whose pool of potential
customers is shrinking. That much might be true, even if entitlement
programs like Social Security and Medicare were fully funded. But
Social Security and Medicare are not fully funded. On the contrary,
America's massive unfunded entitlement programs have the potential to
spark a serious social and economic crisis in the not too distant
future. And the welfare state in the rest of the developed world is on
even shakier economic ground.
The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the combined cost of
Medicare and Medicaid alone will consume a larger share of the
nation's income in 2050 than the entire federal budget does today. By
2050, the combined cost of Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and
interest on the national debt will rise to 47 percent of gross
domestic product -- more than double the level of expected federal
revenues at the time. Without reform, all federal spending would
eventually go to seniors. Obviously, the system will correct before we
reach that point. But how?
Already, senior citizens vote at very high rates -- reacting sharply
to any potential cuts in benefits. As the baby boomers retire, the
political weight of senior citizens will be vastly greater than it
already is. Proposed pension reforms brought down French and Italian
governments in the 1990s. Even China has been forced by large-scale
protests and riots to back off from attempts to reduce retirement
In the absence of serious reform, we may be in for an economic "hard
landing." Peterson, Kotlikoff, and Burns warn of a spiraling financial
crisis that could even lead to worldwide depression. Former Federal
Reserve Board chairman Paul Volcker sees a 75 percent chance of an
economic crisis of some sort within the next five years.
What might such a "meltdown" look like? Peterson, Kotlikoff, and Burns
spin out essentially the same scenario. The danger is that investors
might at some point decide that the United States will never rein in
its deficit. Once investors see America's deficits as out of control,
they will assume their dollar-based securities will be eroded by
inflation, higher interest rates, and a serious decline in the stock
market. Should a loss of confidence cause leading investors to pull
their money out of U.S. securities, it could set off a run on the
dollar. That would create the very inflation, interest rate increases,
and market decline that investors feared in the first place. Such has
already happened in Argentina, which Kotlikoff and Burns use as a
paradigm in which loss of investor confidence brought down the economy
in a kind of self-fulfilling prophesy. The danger is that the United
States and the rest of the industrialized world may already have
entered the sort of debt trap common among Third World nations. A
rapidly aging Japan is even more vulnerable than America, say
Kotlikoff and Burns. They add that, should investors looking at
teetering modern welfare states and the long-term demographic crisis
bring down any of the advanced economies, the contagion could spread
Are we really headed for a worldwide economic meltdown that will leave
tens of millions of aging seniors languishing in substandard nursing
homes while the rest of us suffer from long years of overtaxation,
rising crime, and political instability? Kotlikoff and Burns say the
prospect is all too real, and Peterson implies as much.
Yet there are also critics of such disaster scenarios. They argue that
growth rates in the new information-based economy will likely be
somewhat higher than in the past. Higher rates of economic growth will
bring in enough revenue to offset the rising costs of entitlements.
Medical advances are keeping older workers healthy and productive.
Raise the retirement age by a couple of years, say many, and the
expanded workforce would boost government revenues enough to offset
shrinkage in the number of younger workers.
Peterson, Kotlikoff, and Burns say these fixes won't work. Despite
increased life expectancy, older workers have generally been retiring
earlier. It would be politically difficult to force them in the other
direction. And according to Kotlikoff and Burns, delayed retirement
produces negligible gains for the economy. When people work longer,
they save less because they have fewer years of retirement to finance.
The effects cancel out. Overall investment in the economy is reduced,
as is the real wage base available for government taxation.
Kotlikoff and Burns also argue that the apparent productivity gains of
the late nineties were illusory. Peterson argues that, even if
productivity gains prove real, the benefit for the deficit will be
canceled out by increases in discretionary spending.
The truth is, no one knows what future productivity will be. There's a
chance rates will turn higher on into the future, yet it seems
imprudent to rely on luck with the stakes so high. And as Peterson,
Kotlikoff, and Burns point out, so long as Social Security is indexed
to wages, revenue gains from higher productivity will be canceled out
by increased benefits. Even an ideal growth scenario cannot solve the
entitlement crisis unless Social Security is indexed to prices rather
than wages. It would seem that politically difficult reform and
significant de facto benefit cuts are inevitable even on the most
optimistic of reckonings. And the optimistic scenarios themselves seem
What about the pessimistic scenarios? It would be foolish to predict
with certainty an economic "hard landing," much less world-wide
depression. Still, the case that these are at least real possibilities
seems strong. Even without a "meltdown," long-term prospects for the
economy and the welfare state in rapidly aging societies seem
uncertain at best. How exactly will nations like Japan or Italy be
able to function when more than 40 percent of their citizens are over
60? Hard landing or not, and the political power of the elderly
notwithstanding, there seems a very real chance that America's
entitlement programs will someday be substantially scaled back. But
what sort of struggle between the old and the young will emerge in the
meantime, and how will a massive and relatively impoverished older
generation cope with the change?
The Coming Generational Storm and Running On Empty are important
books. Whether or not the reader is ultimately persuaded by these
premonitions of economic peril, it's time the United States had a
serious debate over entitlement reform. Nonetheless, there is also
something problematic in the way that Peterson, Kotlikoff, and Burns
place the lion's share of blame for our problems on our political
leadership. True, both parties deserve to be chastised for running
from the entitlement crisis. Yet even if Peterson, Burns, and
Kotlikoff are right about that, they put too much blame on politicians
for what broader cultural and demographic forces have wrought.
Peterson nods to demography as the background condition for the
deficit dilemma yet barely explores the link. Kotlikoff and Burns have
much more to say about the demographic details yet treat our changed
fertility patterns as irreversible and therefore irrelevant to policy.
That is a questionable assumption. The growing expense of
child-rearing, for example, plays a key role in holding birth rates
down. Peterson, Kotlikoff, and Burns are quick to criticize the push
for lower taxes, yet rising taxes arguably helped to deepen the
population decline at the root of our economic dilemma. In 1955, at
the height of the baby boom, a typical one-earner family paid 17.3
percent of its income in taxes. Today, a median family with one
paycheck pays 37.6 percent of its income in taxes -- 39 percent if
it's a two-earner couple. So the new demography has put us into an
economic trap. High taxes depress birth rates, but low taxes expand
demographically driven deficits still further.
Precisely because we are at an unprecedented demographic watershed,
politicians have no model for taking these factors into account.
Political leaders in an earlier era could take it for granted that
ever-growing populations would keep the welfare state solvent and the
economy humming. It's not surprising that neither the public nor
politicians have been able to adjust to the immense, unintended, and
only gradually emerging social consequences of postmodern family life.
With their eyes firmly fixed on the underlying demographic changes,
Wattenberg and Longman are less disposed to browbeat politicians than
are Peterson, Kotlikoff, and Burns.
A new conservatism?
n the matter of the new demography and its social consequences, the
work of Ben Wattenberg holds a place of special honor. In 1987, 17
years before the publication of Fewer, Wattenberg wrote The Birth
Dearth. That book was the first prominent public warning of a crisis
of population decline. Yet many rejected its message. In an era when a
"population explosion" was taken for granted, the message of The Birth
Dearth flew squarely in the face of received wisdom. Subsequent
events, however, have proved Wattenberg right.
Despite that vindication, Wattenberg's own views have changed
somewhat. Whereas The Birth Dearth advocated aggressive pro-natalist
policies, today Wattenberg seems to have all but given up hope that
fertility rates can be substantially increased. On the one hand, he
thinks it unlikely that worldwide population can maintain a course of
shrinkage without end. On the other hand, he sees no viable scenario
by which this presumably unsustainable trend might be reversed.
In The Empty Cradle, Philip Longman takes a different view. Longman
believes that runaway population decline may be halted, yet he
understands that this can be accomplished only by way of fundamental
cultural change. The emerging demographic crisis will call a wide
range of postmodern ideologies into question. Longman writes as a
secular liberal looking for ways to stabilize the population short of
the traditionalist, religious renewal he fears the new demography will
bring in its wake.
Given the roots of population decline in the core characteristics of
postmodern life, Longman understands that the endless downward spiral
cannot be reversed without a major social transformation. As he puts
it, "If human population does not wither away in the future, it will
be because of a mutation in human culture." Longman draws parallels to
the Victorian era and other periods when fears of population decline,
cultural decadence, and fraying social safety nets intensified family
solidarity and stigmatized abortion and birth control. Longman also
notes that movements of the 1960s, such as feminism, environmentalism,
and the sexual revolution, were buttressed by fears of a population
explosion. Once it becomes evident that our real problem is the
failure to reproduce, these movements and attitudes could weaken.
Longman's greatest fear is a revival of fundamentalism, which he
defines broadly as any movement that relies on ancient myth and
legend, whether religious or not, "to oppose modern, liberal, and
commercial values." Religious traditionalists tend to have large
families (relatively speaking). Secular modernists do not. Longman's
fear is that, over time, Western secular liberals will shrink as a
portion of world population while, at home and abroad, traditionalists
will flourish. To counter this, and to solve the larger
demographic-economic crisis, Longman offers some very thoughtful
proposals for encouraging Americans to have more children. Substantial
tax relief for parents is the foundation of his plan.
Longman has thought this problem through very deeply. Yet, in some
respects, his concerns seem odd and exaggerated. He lumps American
evangelicals together with Nazis, racists, and Islamicists in the same
supposed opposition to all things modern. This is more interesting as
a specimen of liberal prejudice than as a balanced assessment of the
relationship between Christianity and modernity. Moreover, the mere
fact that religious conservatives have more children than secular
liberals is no guarantee that those children will remain untouched by
Still, Longman rightly sees that population decline cannot be reversed
in the absence of major cultural change, and the prospects of a
significant religious revival must not be dismissed. In a future
shadowed by vastly disproportionate numbers of poor elderly citizens,
and younger workers struggling with impossible tax burdens, the
fundamental tenets of postmodern life might be called into question.
Some will surely argue from a religious perspective that mankind,
having discarded God's injunctions to be fruitful and multiply, is
suffering the consequences.
Yet we needn't resort to disaster scenarios to see that our current
demographic dilemma portends fundamental cultural change. Let us say
that in the wake of the coming economic and demographic stresses, a
serious secular, pronatalist program of the type proposed by Longman
were to take hold and succeed. The result might not be
"fundamentalism," yet it would almost certainly involve greater
cultural conservatism. Married parents tend to be more conservative,
politically and culturally. Predictions of future dominance for the
Democratic Party are based on the increasing demographic prominence of
single women. Delayed marriage lowers fertility rates and moves the
culture leftward. Reverse that trend by stimulating married
parenthood, and the country grows more conservative -- whether in a
religious mode or not.
But can the cultural engines of postmodernity really be thrown into
reverse? After all, people don't decide to have children because they
think it will help society. They act on their personal desires and
interests. Will women stop wanting to be professionals? Is it
conceivable that birth control might become significantly less
available than it is today? It certainly seems unlikely that any free
Western society would substantially restrict contraception, no matter
how badly its population was dwindling.
Yet it is important to keep in mind that decisions about whether and
when to have children may someday take place in a markedly different
social environment. As mentioned, children are valued in traditional
societies because of the care they provide in old age. In the
developed world, by contrast, old age is substantially provisioned by
personal savings and the welfare state. But what will happen if the
economy and the welfare state shrink significantly? Quite possibly,
people will once again begin to look to family for security in old age
-- and childbearing might commensurately appear more personally
If a massive cohort of elderly citizens find themselves in a chronic
state of crisis, the lesson for the young will be clear. Wattenberg
notes that pro-natalist policies have failed wherever they've been
tried. Yet in conditions of serious economic stress and demographic
imbalance, sweeping pro-natalist plans like those offered by Longman
may in fact become workable. That would usher in a series of deeper
cultural changes, most of them pointing society in a more conservative
Then again, we may finesse the challenge of a rapidly aging society by
some combination of increased productivity, entitlement reform, and
delayed retirement. In that case, fertility will continue to fall, and
world population will shrink at compounding speed. The end result
could be crisis or change further down the road, or simply substantial
and ongoing reductions in world population, with geostrategic
consequences difficult to predict. One way or the other, it would seem
that our social order is in motion.
he emerging population implosion, then, may be taken in part as a
challenge to Francis Fukuyama's "end of history" thesis. As Fukuyama
himself came to recognize in his 2002 book, Our Posthuman Future, the
greatest challenge to the "end of history" idea is the prospect that
biotechnology might work a fundamental change in human nature and
society. In the form of modern contraception, it may already have done
so. And contraception could be only the beginning.
Like others who warn of the dangers of biotechnology, Fukuyama is most
concerned about the prospect that genetic engineering could undermine
the principles of liberty and equality. If children are genetically
engineered for greater health, strength, or intellectual capacity,
erstwhile liberal society could be plunged into a brave new world of
genetically-based class hierarchy.
That is a grave concern, yet there may still be others. The disruptive
effects of biotechnology will play out in a depopulating world --
perhaps a world shadowed by economic and cultural crisis. So the
immediate challenge of biotechnology to human history is the prospect
that the family might be replaced by a bioengineered breeding system.
Artificial wombs, not the production of supermen, may soon be the
foremost social challenge posed by advancing science. Certainly, there
is a danger that genetic engineering may someday lead to class
distinctions. But the pressure on the bioengineers of the future will
be to generate population. If and when the prospect of building
"better" human beings becomes real, it will play out in the context of
a world under radical population pressure. That population crunch will
likely shape the new genetics at every turn.
With talk of artificial wombs and the end of the family, we are a long
way from the idea of a conservative religious revival. The truth is,
the possibility of a population crisis simultaneously raises the
prospect of conservative revival and eugenic nightmare. In his
landmark book on Western family decline, Disturbing the Nest,
sociologist David Popenoe traces out contrasting ideal-typical
scenarios by which the Western family might be either strengthened or
further eroded. Looking at these scenarios, it's evident that a
population crisis could trigger either one.
What could reverse the decline of the Western nuclear family? Anything
that might counter the affluence, secularism, and individualism that
led to family decline in the first place, says Popenoe. Economic
decline could force people to depend on families instead of the state.
A religious revival could restore traditional mores. And a revised
calculation of rational interest in light of social chaos could call
the benefits of extreme individualism into question. We've already
seen that a demographic-economic crisis could invoke all three of
But what about the reverse scenario, in which the nuclear family would
entirely disappear? According to Popenoe, the end of the nuclear
family would come through a further development of our growing
tendency to separate pair-bonding from sex and procreation. Especially
in Europe, marriage is morphing into parental cohabitation. And in
societies where parents commonly cohabit, the practice of "living
alone together" is emerging. There unmarried parents remain "together"
yet live in separate households, only one of them with a child. And of
course, intentional single motherhood by older unmarried women --
Murphy Brown-style -- is another dramatic repudiation of the nuclear
family. The next logical step in all this would be for single mothers
to turn their children over to some other individual or group for
rearing. That would spell the definitive end of the nuclear family.
A prolonged economic crisis accompanied by widespread concern over
depopulation would undoubtedly place feminism under pressure. Yet it's
unlikely that postmodern attitudes toward women, work and family could
be swept aside -- or even significantly modified -- without a major
cultural struggle. A eugenic regime would be the logical way to
safeguard feminist goals in a depopulating world, and there is ample
precedent for an alliance between eugenics and feminism.
After all, birth control pioneers like Margaret Sanger in the United
States and Marie Stopes in England blended feminism and eugenics at
the outset of the twentieth century. As birth control came into wide
use, fertility sharply declined -- particularly among the upper
classes, which had access to the technology. Alarmed by the relative
decline of the elites, Teddy Roosevelt urged upper-class women to have
more children. Even progressives began to question their commitment to
women's rights. Margaret Sanger's response was to promote a eugenic
regime of forced sterilization and birth control among the unfit.
Instead of urging "the intelligent" to have more children, Sanger
advocated the suppression of births among "the insane and the
The women's movement of the 1960s forged still more links between
feminism and eugenics. Shulamith Firestone's 1970 classic, The
Dialectic of Sex, argued that women would truly be free only when
released from the burden of reproduction. Today, as scientists work to
engineer embryos in the laboratory, while others devise technology to
save premature babies at ever earlier stages of development, the
possibility that a viable artificial womb will someday be created has
emerged. While feminists are divided on the issue, many look forward
to the prospect.
Thus, if faced with an ultimate choice between feminist hopes of
workplace equality with men and society's simultaneous need for more
children, it is not hard to imagine that some on the cultural left
would opt for technological outsourcing -- surrogacy in various forms
-- as a way out. To some extent, this phenomenon has already begun:
Consider the small but growing numbers of older, usually career women
who choose and pay younger women to carry babies for them. As with
Sanger and Firestone, eugenics may be seen by some as the "logical"
alternative to pressure to restore the traditional family.
Christine Rosen, who has usefully thought through the prospects and
implications of "ectogenesis," suggests that objections to the human
exploitation inherent in surrogacy could actually propel a shift
toward artificial wombs. Of course, that would only complete the
commodification of childbirth itself -- weakening if not eliminating
the parent-child bond. And if artificial wombs one day become "safer"
than human gestation, insurers might begin to insist on our not giving
birth the old-fashioned way.
Such dark possibilities demand serious intellectual attention. Neither
principled objections to tampering with human nature nor instinctive
horror at the thought of it suffice to meet the challenge of the new
eugenics. Philosophy and instinct must be welded to a compelling
social vision. The course and consequences of world population decline
offer just such a vision. In the end, philosophical principles and
reflexive horror are guardians of the social order, yet without a
lively vision of the social order they are protecting, these guardians
cannot properly do their work.
ven in the celebrated image of the conservative who stands athwart
history yelling "Stop!" there is a subtle admission of modernization's
inevitability. Tocqueville saw history's trend toward ever greater
individualism as an irresistible force. The most we could do, he
thought, was to balance individualism with modern forms of religious,
family, and civic association. Today, even Tocqueville's cherished
counterweights to radical individualism are disappearing --
particularly in the sphere of the family.
It is indeed tempting to believe that the fundamental social changes
initiated in the 1960s have by now become irreversible. Widespread
contraception, abortion, women in the workforce, marital decline,
growing secularism and individualism -- all seem here to stay. Looked
at from a longer view, however, the results are not really in. We
haven't yet seen the passing of even the great demographic wave of the
"baby boom." The latter half of the twentieth century may someday be
seen not as ushering in the end of history, but as a transition out of
modernity and into a new, prolonged, and culturally novel era of
The most interesting and unanticipated prospect of all would be a
conservatism. Of our authors, only Longman has explored the potential
ideological consequences of the new demography. In effect, Longman
wrote his book to forestall a religiously-based conservatism
precipitated by demographic and economic decline. Yet even Longman may
underestimate the potential for conservative resurgence.
It wouldn't take a full-scale economic meltdown, or even a relative
disparity in births between fundamentalists and secularists, to change
modernity's course. Chronic low-level economic stress in a rapidly
aging world may be enough. There is good reason to worry about the
fate of elderly boomers with fragile families, limited savings, and
relatively few children to care for them. A younger generation of
workers will soon feel the burden of paying for the care of this
massive older generation. The nursing shortage, already acute, will
undoubtedly worsen, possibly foreshadowing shortages in many other
categories of workers. Real estate values could be threatened by
population decline. And all these demographically tinged issues, and
more, will likely become the media's daily fare.
In such an atmosphere, a new set of social values could emerge along
with a fundamentally new calculation of personal interest. Modernity
itself may come in for criticism even as a new appreciation for the
benefits of marriage and parenting might emerge. A successful
pronatalist policy (if achieved by means of the conventional family
rather than through surrogacy or artificial wombs) would only
reinforce the conservative trend. In that case we will surely find
that it is cultural radicals standing athwart history's new trend
Humankind faces three fundamental choices in the years ahead: at least
a partial restoration of traditional social values, a radical new
eugenics, or endless and compounding population decline. For a long
time, this choice may not be an either/or. Divisions will likely
emerge both within and between societies on how to proceed. Some
regions may grow more traditional, others may experiment with radical
new social forms, while still others may continue to shrink. And a
great deal will depend upon an economic future that no one can predict
with certainty. In any case, the social innovations of the modern
world are still being tested, and the outcome is unresolved.
Feedback? Email polrev at hoover.stanford.edu. Or send us a
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