[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.

    New demographics

    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
    cultural change.

    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.

    New economics?

    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
    to others.

    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
    secular culture.

    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.

    New eugenics?

    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
    these mechanisms.

    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.

    New choices

    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
    population shrinkage.

    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
    yelling "Stop!"

    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 [10]polrev at hoover.stanford.edu. Or send us a

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