Courtesy Reuters

Demography Is Not Destiny

A Pretext to Panic

Michael S. Teitelbaum and Jay Winter

"The Global Baby Bust," by Phillip Longman (May/June 2004), offers a new version of an old fear: the threat of population decline, which has emerged periodically throughout the past century as a major focus of political discourse. Such worries seem to crop up at predictable moments: when a dominant political or economic power begins to feel unsure of its mastery and uncertain about the future, many thinkers turn to demography for an explanation of its plight.

In the late nineteenth century, for example, French patriots of all political stripes, following their crushing defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, began to blame France's low fertility (compared to that of then demographically dynamic Germany) for its decline. Similarly, a few years later, in the early 1900s, the sorry performance of the British army in containing a handful of Boer farmers in South Africa gave rise to worries about population decline in the United Kingdom.

Again in the 1930s and 1940s, dire projections (which we now know to have been exaggerated) led to concerns about low fertility rates in Europe, the United States, and elsewhere. When fertility rates rose sharply in the 1950s, however-largely irrespective of policy-such concerns disappeared, only to be replaced by the opposite fear of a population "explosion." Then came the economic and political crises of the mid-1970s, sparked by the 1973 Middle East war and the oil crisis it precipitated. Suddenly, new voices began predicting a decline in U.S. power, linked to falling fertility and a "birth dearth."

Today, Americans are even more anxious-about global terrorism, the military and economic costs of the U.S. interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the re-emergence of large budget and trade deficits. Thus it should not be surprising that we are once more confronted with worried conjecture about population decline, from Longman and other writers.

Longman argues that increasing levels of fertility will ward off economic collapse and reinforce "modern" rather than "traditional"

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