The theme of Jonathan Last’s What to Expect When No One’s Expecting is that most of the modern world is experiencing a birth dearth (i.e., below replacement rate birth rates). This birth dearth is taking place within a larger trend of population decline (i.e., falling birth rates). These two trends seem to be related, but they are theoretically distinct. Population decline is part of what we could call the First Demographic Transition, when infant mortality rates declined and life expectancy increased. The birth dearth is part of the Second Demographic Transition, abetted by birth control and elective abortion, when people lived more for themselves than for their families.

Last shows that this Second Demographic Transition sits behind many of our great social and political problems, including our decline in economic vitality and the crisis of the late welfare state. What I would like to do in this continuation of my recent review of Last’s book  is to consider what, if anything, can be done about the modern world’s birth dearth.

What to Expect When No One's Expecting


What to Expect When No One is Expecting by Jonathan Last, Encounter Books, 2013

The gradual decline of population, we observe, seems (to place a line from Tocqueville into a different context) to be “a providential fact, and it has the principal characteristics of one: it is universal, it is enduring, each day it escapes human power; all events, like all men, serve its development.” We see that prosperity causes population decline (because children become too expensive); poverty also brings decline (because parents cannot afford children). Education brings decline, as does lack of education (though education of women leads to more population decline than lack of education). No matter what we do, in other words, it is difficult to struggle against such a powerful tide, such a providential fact. The birth dearth seems the inevitable byproduct of population decline.

Yet we do well to remember that human beings can still act. Again, Alexis de Tocqueville also inspires to action and forces us out of our resignation, especially in the penultimate paragraph of Democracy in America:

“Providence has not created the human race either entirely independent or perfectly slave. It traces, it is true, a fatal circle around each man that he cannot leave; but within its vast limits man is powerful and free; so too with peoples.”

Perhaps there are things human beings and nations can do to obviate the trends or swim against the tide and resist the birth dearth. Or to put this thought more radically, perhaps there comes a point when the decline itself becomes so obviously pernicious and so inconsistent with human thriving (collectively and individually) that people everywhere will rise to reverse it and live a different way of life.

What swimming against the tide or the creation of a new tide would look like requires us first to consider what has been done about the birth dearth. Last catalogues what I would call the Enlightened approach to the birth dearth—nations seek to remove the burdens of parenthood hoping that people will more likely choose parenthood if it is made easier. France supplies national day care centers. Sweden provides day cares and gives working mothers 90 percent of their salary for the first full year their child’s life and some additional benefits as well. Singapore and Japan have adopted an increasingly bold series of subsidies, bonuses, and parental leave programs. Other such iterations have been tried throughout the world, all to mixed results at best. The best that can be said, in Last’s summation, is the policies can “create a small, positive effect” but they may also just “nudge the timing of births slightly later in a woman’s life and closer together” (p. 150). Social science cannot provide definitive evidence on these programs (yet!, I am sure they would say).

“I imagine Last at a coffeehouse in a toney urban neighborhood, looking out at his mini-van and wondering if he and his wife should have more children. He appreciates the pull of post-family culture, but he is still a human being in the old sense of seeing himself as part of an intergenerational compact.” Yenor in Public Discourse, The Witherspoon Institute, Feb. 26, 2013.From this, Last concludes, “People cannot be bribed into having babies” (p. 160). This suggests to me an interesting and revealing thought experiment. It is more accurate to say that people have not YET (I can use that word too…) been bribed into having babies. Does not every woman have her price? If our demographic collapse calls for greater production of children, perhaps we could undertake a genuine labor campaign. We could pay women enough to make them genuine breeders and then turn those children into wards of the state, for purposes of education. Sufficient wages will, eventually, attract sufficient laborers or so it stands to reason. Pay $100,000 or $1,000,00 or whatever it takes and someone might sign up for such employment. No one would be forced into such a program: it would be based on the principle of free labor.

No country has proposed such a program. How would we analyze this proposal as a matter of principle? In conceiving of such labor as outside the bonds of marriage, such a proposal severs the link between procreation and marriage in a most decisive way. In removing the norm that parents should have an active role in educating their children, the proposal severs the link between parenthood and education. In making labor a matter of wages, it removes any expectation of love or sacrifice or enduring, exclusive relations between husband and wife. Such a proposal epitomizes modern autonomy and the technological conception of human life. By this I mean that it reflects a faith that human beings can rearrange their moral universe, deconstruct and reconstruct any institution to achieve any posited human end. Such a program might achieve the goal of repopulating our advanced countries, but would do so only by making our civilization unrecognizable because it would supersede the family entirely.

Because we cannot simply control children (their character and interests, the timing of their birth, their development, their needs), they are standing reproaches to a life based on the assumptions of modern autonomy or freedom; children and childhood are limits on our creative power. Lives increasingly dominated by such autonomy-centered thinking are less likely to produce children. We cannot commercialize all kinds of relationships (and especially not the mother-child relationship or the parent-child relation) because human beings long for deeper, most lasting personal relationships that grow out of these.

To put this differently, attempts to arrest the birth dearth depend on our ability to rediscover and defend the First Demographic Transition (which I discuss in depth in the Public Discourse review) but to arrest its “development” into the Second or to explain the results of the First in different terms. We need a philosophy that understands the limits of these modern approaches.

This lingering commitment to marriage is what prevents societies from even considering paid breeding today. This suggests that if we are to get replacement rate fertility or at least reverse the birth dearth, we will do so while strengthening the institution of marriage that has, as its public raison d’etre, the procreation and education of children. Even at this late date—where so much confusion clouds our thinking about marriage and family life—we would not seek to solve the fertility crisis without thinking about and respecting the bonds of matrimony.

The most crucial finding of Last’s book is this: declines in fertility reach crisis points as marriage itself loses its privileged place in human life and law. We can live with the First Demographic Transition, properly understood as a practical achievement (as delaying death, for instance) and not the beginning of a post-human future (such as promising immortality or eternal youth). The Second Transition, however, forces us to confront the limits of human freedom or human control and the relation of our bodies to our free creative wills.

Such limits are usually best appreciated within communities of religious faith. Last mentions the reversal declining birth rates in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia (pp. 158) and he traces Georgia’s rising birthrates to a promise made by Georgia’s patriarch to baptize all of Georgia’s newborn babies. American states with higher weekly church attendance rates have higher birthrates than states with more “secular, enlightened, self-actualized” citizens (p. 94).

What is it about religious practice that makes the faithful more likely to resist the modern technological thrust? At least when it comes to life and death, the faithful are more likely to appreciate the limits on human power and to appreciate the gifts that they have been given in life and to see the modern project of controlling nature as much more limited. They may delay pregnancy, but not practice “birth control.” They may plan, but also recognize the limits of their ability to plan. The intractability of children and the burdens of parenthood do not stand as a reproach to the faithful because they do not expect a burden-free life. In fact, the “burdens” of parenthood foster loving, responsible human beings. This view is much more accessible to those who believe, but it is not inaccessible to those who seriously think about the limits of human power and the nature of human life.

Studies show, as Last points out, that parents are generally less happy than non-parents and that their happiness declines with each succeeding child. “Having children,” Last writes, “makes parents less happy” (p. 160). David Hume had said that happiness relates to fecundity, while Last says that fecundity diminishes happiness. I am suggesting that we must understand the poverty of what we often mean by happiness—we seem to mean something like “doing what I want” or “being free from unchosen burdens.” Last concedes (in a footnote) that happiness is not the “virtue to be prized above all others.” Here we need more than a splash of Aristotle. Happiness is indeed the prize, but it must be happiness properly understood. Our poets, aided by our philosophers, must show the poverty of contemporary happiness and the beauty of a more virtuous, responsible, loving happiness.

Any long-term reversal of population decline or, what is more likely, a reversal of the birth dearth depends on the cultivation of such a perspective—an appreciation for the limits of human freedom to redefine our world. This means first an appreciation of the public and private purposes of marriage; second, it means placing children and the love they reflect closer to the center of our lives. Individuals can do so more easily than nations, but nations are, at the very least, collections of individuals—even as their numbers continue to dwindle.

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The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University or the School of Public Service.