Mike O’Hare’s recent post on population declines in Europe in general, and Italy in particuar, leaves me baffled. His post gives us plenty of reason to believe (as if it were in doubt) that Europe’s old-stock population continues to decline, but no reason to share his conviction that this should worry Europeans, let alone us. And indeed, I doubt that there is such a reason. Consider:
1. As anybody who’s spent time in Western Europe can attest, the place is crowded. Italy, Mike’s central case, has the fifth-highest population density in Europe at 200 per square kilometer (the U.S. is at about 31, meaning plenty of room both for those who like the Eastern seaboard—operationally part of Europe—and those who prefer the rest of the country, which is modeled on Scottish borderlands). Germany is even denser.
Research question: are many of the countries with the lowest birthrates also those with highest population density? (I mean relatively stable and prosperous countries, not Russia or such. ) To the extent that they are, the alleged problem of decreasing population is self-correcting. If having kids is a financial sacrifice because spacious houses in suburban Frankfurt are expensive, it will be much less of a sacrifice when ancestral farmhouses in Tuscany can be had for a song. (Why? No heirs.) Yes, this reasoning is crude, and I’m using aggregates when the action is more localized. But actually, an analysis that did justice to local variation would probably give us even less cause for alarm. Nobody has kids in San Francisco because you now need to be an investment banker to buy a house. But this has no implications, or positive ones, for population in Arizona, or the country generally—or even in California as a whole.
2. Even if population decline isn’t self-correcting, it has no implications regarding “the looming extinction of Italians.” Italy only had 36 million people in 1920 as opposed to 57 million now. Were there no “Italians” in 1920, no Italian art or culture, no Italian cooking? A negative exponential growth rate takes in theory an infinite amount of time to take you to zero. Of course, extrapolating the growth trend forever makes no sense, but the point is that a big country can lose people for a long time and still have plenty enough to sustain any desired level of cultural survival. In fact, older people probably have disproportionate taste, and time, for the often-outdated traditions that we tourists gloss as a country’s essence. (Most French people don’t smoke. Most Brits prefer curry to meat pies and wine to ale.)
3. If Italy and Germany really want more Italians or Germans, they can get them the way the New World has always gotten them: immigrants, and in particular a culture that considers the kids of immigrants full members of the national society. Nobody in my mother’s family, when she was born in suburban Zurich, would have thought her reproductive cycle a likely future source of plain old Americans, but there you go. Europe’s population problem is a nativism problem, and deserves no more sympathy there than nativism deserves here.
4. The reason Italian and German women (and educated native-born American women, in fact, whose fertility rate is not too different from Europeans’) have fewer kids than they used to is that they have more opportunities and better things to do than change diapers. This is a good thing. I have nothing against kids; in fact, I like being around kids more than most successful men probably do, and love my three-year-old to pieces. But rearing him, which work I split equally with my wife, can be stressful and exhausting, and I don’t wonder that few two-career families want to play the replacement game of having more than two. Those who want higher birthrates have the burden of explaining who exactly is supposed to replace the half the population that used to have “involuntary governess” as their only career choice. (Yes, I know that many women both here and in Europe “wish they could have more kids.” But this seems to me equivalent to the finding that most voters wish for more services and lower taxes. What we really “wish,” tradeoffs and all, is what our life-choices demonstrate. And I’d also like to see more attention to men’s preferences in these surveys, including their willingness to take on vastly increased child care responsibilities themselves, something their partners would often like but know they’ll rarely get.)
5. What’s wrong with fewer people? Unlike some, I’m not talking about the environmental benefits thereof (though perhaps Mike, if he also feels like Cassandra on global warming, might map out further the links between his two issues). I just honestly wonder what the big deal is either way. When I was a kid in the 70s, the U.S. had less than 220 million people. Now it has almost 300 million. Are we “better” as a result? Is American culture necessarily more vibrant, our society more admirable? I’m not being nostalgic, just skeptical: the quality of a society and its size seem unrelated to me. Granted, in geopolitical terms a large population is useful for throwing one’s military and economic weight around. But Germany and Italy more or less stopped playing that game, out of choice, shame and outside pressure, long before their population growth turned negative. Does anybody think that a few more kids in Old Europe would change that, and does the world’s welfare necessarily depend on this change happening?
I have no doubt that population decline is wrenching. It requires profound adjustments in school funding, pensions, health care, land use, infrastructure, everything. Such adjustments are even more profound in countries where tradition and interest-group structures ossify public policy. (If there are fewer kids there can also be fewer schools, but that’s hard to accomplish where teachers’ unions are strong; if there are fewer young workers older workers should command a high wage for staying in their jobs, but that’s unlikely to happen where people expect to retire “like their grandparents.”) But explosive population growth is no picnic either, as anyone living in immigrant-rich Southern California can attest, and I see no reason to lament the former more than the latter. None of these things is inherently good or bad.
To measure a country’s well being by its growth in population is a VERY old habit; ancient historians did it, and the Enlightenment made a fetish of it. Perhaps it even made sense when a country could only survive through producing young men for war and when low population tended to come from pestilence and famine. But I think it’s a habit we should drop. Leisure, culture, and independence are normal goods. As countries prosper, their inhabitants produce more of them—and, on aggregate, fewer kids.
CORRECTION: I originally listed the population density of the U.S. as “about 80,” mixing up the U.S. number in square miles with the European numbers in square kilometers. Thirty-one per square kilometer is right. Western Europe is, compared to the U.S., even more crowded than I thought.