Demography is Destiny — But What Drives the Demography?

“Spengler” offers a radical answer, which is plausible at least for the developed world.

“The personal is political,” said the feminists of the 1960s. They were on to something. Countries go to war because those who inhabit them cannot bear their individual lives. Entire cultures die out because the individuals who comprise them no longer wish to live, not because (as author Jared Diamond claims) they cut down too many trees. Bulgaria and Belarus have plenty of trees, yet we observe in such countries a demographic catastrophe unseen in Europe since the Thirty Years’ War.

Birth rates rise and fall with religious faith People do not have babies because religious doctrine instructs them to procreate, though, but because religion makes them happy. With the end of traditional society, religion becomes a personal, not a communal, matter, and the fate of nations is fought out at the level of individual souls. Communism suppressed religion in Eastern Europe, and the demographic data in consequence seem to bear out the cliche of the melancholy Slav. By mid-century most of the Eastern European countries will lose 20-40% of their people and be left with a geriatric remnant.

US Christians, by contrast, have one of the highest birth rates in the West. Conservative, mostly evangelical Christians have a plurality, soon to be a majority, in US politics. Their burgeoning power stems from a personal message that has made converts of tens of millions of liberal Protestants. Evangelicals are political only when circumstances force them into politics, for example proposals in several US states to legalize same-sex marriage. Their identification with Israel has drawn them into foreign policy … .

The Devil’s Sourdough and the Decline of Nations , by “Spengler”. (See also Why Europe Chooses Extinction, Death by Secularism: Some Statistical Evidence, Power and the Evangelical Womb and It’s the Culture, Stupid.)

29 thoughts on “Demography is Destiny — But What Drives the Demography?”

  1. While religion does make people happier and more optimistic about future which will make them more likely to have children, the best explanation for demographic collapse is the economic squeeze caused by socialism.

    While in theory, socialism should reduce the cost of having children, in reality it increases them. Socialist housing policies make housing expensive, cramped and hard to find. Slow job growth under socialism makes it hard for young adults to establish careers that can support a family. High tax burdens eat up disposable income.

    (Japan has a similar problem because government policies since WWII have sought to divert capital away from housing and into industry.)

    In much of the developed world, having children is just to much of an expense and a hassle.

  2. I do not see how legalizing same-sex marriage “forces” evangelicals to become political.

    Other stuff is legal – drunkenness, gambling, divorce, etc – that may not be acceptable to evangelicals. Does this “force” them to become political? Why do evangelicals “look the other way” on some things and not others?

    And as for identification with Israel: I find this tenuous and very easily subject to change. There is a ton of variation on this within “evangelical” plurality.

  3. “I do not see how legalizing same-sex marriage “forces” evangelicals to become political.”

    Drunkenness, gambling, divorce, etc. are all already legal. They’re not going to get particularly worse from an evangelical point of view; you can’t super-legalize gambling. Same-sex marriage is not yet legal, so it *could* get worse from an evangelical POV. So of course they’ll fight it. They’re not, as a group, more or less political than other groups — but there are a few issues they get really fired up about, and that’s one of them. Abortion is another. If the Democratic party had an even remotely sensible position on abortion, a large percentage of evangelicals would drop out of politics entirely.

  4. the best explanation for demographic collapse is the economic squeeze caused by socialism.

    I disagree. The most prolific part of my relatives are hardly rich, indeed the grandparents who started that particular population explosion were missionaries and lived extremely frugal lives. But they had nine children, and the children begat grand children and the grand children begat… A photo from a recent family gathering shows the progenetors in the center, the rest of the photo is completely filled with decendents down to babies in blankets. It isn’t money, it is family orientation. People who see family as a natural part of life, as a core community, have families. Those whose ambitions are more directed towards things, money and influence, have fewer children. I think the population in Europe is collapsing because the idea of family is collapsing. Socialism certainly had a role in that, Marx in The Communist Manifesto writes on the bourgeois family:

    The bourgeois claptrap about the family and education, about the hallowed correlation of parents and child, becomes all the more disgusting, the more, by the action of Modern Industry, all the family ties among the proletarians are torn asunder, and their children transformed into simple articles of commerce and instruments of labor.

    And there you have it. The deliberate destruction of the bourgeois idea of family, to be replaced with what… Sterility. The revolution ends with the end of the cries of children as silence spreads over the barren aftermath.

  5. I do not see how legalizing same-sex marriage “forces” evangelicals to become political.

    Same-sex marriage isn’t the best example. A better example might be the politicization of public schooling, where religion was driven underground and children were subjected to explicit discussions of deviant sexuality in the guise of “sex education.” Once the Left started forcing its anti-religious, anti-family agenda on children it was a foregone conclusion that parents who felt that their families and values were under attack would react politically to defend themselves. Perhaps Spengler is too young to remember this.

    The only thing surprising about the entry of fundamentalist-Christian groups into politics in response to leftist activism is that leftists had so much hubris that they didn’t see it coming.

  6. Classic. As usual, the very tangential point about gay marriage has come to dominate the discussion. If I had a 1,000 word post about Heinz Guderian and the panzerwaffe and embedded the phrase “gay marriage” in there, that is what would get mentioned. As an experiment, I should just put up a post some day with the title “Gay Marriage” and the full text: Gay marriage. I’d get about 72 comments, most of them hostile.

    BTW, I am not sure that Spengler is right. I just think he might be right. I think David Cosandey’s argument that the retirement system and tax regimes in Europe are the drivers of demographic decline, a point Shannon pretty much makes, is at least as convincing. Also, Shannon says “[i]n much of the developed world, having children is just too much of an expense and a hassle.” Unless, that is, you have a religious imperative to do so, and a religiously-based optimism about the future and willingness to forego current satisfaction for others.

    Where did that “bourgeois claptrap” quote come from?

  7. “I do not see how legalizing same-sex marriage “forces” evangelicals to become political.”

    In a nutshell, evangelicals believe that deviating significantly from traditional forms of family structure leads to creation of large numbers of unhappy, dysfunctional people. Such people cause huge problems for everyone around them. Further, dysfunctional people raise dysfunctional children creating a dangerous feedback loop.

    (Empirically, this is actually true. Our experience of the last 40 years has shown that the traditional nuclear family is the best environment for raising children. The further a child’s environment deviates from the traditional the more problems the child will have and the more unhappy they will be as adults.)

    Evangelicals believe that morality is about our obligations and responsibilities to others, not necessarily our own personal happiness. Further they believe that culture, society and even the state has the right to make individuals fulfill their responsibilities. The seek to create social and legal structures which will enforce these responsibilities and the institution of marriage is an important part of this enforcement.

    Gay marriage severs the ancient link between marriage and children. (The fact that it is supported by the same segments of the political spectrum who have waged explicit and acknowledged war on the institution of marriage and the family does not help.) Gay marriage makes marriage about what is good for the adults, not about what is good for children. It will create a cultural, social and legal framework in which children are not cared for and create a society full of problems.

    Evangelicals feel compelled to enter the political fray in order to head off these problems. This is mysterious and confusing only to those who have convinced themselves that family structure is irrelevant to the emotional well being of children and the greater society.

  8. There is a substantial body of work that correlates economic factors with family size.

    One of the primary predictors is the ability of young people to establish their own households. The lower the age at which people can afford their own place, the sooner they start having their own families. A recent study showed that a quarter of Italian males age 30-35 still lived at home. Other European countries show similar trends.

    The baby-boom of the late-40’s began after the post-war housing shortage eased. People didn’t come back from the war and immediately start cranking out kids. They waited nearly three years to start their families. The baby-boom started in late ’47 and didn’t really get going until 1950.

    Stereotypes to the contrary, family size still tracks income. Wealthier people still have larger families although the gap is not as large as it was in the 1800’s. Socialism makes people poorer and family size shrinks as a result.

    This is not to say that I don’t dismiss any that the anti-traditionalist political climate that devalues family plays in peoples decision to have children, I just don’t think of it as controlling. Indeed, I would submit that people might be seduced into rejecting the traditional life precisely because socialism has made it more difficult than the childless life.

    It’s probably one of those entangled feedback loop phenomenon. Socialism makes families difficult and expensive so people buy into a world view that devalues what they can no longer have, which leads to even more family hostile policies etc.

  9. The TV show “60 Minutes” once did a piece on Italian adults who live with their parents. The spin was, “Those quaint Italians! Who knows why their kids still live with mom and dad at age 35?” But the obvious question, which the 60 Minutes crew (by dint of ignorance or ideological bias or both) wouldn’t ask, was, What combination of welfare-state incentives contributed to this situation? Taxation generally leads to less production; the corollary of this observation is that if there is less of something (in this case, family formation) one must look for systemic disincentives (perhaps, in this case, restrictions on the housing market that drive up housing costs).

  10. In general, education for women drives down the birthrate, as does the availability of job opportunities and the existence of legal equality. Ditto religious (or non-religious) beliefs that don’t inhibit contraception. Economic factors like those mentioned above can have an effect in either direction.

    The interesting questeion to me is: If you control for all these factors…and an inter-society variance is still left..that variance might be considered the “zeitgeist factor” reflecting societal pessimism and inability to think beyond a single generation as argued by Spengler. How much of the total variance is accounted for by the zeitgeist factor, as opposed to the more tangible things?

  11. Shannon-

    In aggregate: Divorce among heterosexual evangelicals may cause a lot more problems than homosexual couples. Not sure.

    So maybe evangelicals should prioritize and go after some of the biggest things first.

    Christians say one thing and behave another way. No one is perfect. It has probably always been this way. But it may be getting a little bit worse recently.

  12. Over 10,000 years of history you question the impact of Western science in the early 20th Century to end high infant mortality and the Western political socialism of relieving the family of responsibility of supporting their elders. The need for birthing large numbers of child reduces when unlike in prior times they live long enough to reach to point to make a contribution to the family unit’s survival. There is the duel impact of Western science and technology to reduce dependency upon large farming populations while simultaneously creating labor markets through industrialization and urbanization to absorb the large population no longer required in agriculture. It further created a mobile labor supply by freeing the need of extended families to be geographical tied to one general location because of fealty to their progenitors health and safety which has been passed to the state. Support now comes in credits rather than old fashion homecare. Since the social system took the responsibility, adults have reduced their reproduction to retain resources earlier rather than investing them in potential future ‘returns on investments’. The governments failed to take in account this altered behavior when they established their Ponzi scheme of generational transfer of wealth. The reduced ‘return on investment’ is about to bite them in many ways.

  13. anon, I don’t think this thread is about what evangelicals “should” do or what issues they “should” care about. It doesn’t really even matter what particular issue it is that gets evangelicals involved in politics. Whether it’s same-sex marriage, abortion, divorce, evolution in science class, or SpongeBob Squarepants, the point is, they’re a group that is pretty varied politically and not very involved in politics overall EXCEPT with respect to a few issues they see as threats. It just so happens that the Republican party is the one they agree with on virtually all of those issues. That means they’re going to vote Republican, almost regardless of what Republicans do otherwise.

    The main reason this is even relevant is that they, as a group, are nearing majority status. This is owning in part to higher birth rates than other groups, and in smaller part to religious conversion. This means their politics will tend to drive politics as a whole in this country, for good or for ill.

    Why the higher birthrate? Here are a few factors:
    – desire to start families; seeing family as a good thing
    – making “having children” a priority over “accumulating stuff”
    – religious commands to procreate
    – the availability of financial assistance from church (directly or indirectly)
    significantly less likely to have abortions

    With one couple I know, he just turned 19 and she’s not much older. They’ve been married about a year and have a baby on the way (the baby shower ends in 10 minutes.) He makes perhaps $10/hour and she makes even less. Other couples in the same circumstance might never have tried to have a kid or opted for abortion in the case of accidental pregnancy. But, their church and their friends are helping them cover some of their costs, and abortion is simply out of the question. This means they’re going to have a child in a circumstance where others would not.

  14. anon,

    “Divorce among heterosexual evangelicals may cause a lot more problems than homosexual couples.”

    I am sure that virtually all evangelicals would agree. It is a matter they take quite seriously. The concept of of charter marriages is, after all, an evangelical concept. That however, says nothing about the further harm to society they believe will occur if the institution of marriage is weakened even further by gay marriage.

    Social conservatives of all stripes deserve credit for predicting that divorce and non-traditional families would prove bad for children and society at large. The same people who now proclaim that gay marriage won’t cause any problem are the same people who said back in the 60’s and 70’s that easy divorce wouldn’t cause problems. They were wrong then, why aren’t they wrong now?

    I personally support gay-civil unions at the very least but having witnessed the ongoing wreckage that we have inflicted on the last two generations of children I am VERY sympathetic to those who argue the other way.

    The problem here is something that goes back to Lex’s original post. Religious people’s morality, and especially the morality of the traditionalist, is grounded in the needs of other people on an immediate and personal level. It is about Person A’s personal interaction with person B, not Person A’s interaction with an abstract class composed of large numbers of individuals. Such people have children and sacrifice to take care of them.

    Very few secularist have such a morality. Their morality is largely attached to abstract groups. They bitterly resent any implication that they have obligations or responsibilities to specific individuals on a level that would justify social or political intervention if they fail to fulfill them. Children are an abstract class, not individuals. Such people either won’t have children because they see no need to personally contribute to the next generation or if they do have children will view them as more societies responsibility than their own.

    Traditions have the virtue of having evolved over time. At least at some point in the past they worked well. We jettison then casually at our peril.

  15. “Religious people’s morality, and especially the morality of the traditionalist, is grounded in the needs of other people on an immediate and personal level”…this may be true of specific religious traditions, but I don’t think it’s always true of religion in general. Certainly, the victims of Baal-Moloch might care to differ.

  16. the victims of Ball-Moloch” aren’t relevant to the article. The article is specifically about birth rates in developed countries, and which sub-populations within the developed countries have, despite the general trend, continued to have children. The worship of Baal-Moloch cied out long ago for a lot or reasons. It has nothing to do with what is at issue here.

  17. Lex..I was responding specifically to Shannon’s point about the nature of religion. Maybe nobody is worshipping Baal-Moloch today, but do you really think that *all* of today’s religions (and religious interpretations) are concerned with specific individuals than with abstract groups? Is the mother who grooms her children to be homicide bombers, based on religious motivations, concerned with specific individuals, or with abstract groups?

  18. Maybe nobody is worshipping Baal-Moloch today

    Don’t be silly. He was widely worshipped in various Communist countries. All that human sacrifice was for a reason and Europe itself makes reqular offerings of infants. The continuing worship of Baal-Moloch in academia is something of a mystery to me.

  19. “With one couple I know, he just turned 19 and she’s not much older. They’ve been married about a year and have a baby on the way (the baby shower ends in 10 minutes.) He makes perhaps $10/hour and she makes even less. Other couples in the same circumstance might never have tried to have a kid or opted for abortion in the case of accidental pregnancy. But, their church and their friends are helping them cover some of their costs, and abortion is simply out of the question. This means they’re going to have a child in a circumstance where others would not. ”

    Which means that over the long term, in an environment where death during childhood is almost unheard of (such as ours), people who would have a child in these circumstances will outbreed those would would not.

    Is that going to lead to a population capable of expanding into space? Of improving medical technology to conquer old age or simply to keep pace with evolving drug-resistant microbes?

    People who are able to design the craft, the habitats, the fusion engines and life systems and so on still have several years of school ahead of them at age 19, and will blow any realistic chance of learning how to do such things if they marry and have children at that age. So will those able to finance the operations, those able to pilot the craft, those able to do anything at all crucial to our culture’s continued advancement. Those capable of researching or treating diseases are in even worse straits, evolutionarily speaking. They can’t marry and have kids until they’re about 30 or so if they want any shot at practicing such careers.

    Those capable of taking orders at orbital McDonalds’ (assuming the others ever get around to building and launching the habitats that they operate in), however, can marry and have children as soon as they come of age, if not before, with much smaller opportunity costs.

    What to do? Trying to stop anyone from breeding will quickly turn this culture into one that any thinking and capable person will flee from as fast as they can. So will trying to force anyone to breed. However, it will be helpful overall, and more conducive to individual liberty, to shorten childhood and K-12 education, remove the blatant stalling that takes place during this period, and allow people to advance through the curriculum as fast as their abilities allow instead of trying to group them by “social development” or other such nonsense, so that those capable of further education can complete that education without eating up half of their childbearing years and leaving us with hardly any children to carry on the difficult work of future generations.

    Gay marriage is lost in the noise. Anyone who would be part of such a marriage is not a suitable candidate for a happy heterosexual marriage in any event. People are putting off marriage and childbirth for a reason, and addressing that reason is the best way to go here to get more smart babies that we can depend on for our civilization’s future. And, if we address those reasons, smart evangelicals can get educations and follow God’s command to be fruitful and multiply without any conflict.

  20. David, the religions which are relevant to the countries at issue in the cited article have no analogy to Baal Worship, that was my point. In the USA and Europe, people are Christian, or non-religious descended form Christian ancestors, or in small numbers, Muslims or Jews. There are a small number of other things, like Buddhists. So, the relevant discussion is pretty much limited to variants of Christianity and post-Christianity when it comes to any religious impact on the great majority of people in those areas making family decisions.

  21. Divorce among heterosexual evangelicals may cause a lot more problems than homosexual couples.

    That was a battle us social conservatives fought and lost back in the early 1970’s when no-fault divorce laws were being passed as part of the feminist movement. I would certainly like to reopen the debate (and now that women are being abandoned for trophy wives, and men are being left by their wives and hit up child support, I think we might win).

    I say “us social conservatives” even though my mother was one of the social liberal taking advantage of the liberalized divorce laws!

    In any case, IMO, the definition of a social conservatives is someone who agrees with the following statement: Once you bring a child into the world, the interests of that child come before your own interests.

  22. Shannon,

    I can’t remember the last time I disagreed with you, but I don’t think we have enough data to say “the best explanation for demographic collapse is the economic squeeze caused by socialism.” China has been essentially socialist for a long time, yet the biggest explanation of their birth rates is state policy. Emerging market birth rates would be more likely the result of economic development, ie less farm labor needed. Previous posts went into more detail on that.

    At the very least, that’s 4 variables. I would need more convincing to conclude that low birth rates in Eastern Europe are the result of the economic costs of socialism rather than state ideology replacing religion, although I hadn’t thought of your point and agree that it had an impact, to a point.

  23. Another way to rephrase the question is this. The Americans and Europeans and Japanese of today are fantastically wealthier than their forebears, by any reasonable measure of material wellbeing. However, majorities of Europeans and Japanese and large groups of Americans no longer want to have children, or want only a very few children, even though by historical standards they are better able than ever before to “afford” them. The failure of an overarching economically-based explanation is demonstrated by the curious behavior of religious Americans, who have the same economic and educational profile as their neighbors but have children at greater than replacement level anyway. Why? Spengler says, their religion makes them happy and hopeful. Others might say that their religion gives them a supportive community which encourages the existing natural urge to have babies, or they are blindly obedient to religioius authority. Some would say, their religion makes them deluded, so they don’t realize how great the restaurant meals and extra pairs of shoes are that they are missing by having babies. But the Americans who are by all measures “modern” but still have babies are the group that needs explaining — and the distinguishing feature seems to be their religious beliefs.

    BTW my personal experience is pretty much like Spengler describes. I’m religious and I have five kids.

  24. Good point. I have noticed something in many of my friends behavior. Their 20’s and sometimes part of their 30’s is marked by relatively more secular behavior, and then marriage, kids, and religion follow. I know it’s anecdotal, but it has happened with all of them, so it’s possible that religion is not a causal factor, although they were all raised in 2 parent, protestant, church-attending households, so maybe their youth was just a bit of exploration.

    I agree with Spengler’s first two, but not the blindly obedient to religious authority, at least not in my protestant world. Don’t know about evangelicals, catholics, etc.

  25. CB has a point about the large number of variables here.

    There is little pressure now on people in western societies to have children. I think this means that people who do not want children are now less likely to have them (just at people who want large families can now afford them more easily). I think that’s probably a good thing, though it invariably seems bad if you look only at population averages.

  26. Sure, there are a lot of variables here, and demographic change is known to be mysterious and not well-explained historically, let alone trying to figure out what is going on now. I think we can take as given that in the developed world “people who do not want children are now less likely to have them”, without regard to whether we like this fact or deplore it. The interesting thing is that populations with grossly similar attributes show one large subpopulation which continues to “want to have them.”

  27. It is definitely a given that as economies mature, birth rates go down. The first place I saw it, I believe, was in Rostow’s ‘The World Economy’, but I’ve seen it in other places, as well. The other major factor would be religion, with state policy being a trump. Shannon pointed out economic systems, which I believe is a factor, but I’m not convinced it’s as dominant a factor as economic development or religion. She was talking about Eastern Europe, which also lost religion, so it’s difficult to seperate the two without more evidence.

  28. While modern Americans are extraordinarily wealthy, an offsetting factor is that the cost of raising kids (at least to generally accepted standards) has increased at least as fast as our wealth.

    Part of that comes from the regulatory impact on the cost of schooling and health care. A big part of it comes from gradually increasing costs in time of raising kids… the age at which people are expected and generally permitted to fend for themselves has increased over the years, meaning that our own effective lifetimes are shorter and more of that lifetime is taken up by raising kids if we in fact raise them.

    So Americans, particularly middle-class Americans, are discouraged from having kids by economic factors, even though they are wealthier than their more prolific forbears.

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