If there is one problem the world does not face, it is too few people. There are already more than seven billion of us – and the number is only set to increase. And yet, if you believe the headlines, you would think that we were suffering from a serious people shortage. Not so long ago, Newsweek announced that the choice to be childless was “bad for America”, and with births per woman having fallen below 2.1 in many rich nations (the level needed to maintain current population levels), women are effectively being encouraged to lie back and think of their motherland.
“Breaking the baby strike” was how last week’s The Economist described policy initiatives, which include cash inducements (of the kind used by Singapore and now Turkey), subsidised child care (always popular in Scandinavia and increasingly so in the UK), additional paid leave and even national fertility boosting songs and, in Russia, an annual day earmarked for baby-making. The supposed logic – that our economies are in trouble as a result of women choosing to have too few children – is simply nonsense. The idea that the falling fertility of women in rich countries is a serious threat to our economy is not only narrow-minded, it is also potentially very damaging.
Yes, it certainly is true to say that there is a sex problem. But the problem is not too little sex but too much of it – something which is contributing to lowering the wages of those at the bottom of the ladder, stunting investment and economic growth, raising house prices and increasing the costs of many other things besides (many of which might help explain why some couples are choosing to have fewer children in the first place).
If our governments were to remove their blinkers and consider population from the perspective of the globe rather than from their own national interest, they would soon realise that all they are doing is encouraging women to behave in a way that simply adds further to a world already awash with people. Rather than helping to solve a (non-existent) “problem”, policymakers are blindly choosing to add to an existing one. It is illogical and unnecessary. By trying to bribe women in rich countries to have more kids than they would otherwise freely choose, we are potentially making women less happy whilst making the world economy worse off too – where is the sense in that?
The reality is that if certain countries really do face a population shortage relative to others, then there are plenty of people out there literally knocking on the gates of the richer countries, desperate to come in. Whether it is boats crossing the Mediterranean or lorries coming through the Channel Tunnel, you see it in the press almost ever day. But, of course, to take the immigration option involves standing up to the anti-immigration lobby, a lobby that is only growing stronger with time.
Here in Britain, and according to a recent British Social Attitudes Survey, 77% of people would like to see immigration reduced, which compares with 63% in 1995. So, with growing antagonism towards foreigners, and not just here in the UK, governments seem to think it is better to lean on domestic women rather than to make the case for greater internationalism and cosmopolitanism. Now, it is one thing to encourage we women to lie on our backs and think of our country if we really are in need of more people, but quite another if not.
So, to governments across the western world I say “hands off my fertility”. It is time to stop perverting women’s – and indeed couples’ – choices about their own fertility. Rather than relying on moral suasion and interfering with and so distorting the market to help solve a supposed fertility problem, governments would instead do well to stop perverting the international market for people. By excessively interfering with the flow of people, the governments of rich countries are boxing themselves into a corner and having to then interfere with perhaps the most important decision we all make, and certainly one that has major consequences on the lives of women: whether to have children and how many.
Stop blaming the so-called “problem” on women when the problem is instead the anti-immigration stance of the political debate, a stance which runs counter to letting market forces do their magic.
Women across the western world unite: tell your governments that your womb is your own – tell them to keep out!