TCS Daily


Will Hutton's Fecund Suggestions

By Tim Worstall - October 1, 2004 12:00 AM

As columnist Mark Steyn has been telling us for years, demography is destiny and it is in the low birth rate countries of Continental Europe that this is going to cause problems first. The point was picked up by Will Hutton in last week's Observer along with an attempt to design a solution. Essentially, we need, once again, to change the work-life balance, families need more time and more time off in which to have and raise their children. Most especially, businesses cannot whine at the costs this imposes on them for:

"When your very civilisation is under threat, small firms complaining about the cost of maternity and paternity leave so their staff can have children are given short shrift. It is blatantly obvious that business is part of the national community and has to contribute to the common good or else it goes down the pan with the rest of society. "

Well, that is a strong and forthright statement of the bleedin' obvious, isn't it? That when our civilization is under threat, at risk of going down the pan, we might have to impose some slightly more restrictive rules than normal on some segment of that society in order to avert the looming disaster. So ladies, if you could just round up your Jimmy Choos, Manolo Blahniks and other fancy footwear and place them over there on the bonfire please? You won't be needing them any more as I am about to show you with impeccable liberal logic.

To an economist, the falling birth rate is easily explainable. We've got rich, fat and happy. This gives all of us, both male and female, more choices and more choices mean that the opportunity costs of any specific one are higher. Offered alternatives to bearing 12 children, women find that bearing one or two is quite sufficient thank you, they'd also like to have some of that self-esteem found through a career, that leisure of a sabbatical, well, simply more of the delights that modern civilization has to offer. Those who read a little Darwin might also point to modern medicine as lowering the fertility rate. Not just the availability of contraception but a change in the number of children desired instead of the number thrust upon those who enjoy the carnal delights. For if the meaning of life is to have descendants who then go on to have more (a very rough and ready outline of Darwinist theory) then the fact that almost all children survive to themselves be able to breed means you need to have fewer of them. Or, in econspeak, the opportunity cost of having few children has fallen.

We could therefore arrive at an economist's solution to this problem, which is that we should all go back to being poor with no choices in order to raise the birth rate. Or stop vaccinating children. We might also note that a good bloody war raises birth rates but I'm not sure that any of those three are going to be seriously accepted.

Mr Hutton tells us that we need to have more maternity and paternity leave, in short, that business and society as a whole need to be more family friendly. I thought this sounded logical until I paid a visit to Nationmaster and started looking around at fertility rates in wealthy countries.

The country with the most family orientated policies I can think of is Sweden; extensive leave for both parents, universal childcare, 80% marginal tax rates (adding direct and indirect) making extra work rather than raising kids valueless, essentially a liberal's wet dream. The fertility rate is 1.54 births per woman.

The UK, which is much less accommodating to the needs of mothers and their children, has one of 1.65.

You might also be interested in noting that the USA, a place where people work the longest hours of any rich country, where anything more than a few days off for the stitches to take after parturition is regarded as malingering, where paid paternity leave is almost unheard of once it is confirmed that the babbie can work out how to suck on a teat, that hellhole of family unfriendly policies has a fertility rate of 2.07. It might just be different immigration rates of course, as first generation such are known to be more philoprogenitive but then Sweden has a higher rate than the UK, 5.4% to 4%, of foreign born residents.

So there seems to be something empirically wrong with the suggested solution. We cannot see that actually having more of these sorts of policies does in fact increase the birth rate. We might have known that there was indeed something wrong with the analysis as Mr Hutton gravely informs us that Italy's exceptionally low number of children, (1.12% fertility rate) is actually caused by the Catholic Church. No, don't laugh, Will Hutton is a highly respected liberal intellectual and commentator, former editor of The Observer (The Guardian's sister paper), chief executive of The Work Foundation (formerly the Industrial Society) and a Governor of the London School of Economics. If he says that a Church which outlaws both abortion and contraception, one which regards any sexual act which does not contain the possibility of conception as sinful, if he says that this Church and its teachings are leading to underpopulation, well then, it is so and no sniggering at the back there.

So if current liberal nostrums are not the answer where can we look for one that is still politically correct? Think back a few years, perhaps a few decades, to when the major worry was overpopulation in the Third World. The solution suggested was that we need both to provide contraception (usually referred to as family planning) and empower women. These two alone would solve the problem. Very well, now we have a problem of underpopulation, a situation in which we need to raise the fertility rate, one where women need to have more babies, not fewer. Logic tells us then that we need to reduce the amount of both contraception and female empowerment in our society so as to bring about that happy state of affairs.

So ladies of Europe, that's why you won't be needing the expensive shoes any more (and society will step back from the edge of that dread fate, The Shoe Event Horizon, which Douglas Adams so presciently outlined) as for the good of the Continent you are going to have to go back to being barefoot, pregnant and in the kitchen. This might also cure us of the current plague of celebrity chefs as feeding your extensive brood on one income will require intimate knowledge of macaroni cheese, not foie gras.

Yes, yes, I know, some will carp and complain about reductions in freedom, in chains put upon liberty, possibly even about how sexist and patriarchal this solution is. So I will leave you with a paraphrase of our esteemed liberal intellectual to comfort you as you adjust to the new reality:

"When your very civilisation is under threat, women complaining about the loss of freedoms concomitant with having children are given short shrift. It is blatantly obvious that women are part of the national community and have to contribute to the common good or else they go down the pan with the rest of society."

Yes, I thought that would be sufficient sugar to help the bitter pill go down.

The author is a TCS contributor. To read more of his writing please go to www.timworstall.com


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