Demographic Disaster? What's Wrong With Jonathan Last's What To Expect When No One's Expecting
By Bryan Caplan
Jonathan Last’s new What To Expect When No One’s Expecting is the best-written, most engaging, and funniest book on the social cost of low birth rates and population decline. While he focuses on fertility, he breaks with typical conservatives by hailing the massive benefits of immigration too. Highly recommended.
The subtitle of Last’s book is America’s Coming Demographic Disaster. He tries to tone this down in the intro:
Unlike Ehrlich, I’m not selling doom. (Unless that’s good for book-buying. In which case, we’re doomed.)
Yet the text is largely consistent with the subtitle:
[S]ub-replacement fertility rates eventually lead to a shrinking of population – and throughout recorded human history, declining populations have always followed or been followed by Very Bad Things. Disease. War. Economic stagnation or collapse. And these grim tidings from history may be in our future, since population contraction is where most of the world is headed.
Notice the odd language: “followed or been followed.” The reason is pretty obvious. History is full of cases where Very Bad Things happen, then population falls as a result: the Black Death, the Mongol invasions, the conquest of the New World. But history is not full of cases when population falls as a result of low fertility, then Very Bad Things happen. Indeed, I’m not aware of any clear-cut examples of the latter. And as far as I can tell, Last doesn’t provide any such examples.*
“Very Bad Things” isn’t a throwaway line; it’s also the title of chapter 5. After reading this chapter, though, you really have to ask, “Is that all you got?” When critics of overpopulation cry “disaster,” they predict mass famine and social collapse. The Ehrlichs of the world are silly, but their rhetoric is consistent with their predictions. Last’s list of Very Bad Things is underwhelming by comparison: health care rising as a share of GDP, shrinking cities, closing villages, and unsustainable retirement programs. He also mentions decreased innovation, but focuses on the debatable effect of median age instead of the undebatable effect of total population.**
Last’s Very Bad Things are problems, but they hardly add up to “disaster.” People won’t like higher taxes and lower retirement benefits, but they’re hardly the end of the world. If you’re really worried, you can protect your future by saving more in the present. As for the other problems, most people will barely notice them. At risk of sounding callous: Villages don’t shut down due to lack of population until there’s almost no one left to lament the shut-down.
To be fair, Last does anticipate blase reactions:
Mind you, these are the concerns of rich, First World countries, like
America. If you’re a poor, developing country, the prospects of
population aging are much, much worse… A decline in lifestyle for a
middle-class American retiree might mean canceling cable, moving to a
smaller apartment, and not eating out. A decline in lifestyle in a
place of abject poverty is something altogether different.
He’d be dead right if declining fertility were the only major long-run global trend. But it’s not. Here’s another major long-run global trend: rapid economic growth. The Great Recession notwithstanding, the global economy continues to swiftly expand – especially in the Third World. Some countries may get old before they get rich, but as long as demographic and economic trends continue, they’ll be rare.
If I disagree with Last on all these points, why do I agree with his natalist conclusions? Because the greatest costs of declining fertility aren’t visible disasters, but missed opportunities. The millions and billions of people who are never born won’t share their ideas with the world. They won’t help spread the fixed costs of idea creation, product variety, and infrastructure. And they won’t enjoy the gift of life. (If you’re already objecting by listing the upsides of non-existence, think again). Low fertility isn’t bad because we’ll lose what is. Low fertility is bad because of we won’t gain what could have been.
I’m glad that Last is challenging our demographic complacency. I hope people take his message seriously. I want them to buy his book. My worry, though, is that after they ponder Last’s list of Very Bad Things, undecided readers will decide that declining population isn’t worth worrying about.
* Last does have a chapter predicting Very Bad effects of declining fertility on foreign policy, but he doesn’t present any clear-cut historical examples of such effects.
** Yes, I have debated the undebatable.