How much value does the Chinese government place on freedom?
By Scott Sumner
For more than 40 years, China has restricted the number of children that families are allowed to have. Does this mean that the Chinese government places no value on personal freedom? Not necessarily. One might argue that competing values are at stake; the value of freedom of choice and the value of avoiding the harm caused by overpopulation.
However, I don’t find that explanation to be plausible. To see why, consider this recent news report:
Faced with an aging population and declining birth rate, northwestern China’s Shaanxi province has suggested abolishing family planning restrictions “when the time is right,” according to a recent provincial report.
China in 2016 allowed married couples to have two kids after decades of restricting many people to just one child. But the subsequent increase in births has been lower than expected.
In its 2017 population report — made public at the end of June but only widely reported on by media in recent days — the Shaanxi statistics department notes that, compared with 2016, the province’s birth rate dropped, the labor force shrank, and the proportion of elderly residents increased. These trends are in line with national figures.
Besides dropping restrictions on family size, the report suggests the province implement financial incentives to “increase desire to procreate” and improve the conditions for raising children.
Do you see the problem? Suppose the Chinese government valued the personal freedom to procreate at $100 billion, about $75 per capita. Also suppose that the one child policy (later changed to 2 children) was introduced because they perceived the cost of population growth to exceed the benefit of personal freedom. Over time, the cost of population growth might fall, as the birth rate declined. When the total cost of allowing free choice in procreation fell below $100 billion, the restrictions would be removed. That’s all pretty straightforward.
Here’s the part that is less obvious. At the moment the cost of overpopulation falls below $100 billion, the cost remains very large in absolute value. It would still be the case that, on balance, the Chinese government would view population growth as a strong negative, perhaps with a cost of $90 billion, or $80 billion. Because these trends tend to change smoothly over time, it would take a number of years for the cost of excess population growth to fall to zero. Only when the cost fell well below zero, when the birthrate is well below the perceived socially optimal level, would the Chinese government start to think in terms of costly programs such as birth subsidies.
So if the Chinese government placed a strong weight on personal freedom, then during a period of declining birth rates the restrictions on children would be phased out, and this would be followed by a long period of no intervention, and then perhaps much later on by birth subsidies. But the article suggests that a provincial Chinese government is thinking about transitioning directly from birth restrictions to birth subsidies, with no intervening period of freedom. I conclude that the Chinese government places relatively little value on personal freedom.
Most of my readers are probably thinking “duh”. But I do recall back in the 1980s hearing lots of people (even in the West) justifying this policy on a cost/benefit basis. Thus it’s worth noting that the Chinese government does not seem to have adopted the policy as a drastic but unfortunately necessary solution to overpopulation, but rather as a technocratic way of micromanaging the birthrate of Chinese citizens, with almost no regard for personal freedom.
One other point. It’s true that this article refers to just one province. But it’s well known that China is rapidly transitioning to a Japanese style situation of low birth rates and falling population. I have little doubt that within a few years the national government will be worried about too few babies. The fact that birth restrictions are still in place in 2018 is quite telling. And I’d say the same about barriers to internal migration within China.
This is an interesting graph: