We Don't Need to "Grow"

March 11, 2004

One of the most fallacious arguments for open borders is that we need immigrants to raise the birth rate, lest America begin to shrink and decline.

But is this really true? This depends on whether:

A) A higher birth rate is desirable; and

B) Is admitting immigrants the right way to replenish a country's population?

The answer to both questions is no—for a long list of reasons:

1) Big Families are not an index of national vitality.

Many conservatives are sentimentally attached to high fertility and big families. The positive stereotype of large families carries connotations from the past, when children were expected to help out at harvest-time, and many babies were required to ensure that several survived to adulthood.

But we are now a society that expects to send its children to college, rather than send them out into the fields. We invest intensively on a small brood of children, rather than stretching our resources over a big flock of them—in part, because each are simply more likely to live.

Surely it is no accident that those cultures most famous for their interest in education (Jews, Japanese, Scots) also tend to have low birthrates.

True, the teeming slums of the Third World (or of Europe in Karl Marx's day) have a certain crude vitality—but painfully lack most of the attributes of decent life, in part because of their burgeoning populations.

2) This has nothing to do with abortion.

The abortion issue is sometimes dragged into the question of population. But it has little connection, as abortion is only one—extreme—means of birth control. Any given birth rate can be accompanied by either a high or a low abortion rate. The key variable is not the birth rate as such but the choice of family vs. abortion. A high birth rate may even encourage abortion in the long run—as see in the case of place such as China and India. If we overpopulate this country to the same degree, we may end up with their population policies: forced abortions in the former and forced sterilization in the latter.

3) Small families aren't a sign of national decline.

It is sometimes suggested that a low birth rate represents decadence in the white race or Western society. But non-white advanced industrial democracies such as Japan show the exact same pattern. In fact, Japan's birth rate collapsed harder than ours did, as Japan had no baby boom after WWII. If anything, falling birth-rates are simply an index of industrialization—a side-effect of the movement of people from the land to the cities.

In fact, a decline in the birth rate is visible in all countries as they ascend the ladder of economic development—with some variance for cultural peculiarities such as the pro-natalist beliefs of Mormons or Orthodox Jews. To use economic jargon: the richer a country is, the higher the opportunity cost of children, and therefore the fewer children. Francis Fukuyama's analysis of this phenomenon in The Great Disruption is the best I know.

4) We're not fighting a breeding war.

The idea that we need a high birth rate in order to win some sort of population arms race is ludicrous. For a start, there isn't a population arms race as such: there is only the need to maintain a large enough population to defend the homeland, and a large enough native population to maintain demographic dominance vis-à-vis resident foreigners. This is a question of border control, not fertility.

Britain at the height of her empire had a population of 40 million and ruled 600 million subjects. She now has 60 million and is a minor power. Armed self-defense depends far more upon foreign policy, national will, technology, and other factors than it does on raw population. Just ask the 1.3 billion Moslems who, as Prime Minister Mahathir of Malaysia recently pointed out, are daily defied by 5 million Israelis.

In fact, stable or slowly shrinking population is not a problem at all—unless we make the mistake of allowing foreigners into our country to displace us. So long as they stay in their own countries, they can breed all they want, as this will only result in their remaining poor and underdeveloped. Many of them, such as the 1.8 billion peasants in India and China, have essentially zero interest in us, anyway.

5) We only have one planet.

Taken to its logical consequence, a worldwide demographic arms race would spell ecological catastrophe. One does not have to buy into environmental extremism to grasp that a larger population puts a greater burden on finite natural resources. Even if we don't reach an absolute breaking point, larger populations will still force us to accept more government regulation, to ration the shrinking supply of space and resources—a point libertarian immigration promoters never grasp.

6) America is doing just fine, thank you very much.

The current demographic forecast for this country for native-born Americans shows a demographically mature society. If you take immigration out of the picture, we would have had an essentially stable population since 1970. This is a good thing—and all the more reason not to allow immigrants to move here and spoil our achievement, which is particularly precious because we have done it without government coercion. China would just love to be where we are.

7) Growth is not good in itself.

From many points of view, a stable population is ideal, but even a gradually-declining one is acceptable within reasonable parameters. It would have lots of benefits that no one bothers to trumpet.

The gains to the environment are obvious. But has anyone thought of how nice it would be to knock down the slums of Newark and replace them with an environment more fit for a middle-class nation? Of how pleasant it would be to drive around Los Angeles without spending one's life in traffic? Of how much more humane college admissions would be if there weren't ten applicants for every place at prestigious universities? Of what a tight labor market would do for the wages of the American working class? Of what it would mean to have a continually-increasing capital to labor ratio in the economy?

8) We don't need population growth to support the aged.

The last canard in favor of population growth is the myth of Social Security. It is said that Social Security and similar programs will collapse without population growth a.k.a. immigration because of the declining ratio of workers to beneficiaries.

False!—because the economic burden that actually matters is the ratio of all non-workers to workers. Non-workers includes not just retirees but children. Given that a low birth rate reduces the number of children in a way that comes close to balancing the increase in the number of retirees, the total burden on the working population in a stable society would not significantly increase.

We would be spending a lot more on nursing homes and Geritol, but spending much less on elementary schools, minivans, college tuition, orthodontia, and 4-bedroom suburban houses.

Given the cost of raising children today, and the fact that many of them nowadays don't become net contributors to the economy until after four years of college (plus two or three years of graduate school), this declining burden would be substantial.

Insofar as Social Security does present minor problems, these can be dealt with by expedients that have already begun to be used, such as raising the retirement age. Age 65 was not handed down on stone tablets on Mt. Sinai, and medical advances combined with the decreasingly physical nature of most American jobs mean that this is not inhumane.

9) Older societies are more conservative.

Here's another unexpected benefit of an aging population: a greater overall maturity in the society. We have had since the 1960's (the maturation of a Baby Boom) a youth-obsessed culture, with all its disruptive side-effects. Frankly, a little gray hair might do us some good in terms of becoming a wiser, more sensible society. Conservatives who want to roll back the effects of the counter-culture should think about this.

10) Immigration creates more problems than it solves.

The many social costs imposed by mass immigration are well-known to readers of VDARE.COM. Using an influx of foreigners to reverse an imagined national decline because of lower birth rates is a temporary and dangerous expedient, with unpredictable and irreversible results.

No self-respecting conservative would subject his nation to such a reckless experiment.

Robert Locke (email him) is a former associate editor at FrontPageMagazine.com (archive here).