Mark Steyn has been banging on for many months now about the demographic decline of the great liberal welfare states of the West (and East), especially compared to the enviable fecundity of the Islamic world. Now James C. Capretta, in an interesting piece for The Weekly Standard underlines the point that this decline has everything to do with the (apparently unchallengeable) ascendancy of government-run pension systems like Social Security.
As Capretta points out, "a primary motivation for having children in earlier times was economic security in old age. As parents became frail and less productive, it was expected that one or more of their adult children would take care of them, oftentimes by bringing them into their homes. Married couples thus 'invested' in numerous children, in part, to ensure there would be family members to care for them in their twilight years. With state-run Social Security, the government has largely assumed this family responsibility. Married couples have a greatly diminished economic incentive to have children, because now they are counting on--and paying for--government-based old age support."
Take away that "primary motivation," and the consequences are (or should have been) predictable: "a government-run pension system equal to 10 percent of a country's economy correlates with a reduction in the Total Fertility Rate (TFR)--which measures the average number of births per woman during her lifetime--of between 0.7 and 1.6 children, after controlling for other variables...This is extraordinary given that most industrialized countries now have TFRs well below 2.0...The bigger the Social Security scheme, the steeper the fertility decline."
To which I would add that "government-based old age support" (which, in the US, includes Medicare as well as Social Security) not only reduces the natural incentives for having babies, but also the incentives for raising them rightly.
Which is to say: it reduces the incentives for bringing up one's children - for training them - in the traditional middle-class virtues: i.e., in industry. In prudence. In temperance. In fidelity. Etc. Instead, as Pavel Kohout has pointed out, people in the modern welfare state can increasingly afford to treat their children as "pets" - indulged, and flattered, and encouraged to "follow their bliss," as the phrase goes.
Can you say "disaster in the making?" For although programs like Social Security and Medicare make it less important from the individual point of view to have lots of kids and to bring them up conservatively (so to speak), the long-term solvency of such programs precisely depends on people going on doing just that. Over to Mr. Capretta:
"Gunnar Myrdal, the eminent Swedish socialist economist, observed in the 1940s that state-run, pay-as-you-go pension systems are built on a fundamental 'contradiction': They reduce the economic incentive within a family to have children, even as they remain ever dependent on a new generation of productive workers."
Capretta's whole piece is well worth a read. But there is one point where I part company with him. And that point concerns the essential nature of the disaster that is in the making here. For him, the worry is that the welfare state might prove unsustainable, unless we can get people to have more babies. But he seems not to be at all bothered by the collapse of traditional expectations about what family members owe to one another. He writes:
"Acknowledgment of Social Security's role in fertility decline is not an argument for abandoning government-sponsored old age support. The elderly--and their adult children--far prefer financial independence to dependence..."
To which I'm inclined to reply: well, yeah, sure. Old folks don't want to be reduced to dependency on their children. And young folks don't want to get stuck with the burden of looking after their parents. So if you're looking to maximize (short-term) preference-satisfaction, such programs are the way to go.
But is that any way to make people better people?
Correct me if I'm wrong - but I might have thought that the mutual and unbreakable ties of obligation that bind parent to child and child to parent are among the essential features of our humanity, and that anything that weakens - or promises to replace - those ties, however superficially attractive to both parties to that relationship, is the devil's own brew. Why should I welcome a world in which parents pamper their children, and where children abandon their parents, with an easy conscience, so long as the whole system is enonomically sustainable?