Is It Wise for Governments To Encourage Fertility?

Not in Libertarian Land, our correspondents report.

Monica Turlui via

Around the world, population growth rates are declining, and in many countries fertility rates are sufficiently low that the population is shrinking. Fertility decline has been happening for centuries in  America and other developed countries, but it has recently attracted renewed attention.  Liberals and conservatives alike, albeit for different reasons, have rallied around policies that might increase fertility, such as expanding the child tax credit or implementing federal paid family leave

In Libertarian Land, a different perspective obtains: governments treat having children as a private decision whose main costs and benefits accrue to the individual or couple in question. So, as with other personal decisions, government avoids policies that discourage or encourage fertility, as either kind can generate undesirable outcomes from a personal or societal perspective.

This approach does not deny that having children might benefit society overall. Some evidence suggests that a higher population generates more innovation and technological progress. A larger population would mean a larger workforce and greater economic output, which might facilitate national defense or trade negotiations.

Yet a larger or faster growing population can have negatives as well. Under existing policies, a larger populace means higher costs for funding public schools, social services, and old age benefits. A higher population, other things equal, means more pollution, crowding on highways, and carbon emissions.  Absent conclusive evidence regarding the net benefit or cost, therefore, policy should neither penalize nor subsidize fertility.

This perspective implies scaling back or eliminating numerous policies that subsidize children, such as the child tax credit. At the same time, it suggests eliminating policies that raise the costs of having and raising children. 

Examples include occupational licensing, zoning, and immigration policies, which raise childcare costs; land use regulations, which raise housing costs; import tariffs on food and baby formula; and even excessive child safety regulations, including car seat requirements that increase financial costs but provide little associated safety benefit. 

This laissez-faire perspective also recommends other smaller-government reforms that would make family life easier, including expanded educational choice, reasonable independence laws that allow children to play outside and walk to school alone, and protecting independent contractor status — which facilitates flexible work schedules and working from home — rather than imposing employee status, as proposed in both state and federal initiatives

Even if increased population nets out as beneficial, population policies have serious potential for unintended consequences. The one child policy in mainland China led to sex-selective abortions and, decades later, a population decline that worries current leaders. Prohibitions on birth control that aimed to increase birth rates in Romania led to a surge of orphans. Although draconian policies are not currently being proposed, dasn’t policymakers forget that meddling in personal areas of life can have damaging consequences.  

Considerable evidence, moreover, suggests that pronatalist policies have limited influence on fertility and little long-term effect; often they increase fertility in the short-term by moving births forward in time for couples already planning to have children; thus, these policies do little to increase long-term fertility once births revert to baseline. Instead, these policies mainly transfer wealth to persons who want children from the general population, which may explain their political popularity.

None of this is meant to discourage having children or to raise warnings about population growth. The Malthusian prediction that growing populations would produce mass starvation — made when world population was 1 billion, compared to almost 8 billion now — has proved stunningly wrong.

The lesson, however, is not that we need policies to promote population growth but instead that neutral policies regarding private fertility decisions would be better. Government does not know best, and even if it did, past efforts to manage population have had limited effect at best and catastrophic outcomes at worst. 

In Libertarian Land, policy makers recognize the limitations of population policy and instead liberate families by removing the many and varied government-imposed obstacles to family life. 

The New York Sun

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